Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Dispatch: Riding the Elevator

Some of us have jobs where friends and strangers always say, “Wow, that must be so interesting,” and “what an incredible job,” and just “How cool.” But then for the person, sometimes me, being told that, I just think, well, its work. We all can be consumed by our work. And often in going so deep, immersing ourselves in work, experiencing the stress, we can unwittingly put blinders on. When we’re dashing from meeting to meeting, lobbying for quality childcare and innovations in education, do we always picture those kids and families in our mind? [Just an example, I am sure my parents do.] As journalists seeking the next good story or researchers doing dissertations, once we get back to the newsroom or office to write, do we remember the faces of the people we just interviewed? Sometimes, of course. But it is impossible for that to be always.

I have been filming and watching and cutting footage for the last several months, immersed in whether or not a certain bite makes sense, whether someone will misinterpret someone’s perspective, cutting out the umm’s and aaah’s, picking the perfect shot of Peter brushing his teeth and Vuyani at the mic, and trying how I remain true to all the young people, to the events they discuss, and to myself. But yesterday, as I was going through some archival footage from last May of refugees gathered at police stations and refugee camps, I realized that I had forgotten about the victim. Yes, I have found and filmed Peter, a 17-year-old Rwandan boy, but there were thousands of other victims and casualties of this violence.

It hit me yesterday, watching footage of a woman sitting on blankets in a room at a police station, crowded with other women like her, feeding pap to her son. She was being interviewed and speaking French. I couldn’t understand everything, but what I did understand was: “Nous somme pas vene ici pour mourir, non…. Nous somme des personnes comme vous.” “We did not come here to die, no. We are people like you.” Today, I can still see her face. Her French makes me think she is from DRC. She spoke passionately, her son had wide eyes and remains of food surrounding his lips. While my film only includes one young refugee, this film is about this woman. It is about all the people crowded into this police station. It is about everyone who experienced the attacks, on whatever level.

The tough part of my job lately is to create balance. To balance the story of those who experienced the violence with the stories of the perpetrators, the bystanders and the teenagers who live at a distance, who do not live in the space where the attacks happened, but whose ideas and experiences, to me, are just as important. In speaking about her life, one of these young people, a 16 year old named Carey, said, “Its almost as if we live in this very comfortable bubble and anything that happens outside the bubble really doesn’t matter because we are the most important people in our lives and that’s, you know, how we see things. Which is ridiculous because these attacks happened right outside the bubble.” Pretty insightful for a 16 year old.

So what is my bubble? Do I move in and out of my bubble? I don’t think I live in a bubble – well I like to think I don’t. I don’t know what the correct analogy would be. Perhaps I live in an elevator? Able to go from one place to another, remembering the previous floor I was on, even if I am 10 floors above? Maybe it’s not a great analogy. But I do move from one space to the other, I move from Peter’s lunch of jam sandwiches to my full fridge, from the bed Yamkela shares with her mom and brother to a seat at my favorite café, from filming in the suburbs of Constantia or lying on the beach with friends back to Dunoon or Masiphumelele or Nyanga or Khayelitsha, to lives of people that I know, people that I feel close to, and yet lives that I know I do not know. Can I ever fully know their lives, their challenges and joys? There are boundaries that we create unintentionally, boundaries we choose to put up and boundaries that maybe just are. And yet as I write this I wonder if I am wrong about that last one?

Last Thursday, I got up at 4 a.m., picked up my cameraman Bart at 4:30 and by 5, we were at Peter’s home in Masiphumelele to film his morning routine. Peter came to South Africa in 1994 with his mother and older brother from Rwanda. His father was killed in Rwanda, I don’t know much more of their story. When I asked Peter why they left Rwanda he said because there was a problem between the Hutus and Tutsis, but he wasn’t sure which one his mother was. Today his mother runs a crèche with over 100 children.

Last May, during the xenophobia attacks, Peter and his brother fled to stay with their mother’s friend in a nearby suburb. Their house was robbed, beds, mattresses, clothes, school things, anything you have in your home, just stolen. And until a new shack was built blocking the view, he could see bed through his neighbor’s window. He regularly sees a little girl wearing his 6-year-old cousin’s clothes. “Its actually shocking,” he told me, “cause you think in your mind, what did we do wrong to deserve such pain our lives? What did, where did we go wrong? What did we do to them? For what reason do we deserve this suffering? I ask the same question but no one responds.” He added, “Me myself I don’t think I have an answer for that. I don’t know if I have an answer for that.”

Reflecting on that day, Peter told me he was not ready to die. “I want to die a special way, instead of a violent way,” he said.

The shoot ended with Bart riding partway with Peter and his friend to school, first on a taxi, then on the train. Bart rode only one stop and left Peter to continue on to school. I met him in Kalk Bay and we went for coffee at a lovely café. There we were, at 7:45 a.m. A 10-minute drive from Peter’s life, at 7:45 a.m. surrounded by other people enjoying their morning coffee with a view of the Indian Ocean. So how could we have moved from one space to the other so quickly? We spent a good part of our coffee talking about that. In this country that is often so stratified, where many people never see how others live, we go from one space to the other all the time. Many others don’t – whether from one area or another, whether because of fear or language or race or access, they have difficulty moving between these worlds. But what does that mean for us? I don’t remember all the details of our conversation nor do I have an answer, I’ll just pose the question for now and leave you, perhaps, to help me with an answer.