Big Fish School of Digital Filmmaking

Acronym: 
Big Fish

Big Fish School of Digital Filmmaking (Big Fish) is a multi-award-winning non-governmental organisation (NGO), providing training to young, talented people who cannot afford post-secondary education. Its intervention is aimed at unemployed youth who have achieved grade 12 but have no access to further training. Big Fish has a 50/50 split of male and female participants with a strong focus on rural and peri-urban areas.

The founder and chief executive officer, Dr Melanie Chait, has a long illustrious career in both the international and national broadcasting arenas and remains at the cutting edge of social, economic, political issues affecting South Africa. Chait is a Fulbright scholarship recipient and an award-winning television (TV) political documentary filmmaker.

As special advisor to the group chief executive of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) in 1995, she became aware that no training existed for talented, historically disadvantaged, young people who could not afford the high costs of tertiary education in film and TV training, and that with the ever growing digital explosion, a fully-subsidised film school was one way economic sustainability in South Africa.  In 2007, she established Big Fish School of Digital Filmmaking, to create a new genre of socially relevant filmmakers. In 2008, she received ‘The Investing in Culture’ Platinum Award from the Minister of Arts and Culture for excellence in innovation, technology and training. She was a Business Woman Achiever Award finalist and in 2009, the organisation won the Stevie International Business Award in New York for being the best NGO in Africa and the Middle East. In 2010, the organisation won another Stevie International Business Award in Turkey for its contribution to democracy, transformation and change.

Big Fish has achieved over 80 percent employment rate with over 800 youth from all over South Africa being trained, resulting in increased economic prosperity for graduates families in addition to the well-paid jobs that graduates are getting in a very short space of time, given the cutting edge training. Given the exorbitant unemployment rate, this has given the youth new hope and the documentaries are being created in the voice of the indigenous people, sharing compelling stories which are now being viewed across the world on global platforms and winning awards.

Graduates work for large film companies and others for broadcasters including e.tv, SABC, SuperSport, Cape Town TV, Botswana TV and Magic Factory. Many graduates are also working on their own productions, some through Little Pond - a production trust established by Big Fish for former students. Last year, Big Fish won Best Short at the Tri-Continental film festival and was chosen by world renowned Davis Guggenheim, at the Siemens UK Sustainability Centre in the United Kingdom, as one of the top four CityStories films selected from around the world, beating other film schools such as New York, London and Berlin.

Four of its student films were chosen for Encounters 2012 (the only film school to ever achieve this), three student films were chosen for BBC World and 3 out of 5 ETV commissions went to Big Fish. Furthermore, there are clips of students’ films on heritage on the South African Tourism website. In addition, students’ films have been shown at more than 20 film festivals globally in 2012/13. From China to Chile; from Canada to Cape Town (some people consider it a country). Big Fish is also one of the only schools to truly reflect South Africa’s diverse and rich heritage in that they are currently training the first intake of Khoisan students at their Cape Town campus. In 2013, through Little Pond, we won its first film in the professional category at the annual SAFTA awards for Best Documentary Short Film.

Ford Foundation has recognised Big Fish as an ‘exemplar of best practice in post-secondary education’.

Big Fish aims to produce progressive filmmakers keen to transform the industry and contribute to the development of an indigenous filmmaking culture.

Its training is a two-year higher certificate and it trains young people in a simulated workplace environment, using award-winning professionals as tutors and mentors on state-of-the-art equipment. Given the technological explosion in new digital platforms that is currently underway, there is a growing demand for local content for the new TV channels as well as IPTV and mobile phones. Big Fish students in the last year alone have had 22 commissions for Mzansi, Mindset and e.tv.

Big Fish also believes audiovisual has many other applications for improving health, environment, education and many other services that the country desperately needs. The organisation ensures that all our graduates are skilled in understanding these needs as well, in order to promote their economic sustainability. 

The vision of Big Fish is to continuously be at the cutting edge of training and industry trends in order to ensure that our graduates are job ready and are able to cope in `the big world out there’. Over the years, it has become apparent that in order to prepare youth for the pressures of the working world, many other areas of their lives need to be addressed. These include bringing in training modules which cover nutrition, HIV and AIDS, business development, counselling and more. In addition, given the nature of the industry, it is imperative that graduates have driver’s licenses.

Big Fish training is not only about filmmaking. The training assists youth to adapt to the every changing world out there. The organisation’s challenge is to constantly raise the funds in order to make this training available at no cost to the students. The funds it raises pay for all tuition costs, production costs, equipment, stipends and accommodation, and when possible, drivers licenses too.

Hi Dr Chait

“Just yesterday in Venda I was crying for money to go to Cape Town on a school trip, but today I am flying all over the world because of the education and training I have received from Big Fish. I want to thank Big Fish for what they have done for me; my whole community can’t stop talking about my achievements ... Thank you for everything” - Dowelani Nenzhelele (GET Student 2012)

Dr Chait and her highly dedicated team of 17 fulltime staff at both the Johannesburg and Cape Town campuses, along with  the industry professionals who are brought in to mentor and train the students, have collectively made Big Fish what it is today. It is however due to Dr Chait’s determination, her management and leadership style, her strategic and visionary skills - that  have made Big Fish become the success it is and in doing so transforming so many people’s lives. It is even worth mentioning here that when sponsors funds have come in late, which is so often the challenge in the NGO sector, that Dr Chait has personally carried the film school in times of crisis out of her own resources.

To view the Big Fish School of Digital Filmmaking in the Prodder NGO Directory, click here.