Joan Churchill films Abdulkadir Ali Yunye at Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya. Credit: Alan Barker
POV: How did you overcome the difficulties of shooting subjects who spoke another language?
Anne Makepeace: We didn’t actually know what was happening with our subjects often, because once we got to America, we didn’t actually have a translator with us most of the time, so we had no idea what the families were talking about. But we found that we got better stuff when we didn’t have a translator, because the families knew that we didn’t know what they were talking about, so they would be totally natural. Some months later, we were able to find a fantastic translator who is one of the very few people who could speak Somali and English fluently, and who also speaks Mai Mai, the Bantu dialect that the families speak.
The Bantu people were denied education in Somalia. They were an underclass who were not allowed to vote and not allowed to go to school. They’re not literate in any language. So to find somebody who could speak Mai Mai and who was literate was a great gift to the project. The things he unearthed from the language were just amazing. At first, we gave him a few scenes that our translator who’d been with us in Kenya had done, just to check over those translations. In one particular scene, there’s a line that Madina says which had been translated as “when I get to America I will take my children to school” by the translator in Kenya. Our new translator told us that what she’s actually saying is “when my eyes and ears arrive at a place where the wind is blowing, I will take my children to school,” which is really different from “when I get to America.” So this guy unearthed the poetry in their language which was just so beautiful, and we had him re-translate the entire film.
POV: If you don’t understand what the families were saying because of the language barrier, then how did you know what you were looking for in the shot when you were behind the camera?
Makepeace: When you have no idea what people are talking about, it’s really an art, I think, on the part of the cinematographer to know where the heat is, to know where the emotional power of the moment is. Every second that you’re filming, you have a myriad of choices to make. In a family of eight, whom do you focus on? Whom do you point the camera at? I was fortunate to work with people who made great choices, and if they weren’t making great choices at a particular moment, I would sort of point and go “over there, shoot that way.” [Laughs.]
POV: Again, with the challenge that a different language posed, how did you establish trust with your characters?
Makepeace: I was fortunate to find a translator, who was a Somali Bantu himself, that the families trusted, and I think he really opened those doors, and was great about drawing them out. For example, they would give short answers and he would draw them out and ask them to elaborate. If they were being evasive, he would catch them because he knew them.
POV: How did you approach filming with subjects who come from such a different background?
Makepeace: The ethics of filming are really complex in a situation like this, because the subjects were people that [had] never had seen television. So how do you explain to somebody what being filmed for a documentary is going to be like, how do you make clear what they’re committing to? They’re committing to a year of people in their house with cameras, invading their lives, and then millions of people are going to see the finished film. When I met the families, I made a very passionate speech to them about what this process would do for them and for their people when they came to America; I told them that through the film, Americans would know who they were and know what they suffered through, and that it would open doors for them, which I think it is doing. I wondered what they took away from that speech without the frames of reference that would help them understand what I was saying, but I think that they sensed a sincerity in me. As part of a very oppressed minority, I think they felt this film was a chance to be heard and seen.
POV: With a cinema-verité approach, and acting as an observer to these very difficult moments at times, did you ever feel compelled to cross the line from behind the camera? To get involved in the situation?
Makepeace: It’s really, really hard to watch people struggling and not want to fix it. There are some scenes in the film that were just excruciating for me, at the time, to not interfere in. There is a scene where Aden and his son Warsame are in a grocery store, and the reality of that scene was much more complicated than it ends up to be in the edited version of the film. In reality, Aden and Warsame were at the cash register for about half an hour; Aden had both his food-stamp card and cash-assistance card, but neither one had enough on it to pay the bill. All I had to do was slip him five bucks and then we would have been out of there, everything would have been fine, but by that time, I had already ruined a lot of scenes by interfering in that way, and I can’t remember if I knew not to interfere anymore, or if the guy who was shooting at that point stopped me from interfering, which he did a number of times.
Another scene that’s like that is the medicine bottle scene, which is excruciating. Aden and Madina can’t open the medicine bottle, their daughter’s screaming on the floor sick, and it kills you to not do anything. But on the other hand, you want a scene like that to show people how difficult these simple things can be.
I had a conversation with Albert Maysles, the great vérité filmmaker, in the middle of making this film, about this very issue of whether or not to interfere by helping the subjects. There was a specific scene I asked him about in a film that he shot where a black grandmother is trying to keep her kids in school, and she’s got a little boy in first grade who doesn’t think he can go to school cause he doesn’t have a pencil. The grandmother doesn’t have the money to get him a pencil, and it’s a heartbreaking scene. In the end the little boy doesn’t go to school. So I asked Albert, “how could you stand it, how could you not give the kid a pencil?” And he said, “That particular scene brought more help to that family than any other scene in the movie.”
I wasn’t that much of a purist. I did help them. At the end of every shoot I would buy the families groceries; Ali was not going to be allowed to go to school, and I got him into school, so there were ways in which I helped them. But Albert’s point was if you create a relationship that’s based, to some extent, on support and money, it creates an entirely different relationship because people are going to be behaving in certain ways to please you, and not in their natural way. So I tried to keep that in mind during every shoot.