By Samuel Ravengai
The Herald 29 March 2005.
Response to an article authored by Wonder Guchu entitled ‘Studio 263 Storyline Loses Focus’ which appeared in the Herald of 7 March 2005 refers.
The first accusation raised is that ‘with every new episode, the storyline gets more warped and the themes more shadowy…’ This is the premise of the argument. Instead of going ahead to provide substance to support this standpoint, Guchu goes for the entire article analysing the themes of Studio 263 with such amazing dexterity. If they are shadowy in the story, how come they are so clear to him as a reader? Studio 263 is indeed a pro-development soap opera, and it has not shifted from the thematic concerns of HIV/AIDS it originally set for itself. It has only endeavoured to make them more exciting so that they don’t seem forced down the viewers’ throats. Our interest at Studio 263 is to tell a story that has believable characters that reflect the lives of real people in Zimbabwe. We want as much as possible is to avoid stereotypes and two-dimensional characters whose every move is predictable, but at the same time we must remain aware of the show’s raison d’etre, which as we understand it, is to use character driven television soap to educate people about HIV and AIDS with the ultimate aim of bringing about sustained sexual behavioural change in youths. If Mr Guchu can, indeed, prove there has been a shift, we will be too glad to redress the issue. After all, that is the role of critics.
We see no problems in having the story turning and twisting this way and that way (warped). That is the nature of soap opera structures the world over. A soap opera scholar Allen Roberts can help us most with regards to problems that Mr Guchu has when the story ‘warps’. Allen says that when soap opera viewers follow the story they are not like the ‘driver of a sports car down a superhighway, but rather like the uncertain tourist provided with a rather sketchy map, who frequently stops to look back where he or she has been, occasionally taking a side road and constantly trying to glimpse what lies around the next bend’ (1985: 78). What this means is that the story can take a false route, retrace its footsteps, stop and go forward again. It requires a lot of skill to do all these movements with the story. If any reversal was written in an unconvincing manner, we challenge critics to take us on.
While it would please Mr Guchu and his ilk if we cut to the chase and resolved all the conflicts and killed all the characters that – according to him and his sources – are supposed to die young, it wouldn’t work for us in the business of education through entertainment and our target audience. So with this in mind, we would like to clear up some of this, and other writers’ conjecture and maybe help them better understand our seemingly irrational behaviour. Except for Farai Muwengwa, who came to his brother for help when he was already too sick for help, none of our characters are, or ever were supposed to die young from HIV/AIDS. Our aim is to educate people about living positively with HIV, so we would be shooting ourselves in the foot by prematurely killing our message bearers. We don’t know whose plot Mr Guchu is referring to when he says Muwengwa must die and that he must pay for his sins.
The next point is not an accusation, but a fear that Mr Guchu has over what will happen to Tom and Tendai. Without risking telling him the full text of the story, Tom will not ‘transform’, but he will be a very good actor in order to win Vimbayi. ‘Acting good’ and ‘being good’ are miles apart. Tom will act good, while deep down he will remain the same old villain. Mr Guchu shouldn’t also worry about Tendai. This character that was built over the years will not be destroyed. Tendai is living positively facing one challenge at a time. Her HIV status in not, as Mr Guchu puts it ‘likely to fade away’ because Kenge is locked up. Unfortunately, for us filmmakers, we do not have the entertainment reporters’ luxury of arguing and resolving issues within a few paragraphs, so Tendai – like most HIV positive people, will struggle to tell her boyfriend about her status, she will continue to face stigma, she will have periods of depression. She will be human, not a cardboard cut out that fits a writer’s preconceptions about HIV positive people. A good storyteller must present challenges to the strong character to get the most out of her. Some writers advice that when you have forced the character to climb a tree, you must throw stones at her. We are simply throwing stones at Tendai. She will do the right thing. Sorry if that pains you!
Mr Guchu has also branded relationships in the making at Studio 263 scandalous. He suggests that bringing Mai Jari and Shereni together is a sign that the writers have run out of ideas. What could be so untoward or scandalous if Mai Jari were to fall in love with Shereni? Does being a widow or widower preclude any chance of finding love again? Is it immoral to fall in love after one’s spouse dies? By advancing his argument against a relationship between the widow and widower, Mr Guchu seems to suggest that once married, women become the property of a family and thus cannot venture out even after they lose their husband.
In a telephone conversation with Mr Guchu to find out what he meant by ‘Studio 263 storyline is losing focus’, he indicated that he measured the success of a story by its ability to achieve set goals. To him Studio 263 is generating other issues which seem to drift it away from the set goals. It is quite clear that Mr Guchu is reading Studio 263 like a realist novel. This particular genre is a ‘closed text’ as it aims at pulling the reader along a predetermined path. Every step of the story in a realist novel is structured according to an inflexible project. The pathway constructed by the novelist for the reader leads in a straightforward manner to its end. A soap opera, however, is an ‘open text’ with multiple levels of interpretation built into it. The soap opera reader with sufficient knowledge of the codes at work in the text will read it competently. The elaborate network of character relationships, events, and situations in Studio 263 allows multiple readings in excess of those necessary for narrative functions. We have no capacity and none has any capacity to totally control which codes to be engaged by any viewer to generate meaning at any given time. When such meanings, as those derived from Tamara’s troubles are generated, it should not be misconstrued as lack of focus. We certainly have an idea of what a story has to be. The story for the period January-July 2005 is in place and most of the narrative questions Mr Guchu raised are answered in the master story.
Finally, thanks for your in depth analysis of Studio 263. Keep up the good work Guchu. Mr Guchu may, however, want to know that Studio 263 became successful because we got a lot more things right than we got wrong. We don’t have a template to go by and so we make mistakes and continue to do so like all artistes. But we strive for perfection, which is an elusive goal for art, as that day of artistic perfection will herald the end of the world and the end of art. Nonetheless, let’s face real issues here. Why it is that Studio 263 is one of the few media products exported from Zimbabwe? Why do people continue to watch it and why do advertisers continue to fight for space on Studio 263 shows?
Story Consultant and Associate Director Studio 263