The Documenter and the Documented: not an equal relationship

By Claire Ward

Ward - Photo - no line

Documentary filmmaker Claire Ward filming founder of Colalife Simon Berry in Zambia.

In the summer of 2012, I traveled to Zambia to independently film the activities of Colalife, a charity that had been peddling an innovative idea to the media: they were going to design a package for basic medicines that fits between bottles of crated Coca-Cola. The idea was to facilitate more effective distribution of public-health products by piggybacking on Coke’s pervasive supply route. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard the idea; I’d often heard foreign aid and development workers sigh, “Why can I buy a Coke in a village that doesn’t even have clean drinking water?” The question begged exploration.

After a few promising Skype chats with Colalife founder Simon Berry, we agreed that I could shadow him as he traveled around Zambia to set up a trial. At this point, Simon and his team had narrowed the focus of the project to address diarrhea in children under age five. Diarrhea is a major cause of child deaths in many developing countries. The Coke crates would be fitted with kits containing oral rehydration salts and zinc, which combat dehydration resulting from diarrhea. The understanding was that I would be a fly on the wall as the trial got underway. Beyond this, we didn’t really discuss our relationship as documentarian and subject, nor did we agree to any set of objectives for the film. My documentary, which became my master’s thesis work for New York University, was an attempt at “solutions” journalism—showing the “how” behind an innovative initiative designed to benefit the public and bring about social good. Colalife likely saw an opportunity for good press and welcomed me in.

Colalife’s initial trial was funded by the UK’s Department for International Development, UNICEF, Honda, Johnson & Johnson, COMESA/TMSA and Grand Challenges Canada. I, however, was funded by a modest but successful Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign as well as a small grant from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Fast forward to the first week of August 2012. Simon and I were sitting under a drafty, thatched roof hut equipped with a braai, about half a kilometer off the red dusty thoroughfare in southern Zambia. Another power outage meant we were dining in the dark again. On this night, that came as a relief. Simon had me—the nosy young journalist—by the collar.

We’d just finished a day meeting health workers in a rural community not far from away. On the drive back to the lodge, I mentioned to Simon that I was going to try to film a local health post where I would quite likely discover children suffering from bad cases of diarrhea and dehydration. I told him that it is necessary to show the burden that his project hopes to address. I can’t show the solution without showing the problem. Simple.

Simon’s response was swift and aggressive: if I went ahead with this, I would be placing his life’s work in jeopardy. By virtue of traveling together – not to mention being the only other white person there – both of us were, in the villagers’ eyes, associated with Colalife. Anything I did would therefore reflect on him. He was worried that my actions would undermine the groundwork he had laid to become accepted by the community. I realized in this moment that though I had been operating independently, the perception of our relationship, rather than the reality, would work against me and potentially have a negative impact on his work. So we agreed to pursue permissions from the local authorities together. Like it or not, I had embedded with Colalife in the sense that the fates of both our projects were now linked. From this moment forward, I struggled with how to stay independent working within this framework. I found myself actively resisting promoting Colalife’s work while at the same time highlighting what I thought was an important story about innovation, public-private partnerships and the changing face of development in Africa.

Striking this balance was difficult. I’ll never forget Simon’s moment of hesitation when I handed him a release form at the end of those five weeks (rookie mistake!). His concerns undoubtedly shifted from how I would conduct myself during the filming to what I would do with the footage after I went away. As a favorite professor of mine likes to say, “editing is manipulation”—there’s no way around it. Sure enough, I was the hand of god in the editing studio, utilizing the full suite of cinematic tools—cuts, transitions, music, narration—to achieve a vision of the story that only occurred after the fact, beyond anyone’s control but mine.

It was when I was back in New York, sitting in that editing studio, that I really began to understand Simon’s concerns. The power I had to represent him, his work, Zambia and the people I met there was immense. For many viewers, I would be the sole author of the story. I realized that as much as I am an observer of my subjects, I am also part of the soup. Like it or not, my presence, both during the filming and in the editing, has an impact on the lives of my subjects in a way that may not necessarily be obvious in the end product.

I addressed this by lifting the veil a little—leaving in some production “mistakes” like camera shake and operator sounds, letting my voice be heard in interviews and including a scene where one character, a Zambian social worker named Albert, breaks the fourth wall and calls out to me by name. These Hitchcockian moments were an effort to address the complex mix of motivations at work, to remind viewers that there was a person behind the camera deciding where to point it. Also, that this person is a tall white blonde stomping around remote Zambian villages with a camera on her shoulder—undoubtedly having an impact on her surroundings, as discreet as I like to think I can be.

Whether these small efforts addressed the power imbalance sufficiently, I don’t know. I was ever aware of Simon’s sensitivities, how he might want his story told versus how I felt it was best portrayed. But ultimately, what was more interesting to me was the idea, not the man—and my objectives as a filmmaker found a kind of harmony with his objectives as an advocate.

But our discussions about representation have continued well beyond that night in the hut. A couple weeks ago, Simon and I met up on Skype to discuss the debate, and admittedly, the strain we dealt with in coming to terms with our sometimes competing, sometimes complementary objectives in the making of this film. The following is a transcript of that conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

CW: So. That got tense.

SB: Yeah. I mean, I was quite interested to read your perspective on what happened. Because it wasn’t what I perceived happened.

CW: Oh no?

SB: In that you said you wanted to go and film in the village, in Siachitema, and I think Albert and I didn’t say ‘No you can’t do that’. I think what we said was, ‘No you can’t just do that.’ In other words, we had to clear it with the relevant people otherwise it would have put the project in jeopardy. For me the bigger picture wasn’t a successful documentary, the bigger picture was—25 years of work—trying to get this trial set up and everything going pretty well and you know, the danger of that being jeopardized by you pitching up in a village and spending a weekend there and expecting people to be happy about you filming them.

CW: We were thinking we’d do it on the fly and your approach is obviously much more structured. And successful, ultimately. But that’s a question of permissions. I thought there was another element of you objecting to us filming in the health centers and taking advantage of people who were in sensitive situations.

SB: Filming is a very powerful thing, isn’t it? You know that trailer you did before you left? In that short thing, you had a picture of women in health centres and the camera went onto a dirty broken mattress. Do you remember that?

CW: Yes.

SB: That was a difficult moment for me. It said a lot about what a dreadful state some Zambian health centres are in. I don’t think it’s necessarily taking advantage and filming sick children, but it’s about creating an impression which is disrespectful and maybe isn’t totally true of the people or the environment you’re filming in. Those health centers are full of hugely dedicated people who work their socks off against incredible odds and so that’s the impression ideally that would come away from a documentary about that. Rather than the fact that the mattresses are dirty and or the equipment isn’t there or whatever.

CW: But if those hardworking people need help or funding from their own government or from NGOs, doesn’t this kind of footage illustrate their need? Isn’t there a public interest argument to be made for showing those conditions?

SB: Yeah, I think there is, but the challenge is balancing it. It’s probably an impossible situation but the public interest would be served when a balanced picture is shown. So a lot of people will look at the dirty, holy mattress thing and think ‘God, they can’t even look after…that was a perfectly good mattress.’ Uninformed people looking at that might not necessarily come away with the idea that these people need help, they might come away with the idea that these people haven’t a clue about running a health centre.

CW: That’s definitely a balance I tried to strike—showing the positive as well as the negative. But I also didn’t want to create a story that left the audience feeling comfy and indifferent to what they’d seen. Like ‘OK well, we shouldn’t worry too much because it looks like things are under control.’ Kids are dying, and it can be prevented. I wanted to show that in a way that could potentially mobilize will toward making a sustainable change.

SB: I think you did that in the documentary, I think that was achieved, definitely. But I do feel I wouldn’t have another documentary made.

CW: Why not?

SB: Well because of the lack of control of what comes out at the end. If people could see all the footage you took maybe it would be fine but I just think the angle that a journalist can put on something, especially a filmmaker, it’s very powerful. And it isn’t an equal relationship. As a subject, you open yourself up completely to the documentary maker who then goes away and puts together what they want. And that may or may not be what you wish to portray, wrongly or rightly. As it happened, we wished to portray something similar to what you wished to portray.

CW: But from a journalist’s point of view, if you’re working in covering nonprofits, you don’t want to appear to be promotional or else no one will take your work seriously.

SB: I showed the film to [one of our funders] and she hit the roof. I think that could have been avoided if I had introduced it by saying ‘Look, this is an independent documentary. It’s not a promotional film. A documentary maker came here and followed us around and this is the story of that.’ And it would have been fine, I think. But it just makes me very anxious about it I suppose, having gone through the process once. What could have happened, how it could have gone awfully wrong.

CW: Changing tracks here, some NGOs have gotten a lot of criticism over the years for using sick children in their ads, depicting Africa as a miserable place where starving kids stand around with flies on their faces. That may part of a bigger picture but it’s reductive, and exploiting that to further funding efforts is problematic. Where do you stand on using people’s images to promote your work? For instance, your website has an image where a kid looks quite sick with dehydration. Did the photographer pursue permission, written or verbal, from the mother of the child?

SB: I don’t think she did.

CW: Right, so what are the ethical considerations in that scenario where that image of that kid is all over the internet now.

SB: I don’t think it is all over the internet.

CW: It’s around. It can be viewed by anyone and she and his family probably have no idea. What are the ethical considerations here? Is it serving the greater good that you’re illustrating what dehydration really looks like or is it kind of taking advantage of him or both?

SB: I think probably both.

CW: Does that sit right?

SB: I suppose it’s the one picture that’s in our press gallery that I would replace. An interesting thing is that if I’d taken it, which I don’t think I would have done, would it be in our press gallery? I don’t know. These are difficult questions. But I’m not a flies-on-the-face person. I think you serve the cause much better by painting a positive picture. Not a false picture. But a picture that we use a lot is of a little girl holding the [medicine] kit in her hands. There’s lots of pleasure and love and caring and in that picture, which is essentially what is going on in African villages. They don’t have all the resources that we have and they have much bigger challenges, but they’re not living a life of misery.

CW: I agree with that. It communicates something with a different kind of power as the sick child lying there with no help. But it’s time to wrap things up. Any closing thoughts?

SB: Those release forms are really scary. There needs to be a more gentle introduction right at the beginning between the subject and the documentary maker about what the objectives are. Exactly how those objectives are achieved is down to the creativity of the documentary maker, but I do think there needs to be an agreed set of objectives. I would never go into a documentary situation again without that. Having said that, I am pleased the documentary is independent and non-promotional and I think it is better for being both. I think it will do a lot of good.

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