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On Location in South Africa: When to walk away from filming and when to wait

Bernice has changed her mind. She will film with you tomorrow.

I only filmed 6 days for Womenstruate, 2 days of that was in South Africa where I had been routed earlier than I expected due to schedule changes. I spent the 18th of July, Mandela Day actually, at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, South Africa looking for a story to complete filming for my documentary on menstruation, Womenstruate. It features African women of different decades and their experiences with menstruation. Each woman faced different challenges- natural disasters, incarceration conflict and early marriage. I had already secured interviews with women who were 17, 23, 42, 50, 63, and 82. All I was missing was a woman in her 30's, who would openly speak about her experiences in menstruation, with a compelling story. And I had 3 days to find her.

I found her as part of a group marching at Constitution Hill to eradicate homelessness, I came across the march on the Constitution Hill website. I felt it was a place I could meet people in Johannesburg, which is not the easiest city to navigate due to security concerns that have existed since I first visited the city nearly a decade ago. Back then it was my first trip to Africa, and I was instructed not to leave the sight of my taxi driver even when in the shopping mall. This time I was going into downtown Joburg with only my voice recorder, a single microphone, and my camera with a change of batteries. Everything fit into my pockets and I had a hand held rig in a draw string bag on my shoulder with my scarf draped over it all.

I met Bernice while I became the impromptu photographer for the group Voice It In Action- they had organised a great march with activities and food afterward but their photographer fell through and before they could ask my name they asked me to take some photos. Bernice was one of the volunteers, and I asked her if I could interview her after the days events to which she agreed. I stayed on and filmed some of the homeless testimonials and took photos of volunteers listening and documenting them. Even though it was July it was winter in the Southern Hemisphere, and the sun began setting as the day was wrapping up. Bernice was feeling drained after sharing her story with other volunteers, I could sense she may not be up for sharing again but had offered to take her and some of the other volunteers to dinner. After all, I had to eat as well and felt more comfortable in Joburg after dark with my new found friends than navigating my way back to my hotel and eating alone.

As I had sensed, Bernice was emotionally drained and had changed her mind. It was a tough loss for me all things considered, but in the end I knew it was only appropriate to let the opportunity go. I always offer to contributors the opportunity to not give an interview with me or to change their minds after the interview has taken place; it is their story and they have every right to share or not to share and I pride myself on giving that sense of empowerment to them. It was really hard to walk away but if it what Bernice wanted then that was the way it was. I took the train back to my hotel, the fastest and safest way to travel in Joburg and was ready to call it a night when that message came through from one of Bernice's friends.

She had changed her mind! Could I be at the train station tomorrow morning at 7am to meet with Bernice and interview her? With only 8 hours until 7am I said ABSOLUTELY and crashed into bed.

I clung to my coffee that next morning at the train station, proud I had again navigated the train and anxious for meeting with Bernice. I of course wondered, what had changed her mind?

On my way to meet with Bernice I was introduced to an aspiring young journalist named Milly, who was volunteering with Voice It In Action. She was interested in why I was there and I used the opportunity to explain the concept of the documentary and things I was hoping to capture with Bernice. When we arrived, we sat and met with Bernice as she was fixing her hair and I asked if I could take a close up shot of her hair being braided. She didn't understand why I was interested in filming her hair, which then turned into her not understanding why I was there to film at all. I was stunned and confused, had I misunderstood? Or was a I brought there as a misunderstanding? I tried to explain I had been under the impression she wanted me to film with her and I wanted to support her as a friend and capture her story. She stormed out of the room, without saying the words but making it clear that a white woman from another country could not be friends with someone like her- a homeless woman from another country.

I had friends who were homeless, I volunteered with a homeless organisation in my home city of New York for years. I completely understood where she was coming from, but to me it did not make it true and it did not make me hurt less. I was mortified, upset that I had upset someone who I knew was in a vulnerable state over a misunderstanding. I was collecting my things ready to leave when her friend came back into the room and said she wanted money to go home, get herself together and to be away from the streets. Would I give it to her?

These are the moments that test our moral compass as story tellers, the easy answer would have been to say yes-it was an amount I could afford to share with Bernice. But at that moment it did not feel like the right thing to do, so I had to respectfully say I was sorry for upsetting her as I had never intended to do so but I felt it best I should leave.

Our cultural differences had made it too difficult to find common ground to move forward and there would have been a power dynamic in the interview process that would have been unacceptable to me.

In that moment, Milly the aspiring journalist, stepped in and offered to clarify things to each other as she felt there was a misunderstanding on both our parts. I appreciated her efforts but I felt I could not go through with the interview if Bernice truly felt that I was a profiteering foreigner and I could not conduct the interview with a promise of giving her the transportation money she had asked for. Milly understood all this, and understood what I was trying to film and spoke with Bernice in Zulu which made things easier for her. Bernice called her family to ask their advice on going through with the interview and they agreed to it. Bernice then agreed, but wanted to film the interview outside in a park, she said she felt the room we were in was too small and it was bothering her. It was a bold decision I liked- talking about menstruation out in the open with people passing and cars driving on the highway far behind.

The rest of the day went as any other normal day of filming for me would have gone-I got a great interview with some accompanying b-roll. At the end of it, we had a great wrap lunch and Bernice and I took a photo together. From my experiences, people who are homeless generally have never intended to become homeless. Without the stability of a place to call home their mental health, physical health, and livelihood can suffer and face severe consequences and vulnerability the longer they continue to operate without a home. The description I have just given can apply to anyone, not the kind of stigma we associate with a person is homeless. Bernice did not ask me again for the transportation money, and that's partly why I chose to give it to her but mostly so she could do what she hadn't been able to do for the past three months-go home.

Thank you to Kgothatso and Milly from Voice it in Action, and for Bernice for sharing her story.

Voice It In Action is a grassroots organisation based in Johannesburg that supports homeless people by giving to shelters and advocating for their rights. To support them visit their Facebook page or donation page.

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