Last year, I spent two weeks in Sierra Leone. One was with an awesome org called END7, and one was by my lonesome in Freetown — trudging around a muddy market with an enthusiastic young translator named Omar and a dedicated driver named Osman. Just a couple months before, cholera struck the capitol city hard, infecting up to 2,000 new people in the worst weeks. By the end of the summer, about 300 people had died of the swift disease.
Cholera is spread through contaminated water and food. It makes your body lose fluids so fast, it can kill you in less than a day. When the epidemic first hit Freetown, a handfull of international news orgs picked it up, reporting the numbers perishing and attributing the disease to unsanitary and crowded living conditions in the slums.
There’s no doubt the slum conditions helped cholera rip through Freetown. But I was a little sick of hearing about the epidemic from this very high-up perspective about poor people living in squallor, dying in scores. That’s often how we tell what’s going on in places like Sierra Leone — ‘those people.’ Who are ‘those people’? Are they as helpless and uneducated about hygiene + sanitation as they’re made out to be?
I wanted to know. So I roamed around Mabella slum, chatting with people just after the major cholera outbreak had subsided. I met a girl named Myama. And I shot this story.
There are two things I’d like to share were my favorite parts of working on this story:
(1) There is no solution.
Almost all the client work I do is for nonprofits. Promotional and advocacy films are pretty weak without a call-to-action (that’s the part at the end where you’re told what you can do to make a difference). The version of the film above has a slide for Bread for the World, an organization that purchased a license for the film. But the film itself is not for promoting Bread, nor is it for telling you what you can do to help Myama. It’s an independent short film, made to give you a glimpse of life in Mabella through a deadly epidemic.
I don’t believe a donate button, a letter or petition to a political official, or an ask to Tweet (the common calls-to-action) have anything to do with this piece. Nor do I believe it’s inherently a filmmaker or journalist’s responsibility to tell you what the best ‘solution’ is*. I believe my responsibility is to tell you a story. It’s to make a situation, an issue, a topic, a news event, personal enough that you might give a damn. It’s to teach you about something, to offer perspective from a character who’s been through it.
*That’s not to say that all filmmakers / journalists should shy away from said ‘solutions.’ It just shouldn’t be expected of all films or journalistic visual stories about poverty. In general, I think assuming your story character’s situation comes down to one or two solutions is dangerous; organizations are businesses, too, and when you’re offering their solution, you’re endorsing them. ‘Solutions’ are for promotors, marketers, advocates, or — as I sometimes am — people who are making a video with the financial backing and oversight of an organization working on a solution.
(2) Myama is not my friend.
Myama wasn’t interested in interacting with me much at all. She simply tolerated me. And tried to (maybe did, at some point) forget I was there.
That’s an odd thing to be excited about — this girl didn’t really like me. But let me explain why I loved this:
When I’m traveling on behalf of or with an organization, I usually form some sort of positive relationship with the characters I’m shooting. I think this is because I need to represent the organization well, so I’m super-nice-Mo, but it’s also because those projects can sometimes veer far from documentary, and involve instead directing characters and shoot situations (which means more interacting and getting to know one another). Promotional videos are essentially commercials; there is no ethical-line-crossing when everyone (including the characters) is aware and on board with the fact that this is a promotional shoot, not a documentary or journalism project. In effect, you aren’t trying to blend into the background so that people do what they normally do; you’re right there asking them to do something, instead. You get to know them then, and get to be (some sort of) friends, even when you can’t speak the same language.
Now, I definitely know journalists (particularly photojournalists) who believe it’s very important to establish a relationship with their character before or while they are documenting their lives. I usually agree. But there was something really freeing for both Myama and I to just… leave each other alone. I can’t really explain why, but I do believe Myama was more honest in her interview(s) with me about her cholera situation and her life, than she would’ve been if we were all nicey-nice to one another. She’s a rough woman, she lives in a rough place. I’m a stranger who, no matter that I read everything I could before coming to her neighborhood, could and will never really grasp her life. But I could and will share glimpses of it in a story about cholera in Freetown, if she let me. She did.
This probably sounds like a no-brainer to reporters; I think most journalists know the value of having a respectful distance between you and your sources. But in the nonprofit-promo-video-world, that line gets really blurry. And then some photographers and videographers in that space feel it’s their obligation to be ‘friends’ with everyone they shoot. It starts to seem sometimes like not being ‘friends’ with your subjects would be un-humanitarian or callous. But that’s not true. I loved that Myama let me into her life to be a reporter, and didn’t expect or even want more. When I look back at a lot of travel-to-a-faraway-place projects I’ve done, I think most people don’t really want more than a little amusement and an idea of where their story will end up.
‘Myama Against the Odds’ was kind of an experiment in my venturing out to do an independent character-driven story by myself while in the field. I shot the story in a week, and took 2-3 weeks to edit/polish it. I’m happy with it, though I wish I could’ve done more multimedia (photos + audio) within it… by yourself, bringing together photos, audio and video is a bit of a stretch for a week of shooting.
Questions about ‘Myama’ and how it was done? Just leave me a comment or send me an email – mo [at] rakefilms [dot] com.