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On Location: Filming 'Womenstruate'​ in Mozambique

Walking into the air conditioned arrivals hall I notice it’s clean marble floor not only for its sheen but to avoid slipping as I speed walk to join the quickly growing immigration queue. I’m holding an arrivals card when an officer comes to do a first check of it and points out I don’t have an address written in of where I am staying. I pause - I’ve been through this process dozens of times, I know better than to leave that blank but I drew a blank. Fearful of losing my precious spot in front of an entire plane full of disgruntled foreigners I did the only thing I could. 

“Is this a bad time to ask if I could use your telefono? Obrigada.”

In my defense, I had not been on the ground for more than 6 hours on a Friday after a two week holiday before I had confirmation I would be going departing the following Monday to Mozambique. Flights were a priority, along with equipment and enough creature comforts to get me through 3 weeks in Africa with the first being a week in Mozambique followed by two weeks in South Sudan. My accommodation felt so far in my mind with all the travel I didn’t stop to write it down, until of course I was balancing the immigration officer’s phone between my ear and shoulder while writing in ‘Apartment Hotel’ in the blank on my form against my hand. Todo bon. 

Mozambique is a former Portuguese colony, it has kept the language and some of the food but is fairly far down on the development index. I woke up in the Apartment Hotel and made my way through Beira (pronounced Bey-rah) nearly 2 months after Cyclone Idai hit to capture a story on a woman’s experience during the cyclone and how it affected her menstruation. 

There are a lot of needs to address after a natural disaster, so why am I choosing to address menstruation in this documentary? On any given day, 800 million women will be menstruating. This is normal. What is not normal is that most if not all of those women will not feel comfortable discussing it. This can lead to isolation, immobility, stigmatization, and poor health. There are extreme cases of women being banished to sheds during menstruation, but the less extreme examples of isolation where a girl misses 4-7 days of school seem much more manageable-right? Wrong. It is not the same as missing a week for a family holiday or the flu, it happens every month and losing a week of studies every month because a girl does not have access to supplies to manage her menstruation needs to end as well. 

This past year at the Academy Awards I was thrilled when ‘Period. End of Sentence.’ won. To me, the Oscar represented that audiences are ready and want to watch films on the topic of menstruation and that we need more of these films in order to fully normalize menstruation. So, without repeating the ground-breaking documentary Netflix made I’m seeking to explore the topic in a different and slightly more holistic way. 

Womenstruate is a documentary about women of different decades across Africa and their experiences during their menstrual cycle across the cycle of life. While the name emulates the need to keep women at the focus of menstruation, the holistic approach is actually the way it is filmed. As a self-shooting documentary filmmaker I am setting out to film this project in 4-7 days, the same time as a woman’s average monthly menstrual cycle. This means when I turn on the camera, that day counts as one of my days which requires a different kind of pre-production unlike other documentaries I have done previously. The benefits are being able to complete a shoot in a short period of time, the disadvantages are once I start the cameras rolling I am committed and run the risk of never getting enough footage. 

There aren’t many trees left in Beira, so I am in a tent listening to Vitoria recount her story of how she survived Cyclone Idai while menstruating- to be fair there also aren’t enough tents for the displaced population either. I had intended for this first day to be an introduction and to hear women’s stories but given I only had 2 full days on the ground anyway I make a directorial decision out of line with my usual style and ask to film her interview that day. With Vitoria sat center punched (a deliberate decision to make the contributor unavoidable to the audience) in front of a destroyed crop of corn, I pressed roll on both cameras and the sound recorder to begin Day 1 of Womenstruate. 

Lauren Anders Brown is a self-shooting documentary filmmaker focusing on humanitarian issues and global health. To support her finishing 'Womenstruate' follow her journey on Seed & Spark and on Twitter & Instagram @LABCollaborate. 

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