Faces of Change

The concept was to bring five human rights activists from around the world to New York City for an intensive video workshop—each activist would receive their own camera. We would all brainstorm on what stories they wanted to tell about their communities and how to tell them. My task was to train the activists and later interweave their visual stories into a coherent feature-length documentary. It sounded simple enough. I had done video training workshops with grassroots activists in the past and had conducted them in different parts of the world. But prior field experience couldn’t have prepared me for what was to come.

The participants on this international story were: an African American environmental activist; a Roma (“Gypsy”) attorney from Bulgaria; an Afro-Brazilian teen counselor from Northeast Brazil; A Dalit (“Untouchable”) activist from southern India; and an ex-slave from Mauritania, Africa. Production started in June 2001, and in a pre- 9/11 world, the visa process for getting them all here was smoother than expected. The major obstacle came from our Mauritanian partner, Mohamed, who worked with an underground abolitionist movement freeing slaves and offering them better life opportunities. Because of the kind of work he did, Mohamed was extremely vigilant and at times seemed paranoid. The Mauritanian government had Mohamed and his colleagues under surveillance. We soon found out that Mohamed’s plane ticket to New York City was being withheld at customs in Mauritania. He was convinced that his ticket was being purposely kept in order to stop him from attending the workshop. He almost didn’t make it.

Stubborn as our team was, we did not allow Mohamed’s initial absence to dissuade us. Unable to get through to Mohamed by phone, I must have gone five or six times to JFK airport to see if he had arrived. We hoped he had gotten his ticket in time for the workshop. But no such luck. His ticket was finally released from customs, but too late for him to get the chance to meet the other participants. He finally made it to New York, and I was able to conduct a one-on-one workshop with him that lasted over four days. By the time he returned home, his confidence was up and he was ready to roll.

The workshop also brought many unexpected revelations and connections. We started by sharing our personal experiences of discrimination and racism. Each of our stories was extremely poignant and moving, but the most revealing was that all were similar and somehow interconnected. Across the board it was obvious that our sense of self worth and entitlement had been tainted and partially shaped by the pressures of institutional discrimination and lack of opportunity. Could the camera help us become more whole, help us heal the psychological damage we had all suffered due to the pervasive nature of prejudice around our everyday lives? We had to wait and see.

Whereas our personal stories connected us as human beings, it was also obvious that many of us had thrown our entire selves, for different reasons—some noble, some less noble—into huge institutional battles to improve members of our respective communities. It was obvious our partners were on the frontlines of the fight for equality in their countries, documenting atrocious living conditions and, in some cases, literally risking their lives. Kathir in India, for example, was busy interviewing victims of extreme caste violence in village communities; whereas Nara, in Brazil, was working with black girls as young as 11 who found themselves pregnant and out of school for good. Mohamed was confronting government officials and conducting clandestine interviews with enslaved people. What had also become obvious at each arrival of a new tape was a greater sense of confidence from our partners, both in what they shot as well as in their message.

On the final phase of production I traveled to shoot our partners in their countries. The first stop: New Orleans. Then off to Bulgaria, Brazil, India and finally, Mauritania. Production took close to a year to complete. The most dramatically memorable moments occurred in Mauritania. Every aspect of my psychological makeup would be tested during that 10-day visit. Although mind-blowing events occurred in every country, our misadventures in Mauritania are enough of a glimpse to give a sense of what we were all up against.

Before traveling to a muslim country like Mauri-tania with another woman and with a tourist visa, I had consulted with the underground Mauritania activists both in New York and Mauritania. According to them, if I were to travel with a journalist visa I risked the possibility of having a government agent follow my every move. The problem was that since Mauritania gets little to no tourism, we had to have a cover. We had to obtain a visa to Mali to explain, if we were ever stopped, that we were visiting the region and were on our way to Mali, a more attractive tourist destination.

About a week before we were scheduled to leave, Mauritanian army officers attempted a coup to overthrow the president, Ahmed Taya. The attempted coup failed, but it left the capital city and the government on edge, searching every nook and cranny for potential dissidents. My executive producer suggested I cancel the trip. He was concerned for my safety and possible liability issues if something were to happen to our two-person crew. I consulted with Mohamed. He seemed very calm on the phone and explained that it would be safe for me to come. My DP was ready and eager to go. After much discussion with her and with my family, I made the decision to keep to the planned schedule. This project had to be finished, and any further delays would not guarantee that the country would be any safer later in the year.

In Mauritania’s capital city, there were checkpoints at every street corner and identity papers were checked at every road leading out of the city. Our driver, Diaw, had to get out of his car to open his trunk for police checks at least 10 to 12 times a day. On our first meeting at the hotel, Mohamed instructed me that we could never be seen together. He had not prepared me for this in our email communications prior to my trip. We would have to drive to his house in the evening, hide the car and interview him and his family there. Since the workshop and because of Mohamed’s use of the camera, he had acquired significant political clout within the abolitionist movement and within larger Mauritanian political circles. As a result, he was encouraged to run for mayor of his district, and he won the race. This new job meant his actions were under even more surveillance than before.

So, we devised a tape circulation system so the sensitive tapes we recorded would not stay in our possession and would immediately be sent to New York on a daily basis. We would, of course keep the beauty shots that were on tape with us so as not to blow our tourist cover in case we were searched. We would shoot during the day, make dubs of the tapes at night in our hotel rooms, stop by DHL in the morning, and send off the masters to our office in Harlem. The dubs would stay in Mohamed’s home for safe keeping if for some reason the masters never made it to Harlem. Although time consuming, this system proved indispensable, because on two separate occasions our covers were almost blown.

The shooting restrictions severely limited what I had set out to capture prior to our trip. Our cover was almost blown on one occasion when we went to the more affluent neighborhoods of the capital city, Nouakchott to shoot, and were stopped by a light-skinned female Mauritanian pulling out of her driveway. She got out of her car and started to yell at my DP, demanding to confiscate the tape that was in the camera. I began pleading with her—in my mind there was no way I was going to give up that tape. We had a whole day’s worth of work on it and could not return to some of the locations we had covered. At each resistance she became more hysterical. People had started to gather around us to find out what all the yelling and commotion was about.

Diaw tried to explain that we were simply tourists shooting various scenes of Nouakchott, that we meant no harm. She remained unconvinced and doggedly stubborn. She then insisted that we go with her to the home of her “private videographer” to erase the images from our tape. I agreed so long as we followed her in our car. She didn’t go for that. We had to go in her car or no deal. In a split second, I had to make a decision: perhaps risk my life and get in the car with her—having no idea where I would end up—or give up the tape before more of a scandal broke out and the police arrived. I looked at her, sweat dripping from my brow and feeling queasy. Based on some gut feeling, I agreed to get in her car. All I could think was, I cannot give up this tape, there was too much hard work put into it, and we had come so far.

It turned out that her “personal videographer” worked on wedding shoots. He was in the midst of cutting an upper-class wedding when we showed up. My DP proceeded to erase the image of her home, the wedding man checked our tape, and in less than five minutes, we were speeding away from that house as fast as we could. I later found out that the woman, the daughter of a deposed minister, was afraid the government would come after her and her family. Everyone in Mauritania, as it turned out, was on pins and needles, not knowing what to expect. So, in her eyes we were suspect too.

Back home the biggest challenge I had yet to face was to piece together these five eye-opening stories into a coherent narrative that retained the distinctive voice of each activist. Interestingly, the moments we shared while the camera was off accentuated the commonality of our experiences and transformed us in ways that are hard to translate onto the screen. Most importantly, and what was not lost to me or our partners, was that the process of passing on knowledge through the training and the filmmaking process itself were as valuable in effecting change as getting their stories out there to a larger audience. The human connections we made will stay with us much beyond the distribution life of the film.

About :

MICHELE STEPHENSON is a Haitian-born filmmaker and former human rights attorney. She has trained human rights activists from all over the world in video production and produced award-winning documentaries and video production guides for grassroots activists. With a commitment to making personal human stories that are too often excluded from mainstream media, Stephenson and her husband, Joe Brewster, recently launched their production company, The Rada Film Group. Excerpts of their work can be found at www.radafilm.com.