Alfa’s Second Story
There was a young man, hardened eyes, who spoke to us about justice. We knew him as Alfa, no last name. Formerly abducted by the L.R.A at 15, he was now being sheltered among other former abuductees behind corrugated walls and chicken wire at a vocational training school in Pader, Uganda. ‘Former abductees’ was the given term – ‘child soldiers’ had connotations, we were told. Alfa was the one who approached us at first, pensive but with a broad smile, “So this camera here, it takes video too?” he had asked us as we past by the scrawny tree he was resting against. He had a blue biro between his fingers which he kept fidgeting with, biting the nib, tapping. Yes, we nodded, it takes video.
When we sat down with Alfa, we asked him to tell us two stories; one about his past and one about his future. He spoke about his former life as if he had told it a million times before. A terrible tale, ripped from his childhood, innocence beaten out, and a daring escape during a crossfire. When it came time to speak about his future however, he stopped. He simply looked at us and said, “you don’t want to talk about that.” He smiled. “Why?” we had asked. “Because,” Alfa gave out a breath and put his pen in his pocket. “It’s boring. It goes nowhere.” The first story lasted thirty minutes, it had guns, bullets and slaughter. His second story lasted only five words yet was far more tragic. Those second stories never get told.
When Did It Become All About Us?
As I write, the #KONY2012 phenomenon is sweeping the Twitter-verse taking our Facebook timelines along for the ride. On April 20th you might well be waking up to your city plastered with photos of a man who despite a generation long campaign of murder, kidnapping and rape, has mostly gone unknown among our popular culture. A 30 minute documentary from American NGO Invisible Children calling on young people everywhere to ‘make Joseph Kony famous’ has been an unprecedented success in terms of raising awareness and causing a swell in popular interest about the long running conflict. The film paints Joseph Kony as the monster he is – the bad guy – and that the problem we face is that our governments won’t do anything about him unless we make it impossible for them not to. If we succeed in persuading them to act – we become the good guys. As this campaign gathers steam however, so has the criticism. The issues most touted lies beyond the style, beyond the immediate story and beyond the fuzzy feeling of being part of something special. This issomething special, no doubt about that, but what that something exactly is remains difficult to pin down.
Let’s take a moment to reflect. We watched this video, well produced, we liked the music. The kid was cute. Compelling idea. For me, it ticked all the boxes it could have possibly ticked in terms aesthetic appeal. Now what? Link it across my streams, watch the ‘likes’ rack up, perhaps join a few friends in painting the town red on April 20th. If you were to ask me why? I would genuinely say I believe it to be right. That I don’t want to live in a world where a man like Joseph Kony does what he does without consequence. But then, when did it all become about us?
My point is that when you stick up a photo of a wretched, evil man and tell me I can stop him doing this to a young woman, then hold up a photo of the young woman, lips sliced off, limbs butchered and rendered stubs, I’m going to agree with you. Sure, absolutely, yes, let’s stop him. My considerations then follow the narrative laid out for me and so too with the compelling call to action which is to be part of a global meme, and thus history.
I happen to believe, however, that how you do something is just as important as what you do.
When Doing Something Is Not Better Than Doing Nothing
There has been a wealth of writing about Invisible Children, some vitriolic, others fair minded criticism of its role as an NGO. It seems to have a development as well as a campaign element at it’s core and it is this uneasy balance that has garnered most of the heat. When CODOC were in Uganda in 2010 we had the opportunity to speak to many NGO’s on the ground. There is incredible work being carried out in collaboration with local communities to bring northern Uganda back from the brink. Many of those we spoke to were happy to stay out of the limelight; they ‘did development, not flashmobs’ they would tell us. It would be safe to say, however, that there was a healthy scepticism of IC and what they felt translated from the campaigns and the reality behind the ‘calls to action’. Campaigning for troops on the ground for example, whether in an advisory capacity or not, should flag up concerns among those who had called their congressmen and governors to do something in their name.
This piece of legislation in particular, promoted by IC among college campuses and advocacy rally’s calls on the US government to help militarily eliminate the LRA. Dwell on this, for a moment. The LRA is reported to be 90% made up of abducted children – military defeat would mean engaging in combat and targeting of the very victims of this war; these children are the LRA. The UPDF by the way are also connected to atrocities committed during the conflict. The legislation also gives no hint as to a time frame for US military withdrawal from Uganda. I’m not sure what those college kids were signing but would they really have signed up for that to be carried out in their name? Forgive me, but if I were to break it down for a five year old, I would say: More Guns In Africa Are A Bad Idea. Lets Not Do That.
Film is a powerful platform to get a message across. It is absolutely natural and indeed honest that we wish to do something substantial to help. When we are offered a way to do it, it’s also natural that we respond in a way that we think might make a difference. But making a difference to what end? The #makekonyfamous campaign is a good idea, and those that call it naive and tasteless ought to dial it down. Taste depends on whose asking. I happen to think a Holocaust Memorial where visitors get given a bracelet with a number on it upon entry and then get told if they have ‘died’ or not by the exit is pretty tasteless, but that happens. The problem is not with the style it’s with the substance – at the very least misleading, at the worst it could be dangerous. At the same time, it really is on us – not the plucky guys from Invisible Children – who are at fault. No-one forces us to hashtag anything, we do it by our own volition and thus the responsibility ultimately lies with us.
Voices From The Ground
The final point I would make is that we have a tendency to get wrapped up in our own experience and sometimes that can fuel a personal drive to help – IC’s backstory in this instance is well documented and should be commended – we here at CODOC are all about the personal take. But when it goes to the extent that this gets in the way of truly listening to those who actually live the horrors of which we only get snapshots of day in day out, that is when we become the bad guys. The problem with only having a singular narrative is that our opinions suddenly exist in an echo chamber. Words and slogans come back to us amplified and reaffirm our own held convictions, however hollow. We desperately need to step back from paternalistic instincts to help an ‘ailing Africa’. These people are strong and have a spirit unlike any I have witnessed. The very fibres of CODOC were wrought under those Ugandan skies and the people have left a deep, deep impact on our own perspectives on how best we can collaborate with them. Dialling a complex and nuanced issue to bare essentials absolutely works to get the point across in immediacy but without fully engaging with the responsibility of action – we could end up hurting those we seek to help.
In 2010 we spent a month with the Acholi people of northern Uganda, listening to their stories. We came away struck by their capacity to forgive. The Acholi speak softly, even timidly about themselves, their stories and their land. What hope do their voices have against the clamour of our own? If you’d like to help, watch the two clips below of our documentary ‘Forgive Me Mother’, and make up your own mind.
Please do spread the word for KONY2012, by all means write letters, email and make a noise. Painting the night sounds good to me – just do so with an informed opinion. I’d like to direct you to two sources that have been of immense value in terms of highlighting the underlying issues: Resolution:Possible (friends of ours) and The Enough Project. Start there.
“I pray to God for a true reconciliation. I pray that my generation is the last of war and the next one is the first of peace.” – President Otto Perez Molina, inauguration address.
I wish I had changed my shoes. We had managed to grab fifteen minutes with Guatemalan President-elect Otto Perez Molina for Al Jazeera. He was due to meet President Calderon of Mexico that evening. We were to be his last interview of the day. Doors opened, a lush apartment. A cacophony of ornaments adorned a fireplace. An ivory parrot perching atop a gilded shelf caught my eye. I sat facing his empty chair waiting. ‘What do I call him,’ I thought out loud, ‘Mister President perhaps?’ – ‘No,’ came an answer, ‘just General Molina – he’s not President yet.
Even still, these shoes had no place among such finery.
– Notes December 15th 2011
A grim story had led us to these dusty climes. We were in Guatemala City to shoot a piece for Al Jazeera’s Listening Post strand. A journalist, Lucia Escobar had gone into hiding after receiving death threats from those she had named as complicit in an article about the disappearance of a man in Panajachel, a town in the department of Solola. We arrived a month after General Otto Perez Molina of the Partido Patriota (Patriot Party) had won an election for Guatemala’s Presidency. His tanned, silver haired effigy could still be spotted across billboards in Guatemala City. An ex-military man who had run on a security ticket, made promises of a sweeping ‘iron fist’ or ‘Mano Dura’ to tackle Guatemala’s horrific crime rate and the increasing penetration of Mexican drug cartels.
A skim through any number of publications, Time, NYTimes, Guardian will yield howls of disapproval. Why would Guatemala have chosen a military figure when its past was so littered with grotesque episodes? A bloody history, filled with ‘iron fists’ that had summarily choked the country of its freedoms. Indeed, the last time a military man was in office was during a military dictatorship. Efrain Rios Montt fell in 1986 after what the UN, in a 1999 truth commission report claimed, was a period where 93% of atrocities during a 36 year old civil war were carried out by the military, police and paramilitary groups. A period which the same report found that a systematic genocide against Mayan peoples took place, where at least 200,000 people were killed, over 4,000 people disappeared, more than 600 massacres took place and over 1,000,000 people were forcibly displaced. Otto Perez Molina – a high ranking military official at the time – was in charge of Nebaj, Quiche military base during the worst atrocities. Is this the kind of ‘mano dura’ Guatemalans had elected to highest office?
Guatemala falls into that dark fringe where impunity pervades a society that refuses to look back. The veins of violence run deep under the canopy of corruption which runs back toward time immemorial. The battered body of Guatemala has in turns been raped, pillaged and consumed by conquistadors from one century to the next, Gringo ventriloquists turning it’s head this way and that, a gasp of freedom in the 1950’s when Jacobo Árbenz assumed his brief Presidency until ousted by a CIA backed coup, a Marxist uprising surged for its throat in the 1980s but were crushed by stronger fists. Military dictatorships followed all but suffocating the last breaths of democracy until the 1990’s. Its face lies now, tongue flailing, gurgling, diseased by brutal drug cartel violence pummelling it from beyond the Mexican border. Guatemala has a history that reads of passive, unequal, bordered societies, apathetic to powers manipulating its whims. A phantom state now exists, sucking up all its limited resources, a funnel in full view, siphoning moneys into pockets unknown. Everyone knows, no-one speaks, only shrugs of malcontent. After so much subjection is it no wonder small voices calling for democracy, accountability and fundamental institutions are swatted away by bullies, drug-lords and jack boots while lawmen look the other way?
There is a name here, besides Lucia, that we hear about constantly. A woman with an echo for a name; Claudia Paz y Paz, the thorn in the sides of the crooked. Guatemala’s first female Attorney General is doing something unprecedented. She’s putting people away, lots of people. The week before we touched down at Guatemala City, Paz y Paz had successfully convicted among the most imposing of names; General Hector Mario Lopez Fuentes, an intellectual author of genocide against the Ixil people during the civil war. Another, Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, head of military intelligence accused of genocide was also arrested in October. Yet another, 70 year old former military head of state, Oscar Meijia Victores is now in military hospital under evaluation for his ability to stand trial. In a country where memories are silent, hers is a voice that hollows the hearts that hide. However, despite his pronouncements of reconciliation, Molina has yet to publicly admit that a genocide even took place – it’s a position that has protected him until now but one that looks ever more vapid given that his contemporaries have now been convicted of the same.
Molina himself does not escape Paz y Paz’s sights. U.S military documents from the mid-90’s show him disappearing or ordering the disappearance of leftists guerilla leader Efraim Bamaca during the civil war. Bamaca was married to a Harvard-educated lawyer Jennifer Harbury. Harbury initiated a case against Molina in March 2011 on behalf of her long thought dead husband. There is also a story that refuses to go away; another report, this time conducted by the Catholic Church in 2008 put forward a raft of further allegations against the military of its conduct during the war. The night before this report was due to be released, Bishop Juan Gerrardi who was head of he investigation was bludgeoned to death. Two military officers were sentenced for the assassination at the end of last year, yet there are conflicting reports that place Perez Molina himself at the scene of the crime. Time will tell. These reports provide compelling reading and episodes inherent make grim portents for the future.
Indeed Molina might find it difficult to keep his past buried. Here is a clip of from a remarkable documentary by a Finnish filmmaker Mikael Wahlforss. Skip to 7:55 and you will see a young Perez Molina, in fetching red beret, speaking to journalist Allan Nairn. Bloodied corpses are on display behind them:
Human rights organisations are concerned that Molina’s inauguration heralds a new cycle of state sponsored violence. Those who pry open the passages of Guatemala’s history risk pulling threads that lead to powerful enemies. Much depends on how far the new President is willing to extend his iron fist. For example, Molina could choose to fire Attorney General Paz y Paz as soon as he begins his term, but doing so would mean alienating allies he can ill afford to lose. The indomitable human rights lawyer enjoys considerable international support and Molina has already extended a hand to the U.S for aid in his fight against the cartels. He has to keep them onside. Paz y Paz herself was awarded the Stephen J. Solarz award for Commitment to Peace, Justice and Security from the International Crisis Group in December. Awards provide precious cover, time and a reputation. If she were to disappear, she would now be missed.
The ‘Mano Dura’ this time, takes its lead from other nations in the region who have chosen to fight fire with fire. Both El Salvador and Mexico have experimented with repressive policing with varying degrees of success. But it is when we view Guatemala through the prism of transshipment that the complexities of this narrative begin to reveal themselves. Frank Smyth, a journalist who has spent years covering the region claims that:
“…every government since the military regime fell has been marked by two trends. 1) The on-going influence of different, sometimes rival cliques of military intelligence officers, 2) The endemic lawlessness that has given rise to violence and Guatemala’s increasing role as a transshipment point and now also a production point for U.S bound illegal drugs.”
According to a disclosed Wikileaks cable, Molina is identified as part of the “Operators” clique who together with the another group calling themselves “The Brotherhood” have “developed their own vertical leader-subordinate network of recognition, relationship and loyalties.” Molina has already claimed that he will use the notorious Kaibil forces to help tackle the drug cartels, and has installed former Kaibil commanders as heads of the military and police. The Kaibiles are Guatemala’s elite forces and have in the past been linked to one of the nations grisliest episodes where 200 civilians were slaughtered at Dos Erres, Peten in 1982. That these groups are to be entrusted as Guatemala’s vanguard against the cartels should give us real cause for concern. Molina’s iron fist might well resemble a vice come the end of his term. Those voices for truth, accountability and the promotion of civilian institutions might wake up one day finding themselves as collateral in an ever tightening grip.
“He appeared from the curated garden, hands in pockets, deep in discussion. He gave us a wave and apologised for keeping us waiting. Okay, I thought, trepidation pierced, let’s do this. Sometimes what a man is willing to broach on camera reveals what he intends to get away with. I took my seat, smiled at my shoes. – Notes 15 December
Heidi and I were here to paint a picture of media freedom in Guatemala. The consequences of the transition of power to a regime governed by a mano dura was to be the canvas. The questions I asked in the fifteen minutes we had with the man were in relation to journalism. Al Jazeera’s air date forbids me to enter into specifics of his answers here. But beyond our narrative, beyond the story of Lucia and those other small voices being trampled upon by the megaphone of collective interests, we were there because we knew that after we had finished telling the story we wanted to tell – further chapters laid await. But this time, for the time, this particular iron fist has many eyes watching him. Our eyes act as binders. We live in a world where the ubiquitous nature of social media is merging with the voices of the many. Previous iron fists has never had to deal with this. The very act of being there, asking these questions, demanding his answers means that President Molina cannot enjoy the canopies of the past. The price of democracy and liberty is eternal vigilance and for the first time because of people like Lucia Escobar, Claudia Paz y Paz and our ability to be connected to stories worth telling, there are less dark corners of the world to hide dark acts. The power we have is that we can shine spotlights upon those places that still remain dim. With this documentary for Al Jazeera we had the chance to ask questions of Molina, questions that had him state – on camera – that fundamental human rights, such as freedom of expression will remain un-encroached under his presidency.
Both Lucia and Claudia are on Twitter. Here are their handles: @liberalucha, @Mpclaudiapaz. Follow them and give them a message from CODOC; Their new President pledged to protect them. They are not alone and we will help them make sure he keeps his promise.
CODOC’s piece for Al Jazeera’s Listening Post will air in early 2012. Subscribe to this blog or visit http://www.codoc.org. The content of this article is my own and not that of any of my employers.
“This sardine-can cab ride back from Pacaya is jeopardy. It’s all I can do to not look down to see pebbles ricochet off the wheels of our jalopy and skip down into the abyss below as we skate along a snaking dirt track to Antigua. The ink above scattered with stars are all that staves my heart from jumping into my mouth. Those stars above are a drug – distracting me from the brain chatter. Heidi snoozes on my shoulder, deservedly. No wonder the Maya looked up for solace. ” – Notes December 17th 2011
At it’s initiation CODOC had a mission which transposed two inter-dependent dynamics at it’s heart. To combine smart, direct storytelling with a distinct aesthetic together with an honest, transparent approach to journalism. Our first film, a feature documentary on Sri Lanka’s civil war had just won us an award and by the end of the year we were given the opportunity to take our concept to an international broadcaster.
Finding Lucia’s Story
We first heard of Lucia from one of our contacts at Amnesty International in London, England. During a meeting he had pulled out a brief pertaining to the stories of two journalists in Guatemala, one of whom we heard had fled her home town of Panajachel after receiving death threats because of an article she had written for elPeriodico, a Guatemala City-based daily. In her article, Lucia points to the disappearance of a local man named Luis Tan. Tan had ‘suspected links’ to one of the local drug cartels currently ravaging the rural north and east. Because of Guatemala’s lack of an effective police force, various ‘citizen-security’ forces had been springing up in rural villages to fill the void. One of these ‘Safety Commissions’ – essentially vigilante groups dispensing justice as they saw fit – were allegedly behind Tan’s disappearance. He is still missing.
In her article, Lucia brazenly calls out the members of the Safety Commission and accuses them of using extralegal measures to enforce their own code of conduct. She goes on to claim the town mayor and state authorities as being complicit with the Safety Commission by their indifference. It was a striking story and one my producing partner Heidi felt we could tell. Guatemala had recently elected a former military general to the office of President, Otto Perez Molina. This would be the first time the country had elected a former army-man since the military dictatorship fell in the 1980’s – a time when the regions human rights record was at an all time low. A compelling canvas to tell an emotive story.
Two months later we were pitching to Al Jazeera’s news magazine show The Listening Post. We would have Lucia as the central figure, through which we could talk about the broad state of media freedom in Guatemala and what it would look like once General Perez Molina takes office in January. The Listening Post commissioned a six minute piece from us and two days after we were given the go-ahead we flew out to Guatemala City. It happens that fast.
We had learnt early on that the process by which you produce stories is just as important as the content. When Heidi was interviewing formerly abducted child soldiers in Pader, Uganda – this became clear. As filmmakers, journalists we parachute into a story, capture what we can – what we need – and leave. Those are the mechanics of the job that at times hides an inconvenient truth. Which is that when we leave, lives continue. The stories we elicit have further chapters long after we lose interest. We learnt this in Uganda with those children. They had one too many times told the same stories, shed the same tears to the same cameras. Our cameras. When the day came for us to interview Lucia we remembered this lesson and our responsibility.
My notebook went everywhere with me. It drew in scribbles on the road. Random thoughts, conjecture, interview questions and more. Every so often these snatches of words would form themselves into something cogent. This is what I wrote the night before our interview with Lucia:
“In Lucia’s last e-mail she wrote something that has stuck with me: “Yo también soy periodista … mi voz, mi palabra es lo único que tengo para expresarme y hacer mi trabajo.” It roughly translates: “I am also a journalist. My voice, my word is the only thing I have to express myself and do my job.” This is courage. For some there are ‘jobs’ for others there are vocations. I look forward to meeting her tomorrow.” – Notes, December 13th
Lucia was dressed in a Guatemalan textile – one of those rainbow coloured hand made fabrics that we had seen market sellers trade. She had a pierced right eye-brow and a notebook much like my own. Around her neck she wore a garland made of soda can openers. Hippie-cool, a free bird confined to a cage.
She sat where the best light could be found. Through our translator she told her story at great depth, with great heart. She told us she had crossed a line that journalists in Guatemala seldom cross. She named names. This was her crime according to threats she had received. What had compelled her to do so? Some sense of duty or justice? Did she feel anyone would hear her, would anybody care? No, she said, she did so out of frustration. She did so out of sorrow at seeing her home town disintegrate around her.
She spoke honestly, with a set jaw. Stern, fixed eyes. She also thought she would have been protected. A naive sentiment as it turned out. “That’s how come I’m here at my ‘refugio temporal'” she says, “instead of with my children.”
Indeed, no help came from the authorities. There was no public outcry. Then she showed us the YouTube clip. It’s a chilling piece of theatre, a hurried scrap of rage. Shot, we were told, by a woman with an iPhone and later posted up on online. It shows a recording of a televised rant by Juan Manuel Ralon and Victor Anleu the very same members of the Saftey Commission that Lucia had named in her article. The pixellated clip shows Ralon speaking directly to camera, clutching his microphone, jabbing a finger at the lens accusing Lucia directly of being a drug-trafficker. He is saying all this on a talk show which, she tells us, is hosted by the other man she named as being complicit; Panajachel Mayor and public personality Gerardo Higueros. These are twelve minutes that capture explicitly the braided twine of violence and impunity that has Guatemala in a choke hold.
Below, as if speaking directly to Lucia, Ralon claims that she is ‘trash that should end up at the bottom of a heap.” This was in direct reference to Lucia’s article, the last line of which reads: “If the next person to rest at the bottom of the world’s most beautiful lake [Lake Atitilan] with rocks holding them down is me, you will know who to blame.” Ralon, it seems, felt the lake was too good for her, offering the ‘trash heap’ as an exchange.
Here is another YouTube clip. Some sinister mash-up of a television appearance Lucia had made shortly after her case went public. An attempt to ridicule her, make her look ‘crazy’ as Lucia says. It plays like an absurdist regurgitation made all the more creepy when Lucia tells us that she suspects the Safety Commission as being behind it. There is venom in this comedy.
There are other YouTube clips. She clicks through them on her laptop as we record her responses. At turns she scowls, grimaces at the words spoken about her. We ask her what she feels when she watches these back – she sighs. That these lies are spread about her, of her cartel links, of her being a trafficker – on television, now on YouTube. The lies have become international, she says, a tear escapes her eyes as she speaks about what would happen if her children heard these words. It’s a poignant moment, I heard the whirr of the camera as Heidi’s eye’s peered through the viewfinder to capture it.
Lucia spoke about why she wrote but also admitted regret at having done so. She felt it was rash, perhaps somewhat irresponsible on her part. Her’s is a voice though that refuses to be extinguished and the flip-side of these YouTube videos is that the clip of Ralon had contributed toward his arrest. If Lucia’s case reaches a conclusion, however, it would be without precedent.
“Hearing Lucia speak of her children has sown a few telling glances between Heidi and I. We have no children yet to be concerned with on our jaunts. We have chosen this profession and have committed to it so far. Hearing her talk about her regret, her irresponsibility – it’s the shade of courage we don’t see – the self-criticism that seems to have nurtured her into a mother and perhaps now a better journalist. There will always be a pinprick of doubt when you write, tell these stories. It is the same for us when we shoot, capture these sad tales. How far would we go? What story would be worth your life? – Notes December 14th.
[On Guatemala: Documenting El Mano Dura]
I had a rare moment of reflection tonight. While the Lady packs her copious yuletide surprises I went through all the material we shot in Northern Uganda. The reels are all stored – nameless – on a hard-drive we affectionately named ‘Matooke’. Clicking through each file feels like a digital carousel brimming with snapshots of stories waiting to be told. I feel that when Heidi gets the time to dust off the ferris wheel and takes that ride it’ll yield some kind of soaring beauty. We were there to shoot a follow up to our debut documentary on Sri Lanka. Whereas ‘The Truth That Wasn’t There’ provides a subjective analysis of the wake of one of the longest running conflicts in South Asia. ‘Forgive Me Mother’ – the working title of our Uganda effort – this time will be a more contemplative short form documentary about peace and reconciliation efforts in the northern area of Uganda – again post-war. The Acholi people, indigenous to Northern Uganda have lived through horrific realities where brutality, death, rape and abduction have scarred communities. We’ve since been commissioned by Warchild to use some of the footage to produce a short web video about their work with formerly abducted youth – the correct term for the young people the world has chosen to brand ‘child soldiers’. I would have loved to continue the visual trail and have the third film we do as a collective to focus on a similar aspect of post-war scar tissue. But I think after a month in Uganda we will choose not to. Having lived among these people, the stories we heard, the faces seared in our memories and the paths you cross as a documentarian, journalist and as a person – you look a woman, a grandmother in the eyes as she tells you the happy child playing in her lap may well have contracted A.I.D.S through her deceased mother, her daughter – that is something you don’t cross back from. That path only goes one way. Like the people of Northern Uganda we learnt to use our experience to forge new paths ahead.
A lot has happened since our arrival back from those red dirt tracks. Namely getting the final cut of ‘The Truth That Wasn’t There’ mixed and ready for release – still in the process – but looking back at the snatches of video we posted over the net from Uganda I can see our own faces quiz our place among the lives around us. Much like our Sri Lankan sojourn I felt a shift and I know Heidi did too. I expect those fractures of maturity to be mirrored in the tone of the piece whenever we get around to it.
UGANDA: FIRST SNAPSHOT – This was filmed on our first morning if I remember correctly. We were walking to the Warchild offices for the first time. Watching it over now I cringe at the three ridiculously dressed tourists sauntering through a village giving the wink and the gun to the children we pass. It’s pretty indicative of who we were back then. We were oblivious, stupid and excited. I did feel a pang of conscience at the end of the video as you might see – I pressed ‘stop’ just before I finished my sentence. The missing last word is ‘ – shit’ listen out for it.
UGANDA: CHARMING CHILDREN – Every walk home we were accosted by this rag-tag mob. They ranged from the impossibly tiny to the cheeky loudmouth. The little girl in the centre became my personal favourite, here I am coaxing her into giving us her regular catchphrase. Every time we past her mud-hut she would dash out from whatever puddle she was playing in, fizzing with energy, only to abruptly stop in front of us – usually Heidi – contort her face into a caricature and stick her hand out and say ‘YOU GIVE ME MONEY!’ and then burst out laughing. I hardly think she knew what she was saying, only repeating what someone had told her to ask us ‘Muzungu’ foreigners. I tried to catch it on film but I failed.
UGANDA: SURROUNDED BY KIDS AT PAIPIR SCHOOL – We visited a school in Pader town called Paipir School. When we were quietly sitting waiting for a football match to start we gradually noticed a swell of smiling, staring faces congregate around us. Soon enough we were surrounded and couldn’t move for tiny feet, hands and adorable faces. The cameo at the end is of a friend we met out there Steve Tharakan who was in town initiating a football scheme designed for community building, one of many schemes around that had similar ends. A great guy and a great program.
CODOC/MINI-DOC: UGANDA VLOG 1 – This was the first vlog we did at the guest house we were staying at. It’s embarrassing how wide-eyed we were at the beginning of our month long stay. We reflect on some cultural clashes – Pader Town is devoutly Christian and we had just come back from Sunday mass. An interesting experience. Surreal at times. But important in terms of the working relationship we wanted to build with the people we were likely to meet in the coming weeks.
CODOC/MINI-DOC: UGANDA VLOG 2 – Our second vlog was made outside the Warchild offices. This I believe was after a week and a half of field work. We had spoken to formerly abducted youth, child mothers and orphans. I think it’s clear in how we speak about them the impression these kids – some our own age – had on us. We made friends there, all of whom humble you to the core. Listening to them share their stories imbue you with a sense of great responsibility. Trust for me now is no longer simply a device journalists, filmmakers use to peruse intimacies. At it’s most delicate level it is the ability to empathize, the ability to temper yourself to listen with your eyes. The precise skill of getting what needs to be got on tape without exploiting the most fragile part – the story teller – I liken that skill to alchemy. Heidi performed her reporting role with subtle grace, feeling her way through most interviews as if it was second nature. It was inspiring to watch.
CODOC/MINI-DOC: UGANDA VLOG 3 – On the other side of the tunnel. We were in Cairo, our Ugandan beat over. We were in slumber most of the time at that point – in a haze of the golden sandy light of Egypt. Here we speak about the images, faces and friends that stuck out in our memories. Our experiences, the challenges and tremors within. Again, it’s funny watching this back to back with our first vlog. I see the narrative of ‘Forgive Me Mother’ written on our faces, our skin like etched papyrus baked under Africa’s sun. We speak as we listened – as if conduits for a greater tale. All thats left now is to tell it.
Finally – here is a Teaser Trailer for ‘Forgive Me Mother’. Please post, comment, share – join the conversation.
By now I have become accustomed to dusty capitals of the developing world. Dirty, people swamps where time no longer exists in the languid lazy haze of village life but exists in a funk where everyone is chasing more of it. One foot out of the bus from Gulu and a hundred hungry faces greet us ushering us this way and that, to this cab or the other – each swearing blind that the hostel we are to stay at is in a part of town they know like the back of their grabby hands. A world away in the remote areas we spent the last few weeks, we grew to hate roosters and their clucking – jarring shrieks among a calm quietude of the dewy forests. Now the chickens and hens run around our feet but their clucks are lost among the clatter of people, money and incessant urgency. A million mutato taxi vans converge into chaos on the busiest roads, motorbikes seem to squeeze pedestrians into huddled moving masses.
We were greeted by a friendly little Ugandana man who had biro-scrawled a Heidi Lindvall meeting card at the bus station. We piled our bags into a beat up Datsun but after repeated efforts to push the jalopy into ignition we were reduced to lugging our suitcases into a second car which sped away to our ‘destination’. Now our hostel is peculiar, signs on our bathroom doors indicate where we can deposit our used condoms. Hmm. Might our hostel be some sort of upmarket destination of ill-repute? The warm showers and the locality to fast internet access begs us stay put. I will not use the soap.
We only have two nights in Kampala, I am relieved to report. We have made contact with our interviewee at Unicef so we should get around to meeting him tomorrow afternoon. Beyond that we will sample the food and head to Cairo on Wednesday where we are bound to run into more grabby hands – but a much needed break awaits, our bones are weary and our shoulders are rippled with stress.
London this time next week.
Offline for a week spent under mosquito nets, swinging in hammocks in a pitch dark mud hut in Northern Uganda. We spent time with formerly abducted young women. Most were used as mules, wives or sex slaves by the top commanders in L.R.A whilst hidden in Southern Sudan. This was before they were flushed out and fled to the DRC where they now hide-out. The interviews conducted here were nothing short of extraordinary. We spent the week listening and recording stories of incredible hardship softly spoken from some of the strongest women I have ever met. The Childvoice International centre provided us with a perfect nurturing environment where questions submitted by our reporter Heidi could be answered in confidence with support. As I have mentioned here before, our sojourn into Africa would priovide us with a testing ground for our principled approach to journalism and documetnary making, where we put the emotional integrity of our subjects before anything else. What we found here re-affirms our commitment to pursuing an approach where the recording the stories we find here would not entail the manipulation of the storytellers. We have heard stories where this has happened here before, where the tears of the African weakest have been used to pursue a means to satisfy a hunger for the linear narrative. Every interviewee we have spoken to so far I have felt that our persistence in our approach has paid off.
We are in Gulu now, back in a dusty town with sit-down toilets and warm-(ish) showers. We are trying to set up an interview with Unicef in Kampala, where we are to travel tomorrow morning. This has proven difficult as the Afrian Union Summit has heightened security around Kampala and thus the doors to orginizations have been closed on the very days we are set to arrive. We will keep trying.
I crave my mothers cooking.