Tanzania Final

9 06 2011

“It’s a dead body; it’s worth waiting for.”

Documentary is not journalism. It can have journalistic aspects, but documentaries are films first: art pieces crafted by filmmakers who sometimes have little to no journalistic training. There’s a big distinction between the two fields. Journalism, in theory, is a profession grounded in a service to the citizenry so it can be as informed as possible. Film has an obsession with beauty, more concerned with moving people, capturing emotion and giving the abstract ideas a firmer footing. Sometimes, documentaries are just commercials in disguise. In my experience, they’re usually bits and pieces of all three and when done well, they are a fine marriage of the best parts.

And there is tremendous potential for contradictory behavior. For instance, your work may be to advocate human rights, but composing a shot might involve offending someone’s culture or customs. You try sometimes to be as courteous and sensitive as possible, but sometimes the demands of your work can lead you into a gray area, or a situation that is downright insulting. It’s rarely intentional, but it does happen.

If you take a long time to set up a shot with the virtuous intention of creating a visual masterpiece, you might lose the moment or, in our case, someone might take it away from you.


The doctor maintained (to my ignorance) a passionate but otherwise innocuous conversation in Swahili on his cell phone. It wasn’t until I heard “documentary” that I knew the hospital would soon shut us down.

The elder man had passed away at seven in the morning and was being kept in the ward until the mortician arrived. The plan was to film a nurse covering his face with a sheet. It is their country, their customs, and clearly their right to pull the plug. Which they ultimately did. But the DP, in his eyes doing his job, had already filmed the body. And before any official had the chance to demand the footage, the media card was out of the building and safely stowed away in one of the vehicles.

Muhimbili Medical Centre has been called the best hospital in Tanzania. We spent a couple hours getting portraits of the wards. Fifteen people to a room. It’s a model for the use of needles, syringes, and IVs. But it’s not a place you’d want to spend the night. A young man with an enlargement disorder called out, “Merci, merci,” over and over. His lower body covered with a sheet, presumably because his own clothes would not fit anymore. His legs, swollen and lumpy, hung heavily off the side of the bed. There are no gowns for patients, but there seem to be plenty of doctors and nurses, at least when we are around.


We are doing circles in downtown Dar es Salaam, trying to find a decent restaurant to have our last meal in Tanzania. But after the hospital, my appetite isn’t charging too hard. Our host, still reeling from the meal with the health minister the night before, says he’s eating at a popular fast food court. The director and DP refuse because the selection is inauthentic and of terrible quality. The youngest of our crew befriends a young man on the corner over a cigarette. He’s a refugee from Rwanda, a Hutu, and he knows of a great place down the street. So the four of them take off.

I later join them. Sitting down, I catch the Hutu man in mid-story. He says his parents died in a church massacre in 1994, where the parishioners were locked in, shot, and burned. Still a boy at the time, he had been able to escape away to Tanzania. He casually mentions that two days ago his sister died from poisoned water. He’s all alone now. In two more days is the funeral and he has a 2000 km bus ride ahead of him. But he’s cool as can be. He refuses to order any food. We insist.

He gives thanks to the US, because they bring mosquito nets, baby formula, milk, grain. He still lives in a refugee camp. After 18 years, many Rwandans haven’t gone back because they have no where to live, no job.


It’s a bit of a guessing game, picking and choosing what to shoot whenever you’re in a new country, truly foreign, without any scouting whatsoever. For instance, just picking a nearby village, driving to it, and shooting an interview first thing in the morning, in our minds, should have taken no more than a couple hours. In reality, it took us three hours just to find the spot, and another three to make sure everyone was paid off so that we could shoot it. We were scheduled to arrive at our second location at 10 am, but we didn’t actually get there until 5 pm.

But sometimes a guess pans out, as in the case of the school today. We got there just before the kids were let out. The administrator would not let us shoot on the school grounds, so we waited right outside the walls. And the pay off came in hundreds of boisterous bodies, dressed in uniform blue bottoms and white shirts. We caused quite a commotion. But our sponsor had the idea of having two girls sing the national anthem of Tanzania for camera, and then a whole group of children joined in. It’s a beautiful example of him interacting with the people whom he works so hard to help. Minimal planning went into it, but it will play an important part in the film.


And now a few words about the man who made this trip possible:

Marc Koska is a self-made, self-educated social entrepreneur. Decades ago he came up with an idea and designed a self-disabling syringe with the goal of helping curb the spread of infectious disease through needle reuse. With his company SafePoint Trust, his Star Syringe system, and Life Saver initiative, he has made it his life’s work getting governments to endorse the philosophy and practice of safe injection. Due to distribution difficulties and economics, he still has far to go, but in our week with him he had many victories. This story has so many parts, there is so much going on, that one week of filming was not nearly enough to do it justice. For more information, check out:







Tanzania Day 5

7 06 2011

Ludacris is the unofficial face of every barber shop in Tanzania. They use either some really cheesy picture of him with a fade going on, or else it’s a drawing. Sometimes you see Tupac, but almost always it’s Ludacris (and…so it is). I’m curious to know whether he knows. “The country must have a blanket license,” squawked my producer.

As we drive through the countryside, looking for one particular village, we pass all kinds of people going about their business, children in uniforms walking to or from school, men with buckets washing motorcycles. The red, green, and yellow of roadside markets stream by at 50 km/hr. Women in sandals walk along the shoulder, preoccupied, the sun glistening off their dark shoulders. And it occurs to me that I have fallen in love with East Africa.

Then one of us sees a poster of Osama bin Laden, and the car falls silent. When a massive cement factory appears on a hilltop, it gives us cause for conversation.

We find the village we’re looking for, and begin setting up for an interview at a busy crossroads in the foothills. I call the location a “soundstage”, not because it’s a professional and controlled filming environment with craft service tables and air conditioning, but because there are about a million sounds to drive me crazy. In descending order of frequency there were: motorcycles (which act as cabs), busses, heavy trucks, SUVs and airplanes.

After the interview cant find out driver. We find him asleep in the car, and we start back down out of the hills and south towards Dar. On the way, he makes an unexpected stop to run into a pharmacy. It turns out he has malaria.

That night we are joined at a chinese dinner by none other than the deputy minister of health of Tanzania. Ma’am’s is not partial to fish, but loves noodles. And she is 100% behind auto-disabling syringes. She provides us with a letter granting us access and permission to shoot at the hospital in Dar. That will be our first stop tomorrow.