I went to South Africa to teach filmmaking to youth, but what I really wanted was to foster critical consciousness—the ability to question authority and turn a lens on society, literally and figuratively. I soon realized that these youth were more than willing to question—and they started with me.
By Jordan Clark, WITNESS intern.
Before my two partners and myself left, we were all nervous. How would they receive us? Were we imposing a project that we wanted to do on them? Would divides based on age and culture keep us from connecting, and keep us from creating a collaborative and empowering experience?
Early in the process with the students we addressed the issue head on. We sat in our small wendy-house with five high school students from Khayelitsha—the largest township in Cape Town—in a program through a partnership with Equal Education, a local NGO. We expressed to them exactly what worried us, not only for our own relief, but also so they could see that we were just as nervous as they were. We bonded over our shared unease. In return, the students were honest about their feelings about us coming to work with them. They appreciated the opportunity to learn new skills, but they were wary of our ultimate goal: were we truly invested? or would we gain our experience, leave, and never come back?
A unique and interesting discussion came when we asked, “If Westerners came and made a documentary about Khayelitsha, would it be the same story as if you told it?” This sparked a spirited debate and crystalized the idea that the students had to be the driving force behind our work. They took on this challenge with great enthusiasm. Together, we established that while we facilitators had expertise in documentary and theory, the students had expertise on their community. They had the comprehensive and first-hand knowledge of the South African educational system that we all hoped to document together.
But we didn’t yet know that this conversation would set the foundation for our whole outlook on this project. Nor did we know that the greatest dividend of this productive conversation—the honesty and trust that it fostered—would transform the project from a perceived failure into a key learning moment.
With the concerns clearly voiced, we got down to what we came to work on: their stories, and the technical knowledge to tell them through film.
Gang violence had been emerging in Khayelitsha, and this immediately came up when the students were storyboarding ideas for our final documentaries. A friend of theirs was involved in a gang, and attempting to leave it. His story was not only harrowing, but also told a broader story about gangsterism in Khayelitsha. Story-wise, it was perfect. The students had done exactly what we had all hoped—they zeroed in on an important, compelling, socially relevant and powerful story and found a character that had a compelling personal story that exemplified the greater issue.
This is where our age and experience, rather than being a wedge, became an asset. As we delved deeper, we began to consider potentially dangerous implications of telling it. Our main character could face retaliation if the story came to light, from his former gang and other members of his community. We could be put in danger while filming if caught in the wrong situation. Because we had discussed our positions candidly, the students were willing to hear us out, because that trust was there.
We debated, and in the end we all decided that a story this important needed to be researched and delved into more thoroughly, both to do the story justice, and to protect all people involved. It was important for the students to understand their responsibilities as filmmakers, and to realize the possible repercussions of their actions as such. It was equally important for us as facilitators to understand that our students had the experience to know what would be safe or not.
So that film didn’t get made, and that story hasn’t yet been told. But the students made their own informed decision. And I achieved my greatest goal: supporting them in questioning all sides of a story—even their own. Instead of a perceived failure, we all grew from the experience and became closer.
It wasn’t until much later that I appreciated another early conversation. Early on, we asked our youth to come up with a name for our program; ‘Amazwi Wethu’ was their immediate reply: “Our Voices” in isiXhosa. It represented everything we wanted out of our work a collaborative experience where we all had ownership of this special program and were truly unified.
We ended up telling a different story, but they’re all part of the bigger narrative of Amazwi Wethu youth: