Beyond the storyboard: why authenticity is key to bringing your film to life
“I want to be a role model,” Daphine tells me when I ask her why she wanted to share her story. “It gives the community another picture about living with HIV when they see me and how far I have come”.
Daphine, then 19, from Kampala, Uganda shared her story in the award-winning film, “Love a Positive Life”, a title we decided on together. It was produced by duckrabbit for the International HIV/AIDS Alliance.
The brief was to highlight the work of peer educators across a five-year project – demonstrating the impact on the lives of young people, their sexual and reproductive health and rights, and their community. The project, Link Up, reached 940,000 people. But people relate to people, not numbers. So, we decided the best way to connect with our audience was to tell it through the eyes of one young person.
It was a great having a brief which focused on the positive impact of a project, but we were clear this wouldn’t mean glossing over the multidimensionality of someone’s life. In the same way some charity films can be accused of oversimplifying to create ‘pity’, reducing someone down to one-dimension – even if it’s ‘positive’ – doesn’t help create engagement or empathy, nor does it serve the person whose story you’re trying to tell. You need to show a person not a concept.
Benjamin Chesterton at duckrabbit is quick to point out you can’t force or mould someone’s experience to fit your brief. We shared these values, along with an eagerness to ensure the real story is being told and the person featuring has a say on how they are represented. That’s why I knew they were the right partner for the Alliance.
Finding the story
Before we travelled, we had lots of chats with the Alliance partner in Kampala, about the purpose and audience, and building up a picture of their work. When we were sure we had a shared vision, the partner, CHAU, talked us through a number of peer educators they knew personally, and Daphine was one of the people we shortlisted for them to take the conversation forward with.
Because CHAU had the established relationships, it introduced the concept to the shortlisted peer educators. It followed a duty of care process, establishing whether potential participants would want to be involved, identifying any risks and ensuring their consent was well-informed. This included sharing what would be involved in the making of the film, the purpose of it, and how it would be used. It’s also important to ask why someone wants to take part. It can help you assess whether someone’s motivations and expectations are in line with yours.
For example, if they talk about raising awareness of an issue, you may feel more confident you’re in sync. However, if someone expects money, or for solutions to their problems, then it’s worth thinking about whether the collaboration can meet the needs of all parties.
By the time we arrived in Kampala, we knew it was Daphine we were filming with, and the duty of care and informed consent process was reinforced. One of the first things duckrabbit did was show Daphine other films, so she had a chance to see what the content might look like and to talk through a concept and vision. This gave her a chance to consider how she would be portrayed and input meaningfully into the process.
Staying on track
Shoots are full on, and if you’re not careful it’s easy to get pulled in different directions no matter how strong your brief is. I had a list of five things with me, a simplified version of my brief, and checked every day we were achieving them.
We had to make sure the creative worked in synergy with Daphine’s viewpoint. That’s why it’s so important for everyone to be on the same wavelength, which the prep work really helps with! That way, when deciding on which scenes would highlight an important part of Daphine’s life, or why a particular part of her story should make it in, you know you’re pushing in the same direction.
When the shoot’s over, it can feel like a million people want a say in how it turns out. In most NGOs, there’s a number of people involved in sign-off, and those different perspectives are important, but the person sharing their story has to be the priority.
“Stay true to the person who shared their life with you,” says Chesterton. “By doing this you will deliver a powerful and authentic message that empowers everyone involved.”
We’d spent the time with Daphine and knew what she felt was important to include. We also knew that, while the most important key messages of the project were covered, it wasn’t going to be able to say everything – you can’t script someone’s life. Trying to do so would have ruined the integrity of the film and weakened the impact of Daphine’s personal story.
“Love a Positive Life” won the 2016 Golden Radiator Award for “creativity and creating engagement… without using stereotypes”. More importantly, Daphine said she “enjoyed the experience and felt loved, as well as empowered to continue changing young people’s lives for the better”. Daphine’s opinion was always the one that mattered the most to me. After all it’s her story, and her experiences that will come up on Google for years to come, so she had to own it – and be proud to do so.
Daphine continues to be a role model, helping to reduce HIV-related stigma and discrimination. You can see her speak for World AIDS Day at the 2017 Irish Aid Professor Father Michael Kelly Lecture on HIV and AIDS.