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AFDA: Garth Holmes & Bata Passchier

How two education entrepreneurs created one of the world’s top film schools.

Monique Verduyn

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Garth Holmes & Bata Passchier of AFDA

From the dusty mining town of Krugersdorpon the West Rand, Garth Holmes would gaze longingly at the bright lights ofJoburg as they twinkled in the distance. He moved there straight after schooland qualified as a teacher, a career choice that forced him to work part-time atrestaurants to make up for the shortfall in his salary. The experience gainedthere led him to start his own successful restaurant. His yearning to be partof the creative world, however, made him sell the business, a decision he calls“naïve and impetuous”, but it saw him team up with controversialwriter-director Deon Opperman, with whom he co-wrote several successful plays.“For the first time I was recognised for my creative talents,” says Holmes.

It was then that he met Bata Passchier, hiscurrent business partner and CEO of AFDA, the film and acting school theylaunched in 1994, a time when the future of the country was uncertain andconfidence was low. AFDA’s origins lie in the failure of aprivate art school owned by a close friend of Holmes’s. “She was an amazinglecturer, but a terrible businesswoman,” says Holmes. “She taught me one of themost important lessons about owning a private university. It’s one hell of aresponsibility; you have everyone’s hopes, futures and dreams locked up in the institution– so collect the fees or close.” The bankrupt school, at which Holmes hadlectured in design and film, provided him with his first six students. “I wasdown and out, but the Design Centre in Greenside took me and the students in.Armed with a rented TV, a VCR and free lectures provided by friends in theindustry, I put the word out that the best film school in South Africa was openfor business.”

Holmes and his partners soon realised thatthey needed premises if they wanted to develop a great university. They set upa campus in a derelict Lever Brothers warehouse in Milpark which cost themR6,00 a square metre. They now own it and it accommodates 650 students. Another600-odd are at the Cape Town campus. The curriculum, and teaching and managementsystems were forged by Passchier. A student of martial arts and Japanesepainting, he developed a passion for ancient training philosophy, theories andpractice, before he turned to creating training videos for a number of bluechip companies. That’s where he was exposed to management methods that he wouldlater fuse with the training theories of the ancients to develop AFDA’s systems.The school was funded with student fees,and post-production facilities were provided by The Video Lab. Holmes says it wasbuilt on the generosity of many people who offered their services. “Three SouthAfricans who were eking out an existence in Hollywood at the time, and a localIT entrepreneur, gave us the original R30 000. We used that, with anamortisation on renovations, to get us going.”

The first formal management controls wereput in place in June 2003 by Passchier. “We had run the company without anyreal management structures until then,” Holmes recalls. “Each partner trustedthat the other would fulfil their responsibilities, but this could only workwhile we were a small company.”AFDA’s early challenges included oppositionfrom within the industry, achieving accreditation and the ever-present threatof bankruptcy. “We had cash flow problems stemming from the fact that we had toconstantly develop the school to deal with the demands of the marketplace. Theearly days were all about growth which meant more staff, more space, moreequipment, more facilities – all of which had to be bought without any supportfrom the state or any other resource.”

Ask Holmes what sets the school apart andhe talks about contributing to building a sustainable and vibrant filmindustry. “We have always been convinced that we are making a difference andthat we will leave a legacy of film practitioners, artists and performers whohave genuine ability to excel and to help create a unique and inspirationalcultural identity for all South Africans.” The school’s achievements include winningan Oscar for best student film, having a film in the finals at Cannes 2006,making the feature film Soldiers of the Rock, and achieving Mastersaccreditation.What AFDA’s success has proved, is theongoing relevance of drama and film in education. “The nature of today’sconsumers coupled with our technologically driven society has placed greateremphasis than ever before on the development of entertainment and mediapractitioners; they are responsible for reflecting society, creating meaning,and capturing the beauty of the human spirit.” Contact: +27 11 482 8345; www.filmdramaschool.co.za

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.

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