‘Is this your first time?’
As I glared up at the unhelpful check-in clerk I began the painful process of dismantling my military style packing job inside my luggage. I monopolized the space at the front of departures area at Juba airport that was actually a converted World Food Program tent. My equipment alone weighed nearly the 23 kg combined baggage allowance, and in a reality show style I had to quickly choose what basic necessities I took with me. Additional luggage allowance was required to be booked 2 days in advance- how was I supposed to know? Toothbrush and toothpaste, change of clothes, rain coat, coffee cup and mosquito net make the cut before I send my mostly empty suitcase back to the office for storage.
And no this wasn’t my first time, just my first time traveling internally in South Sudan on my own.
I shuffled from one part of the tent to another and before I go through the non-functioning metal detector my driver shoves a SIM card into my hand with a promise to top up the credit to make it functional. I learned the hard way no one offers to help you get lunch during ramadan when I unintentionally fasted for a day. I ended up eating pizza nearly every evening in order to avoid food poisoning and to save some for lunch the next day. I sat without WiFi eating my cold pizza wondering if I’d be in the ‘departures tent’ longer than my actual flight.
There are no main roads in South Sudan to connect the country, in about 20 minutes time we were landing on the dirt runway. The arrivals area here wasn’t a tent but just a tree. The door to the plane was also the stairs- it contained only 4 steps. Both myself and my 23 kg of equipment had made it, but made it where? And to whom? I check my phone and despite 2 hours passing since I received the SIM card it still had not been activated. I had been dropped in the middle of nowhere in South Sudan with no way of contacting anyone. It was so hot no one could distinguish the difference between my sweat and tears.
I can set up a two camera setup, roll the sound, conduct an interview while checking focus, batteries and frame. But the coordination that happens to get me in that seat, and what happens when that interview is finished is the work of a producer or sometimes a fixer. Once a year people’s only understanding of a producer is the person standing on stage holding a statue of a golden man at the Oscars. But what else do producers do?
The traditional definition of a producer is one that finances the film, but that is only one kind and responsibility . They supervise budgets, they bring together crews, they manage the day to day logistics, in short- they make it all happen. A producer would have known to book extra luggage, activated a SIM card, and on any set you go on from the big major motion picture features to the tiny indy productions the producer is responsible for providing lunch (or paying for it if they don’t provide lunch). Producers are usually some of my best friends, both literally and figuratively. Given the context I work in though, many times I have to be my own Producer as I ended up being in South Sudan on top of my responsibilities as a Self-Shooting Director.
Despite the difficult start I managed to complete the shoot and just over 48 hours after I left the cold pizza lunches I found myself enjoying canapés in red carpet attire in conversation with a producer. My latest documentary ‘Shanti Khana’ had screened earlier that day at the Cannes Film Festival, and while Cannes is very much focused on the auteurism of film it is also one of the best places to network in the industry. As we were trading ‘war stories’ of production, I was caught off guard with a discussion on the mental health of storytellers in complex humanitarian crisis over a glass of rose.
‘But why do you let it affect you?’
I don’t choose to let the things I witness affect me, I become a conduit of them. Method actors never leave their character either on or off set, they absorb the character. I unintentionally do the same with the documentaries I create, only the environments and contributors I put in my films are real. It is the reality that affects me, and this affect allows me to create documentaries but I have also come to understand it affects my mental health.
And that is the difference between myself and the producer who posed the question to me - he is a producer who finances projects, he does not set up cameras, roll sound, or interview vulnerable contributors. And likewise, I find it difficult to be ruthless with a budget. We both have our strengths as producers, and we both succeed in different aspects of producing. But given I know my work affects my mental health, I am aware I need more support than I can give myself. That does not make me weak or vulnerable but stronger in my awareness and attention I need to pay my mental health.
Despite how technology advances and a woman can carry everything she needs to create documentaries in 23 kg, nothing can replace the humans needed to share the burden of responsibilities filmmaking requires. I’ve never truly made a film on my own, nor would I - the professional and emotional support I get from the fellow filmmakers I work with is necessary to producing the quality of work I strive to create.