Battling jet-lag with ambien, coffee, and pure adrenaline, we started work on a new LIVESTRONG film in Cape Town, South Africa, about 24 hours after we left the Austin airport. We flew from Austin to Atlanta on Sunday May the 8th, and then hung out a few hours at the Atlanta airport- mostly just camped out at an electrical outlet charging up the laptop, iPad and iPhones. Then, we boarded the 14 hour, 30 minute flight to Johannesburg. We had prepared with pre-interview phone calls, from which came shot lists and interview questions.
There was nothing much to do on the plane besides read and watch 'Downton Abbey' (which was awesome by the way). I was just trying to avoid looking at the flight map on the screen in front of my seat. I just didn't want to know how little distance we'd actually travelled. After what seemed like an eternity I finally did look at the map, and as I feared, we were only just part way across the Atlantic. I knew I shouldn't have looked! After that I tried to get some sleep. Eventually, we landed in Johannesburg, changed our dollars for South African Rands, and caught a flight to Cape Town from there.
I'd heard Cape Town described as a European city in the midst of African scenery, and that was pretty accurate. It sits right on the ocean, with mountains and hills surrounding it, and the scenery is breathtaking.
We arrived at our hotel late in the evening, made sure we had a good view from Wilson's balcony (for timelapse and establishing shots) and crashed. The next morning, very early, Wilson set up his time lapse shots and we grabbed breakfast.
We began on Tuesday morning when the cancer survivors and NGO partners arrived at the hotel. They had a two day training session planned that would help crystalize the goals of the upcoming first ever Patient Forum in South Africa (titled appropriately 'Voice of Cancer'), while also helping the survivors learn how to tell their story in a way that would illuminate gaps in the healthcare system for government officials and the medical establishment. Ultimately the goal of a Patient Forum is to start a dialogue in a country, using survivor stories as the jumping off point for discussion among the 'stake holders' (anyone involved in cancer) who can make a difference. So government, NGOs (Non-Governmental Agencies or non-profits), doctors, pharmaceutical companies from all across South Africa were invited.
Our role in all of this was to document everything and to create a short film that can be used in different nations to show what a Patient Forum looks like. LIVESTRONG hopes that Patient Forums can become part of a larger global fight against cancer. So we began interviewing the leading agency, C4C (Campaigning for Cancer in South Africa), an NGO who is doing an amazing job in this country to help direct attention to cancer prevention, treatment and survivorship. They're advocates in the best sense of the word, and are truly making a difference. C4C assumed the role of hosting the forum and organizing a team of NGO's in an unprecedented collaboration to make it all happen. It was really cool to arrive in a country and see all of these different NGOs coming together towards a common purpose.
Speaking of collaboration, the forum was made possible by a collaboration between Campaigning for Cancer in South Africa, LIVESTRONG and Atlanta-based American Cancer Society. So, in addition to talking to all of the Campaigning for Cancer folks, we also were excited to talk to some ACS representatives to get a full picture of what it takes from all sides of the world.
By telling their stories, these survivors were going to help begin a dialogue in South Africa. So we felt it was a natural fit to profile a few survivors coming from diverse parts of the country. Visually, we'd follow them around all week and record their experience of the forum, and see things from their perspective. Before we went over there, I spent a lot of time on the phone with various survivors (there were about 20 total invited), getting to know them. Once there, we were looking to focus on a few with contrasting backgrounds and stories. It was impossible to decide from phone conversations which survivors to really focus on for the film, so from the moment we started I was running around meeting people face to face and trying to decide.
So the fun began on Tuesday as the training kicked off. Again, training is just another word for 'all getting on the same page' about how the forum would work. Survivors took turns telling their stories for the room. Local media chimed in and asked questions, and we captured some lively back and forth discussion about bringing more attention to the cancer issue in South Africa.
South Africa is a complex society, as there are over 11 main languages spoken and many distinct cultures. It's the perfect place to attempt a forum because in essence, if you can do this in South Africa it will show that it works in all kinds of diverse settings.
Eventually, it was time for the forum itself - at the Cape Town Civic Center.
It was so exciting to see these survivors, who had come from far flung parts of the country (Soweto, Johnnesburg, East London, Cape Town) all refining the way they told their story from the training to their moment in the spotlight at the forum itself. It's not that they were changing anything - far from it. It's more that they were learning what was important to them vs. what was important to illuminate for the entire nation about their cancer experience. The forum itself was packed with all kinds of people - high ranking government officials, doctors, hospice workers, advocates, etc. And some of the survivors admitted they were very nervous. Nobody was a trained public speaker. They all hoped they could do something that would help.
Along the way we followed the stories of 3 survivors through the process, shooting footage of them in and around Cape Town. David Mkefa is from Soweto and an incredibly cool guy who taught us a special Orlando handshake. It involves using each other's thumbs to snap. And, he likes to bust out singing Barry White songs during his interviews. Could he be any more awesome?
The other survivors were Lindy and Lynda who were both fascinating people.They're both from Cape Town but lead vastly different lives. The stories, when told at the forum, were powerful and the audience was moved. I personally feel the survivor stories were the best part of the forum and it was great to see how effective this was on the audience and participants in the forum.
After shooting quite of 'behind-the-scenes' of the work involved in creating the forum, we headed out into Cape Town to film each of the three main survivors in a cinema verite' style, shooting real "day in the life" type footage with them. We were using smaller HD cameras as they attract less attention. We spent the day hanging out with Lindy, Lynda and David as they explored different parts of Cape Town, then travelled to the forum.
The forum wound down with a nice meal for everyone involved last night at the Cafe Paradiso on Kloot street - a really cool place. It was fun to hang out with the survivors, C4C, ACS, and LAF folks. We really formed a bond with the survivors and are glad that they agreed to have us all up in their business for a few days.
On the last day, we headed out into Cape Town with the help of Faghrie, local fixer who took us around into uncharted territory. Small world fact: Faghrie was also our guide three years ago when we filmed for Stigma & Silence in Cape Town. Always great to work with old friends.
Now, we're safely back in Austin (though a bit tired) and excited to jump into the editing suite and start culling through all the footage to tell the story of Voice of Cancer and the importance of Patient Forums in other countries. What an amazing trip! We're truly grateful to have been along for the ride during this really important event for C4C, LIVESTRONG and ACS, and can't wait to see what comes next for South Africa.