If you were to leave this world tomorrow, what story would you not want to leave untold? What would you want the world to know before you left. I am not talking about personal gossip stories, I am talking about sharing something with others that you think is important and that they should know before you go.
How do you find the story that you need to tell? What leads you to tell a story? Where does your narrative come from? Sometimes it’s not a choice. Sometimes the story finds you and you just have to tell it because it feels like an important story and if you don’t tell it. Sometimes you feel that you are the only one who can tell this particular story because it seems that right now nobody else will and the world needs to hear it. Your unique voice has to be heard because at a soul level you know, with a certain urgency that it’s an important enough story, and you have to tell it or you will regret it and the world will be a little poorer for not knowing it.
The story may just begin as something that you know about. Something you want to share and spread awareness about. Something that not enough people are talking about. These days there are so many issues and we are flooded with them when scrolling the internet. We can read about them all day and begin to feel quite helpless. Yet a story can take many forms and it is usually much deeper and wider than it may first seem. One has to investigate every aspect of what it is before one can really tell it publically with authority. That’s how I have been trained as an investigative journalist. That was before blogging. Blogging is more of a matter of opinion. One can blog something, or sing a song about it, or one can even make it into a conceptual art piece, or do a dance. A story can take many forms. It doesn’t matter how you chose to tell your story. It doesn’t matter what the story is. Some stories become one’s legacy, but only for a while. Then they get lost in all the millions of stories in the world.
The sense of responsibility I took on, believing that it was up to me to warn people of something urgent, was the motivating factor that led me on my 7-year journey to producing, researching, writing, presenting, directing and completing my first documentary, Buried in Earthskin.
It all began with my friend Cecelia alerting me to the urgency of a seemingly undercover government plot to build a whole string of nuclear power stations called “Pebble Bed Nuclear Reactors” along the coast of South Africa. The locations for these were the most pristine and beautiful beaches, which were also the best (secret) surf spots in the country. At the time I was an investigative journalist writing for The Big Issue magazine. The subject matter was very controversial and volatile, so my editor -(a hardened ex-Sunday time’s editor who understood the risks of exposing big business)made me research and rework the article for 6 months before it was published. The street magazine only paid 50 South African cents a word at the time, so it was a huge effort for very little pay. On an energy level at that stage, I felt I had put so much effort in, I had to get more out of it.
So I wrote a documentary proposal and sent it to the Encounters International film festival competition, which won me a place on their prestigious filmmaker’s laboratory. My background in film at that stage was minimal. I had been to film school and worked as a researcher and co-director on some educational television series, but I had not been through the whole process of making my own documentary before, let alone a feature-length one as an independent filmmaker.
As a winning entrant of The Encounters Documentary Laboratory competition, I got to be one of eight filmmakers, put up in a hotel in Cape Town for a week and exclusively mentored by experienced, international documentary directors to develop their projects. I had (South African Veteran) Cliff Bestell and (Brixton based, ex-black panther from Trinidad) Darcus Howe all to myself, both of whom had their work broadcast on BBC. They both gave me a suitably hard time and helped me figure out some good ideas. Howe was very passionate about the importance of putting oneself into a story to bring in the personal element. At the end of the week, we had to pitch it to a national broadcaster. Three of the eight projects would be granted a set budget to make their films as a commission.
Mine was not chosen, however, I was taken aside by the head of the broadcasting company, (eTV) who whispered that because my story was so important, I would be offered a consolation prize, which was to shadow their most high profile whistleblowing talk show host Deborah Patter and do the story alongside her on her show “3rd Degree.” I was not sure about this and nor was she. It cramped her style, and she was too busy: 9–11 happened just after that, and she had to rush off to New York to cover the story and my tricky tale about nuclear waste and all that went with it, fell by the wayside.
Even though there was nothing fun or pretty about the subject matter of nuclear waste and the nuclear vs renewable energy debate in South Africa, I felt I had a responsibility to wake people up to this uncomfortable reality. There was a real urgency because there was so much propaganda from the nuclear industry. It was and still is clear that the general public is not aware of the things I had uncovered in my research. People were dying and eco-systems were being poisoned and as far as I could see, nobody had given the workers and people living in affected eco-systems near to nuclear reactors and waste dump facilities, a voice or asked them their opinion.
Of course, this complete disregard for the people of the land is a global phenomenon. The nuclear and uranium mining industry, who go hand in hand with the weapons industry, has a dark history on planet earth. We don’t hear the detailed stories, because the victims are usually the poorest of the poor with no funding and their stories hardly ever told in a way that gets out properly to the public. The nuclear industry has always had a massive budget for promoting themselves and plenty of motivation for covering up the spills and thrills. So, as usual, my urge was to help the underdog in this impossible battle kept me on the trail of this story, which took 7 years of my life.
The first stage was pitching and proposals- it was a huge learning curve. I spoke to a lot of people in a lot of places. Most of them told me it was not going to sell. Eventually, at the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg 2002, I met an American activist called Colin who believed in me and understood the importance of the story. He kindly helped me raise $2000 from the Wilderness Wisdom Trust. So I set off from Cape Town with a cameraman in my little car on my first shoot. I followed the route the trucks take from the nuclear power station to the distant place nobody wants to know about, the facility where the nuclear waste is buried. It straddles two tribal territories close to the Namib desert: one is Bushmanland, the other Namaqualand. The Bushman (Khoi San) people are proven through genetic research, to be the earth’s first people. The Bushman are hunter-gatherers. The Namakhoi are their farming cousins. Living in extreme poverty, but still herding goats and living in grass domed homes, these people still honour the ancient ways of their ancestors. I organised to meet with the women of a small village. They have no electricity and the day I arrived was the day they gathered together to bake bread in the communal wood-fired outdoor clay oven. They do this once a week because it is a huge effort to find enough wood in the dry dusty landscape to fire up the oven for a few hours and bake the weekly loaves. The warm conversation we had in their little house while the bread was rising, is a central pivot of the film. Once it was baked, they took me to meet an elder, Uncle Jaapie, who had deep ancient wisdom and foresight, as well as a large, well-worn science book about technical nuclear stuff in his grass domed dwelling.
“This nuclear waste that they are putting in the earth is making war on our peoples future.” He told me in his slow considered manner. Our chat went on for about an hour in the beating desert sun.
When I put the film together, my aim was to make the story accessible enough for these people to watch so that they could better understand their own predicament. I also wanted to make it strong enough for the government decision-makers to watch, so that they would be better informed about the choices they were making.
Only when my story was complete and distributed did I understand how the nuclear debate in South Africa echoed a global pattern. Nuclear, coal and gas, all centralized energy production tends to impact on the earth and indigenous people in a way that is devastating and inhumane. I discovered the parallels in my research, but when the film was selected to be part of the Uranium Film Festival, it became clear how much of a pattern it was. The festival showcases a collection of films on the subject of uranium and nuclear incidents and issues worldwide, which is eye-opening. Buried in Earthskin travelled to three continents (North and South America, Europe and India) with this festival and was honoured with a special achievement award in Rio de Janeiro in 2012. The award honoured the fact that I had followed my “Native instincts.” Following one’s intuition is the best way to find the core purpose of your story, and find the truth that needs to be told. It is also very important to think about one’s story in a global context and do the research around it accordingly.
Making this film took 7 years. This is because I did all the fundraising myself and didn’t pay myself at all. I survived by writing articles while working on getting funding until I got it. Then I would have intense periods of production and then back to the drawing board. The added delay was having two babies, getting married and moving house uncountable times over this time. One learns from one’s mistakes. Call it “the school of hard knocks.” However, when one has invested so much energy into a story and started on this kind of path, there is a drive to complete it. The story has it’s own energy.
I had chosen to go the route of raising funds to pay a professional cameraman and editor as opposed to just buying a camera and editing gear and doing it all myself. I am an ideas person and a writer and although I went to film school and I can film and edit, neither of these are my speciality, so I didn’t feel I was qualified to do them properly. I sometimes wonder if this was the best decision. Directing is all about making big decisions, and if one has big regrets, it’s very hard to make the next decision. Being a good director means being very direct, one can only be very direct if one is very clear, one can only be very clear if one has prepared properly. Preparing properly is not only mental, but it’s also a spiritual process. One has to allow things to flow and remove all the blockages. There needs to be clarity on all levels. Sometimes it takes time for things to evolve. It is said that in film, the director is “God.” In Documentary, God is the director.
Apart from waiting for funding, another hold up was waiting for a spokesperson for the nuclear industry to agree to speak to me. I was also not allowed to film in any of the nuclear facilities, so luckily I had cameramen who had the nerve to do it anyway spontaneously and candidly. Then in the post-production stage, I managed to organize footage of nuclear facilities and workers from a film reel, (which a lady at the local nuclear power station information centre happily posted to me.)
I had three funders, three editors and three camera people at different stages of production and had to rework it entirely from a script for my final funder. This was quite a frustrating stage and felt a bit like torture. The National Film and Video Foundation insisted on spoon-feeding incremental amounts of money and only once certain criteria had been undertaken and approved of.
I had to rewrite my script until they liked it, even though I had already completed a rough first cut. The man in charge wanted me to do it in a Michael Moore style. The problem was that I wasn’t Michael Moore. I worked with an editor and the script I wrote according to their demands and sent it to the NFVF for approval as requested. They told me to spike it because it looked like rubbish. So I scrapped the whole thing and was about to give up altogether when a kind editor (Jacqueline van Meygarten) agreed to help me complete it on the last few pennies of the budget. We went back to my original idea and the motivations I had when I was developing the film back in that hotel room during the intense Encounters filmmaking laboratory. Finding crew who understand you and work easily with you is essential. Jacqueline was extremely patient and was prepared to listen carefully to what I wanted and interpret it. She helped me complete the film in the way I was happy with despite my obsession with detail, so I am forever grateful to her for that.
Buried in Earthskin was my first feature documentary film. I have since completed a few shorter films and researched and scripted a series on where our food comes from with Justin Bonello “Cooked 5” (Cooked in Africa Productions) and another on a world expedition to understand what is being done to protect the ocean. “Moving Sushi” (2012 -with Mark and Linda Markevina, however the project was not completed due to funding politics.)
After all this research and the set back of the incomplete project and a terrifying incident in which my daughter was wounded by a tame boar, (masculine energy throwing it’s weight around,) I fell into a state of burnout and withdrew to care for my children. However, I still had stories to tell and found blogging was the easiest way to tell them on my own. I have been keeping this WordPress blog “Earthnotes for Hope” since 2012, to try and find reasons to be hopeful despite the environmental crisis. I am also working on telling my stories as poems, songs, dances and paintings. Buried in Earthskin is almost buried under all the millions of stories in the world, but there is a realization that it may be an idea whose time has finally come. It seems that as the planet heats up, and power failures keep rolling on, there is actually more of an interest in the subject of this story and people are more interested in learning who holds the power over our power and how we can turn it all around.