I am thrilled to be writing from Cape Town, where I have the privilege of attending a video-for-change training led by my amazing colleague, Bukeni Waruzi. The training is a collaboration with our local allies, STEPS and Street Talk – two of South Africa’s leading organizations working on social justice documentary films. Thanks to their outreach efforts, we have brought together 16 inspiring filmmaker-trainers from the Cape Town area, all of whom are using video to document injustice in their communities, with a particular focus on gender-based violence (GBV). The goal of the training is to share WITNESS’ approaches to the ethical filming of survivors of GBV, and to better understand some of the challenges faced by activists here.
I’ve learned, for instance, that South Africa today has the world’s most progressive Constitution (it was in fact the first country to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation) – but paradoxically, there remains a culture of deep hostility toward sexual minorities and victims of sex crimes. Many of the filmmakers in the room say their goal is less about passing favorable legislation, since they already have that on their side.
Instead, they seek to raise awareness and acceptance within the broader community and advocate for more effective implementation of existing laws. Compared with many environments where WITNESS works, this seems like a situation fairly unique to South Africa – and one that poses its own set of challenges. For further background on human rights and GBV in South Africa, visit Human Rights Watch, IGLHRC, and The Atlantic Philanthropies (which has been funding in the country for many years).
At our prep meeting at the STEPS office, Bukeni and I were given a sampling of what was to come. We watched a rough cut from a participatory film project in Lesotho about Sheriff, a transgender girl speaking openly about her sexual orientation with her grandmother and her pastor – building bridges of understanding across generational and religious barriers. It’s hard to imagine anyone watching this film and not feeling a connection with Sheriff – which is precisely the point.
We also met Mussa Emmanuel, one of three LGBTI individuals featured in “From the Same Soil” who left their homes in Rwanda due to persecution. They received refugee status in South Africa, yet they have encountered discrimination here as well. Thanks to the power of film, Mussa has since transformed himself from victim to human rights activist.
The stories at the training itself have proved no less inspiring. Thembela “Terra” Dick, one of the participants, is a lesbian living in the Gugulethu Township. She is an activist-filmmaker who is also telling the hidden stories of LGBTI communities living within a culture of deep intolerance. Together with Street Talk, Terra has made a series of films that challenge the prevailing mindset around LGBTI people within the broader community, at schools, and at home. Among the many issues her films address is the alarming trend of “corrective rape,” where perpetrators rape lesbians to “turn them straight;” oddly, they sometimes do the same to homosexual men.
Terra herself lives every day in fear that she will be attacked. “I hardly ever go out,” she says. “My house has so much security, and when I socialize with friends it’s only in the privacy of someone’s home. I’d love to go out and have fun – but it’s just too risky.”
Buhle Ndamase, another participant, is a filmmaker who uses a mobile phone to document abuses in his home region in the Eastern Cape. As a student in Cape Town, he connected with STEPS and made his first documentary film. Now, he is using his skills to document deeply personal issues surrounding injustice—and inspire others to do the same. One film of particular relevance to the training focuses on the use of rape against elderly women who are believed to be “witches.” Another collaborative film documents the accepted practice of marrying child brides as young as twelve to men in their 40s and 50s.
Buhle is developing a new program to train youths to use mobile phones to document their own stories. He hopes that the skills he develops through our training will help him set up self-sustaining hubs of video trainers throughout the Eastern Cape. He says:
“This workshop has made me aware of what’s happening back home and how important it is to start documenting these stories and show the world how much injustice there can sometimes be within cultures.”
We are also fortunate to have two members of Equal Education (EE) in the room: Banele “Bunny” Poni and Lyndal Pottier. EE is a grassroots movement of students, parents, teachers and community members working for equality, and increasingly using video to further its impact. One video, “Siwe’s Journey: Sanitation in Khayelitsha,” shows the utter lack of hygiene in Khayelitsha Township, where children have no access to running water and must travel far to use toilets. This leads to frequent attacks of sexual violence against girls. The video puts pressure on the schools, the community and the government to take responsibility for improving these conditions.
This being a WITNESS training, Bukeni of course shared some of our own videos, including “Hear Us: Zimbabwean Women Affected by Political Violence,” produced with our partner RAU. I’ve seen this video countless times, but it never seems to lose its haunting power.
The packed two-day agenda also included key topics such as interviewing techniques, informed consent, safety and security, storytelling options, and a hands-on mobile phone practicum, where the participants broke up into small groups to film an interview.
I wish I had time to accompany Bukeni to his next destination – Burundi – to lead a convening of video-for-change practitioners from around Central Africa. It’s so clear to me from this brief visit how much demand there is for WITNESS’ methodology and support. This demand will only increase as video becomes more accessible and continues to prove its worth as the powerful tool for social change it can be. After nearly twelve years at WITNESS, I can honestly say I’m leaving South Africa more inspired than ever to do my small part in helping to realize this extraordinary moment for human rights.