In my last post, I mentioned being able to develop a rapport with the New Xade community. What does that mean? What does it look like? And why is it so important?
Imagine someone – a foreigner speaking a foreign language no less – shows up at your home with a giant camera and says he wants to make a documentary film about you. For the next nine months, he wants to follow your every move, from waking up in the morning to battling your way through a workday.
You’d probably show him the door.
And even if you didn’t, would you be honest with him about your feelings?
Developing a rapport, or trust, with the subjects of your film is probably the most important thing a documentary filmmaker can do, especially when making a character-driven film. Otherwise, you’ll end up with stale footage that fails to delve below the surface. Intimate access and genuine moments differentiate a mediocre film from an amazing one that does your characters justice.
Sometimes developing a rapport can be easy, especially when working with a familiar community. Other times, it can be extremely challenging.
New Xade falls under the latter category. For decades, the community has been abused by helicopter journalists, people who arrive in the village for a few days, ask some questions, snap a few photos, and leave. Community members rarely see the results of the research, let alone benefit from it, which has understandably soured them to the idea of being willing participants.
I embarked on my project confronted by this reality. How was I going to address the doubts of the community and develop a healthy relationship that would lead to intimate footage and a film that leaves everyone – participants and viewers – satisfied?
The first step was research. Before setting foot in Botswana, I read books, research papers, and newspaper articles about the San situation. Having a firm understanding of facts roots creativity in academic rigor, which leads to a more complex, thought-provoking film. Knowledge also facilitates trust, especially with gatekeepers.
I fleshed out an extensive research proposal that resonated with people on the ground. The Botswana government issued me a research permit before I left the States. A former Peace Corps Volunteer to New Xade offered to introduce me to stakeholders in the community. And the Botswana Khwedom Council, a local NGO that advocates for San rights, agreed to affiliate with the film. Doors started opening before I ever pressed the record button.
Once I arrived in the village, time without the camera was essential. Every documentarian feels an urge to film everything, all the time. I am no exception. I wanted to arrive in New Xade camera rolling. Instead, I coupled relationship building with occasional shooting, so people became familiar with the camera without feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes striking that balance was as simple as joining friends for tea or going to the kraal to milk cows.
“Never shoot for the sake of shooting,” a filmmaker friend recently told me. Spending a week getting to know people followed by a week of shooting can be far more productive than aimlessly shooting for two.
Transparency about my intentions also helped. Everywhere I went, I explained the project to people. I talked with the chief, councilor, sub-chiefs, and key members of the Village Development Committee, the local leadership. I also explained the project to community members I met along the way, regardless of whether they were being filmed.
My project is a character-driven, coming-of-age film about three young San men charting a course between tradition and modernity in the wake of relocation.
“How is that going to benefit us?” I was asked time and again. It’s a fair question for people in New Xade who think videographers steal their images for personal gain.
I hope the film will provide some clarity to a situation mired in rushed reporting and needless politicization. A character story takes abstract themes and presents them as personal stakes so that people are portrayed as complex human beings instead of caricatures. The film will be an opportunity to challenge stereotypes, contribute to a healthy dialogue, and help pave the way for the development of effective policy.
Lastly, I presented the project as a collaborative process. A filmmaker wields power in constructing a narrative, but the raw material for that narrative comes from the views and perspectives of its participants.
My project is not research about the San but, rather, research in partnership with the San. I want to empower the community to tell their story, which will culminate in a film that will have screenings in New Xade and Botswana at large.
Challenges inevitably arise while developing a rapport. Not every character or situation is the same, and establishing trust can be an ongoing, delicate process, especially when crossing cultural lines. A relationship may suddenly unravel, and you’ll wonder whether a mutual understanding ever existed: “What did I do wrong?”
Other times, days of awkwardness may precede an unexpected outpouring of honesty, and you’ll be equally curious: “What did I do right?”
That is the ebb and flow inherent in working with real people. Developing a rapport can be a frustrating and confusing experience, but the results – strong relationships and more intimate footage – are worth it. I’ve learned that I have to embrace the challenge and struggle through it to be in a position to delve deeper and shed better, more meaningful light on the situation.