Carolyn Carew Is Beating All Odds as A Producer
Producer Carolyn Carew of Free Women Films, who is passionate about great storytellers telling great stories, works 16-hour days, 7 days a week. She has untold dexterity in ensuring that all that she juggles is skillfully crafted and lands in all the right places, reflecting pertinent messages that are an intrinsic part of all that she values.
However, Carew acknowledges, “Being an Executive Producer is a very tough role to play in the value chain. It’s not for the fainthearted, because you have to be everything. You have to be incredibly resilient and strong, but at the same time you also have to be very caring, because everyone relies on you, and you have to be careful because people take your every word literally.”
Carew recognizes that her innate ability to organize as well as her interest in finances has been of crucial importance in her career.
“I grew up with a father who was an entrepreneur and when I was about fifteen or so my grandmother bought me gold shares at Christmas. I watched them grow over many years. When I was about seventeen my father invested in the stock market, so I used to go with him to the stock market in Johannesburg, downtown. I have always had an interest in finance, figures, and finance.”
She studied Industrial Sociology at UCT (University of Cape Town), where she finished her postgraduate diploma in Human Resources Management and later got a job as a social worker at Elsie’s River at the height of the State of Emergency in 1987. During this time, she witnessed the ramifications of Apartheid firsthand, with people being forcibly removed from their land, and worked with clients who lived in overcrowded conditions. When someone that she was working closely with was abducted, brutalized, and ultimately committed suicide, Carew opted to change direction since she was unable to cope emotionally with the loss.
It was then that she got her first break in the film industry. Starting as a driver, she worked her way up and spent many years freelancing before joining and being trained by editor and director Trevor Hill. She says, “He was my film school. We shot and edited on 35mm film.”
From there, Carew joined the Community Video School, which was the first school for black filmmakers in the country. It was set up by the Film and Allied Workers Organization and funded by Channel 4. She ran the Production Department. From there, once the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation) became democratized, she joined the SABC as Manager of TV Training where she ran several training projects. She later joined Lovelife, the largest youth HIV prevention social marketing campaign in the world, and they produced long-running social adventure shows and commercials aimed at 12–17-year-olds, to get the youth to discuss relationships, sex, and sexuality.
At the beginning of 2005, Carew started her own company, with two colleagues, called Born Free Media. They produced a number of long drama series, including six seasons of 90 Plein Street, and two seasons of When We Were Black for the South African Broadcasting Corporation. The first season was about a young boy who wanted to lose his virginity, and he loses it on the day of the 1976 Student Soweto uprising. “It was a kind of metaphor for loss of innocence of the youth at the time of our history that changed South Africa forever,” she says.
Over the years, Carew’s work and accolades have continued to grow exponentially, which have included many co-productions. She says: “I like working in the co-production space, but it comes with a lot of challenges, and you have to be very careful who you work with. It’s like getting into a marriage and you think this is your compatible partner, but then, as the journey goes along, things don’t turn out to be what they should have been. What people promise and what people deliver are always very different. It’s all about trusting your instinct. When you know the person’s not right for you, just walk away, because invariably your instinct is right.”
For those entering the industry, Carew emphasizes that she was fortunate enough to understand the whole value chain and encourages others to learn as much as possible. She would recommend doing a finance course because, in South Africa, it is unlike the U.S. where someone deals with all your financial plans and finances. She believes that a basic legal course is beneficial because as a producer one gets heavily involved in the legal side of things. She stresses that these days one can do short six-week courses, without having to do degrees that can take several years, and therefore would encourage others to learn as much as they can within the industry. She adds that she would encourage any young producers to find a balance with one’s work and personal life because in her experience being a producer has been all-consuming.
Carew feels that there are so many challenges that one faces along the way. “As an independent producer, you work with different directors and writers. In some cases, you take on a project and you really love the project, but it can take many years to raise the money, and you have to keep the writer and or the director believing in the project, because people get despondent. When I work with a project, I commit myself 100%. It doesn’t matter how long it’s going to take me and how many challenges I will go through. I commit to it and then you have to keep the other party involved. You have to keep them as committed as you are, because you spend so much time not earning any money out of it, until you finally raise your money.”
Carew adds: “My line producer, Tsholo Mashile is an integral part of ensuring things happen on the day. Secondly as a woman in the industry, you are working with a lot of men, and it can be difficult because they don’t like it when you’re a strong woman. There is a lot of misogyny. I’ve been trying to work more with women in the last 5 or 6 years, which I prefer.”
Carew unpacks some of the issues that she had with their recently released Music is My Life, which is a documentary about the founder of Ladysmith Black Mambaza, Joseph Shabala (August 1940- February 2020). Many of the interviews were critical to the film and because of Covid, some of those people died. This meant they had to use more songs than they had initially budgeted for. Fortunately, Gallo music came on board as a partner, which was of tremendous help. Another difficulty was in attaining the archives, which are all over the world, and given the complexities of music rights, this too made it extremely difficult.
Together with Liese Kuhn, they have been selected to pitch their feature film, Extravagant Ways to Say Goodbye at Cannes 2023 at the Pavillon Afriques on the 19 and 22 May, where six projects were selected from across the continent.
Carew and Kuhn have just completed a feature film, Seconds, with Nhlanhla Mthethwa of Full Circle Productions, as a co-producer, which is Kuhn’s debut film and will be on Amazon Prime on June 2 and eVod in October 2023.
Carew has also recently completed a 26-part series for eVod, Etv called Stout, which she co-produced with Full Circle Productions. It is about four youth who land up in a juvenile delinquent home and raises some of the issues that youth face daily.
For Carew, her life experiences have influenced the stories that she chooses to work with. “When I choose a story, I choose a story on the impact that it’s going to make on other people when they watch it. I don’t just do it purely for commercial reasons.”
Some of her career highlights include winning in Fespaco in 2009 for When We Were Black; being featured in the second edition of Forbes Africa in 2012; winning Special Jury at IDFA Amsterdam 2013. Her films have been screened at top International Film Festivals, like Toronto Film Festival, as well as on ZDF/ARTE, BBC, Sky Arts, SABC, MNET, Netflix, and other networks.