Putting In Work: Derby Bheta Q and A

Have you watched “Wadiwa WepaMoyo”? That was a DM (direct message) I got from like 30 of my friends in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in February of 2020.

By Elspeth Chimedza (Writer)
Questions by Alex Gwaze, Elspeth Chimedza, and Noxolo Sibanda

With an average of 100,000+ viewers per episode at the time of release (now 300,000+), it was the first time in Zimbabwe’s history that there was a must-see event on YouTube that wasn’t a music video. The “Wadiwa WepaMoyo” romantic drama series broke our internet, and by the third episode, the nation’s newspapers were writing about it – as well as the series’ director Derby Bheta, and the College Central team.

The College Central channel was created in 2014, but it was only in 2017 when the group (Derby Bheta, Ian Msakanda and Kudakwashe Jani) started working as a team. Whilst studying at Midlands State University (MSU), they made the short films “Things We Do for Love” and “Toro: The Movie”. “Things We Do for Love” went on to win best short film at the Zimbabwe International Film Festival (ZIFF) and the International Images Film Festival (IIFF). It earned its director, Derby Bheta, a National Arts Merit Awards (NAMA) nomination. After leaving university, the collective recruited fellow MSU alumni Melinda Shumba, Tawanda Mupatsi, Monalisa Tenderere, Everson Chieza, Tadiwa Bopoto, Khotso Sibanda, and Godknows Chera to assist in several of their projects over the years. One of those projects was “Special Class” with Doc Vikela.

“Special Class” paved the way for their future success and positioned the team on the map with 14,000+ subscribers. These days, thanks to “Wadiwa WepaMoyo,” their latest series “Blue Roof,” and their debut feature film “Organized Crime” – their channel currently has 74,000+ subscribers and 5,800,000+ views. In addition, College Central has been able to attract a dynamic range of talent for their projects that includes industry veterans like NAMA award honoree Stephen Chigorimbo and renowned actor Ben Mahaka (both from Zimbabwe’s first soapie ‘Studio 263’); local gem Chati Butao (from ‘Gringo Troublemaker’); newcomer / singer Lee McHoney, and comedians Doc Vikela and Gonyeti. Not bad for the new generation of content creators whose motto is “creating happiness”. This team seems to have discovered a winning formula that caters for our local viewers and the diaspora.

So, with “Wadiwa wepaMoyo” season 2 in the production phase, we caught up with it’s director and the founder of College Central, Derby Bheta, to find out what makes them tick:

EC: You are a writer, producer, director, cameraman, and editor – a regular Renaissance man. Which one of those roles do you prefer the most, and why?

DB: I love directing – and writing … more, definitely. I do editing, and sometimes camera work, but it’s mainly out of necessity. So, if we are talking about what I prefer, then being on set and directing actors is next to my heart.

AG: As a director and producer you have to have good communication and management skills. Mainly because you are dealing with people’s actions and their money. So, how have you learnt to juggle building trust with your cast and crew, with making a profit at the end of the day?

DB: I cannot say I have “learnt” it yet. What I can say is, it’s a learning process for me, and us as a team. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we make mistakes and feelings get hurt. But, since we (by we, I mean College Central) – are mostly working with friends – they understand that sometimes profit will not be guaranteed (or delayed), but the work still needs to be done. That makes the whole process a little bit easier when mistakes happen.

NS: Before “Wadiwa WepaMoyo” was on the national broadcaster, ZTV – you were basically known as the breakout internet success of 2020. How important do you think online platforms like YouTube, Vimeo, and Facebook are for aspiring content creators?

DB: Online platforms are a huge boost for aspiring creators, because they create more opportunities for original works. In Zimbabwe we currently only have one broadcaster, so we are used to seeing ourselves in one type of way. YouTube and other platforms allow us to show another side of Zimbabwe. But, regardless of the type of content you are making, your target audience is very important. So, these platforms allow newcomers to build an audience for their work faster because their videos are exposed to the whole world.

AG: “Wadiwa WepaMoyo” is an original work, but it did draw some inspiration from “Yellow Card”. “Yellow Card”, “Neria”, “JIT”, and “More Time” are some of the most recognizable films from the beginnings of a promising Zimbabwean film industry. How important is it for you to acknowledge or connect with local artists who have come before you?

DB: It is very vital to connect with local artists who came before us, especially those who were successful, like “Yellow Card” and “Neria”, to mention but a few. They cleared the bush on the path to all our future successes. So, we must learn what made those films a success and try to implement what we can in our projects.

NS: So, are there any other films that inspired you? Most creatives always talk about that film or a role model that made them want to direct when they were growing up. Do you have a film or follow some person, or have you outgrown that?

DB: Inspiration comes in many forms. Growing up, I was not really exposed to many films, so it was not a film that inspired me. It was a book called “Mpho’s Search”. When my literature teacher read it to us in class, I visualized everything. And, from that day on, putting stories on screen has become an obsession for me (laughs). You know, when I started really studying film, I noticed a lot of films are adapted from books … or comic books (laughs).

AG: On the subject of studying. Your production company, College Central, is known for working with artists who have or are graduating from university. Zimbabwe has a lot of people with degrees and no jobs. So, my question is, do you think it is necessary to study at college at all?

DB: Good question. I believe it is important to study. Education can create more opportunities for anyone. No one ever got dumber from studying. The problem is what we study at college, which I feel does not set us up to be innovative or make an impact in the industry. We are just “graduates”. Obviously, College Central is a university success story, but how many graduates are out there with no work? I am convinced if things were done right (or differently) we could have many College Centrals coming out of universities and colleges, every year!

EC: College Central has made several YouTube series over the years-“Special Class”, “Blue Roof”, and more. Most of your content is made on a shoestring budget and a DIY attitude – using the available resources, available light, available extras, and available locations. Do you find that working with less makes you more creative or is it the opposite for you?

DB: To some extent, yes. It does push us to think out of the box. But, it also comes with a lot of limitations. With a tight budget, everything is limited, including your capabilities, so even though you have a product you know it does not fully reflect all your skills. You could think of it as an advert. Like, look what we can do with peanuts. Imagine what we could do with the whole bag (laughs).

EC: I remember, at one stage, the College Central YouTube channel was hacked and you lost all your content, subscribers, views etc. Being hacked is, unfortunately, just one of the perils of our increased dependency on the internet. So, as more work is being done online, what lessons can you tell us from your unfortunate experience that can help us stay safe online?

DB: The greatest thing we learned when we got hacked was that the internet is a different world all together. We still do not understand how it works because it is constantly changing and unpredictable. So, the best advice I would give is just get someone who understands the internet to help you out. The guy who helped us recover our channel (Lionel Kaisi) is now part of College Central and he is responsible for security. The rest of us focus on what ‘we’ know how to do – create content. Like I said before, we learn from our mistakes as we grow.

NS: Safety outside the online world is also equally important. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have revealed that the creative Arts industry has always been notoriously unsafe for women. We would all like this situation to change yesterday, but until then, what advice can you give to women about navigating this predatory environment?

DB: Firstly, come to work to do the work, and nothing else. When you feel things are not about “work”-keep it professional or leave. The arts industry has a lot of opportunities for women, so do not be pressured into doing anything that is not work related. Furthermore, not all the work is in front of the camera. Women need to also look at the technical aspects of film. Times are changing and I have always encouraged women to give camera work, lighting, editing, directing, a go. The more everyone puts in the work (from all levels – camera to acting) the safer the Creative Arts will be.

AG: Lastly, a lot of people do not know this, but you are kind of a workaholic. You have been putting in work consistently from before you finished university. Do you like to keep busy like Tyler Perry, or are you a quality over quantity person like Steve McQueen (the British-African one)?

DB: The dream is to become a little bit of both of them, to be honest. Who doesn’t want to make a lot of high quality films? But, in a small industry like ours (in the context of social media), quantity is key. People binge shows and they reward consistency, so we must keep busy. Our main fanbase is online. That means our audience is worldwide. But, since we are still growing the audience, quality is also of equal importance. So, we must make quality films to compete in that global market- a lot of them!

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