In early 2009 Xoliswa and Jezza arrived in Zimbabwe. Xoliswa had negotiated permission from the government to make a film about her childhood, celebrating the country that raised her. What they found and subsequently filmed was far from a celebration.
Filming at all in Zimbabwe, let alone capturing anything that might be interpreted as critical of the government, is incredibly difficult. But to make this film the team had to film openly in the streets of Harare. As a result, the team was interrogated in depth eight times while in the country, on each occasion there was every likelihood that filming would have to stop.
We didn’t set out to make a film about education, we set out to compare Xoliswa’s childhood (growing up in a Zimbabwe with a successful economy, and first class standards of universal education and healthcare) with the experience of children growing up today. But as filming progressed, the narrative grew. We were astonished at the enormous value children in the country placed on learning and getting to school.
The film was shot on a Sony Z5, and recorded on 1080 HD 25p flashcards and at times on a Sony A1. We kept the team to two so it was as inconspicuous as a team with a white man in tow could be. Aware that for that reason Jezza was a potential liability, we minimised my exposure to public places as much as possible. Fortunately Xoliswa’s negotiating skills meant that on the occasions we were interrogated she was able to dispel any concerns and we were able to move on.
On our first trip to the country we met many children struggling for survival. John walks for six hours a day to collect firewood which he then sells in small bundles by the side of the road. Young girls prostitute themselves at traffic lights. There were so many tragic stories, and the choice as always was hard – but in the end we felt Grace, Esther and Obert were three children who both struggled for survival and yearned for an education. Whilst both Esther’s and Grace’s stories are compelling, the story of Obert’s school and the ending it offered to the film was unbelievably moving and tragic.
We had arrived in a rural area to visit some other families who were being assisted by an NGO. Whilst driving back we passed through a school and decided that this would be a good place to meet children. After seeking permission from the headmaster we interviewed over two hundred children creating a short list of six. We then set about meeting the parents of these six, which in some cases meant a three-mile trek up and down hills. Two of the girls we shortlisted were Nadi and Nomatta. We walked into their compound and met their grandmother. They were very sweet but quite shy, and we felt they weren’t quite right for the film. It was therefore extremely shocking when we later discovered that some weeks later their grandmother apparently decided to kill herself and the girls, believing that modern Zimbabwe was not a fit place for vulnerable young girls to grow up. Their bodies were found in their hut, all three died from eating rat poison in their food.
Obert was the last child we met and when we learned of his educational brilliance, met his charming and irrepressible grandmother, and witnessed their daily struggle for survival we knew he was one to follow. We had no idea at that point of the power of the story that was to unfold.
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