It was not without a little trepidation that I ripped the plastic seal on Miki Redelinghuys and Kyle O’Donoghue’s film, Wellbodi Biznes. I had seen it at Encounters 2011 and found it powerful – the kind of film I wanted others to see. At the same time it’s an uncomfortable film to watch as you, the unsuspecting viewer, are unprepared for the difficult truth of an under resourced and struggling maternity ward. I did want to study it a little more carefully and I had to draw up my interview questions for the two filmmakers. So, I boldly stuck the dvd into my drive and watched the film up close and personal on my computer monitor.
They handled a difficult subject with sensitivity and below they give us insight into their process.
A GOOD PLACE TO START WOULD BE FOR YOU TO EXPLAIN HOW YOU FOUND THIS STORY, OR HOW IT FOUND YOU.
KYLE (K): I’d been doing a lot of work for UNICEF shooting in Africa and expressed my frustration to their communications officer that we came across such important stories for longer documentaries, but we were limited to shooting institutional news pieces. The opportunity presented itself to make a longer film in Sierra Leone so we seized the opportunity. I first went on a research shoot to see where the story might be – it was predetermined that it would be about the free health care initiative, but we wanted characters and a real story. In Bo Town I was struck by the human drama in their maternity ward and was immediately drawn to Dr Koroma as a character. I went back and told Miki this was where we could make a film in a contained environment that captures the complexity of the situation.
MIKI (M): As Kyle explains, the story followed on from other work he’d been doing in the area. The hard part was to find the story within the situation. We were both intent on not telling an Afro-pessimistic story, within trying circumstances. So the story emerged when we could find that glimmer of hope. What is central in the telling of this story is finding the light in a dark situation, when we met Aminata, we realized that she was the light. Her strength of character, her smile that fills an entire room …
WHY DID YOU AGREE TO DO THIS FILM?
K: Hmmm? Not sure really. Seemed like a good idea at the time, especially since we had a promise of part funding from UNICEF so it wouldn’t be wholly on spec. It was also a nice opportunity to make a vérité style film in another country in Africa. Given hindsight I would have still agreed to do the film, but perhaps have been more mentally prepared for how hard it was going to be.
M: The subject matter lies very close to my heart, so I was keen to tell a story that would raise awareness about the unnecessary suffering of women in childbirth as well as preventable infant mortality.
Sometimes we spend so much time thinking about making films, so when Kyle approached me for this film I didn’t really think, I was just keen to get out and make this film. I also enjoy working with Kyle – we work well together without ego issues and in general agree ethically and creatively on what works.
I AM OFTEN CONFUSED BY HOW PEOPLE USE THE TERM VÉRITÉ. WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY VÉRITÉ – DO YOU MEAN OBSERVATIONAL AND WITHOUT INTERVIEWS?
K: By definition vérité would be completely observational without interviews in a sort of Kim Longinotto or Maysles Brothers style. For me it has always been aspiring to a vérité style. In other words, as far as possible allowing the scenes to speak for themselves and create narrative. Our constraint is that often we do not have enough time to be total purists and so we have to do short interviews that get pieces of narrative that will help us along in the edit. I guess when I say vérité I mean aspiring to make a documentary that reads like a feature film. Does that make sense?
M: In essence vérité means truth. That’s how I interpret it and apply the principle of pursuing truth when approaching a film. On a purist level this could mean not interfering and just filming things as they unfold, but I don’t believe this is truly possible – one’s very presence is an interference, thereby adding another layer to the truth of the situation. We cannot be flies on walls, because we’re not flies. Simple.
YOU START WITH AN INTRODUCTION THAT CONTEXTUALISES THE STORY AND THEN YOU DIVE STRAIGHT INTO THE UNCOMFORTABLE REALITY OF MATERNAL DEATHS. IT’S POWERFUL, BUT IT COULD ALSO TURN PEOPLE AWAY FROM THE FILM. WHY DID YOU STICK WITH THIS SCENE SO EARLY IN THE FILM?
K: This was once of our main debates during the edit. Before we embarked on the film we both decided that we did not want to portray a typical picture of terrible conditions in Africa – the hopelessness and swollen belly cliches that we all too often see. It’s just too easy. However, the reality was that we were dealing with a very difficult situation, with death and heartache that people working in the hospital experience on a daily basis. It strengthens Dr Koroma and Aminata’s characters hugely when you realise right at the start of the film what their reality entails. Without this backdrop one might misconstrue their reactions to women in the film as uncaring. We wanted to show heroes against an uncompromising and horrifying situation – the early death does this.
M: We decided that we wouldn’t shy away form the reality of life and death in a maternity ward in Bo Government Hospital. Watching the film isn’t nearly as hard as it was to be there filming it, which isn’t nearly as hard as living that reality. We decided to take the viewers straight into that reality so that everyone is clear on what the situation is, what the odds are on a daily basis, and what’s at stake. Personally I find the entire film very hard to watch and I’m always amazed that people don’t leave. But there was no other way to tell an honest story.
PART OF THE POWER, WHICH IS MORE LIKE KNOCKOUT POWER, OF THIS FILM IS HOW CLOSE THE VIEWER GETS TO DEATH WITHOUT BEING SENTIMENTAL. WE’VE SEEN IT IN TV DRAMA SERIES, BUT WE HARDLY GET TO DEATH AS IT HAPPENS IN REAL LIFE. IT IS UNBEARABLE TO WATCH – WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO FILM?
K: We knew it would be rough, but I think ultimately we were unprepared for just how hard the filming would be. It’s one thing to imagine being the uncompromising doc filmmaker tackling difficult situations head on, and quite another thing to actually be there. Miki bore the brunt of the difficult filming – being a woman she had access to the labour ward. One experience stands out: I had been filming in the ward with Dr Koroma and Miki had gone off with our fixer to film in the labour ward. When I was done, I saw her emerge and knew immediately that something was wrong. She told me she had just filmed a birth where the baby died. There were times when we wondered if we could really go on. I could not have made this film with anyone else and especially someone I was not friends with and did not know. The mutual support was key.
M: The problem is when you are filming you don’t really know what the outcome is, sometimes even while you’re filming you don’t realise what you’re actually capturing until halfway through. The incident with the death at birth that Kyle mentions was incredibly disturbing. The baby was born with a chord around his neck and initially I was filming thinking it would be okay, then I realised that things were going wrong and withdrew from the room as I did not feel comfortable filming this. I was also very emotional and left the hospital for a while. I discovered when I returned that they had managed to resuscitate the baby after I’d left.
On the other hand, the scene where the women dies happened so quickly, I did not actually realise that she had died. I thought I was filming her being stabilised before an operation and afterwards it dawned on me what had happened. Things happen so quickly, that often one just responds to a situation and only when you are halfway through it do you realise what is really happening. I think we were also in a state of semi-shock a lot of the time and coping mechanisms kick in.
What was really important was that Kyle and I could support each other emotionally as well, and if one person needed a break, the other could continue. If one of us lost hope, the other would encourage.
K: The other important thing was knowing when to leave the hospital and take a break. There was one air-conditioned Lebanese owned restaurant in Bo which served real coffee and rotisserie chicken and this was our retreat when the going got tough.
DID YOU HAVE DOUBTS ABOUT CONTINUING TO DO IT AFTER A FEW DAYS OF FILMING?
K: There were a few occasions where we would have like to have packed it in and just left Sierra Leone. The story did not seem to be developing and we were slow in getting scenes in the bag. But no, I don’t think we ever seriously considered quitting – you just have to trust in process and keep going with the belief that the story will reveal itself.
M: I did often wonder what I was doing there, what I was hoping to achieve. It made me question the power of documentary filmmaking in general and I did start feeling very despondent. The situation seemed so much bigger than our film could ever hope to capture. I questioned the effect of the film, the value for the women involved, the value for the cause. I felt like running away from it many times, but never quitting. I don’t really know the answer yet.
IF YOU DID HAVE DOUBTS WHY DID YOU CONTINUE TO FILM?
M: Once you’re committed mentally to a story, you can’t just drop it. I kept hoping to find an answer
WHAT WAS IT LIKE BEING A TWO-DIRECTOR TEAM? HOW DID YOU DECIDE UPON THE DIRECTION OF THE STORY WHILE FILMING?
K: Miki and I have worked together on a number of vérité style docs including Brass Boys (IDFA Kids & Docs 2008) and Congo My Foot (Best Short Film Tri Continental 2009). We both direct from behind the camera and have a pretty intuitive relationship in the field. There is never one person directing – it’s a collaborative process where when one person has the camera the other keeps an eye for where things might be going. Often we split up and shoot independently.
M: I think we work well together. I think all films are collaborative – you just need to find the right people to collaborate with. Sharing ethical values is important, agreeing creatively a lot of the time helps, and being able to find things to laugh at. I think it would have been hard for either of us to make this film alone.
WHAT DID YOU SHOOT ON AND WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS FORMAT?
K: We shot in XDCam 1080i. No reason aside from this is what we have. HD, because there is no reason to not shoot in it anymore.
M: My camera was stolen so I used whatever Kyle had on offer.
HOW DID YOU FIND WORKING WITH THIS FORMAT? IT SEEMS TO HAVE HANDLED THE LOWLIGHT INSIDE AMINATA’S HOUSE VERY WELL.
K: Truthfully, we could have done with better low light performance, but the camera, a JVC HM100, held up pretty well. The nice thing about HD is that you can push it a little further in post before it falls apart.
M: My first shots were all over-exposed and out of focus. I struggled with the JVC camera, I think my hands were too big and I was used to the Sony Z1, but it got better. Kyle was very forgiving and kept politely urging me to go to auto.
HOW ARE BIG HANDS SUITED TO THE SONY Z1?
M: The JVC is a smaller camera than the Z1 by probably about half, so the controls can be tricky and small.
This was a joke and my way of apologising for struggling a bit with Kyle’s camera after being used to my own. Cameras are very personal. It’s a tool and a friend – you need to know it to be able to get the best results. Your relationship with the camera needs to be seamless, so that your technical understanding of it requires no thought while you’re working. It needs to be instinctive. Like a real pianist no longer thinks about where the notes are, instead you use the tool creatively because you instinctively already know where everything is and what it can do.
DID YOU UNDERSTAND THE SIERRA LEONESE? HOW DID YOU NAVIGATE THROUGH THE FOREIGN ENVIRONMENT?
K: The Creole is pretty easy to understand. It’s an English based Creole so one understands I would say 40-50% of what is going on – enough to be able to respond to what people say, which helped a lot. We also had an infield translator.
YOU SEEM TO HAVE SHOT BOTH HANDHELD AND ON LEGS – IS THIS CORRECT? OR YOU HAVE A VERY STEADY HAND. WHAT MOTIVATED THE SHOOTING STYLE?
K: The character driven scenes were all hand held and then we would shoot cutaways around the ward on legs. Legs were important for not getting too close to the patients and respecting their space.
M: I think we generally went with what the situation required, trying not to make rules.
HOW MANY DAYS DID YOU SHOOT?
K: I think around 10.
EVERYONE SEEMS SO COMFORTABLE WITH THE CAMERA, ESPECIALLY THE TWO MAIN PARTICIPANTS – HOW DID YOU ACHIEVE THIS?
K: I think it comes from firstly having two very engaging characters. Secondly, taking the time to talk with people before you start shooting even though this can be frustrating as we were short on time. It also comes from having shot a number of observational films I think, and knowing how to read a character to get the best out of them. Knowing when to walk away from a scene or to step back and give the character room to breathe (again, difficult when time is of the essence). I joke with Miki that for me it is a bit like shooting natural history films – that you have to be patient and slowly move towards your target, retreating when necessary and sensing the right time to get the shot.
M: I think its about trust and respect. We explain what we would like to film, but then allow the characters to guide us on where we are and aren’t welcome and then you sense it from there. It’s important when filming documentaries to think of it as people’s lives and not a story. Think all the time of how what you’re filming will impact on their lives and treat that with respect. Lives continue after cameras go and what remains is more important than what you take away.
HOW COMFORTABLE WERE YOU ABOUT FILMING SOMETHING THAT WAS SO INTIMATE AND AT TIMES ALSO DEVASTATING?
K: I try not to think about it while I am there. There is always time for meltdown when you get back. I think we both had strong convictions that it was an important film to make and this allows one to trust in the process and not to think about it.
M: I was often very uncomfortable and questioned our right to be there. But then I would be reassured as we built relationships with people and I felt welcome. We always spoke to each and every person we filmed, explaining what we were doing, asking whether they did or didn’t want to be filmed and respected that choice. Sometimes, I believe, you are also giving people something by filming them, there is a certain recognition. It was a very hard shoot though, on many levels.
WHEN YOU USE THE WORD RECOGNITION, DO YOU MEAN THE AUDIENCE RECOGNISES THE PARTICIPANT’S STORY?
M: I mean that when someone records your life they are giving it recognition.
I HAD A CHUCKLE WHEN I HEARD MIKI’S VOICE AND THEN THE DOCTOR RANTING OVER HER VOICE ABOUT NOT HAVING HAD BREAKFAST AND NOT GETTING TO SEE PATIENTS WHO HAD BEEN WAITING A LONG TIME. WERE THERE MANY SITUATIONS LIKE THIS ONE WHERE THE DOCTOR WAS FRUSTRATED? IT PROVIDES GOOD CONTENT.
K: Unlike other films I have worked on where you have a choice of scenes I think we used every scene we shot in Wellbodi Bizness. So the Koroma meltdown was the only one we shot.
M: You forget about all the scolding scenes we didn’t include! They were repetitive, though. Dr Koromo is constantly venting his frustration at the lack of support. I felt for him about breakfast though – I also lose my temper when I haven’t eaten.
WHY DIDN’T YOU FILM THE BIRTH OF 15 YEAR OLD SATHU’S BABY?
K: We had to leave and had been waiting for days for it to happen. She was over term and Dr Koroma kept saying he was going to do a Caesarean Section, but then he would be called away to Freetown or something else would come up.
M: We were sorry to miss that. We met a lovely young German doctor who was doing research and who was hoping to start a birthing clinic in the area. We told her about Sathu and she ended up assisting Dr Koromo with the birth after we had left. I think she tried to give Sathu emotional support through this terrifying experience and gave us feedback on how it went.
WAS IT PART OF YOUR PLAN THAT KYLE WOULD EDIT THE FILM?
K: Not part of the plan necessarily, but it was always a strong possibility. I have edited all the films we have made together, and it seems such a natural part of the process. It was also, budget-wise, not possible to hire an editor.
M: I can’t edit.
WHY DID KYLE EDIT THE FILM, I.E. WHY DIDN’T YOU CHOOSE AN EDITOR WHO WOULD BRING A FRESH EYE TO THE STORY TO EDIT THE FILM?
K: We both felt very attached to the story and a strong sense of wanting to make it in a particular way. While we were shooting there was an edit process of sorts going on already and this transferred into the suite. There was also content that I would not have felt comfortable allowing anyone else to see. It was funny. We kind of locked ourselves away for a month and did not show it to anyone – very unsure that we were on the right track and that people would even want to watch it.
M: The edit is key in how the story is told and Kyle was best suited to capturing the nuances of this story, having been there.
On practical terms there was no budget for an editor – we both worked on the edit without budget. I would work on structuring or content cutting the next scene while Kyle was busy on a scene, that way making the workflow faster. Because we were both there, no time is wasted explaining or getting to know the material, etc.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO HAVE ONE OF THE DIRECTORS EDITING THE STORY? WHY WAS IT THIS WAY?
K: We both edited the film in many ways. We would look at selects and discuss how the next scene should be cut. I would do an assembly and then we would work together shot by shot to craft a scene. Many days we would only make it to 1pm and just call it quits. Working with the material was very hard. I would get into my car and realise how tense I was and have to just breathe and calm down before driving home. The most important thing about the way Miki and I work together is that we know when to hang on to something personally – like a favorite shot or piece of dialogue – and when to let it go. A certain amount of tussling went on in the edit when we didn’t always agree, but a well-timed cup of tea sorts out most problems. I really like this way of working but it requires a great deal of mutual respect or it can fall apart.
M: I think it was fine. Kyle bore the brunt of the work and did a great job. I think my strength lies in structure and he could put things together in a poetic way, so in a sense I could be a semi-objective eye to a scene he had cut and figure out where to go next – we would feed off each other, which I think is really great. He’s also really fast in making decisions and I tend to ponder and procrastinate, so this way I was just forced to make decisions and move on, which was the best way to handle this film – instinctively and decisively.
THE WAY YOU HAVE USED B-ROLL TO TAKE US AWAY FROM THE DISTRESSING SCENES AT THE HOSPITAL WORKS VERY WELL FOR ME. THIS DOESN’T ALWAYS WORK – SOMETIMES I FIND THAT THE B-ROLL HAS NO RELATION AND FEELS LIKE IT DOESN’T BELONG TO THE STORY. WHY DO YOU THINK IT WORKS?
K: This was something we decided on very early on and so we made a point of shooting the visual scenes away from the hospital as crafted scenes themselves. Each of them tell you something about Sierra Leone visually which adds to the story. In many ways we worked just as hard on the b-roll sequences as the narrative sequences. We also wanted to have something visually aesthetic to take us away from the dark and gritty scenes in the hospital.
M: We wanted the film to feel like a film and not a report, all things happen in a context and the context is very relevant.
HOW MUCH INTERFERENCE WAS THERE FROM UNICEF IN THE FINAL OUTCOME OF THE STORY?
K: We were very fortunate in that they were happy with the film as it was, and were frankly very surprised given that it shows the difficult reality rather than the fluffy donor films about Africa we are all used to.
M: No interference really. Kyle edited a short advocacy clip according to their specifications, so this film was really up to us.
THANKS KYLE AND MIKI FOR YOUR THOUGHTFUL RESPONSES THAT WILL GIVE READERS LOTS TO THINK ABOUT. IT’S A BEAUTIFUL FILM AND I HOPE MANY MORE PEOPLE DO SEE IT!
Interviewed by Tina-Louise Smith