Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sawubona and Hamba Kahle

Sawubona and Hamba Kahle. In Zulu, it's hello and goodbye. That's what our entire trip to South Africa felt like: a series of hellos and quick goodbyes. We encountered so many incredible people in such a short span of time, even interviewed many of them, but then it was on to the next location, the next interview, the next person...Our crew talked a lot about how and when we're supposed to process everything we've seen. Back in the US, in "reality" as it is, routine will just go back to normal. Work, errands, out for drinks with friends, but I can't pretend I'm the same person.

The little girl who was in tears telling us about her mother who died of AIDS, the desperate mothers with HIV positive babies at the AIDS clinic, the blind Zulu boy who may never get treatment for his condition, the family in the mud hut relying on a 63 year-old grandmother to support them, the songs sung by the St. Leo's kids, the tireless work of the Augustinian volunteers, the truck piled with coffins on the road to Pomeroy...As I slip back into my life here, these aren't memories that will quickly fade. I'm not sure how I've changed yet, what impact these images will have as I go on with my life, and it may take some time to figure it all out.

Despite the pain and hardships faced by so many in Africa, the people are vibrant, the landscape is beautiful and it's a continent that literally calls you back. I've never felt so drawn to a place, felt so strongly a need and desire to return. I'm keeping some Rand (South African money) in my wallet; I just have a feeling someday I'll need it again...

For now, however, the post-production work begins. I'm lucky in that I get to relive the experience, in a way. My job is to transcribe all of the 20 plus hours of footage, an arduous task for sure, but also a chance to revisit the people and places on our journey. I can't wait to see them all again, and for you all to meet them too.

So hamba kahle for now South Africa, I hope we'll say Sawubona again soon...

Thursday, March 18, 2010

I Am Somebody

A lot of the kids at St. Leo's school got up to perform poems and songs, but this one really struck a chord in all of us. This girl couldn't have been more than six or seven, had the most adorable, powerful little voice, and performed this poem she had written.

I Am Somebody

I am somebody
I may be poor
But I am somebody

I can make mistakes
Brown, orange, pink, but I am somebody
I may be poor, but I am somebody

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Video!

Here's a video of the St. Leo's kids singing in Zulu. Still trying to figure out this Flip Camera, but the sound quality isn't bad! Enjoy.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Into the Valley

It's about 90 degrees inside the tiny mud hut. My arms are shaking from holding the boom pole, sweat is dripping down my face and back as I try to shift the pole between the 7 family members we're interviewing. They are all staring at us in wonder, as I'm pretty sure this is the first film crew they've welcomed into their crowded home.

Today was really our first taste of the rustic, and impoverished lifestyle of many of the Zulu families in the "Valley of 1000 Hills." A local Bishop has taken us to interview this particular family. As with many Zulu families, the grandmother or "go-go" is the head of this household. She is strong and proud and essentially raising four young children with little aid or resources. A whole generation has been lost to the AIDS epidemic. There are very few 20 to 30 year-olds around, fewer men than women, leaving an older generation to take care of a much younger one.

The go-go, with her family sprawled on a mat around her, tells us of the hardships she encounters each day. One of her grandchildren is nearly blind, and she can't afford to get him proper care. She's worried about his future, as he can't go to school or function normally in society. Most of her family's sustenance comes from a garden she tends, and what little pension she receives from the government.

It's an incredible interview, but it's not easy to hear. They tell us they are happy we are there to visit them, and tell their story, but still I can't help but feel invasive.

When we leave I grab a handful of Luna Bars, a bunch of packages of crackers and a bag of Target trail mix to give to the kids. I wish we had more to offer, and as we drive away I can't help but wonder what will become of these kids, this family, and whether we could have done something more for them.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


Today we woke up at 5 a.m., piled into a van at 6 a.m. and headed to the mountains. We went to a village called Pomeroy, about three hours Northwest of Durban. The Augustinian Sisters run an AIDS clinic in Pomeroy, a very rural Zulu village. On the drive up we stopped at a popular African fast food chain called "Wimpy's" (no relation to the Osterville restaurant) in a little place called Greytown. Wimpy's is basically an African Denny's. Delightful.

The drive up was incredibly scenic, with rolling mountains, beautiful rivers and streams running alongside the road, and livestock roaming freely everywhere. I'm making sure we include a lot of cows, donkeys and goats in the documentary.

The AIDS clinic in Pomeroy was overwhelming. I don't think you can really mentally prepare for something like that. We spent three hours shooting the nurses and patients in the Clinic, and it was really emotionally draining. People literally were waiting in line for hours to get their ARVs (Anti-Retro Virals, used to treat HIV/AIDS) since the clinic is only place for miles where they're available. A truck delivers the medication everyday, and today it was about 6 hours late. So people, who are already incredibly sick, were waiting in the hot sun without food or water.

Inside the clinic the nurses were doing check-ups on patients who crowded the waiting room. One woman brought in her baby because she had a rash, which is the US would just simply be a rash, but the nurse told us it was because the baby was HIV positive. This is the reality for people in the KwaZulu Natal region, where we are. Over 34 percent of the population is infected with HIV, some of the highest rates in the world. It's hard to imagine how we complain about health care in the US seeing the condition of this clinic.

The sisters who run the clinic are very inspiring. They are literally, little old, French nuns who have been working at the clinic for decades. They all had to be at least 80 years old, yet are still doing this incredible work.

One of the difficult things about shooting a documentary, is that you sometimes feel very invasive. On the one hand, you want to believe that filming these people will ultimately make a difference, but on the other hand you can't help but feel like you should be doing something more active to help these people. All I wanted to do was give them money, do anything for them I could, but there really wasn't much we could do except try to tell their story in a way that was respectful and authentic.

I hope that's what we're able to do. The footage we've gotten so far in pretty amazing, and hopefully will be eye-opening to our audience. I know what I've seen so far has already changed the way I see the world, as cliche as it is to say.

Tomorrow we're going into the "Valley of 1000 Hills" but for now I'm trying to process what we saw today...

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Life Behind Walls & the St. Leo's & St. Theresa's Kids

Today was our first day shooting on what is literally the other side of the planet. South Africa is an incredible, incredible place. We’re staying in a retreat house on the property of the Augustinians, which is situated atop a hill that looks out over the sprawling “Valley of 1000 Hills.” The Valley is home to mostly the Zulu Community, who lives in round, thatched-roof houses or tiny shacks.

Everyone in South Africa lives behinds gates with barbed wire and high-wall fences. Robbery is a huge problem here. There are bars on all our windows, and a locking gate on our front door. The day before we arrived there was a robbery on the property. A group of men broke into one of the volunteer’s house and stole his iPod and cell phone. When we leave for the day, we have to hide our passports and valuables incase of a break-in. It’s a very strange way to live, but the Zulu population has a 70 percent unemployment rate, so much of the crime I think comes from desperation. There’s still a huge tear in the population that’s lingered since Apartheid. The white people, in many ways, live in fear of the black community. White people who’ve lived here their entire lives have never seen many of the places we’re going on this trip.

Otherwise, however, the country is beautiful. We’re on the Eastern coast, near Durban, so there is an amazing variety of landscape. It’s on the Indian Ocean, but there are sprawling hills, riverbeds and mountains.

Our first day was an intense one, to say the least. We spent most of the day at St. Leo’s school, a primary school run by the Augustinians and largely populated by kids who have lost one or both parents to AIDS. These are the most genuine, sweet, kind, caring kids I have ever encountered. Many of them live in tiny shacks without parents and many siblings. They don't get enough to eat, they don't have any worldly possessions but they are so happy and appreciative of what they do have. We began the day by walking to school with one of the families. They had 14 kids living in a tiny, one-room shack, and they were being raised by their oldest sister. They had lost both parents to AIDS. But the kids take care of each other, it's incredible. They help each other get ready for school, carry the little ones on the walk.

When we arrived at the school the kids had prepared an incredible music presentation for us. They sang traditional songs, did traditional Zulu dancing, it was amazing. They sang with such enthusiasm, energy and passion. I can't remember any school assemblies at my elementary school being quite that moving. There are 680 kids attending the school, and really it's the only solid thing many of them have. They are provided with uniforms, two or three meals, access to computers and the staff is incredible.

We spent six hours filming at the school, and I would've loved to stay there the entire trip. However, the next stop was just as amazing. We went to St. Theresa's Home for Boys, run by the Augustinian Sisters in Durban. It's home to about 80 boys who have either lost their parents or left a bad situation at home. They boys were very grateful, and mesmerized by the camera of course. "We're going to be on American television!" Again, I was just blown away by the way these kids take care of each other. They look out for the little ones, make sure everyone is involved in whatever game or sport is happening.

It's hard not to be changed by what I've already seen here. What we're filming is incredible, and I can't wait for you all to share the experience too.

Tomorrow we're going to an AIDS Clinic in a remote village in the mountains called Pomeroy. I've read so much about the AIDS epidemic (yes, because of Bono) but seeing what it's caused first-hand is really altering. More tomorrow, good night from the other side of the planet. I'll try to get more pictures up, but the connection here is pretty weak.

(P.S. - We got all of our bags back! Thanks South African Airways!)

Monday, March 8, 2010

Boston to DC to Jo'Burg to Durban

Three planes, one missed connection, three lost bags and 25 hours later we're in Durban, South Africa!

The 18-hour flight was the easy part. I don't have a long internet connection tonight, but I will say this is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. I will post pictures and write a longer post tomorrow. Can't wait to see more of this country...

Saturday, March 6, 2010

It Had to End with a Cheesesteak

So I'm back home on Cape Cod for a few days after wrapping up our shoot in Philly. Our final day was one of the more authentic, more improvised days of the entire week.

First we went to prison. Then we got let out of prison. It usually isn't that easy. Really though, going through all that security, all those gates and locked doors really makes you think about what it must be like to be incarcerated. I don't know whether the prison system works or not. I learned, after this shoot, that 85 percent of released inmates end up back in jail. So I don't know what the answer is there, I do know, however, that I never want to be in jail.

The Philly prison system is extensive, and we saw the inside of two of their facilities. We interviewed the prison commissioner, just to get some details about the Philly prison system before meeting with an inmate. We were shooting at the prison because the Augustinians have a very strong ministry program for inmates. Fr. Paul, our guide for the day, spends quite a bit of time behind bars, talking with men who keep finding themselves on the wrong side of the law.

The inmate we interviewed was an incredibly intelligent and articulate man who got caught up with drugs and spent most of his life in and out of jail. Everything he said was so real, emotional, honest, that it was hard to pay attention to the sound quality of the interview. He's someone who really has been positively influenced by Fr. Paul and his work, and you could see the gratitude he felt.

After we wrapped up the interview and packed up our gear, it was time to leave the prison. We'd been filming in a visitation room and all the doors locked from the outside. For a brief moment, we all got a sense of what it's like to be locked up, and it wasn't a great feeling.

We eventually busted out (were let out by guards).

The final interview and B-roll we needed was of a man named Steve. Steve was the guy we followed on the subway to the ex-inmate meeting, but we didn't have a chance to interview him. So we did what any intrepid filmmakers would do, we found him at his son's rec basketball game. It was the perfect place to get some B-roll of him with his wife. The whole family was incredibly open and accepting of us filming them, and essentially invading their time together. Steve is someone whose life has been changed drastically by the Augustinians. He's out of jail, clean and reunited with his family. I think that's why he was so willing to help us get the footage we needed. After the game, we went back to their house for the interview. It was perfect, with his family in the background he spoke passionately about how Fr. Paul had truly changed his life.

Before leaving, we got one more thing we needed from Steve: directions to the best cheesesteak joint in the neighborhood. As usual, Steve did not disappoint.

Tony Luke's is apparently pretty famous for their sandwiches. I haven't had many cheesesteaks in my life, but this one was definitely the best. It tasted better knowing we had just wrapped a fantastic week of shooting in Philly, and we had a few days to rest at home before jetting to Africa.

Here's to you, Philadelphia. Onward to South Africa.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Streets of Philadelphia

Today was day two of our Philly shoot, and a big goal for the day was getting some B-roll of the city. B-roll is just pictures to go with words. Anytime you watch a movie, especially a documentary, you obviously aren’t just watching interview after interview. Pictures must illustrate the words people say or the audience is going to lose interest pretty quickly.

So our first stop of the day was at the ministry offices for the Augustinians. There we interviewed Fr. Jack Deegan, who founded “Augustinians Defenders of the Rights of the Poor.” I think he’s 75 years old, at least, and as Jody said in his interview is “taking on the biggest challenge of his life at a time when most people are looking to retire.”

Setting up an interview isn’t as easy as you might think. It’s not just plopping the subject in a chair and rolling tape. The lighting has to be perfect, the acoustics of the room must work, the chair can’t squeak, the heater can’t be running and on and on it goes. My job this shoot has been to do the audio. Essentially it comes down to being a good listener. It’s hard because my inclination as a reporter is to listen intently to the interview and the words being said, but with audio you have to be listening for everything else too. Did a Blackberry just cause interference with the mic? Should we wait for this truck to drive by the window, or just keep rolling? Are those just the voices in my head, or are there people talking in another room?

It’s an intense job, since the words are so important when you’re making a documentary. It’s also incredibly cool, since you have these fascinating interviewees literally talking in your ear all day.

So after we left the offices we did a driving tour of the city with Fr. Jack. He showed us the rougher neighborhoods in Philly, the authentically old Italian areas, and the areas that have been heavily influenced by new immigrants to Philadelphia and, of course, by poverty. It’s funny, whenever you go out on the street with a camera people are immediately aware of you. Some people make an effort to avoid being on film, while others, especially kids, make a point of doing something notable to get on screen.

Before our next stop we took a “quick” detour to the top of the Ben Franklin Bridge to get some B-roll of the city skyline.

After, we headed back to St. Rita’s Church for an ex-inmate support group meeting. Before the meeting we smuggled a camera on the subway in order to get some B-roll of one of the group members heading to the meeting. Apparently Philly Subway police are really sensitive about people filming on the trains, so we had to be wicked discreet, or risk having our camera confiscated. Which would have been a bit of problem…We filmed the meeting and, expectedly, some of the members were concerned about confidentiality. We tried not to be too invasive, so the meeting would run as it normally does, but whenever you set up gear and start filming people become more aware of their words and actions. However, I think what we got was fantastic.

It was a late night for us, and tomorrow we have a 6 a.m. wake-up before heading to prison. Cameraman Bruce joked that we’re lucky to be going to, and leaving prison on the same day.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to get the “Streets of Philadelphia” outta my head tonight, both the Springsteen song and the neighborhoods we saw today. More later.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Welcome to Philly

Today was our first day shooting in Philadelphia, and essentially my first time shooting anything anywhere. We're here to learn more about the history and work of the organization we're profiling: the Augustinians. After our first day with them, it's easy to see why their story is so compelling.

What sets the Augustinians apart from other Catholic orders is their incredible dedication to helping the communities they're a part of. So much of Christianity has been politicized to the point that we've forgotten the true spirit of it all. Jesus wasn't about rejection, or telling people what they could or could not do. His most basic and important belief was that all people have a duty to help those in need. That's what the Augustinians believe, and that's what we're trying to show on film.

Our first shoot of the day was at Villanova University. This is where the Augustinians first settled when they came to the United States from Ireland. All I knew about Nova was that they had a decent basketball team every few years. The campus is beautiful, with incredible architecture and an absolutely stunning chapel. On campus we interviewed Fr. Don Reilly, the Augustinian provincial, who really gave us a fantastic overview of who the Augustinians are and what they stand for.

Going from print journalism to documentary has been quite a transition. We rely on the people we're interviewing to tell the story, rather than being able to write it in our own words. We also have A LOT more gear. Being part of a film crew is like being a Sherpa on Everest. Everywhere we go we have to stuff 6 bags and suitcases into a car, then unload them at new locations, then drag them wherever we're going, then set everything up, get the shots or interviews, break everything down, then repack it and do it all over again. It's exhausting, but so worth it once you get that perfect shot or interview.

From Nova we went to St. Rita's Church, one of the Augustinian churches in a rougher part of downtown Philly. There they are building a center that will provide a variety of services to people in the neighborhood. After that we went over to a health clinic sponsored by the "Augustinian Defenders of the Rights of the Poor" that offers free care on Tuesday nights to those without insurance. This was really the first time we had to deal with privacy issues. Sometimes people simply would rather not appear on film, and we have to learn to work around those situations.

I was pretty stoked during set-up at the clinic when a few people we've been working with brought us some authentic Philly Cheesesteaks from Geno's. At that point it was our last shoot of the day and we were starving and exhausted.

The clinic was our final shoot of the day, so once we got back to the hotel cameraman Bruce, Jody and I went to a little French bistro called Caribou Cafe for dinner. The Kronenbourg, Salade Chevre Chaud and Crepes were a nice reminder of home (though not as good as Pain D'Avignon cuisine of course). Going out for meals and staying in nice hotels are some of the perks of this job.

Tomorrow we explore the neighborhoods of Philly and go to a support group for ex-inmates. I'm definitely getting used to lugging gear around, learning the set-up for a shoot and figuring out how all this stuff works. For now though, I really need some sleep.