Brook Silva-Braga, the award-winning filmmaker of A Map for Saturday fame recently completed his second documentary, One Day in Africa. This engaging film chronicles the lives of six people from throughout the continent, following each person for a day. Brook took the time to discuss his new film with Vagablogging.
What were some of the challenges you faced while filming in Africa?
I was in Africa for about five months and it was my first trip there. I had visited all the other continents (except Antarctica) while shooting A Map for Saturday so I really wanted to get to Africa.
It was a challenging place to shoot for a lot of reasons. Since most people don’t speak English–especially in West Africa–I usually had to find a translator before I could shoot. In more remote places there was no electricity so battery life was an issue. If something breaks or is lost (like a hard drive or an important cable) it can be hard or impossible to find a replacement. The screen on my laptop actually broke and getting it fixed would have meant waiting six weeks in Dar es Salaam while it was shipped to Paris so I just dealt with the broken screen.
How did you find and select the six individuals that you portray in One Day in Africa? What was filming like?
How I found people varied greatly but the goal was always to focus on “normal” people rather than seeking out “the guy with AIDS”. In Kenya I was trying to rent a car when I met a really interesting guy at the rental car place so I decided to follow him.
In contrast I spent a lot of time setting up my shoot in Niger where I ended up driving five hours into the middle of nowhere to profile a woman in a very small and remote village. But first I had to visit the regional chief to get his consent and directions to the village. Even when I got there I didn’t know whom I’d profile, I just walked around for a day and tried to find someone eager to talk.
The idea was to follow each person for just one day so it was usually best for it to be the first full day I spent with them, that way when they explained themselves to me the camera would be rolling.
What did you find most surprising about your travels in Africa and the individuals that you met?
The first major surprise was how safe it was. So much of what we hear about Africa is negative so I went there with a vague fear and after a while that seemed kind of silly.
What do you believe that Westerners can learn from Africa?
That’s a good and interesting question and one that more westerners should seriously consider, even if their answer is, ‘Not much.’ The vast majority of westerners go to Africa to teach rather than to learn and many end up doing neither.
Was it difficult to remain an “observer”?
I found it easy to remain an observer because frankly I became very skeptical of the interventions I saw westerners make throughout the continent. What permeates most of the western efforts in Africa is an attempt to make “them” more like “us” and that doesn’t seem to be working.
It was striking that pretty much every westerner I met who had spent a long time in Africa could give a cold-eyed dissection of how ineffective western programs are even as they gave massive amounts of their own energy to whatever cause they were involved in and hoped would help.
What was it like to witness the childbirth in the film?
It was my first childbirth and it was pretty intense but well worth the month of logistical hoops I jumped through to find a hospital willing to let me in.
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges that modern-day Africa faces?
Having their challenges defined by people who have spent a few weeks or months there and pretend they have answers.
What’s next for you?
I’ll start bringing One Day in Africa to film festivals in March and then begin shooting my next project this summer. I’m still figuring out exactly what it will be but I think for the first time it will have a major American component while still giving me an excuse to make a big trip to somewhere very far away.