Director / producer Shantha Bloemen discusses her favorite T-shirt, working in Zambia, and her activist roots.
How did you first become interested in Zambia? What brought you there?
My interest in Africa was sparked at University [in Australia]. I had always been interested in the world, especially in understanding why some parts are poorer than others. After completing my degree, I was eager to go to Southern Africa, but not certain in what capacity. By chance I met Greenwell Mukawi, a project manager for World Vision, just before I left Australia. He invited me to volunteer on a community development initiative in a remote part of Northern Zambia.
I lived in the Chiefdom of Kopa, a remote network of 18 villages more than 50 miles from the nearest town with running water and electricity. Most people in Kopa were subsistence farmers, growing what they needed and then trading the surplus for other necessities.
What inspired you to make a film about this subject?
The film was in many ways the result of this initial stay in Zambia. For my first few weeks I was in culture shock and I quickly became dependent on Agnes, a Zambian woman who became not just my good friend, but my guide, translator and close advisor. Agnes, and her husband Paul were from a generation of Zambians who had benefited from good education. While I lived in Kopa, Paul got sick. He had malaria, not uncommon in this part of the world. By the time we got back to Mpika, we found Paul on his deathbed. Barely three months after I met Paul, a young energetic and clever father, he was dead, leaving behind a young widow with two young children. It was only a year later that Agnes lost her youngest son Simon from the disease. The experience had a profound impact on me.
Although I realize we live in a world of double standards, it didn't make it any easier to accept. Paul's death made me rethink the value of my own life. I knew if I had been sick, I most likely would have been in the best hospital or evacuated from the country. The division seemed so great, yet so unnecessary. Witnessing and experiencing Paul's death made the issues of development, debt and AIDS seem much more real. His death was no longer some academic debate in some book or part of an abstract statistic but someone's reality. This was about circumstance, situation and lack of access to resources.
Was there anyone you set out to interview that refused to talk to you?
The biggest challenge was getting an interview with the commercial dealers in the United States. Many of them are based in the New York City area where I live, but many of the companies are family owned and refused to let us shoot in their warehouses or to do an interview on record. It took us months to track down Barney Lehrer, who works as more of a middleman between exporters and importers in poor countries. Although the secondhand clothes industry defends its business, I think they also realize that the less people know about how much it is actually a business—versus a charity—the better it serves in their interest. I also have heard that many of the warehouses employ cheap illegal labor, so would not like to be exposed to scrutiny. In a way, it is a topic of another documentary.
What's your favorite T-shirt of all time that you saw in Africa?
The T-shirt that left the most profound mark was actually in Kopa, the chiefdom where I lived in Northern Zambia. The T-shirt, white and tattered, worn by a village elder, read “I danced at Elijah’s Barmitzfah 1986.” I remember thinking what wonderful irony that this T-shirt, most probably from New York, is now being born by a born-again Christian village elder in Africa.
The other funny aspect of shooting T-shirts was asking people who they thought they people were. For example, we had a great conversation with the young man who was wearing the Kurt Cobain T-shirt along the banks of the Zambezi River. When we asked who he thought he was, he answered an Englishman who lived in London.
What do you hope to achieve with this film?
T-SHIRT TRAVELS was intended to make people rethink or at least question some of our assumptions. It doesn’t pretend to be a definitive investigation into the secondhand clothes industry or an absolute account of the complicated debate on third world debt and globalization. I think today we get so caught up in the details that it is difficult to step back and try to think about the big picture. My hope is people will be inspired to read more, to ask more critical questions about the world we live in and not be so ready to believe in the simplistic and often a historical reasons why we assume Africa is a basket case but instead ask why things are like they are and how we can address the structural causes.
What should Americans do with their secondhand clothing? Is there a way to donate clothes directly to Africa so they could get them for free instead?
It is a difficult question. I very much believe in recycling and don't think we should be putting clothes into landfills. The other part of the equation is that secondhand clothes are now part of reality in most African countries. People can get good quality clothes and they now want to have secondhand clothes. It is difficult to reconcile, because on the other hand they also want jobs and development. There are a couple of different charities that collect clothes here and in Europe and then send them straight to Africa, where they still sell them to individual traders, but where the money they make from the sale of the clothes stays in the country, to be used for development projects. There are also charities that send clothes directly to Africa or use the clothes locally in shelters.
What were some challenges and obstacles in the making of the film?
The greatest challenge was getting back to Zambia to shoot. It took a year and half before I had raised enough money to go back with a small crew that included my best friend Anna. Since transport in Zambia was difficult, I decided to buy a car in South Africa and drive up through Botswana.
The highlight of our shoot was sleeping under the stars on the Zambezi River in a remote fishing village. It was only ten days later, though, when Anna and I both came down with a bout of malaria and lost almost a week out of the schedule. Fortunately, we both got treatment early and recovered quickly.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
When I set off to make T-SHIRT TRAVELS, I had every faith that the documentary would be seen. As the project progressed and I confronted the many challenges of independent filmmaking, I admittedly had my moment of doubt. But after succeeding in getting T-SHIRT TRAVELS made and broadcast, in being part of creating a dialogue and seeing people’s reactions, I was reassured that documentary can have an important role to play in stimulating us to see and experience the world differently.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Thank god for public television. Life is always about compromises but I think that ultimately as a producer you have to decide whether you want your project to be commercially viable or you make the film you want to make, and then take the risk it may never be seen. Public television, and in particular Independent Lens, allows films that don’t necessarily confirm to a formula or tell stories that may question the status quo to be seen. If it were not for public television, I don’t think T-SHIRT TRAVELS would have made it on to television.
If you weren't a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you'd be doing?
Ultimately, I am an activist, who has seized on filmmaking as a tool for expressing that agenda. There are many ways to generate debate, but ultimately I think documentary is an important one that can reach people in many different ways. To me the challenge is to translate much of the “serious debate” for example that is contained within the U.N. or the academic world, and make it more accessible to a larger audience. For myself it is breaking down the walls and trying to simplify the story in a way that we all can digest it, and then as citizens take a more active role in determining what sort of world we all want to live in.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Never give up. Despite the hurdles, the doubts, the financial worries, if you believe in your story, then pursue it and you will succeed.
Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?
In terms of documentary, I have to admit Michael Moore illustrates how combining humor and a persuasive argument can make us question and think. And yes, he may be controversial in some of his methods, but I actually think he has done an amazing job at getting a large population to think. I don’t believe in the idea of objectivity—I believe every story is told from one perspective or another, so I believe that documentary has a huge potential to inform but also to present different versions of what we consider the “truth” and challenge us to rethink our assumptions.
Chris Marker, the French filmmaker, has also illustrated how, by combining the visual with ideas and interpretation, an audience can be forced to look at the larger picture though a different lens. Terre Nash, the Canadian filmmaker, has also done a remarkable job at taking ideas and translating them into stories.
Ultimately, I am influenced by films that use the personal to connect with the universal, but also force us to revalue the big picture that we often hold as absolute. We live in a time where it can be unsettling, even potentially dangerous, to question too much, but to me that is where filmmaking can play a crucial role. I want to come out of a film forced to question or think. That to me is the potency of this art form.