We Are the Ones premiered at the Montreal International Black Film Festival and makes its U.S. premiere this weekend at the Tallgrass Film Festival in Wichita, KS. The film captures the remarkable efforts of Dr. Glenn Geelhoed, Ajak Abraham, and Francis Gai, three surgeons in an area of South Sudan dealing with violent tribal conflict, each from very different backgrounds, who are using medicine to bring their patients closer to peace. This week, I was given the opportunity to speak with the films Co-Directors/Co-Producers Michael Skinner and Jon Micheal Shink about the complexities of capturing this story, the harsh reality of South Sudan, and the level of compassion and humanity that they discovered while shooting their film.
David Shreve, Audiences Everywhere: I’d like to start by having you introduce to our readers how your film came to be.
Michael Skinner: In the summer of 2009, Dr. Glenn Geelhoed was at my wife’s graduation. She was getting her Doctorate in Education Policy. Glenn was getting a doctorate as well and his adviser mentioned that this was his ninth advanced degree. And I thought, “Well that’s kind of freaky. What has this person been doing?” It turns out that he is a Professor of Surgery, Professor of Tropical Medicine and he has doctorates in Chemistry, Biology, Epidemiology, etc. I asked if he taught at the university, and he said that he did, but spent most of his time teaching indigenous people surgical techniques. So, Jon Michael and I met with him over the summer so he could tell us about the work that he did in various countries, and in particular, the work that he did in South Sudan… We were getting really excited, because we saw this as an opportunity to look at not just how a Westerner helps someone in a less fortunate circumstance, but a chance to understand: how do people on the ground there year-round deal with this. What advantages does this surgical training offer? What happens when everyone leaves and what is life like when there isn’t an American team around? So we planned an open-ended trip in which we would be imbedded with a surgical team and then we planned to stay a couple of months after to see what happens.
Jon Michael Shink: One of the things that we knew initially when we decided to pursue this project was that we wanted to tell this story in a different way. While we were curious about what health care looked like on the ground, we never set out with a political agenda or particular perspective to enforce. We wanted to put ourselves in that world, and then we thought, if we’re in this exotic world, how can we take that home to a viewing audience. It became an exciting filmmaking experiment, attempting to do this in a way that we haven’t seen many documentaries do. We made a few technical choices: We didn’t record any on-camera interviews or consult any scholars on the situation in Sudan. We didn’t want a 5,000 foot view. We wanted to be on the ground, telling an interesting story. From a technical aspect, we shot with two cameras and anything we shot had to be continuous. Each of us had our own camera attempting to cover enough to recreate our experience. In some ways, we handcuffed ourselves, but in others, it was really thrilling exploring different ways of storytelling. I think what we got is this combination of cinéma vérité with voiceover elements from our main character. And I hope it’s an enjoyable experience.
AE: There are certainly some stunning film elements at play in your film. With that in mind, how hard was it to be conscious of your own position as a filmmaker when your subject is so real, important, dynamic, and volatile? Was there ever a moment where it was hard to remember you were a filmmaker?
MS: That was a balance that we had to strike constantly. One of the advantages we had is that we were in each of the places we filmed for a long time. The doctors and nurses would tell us about things as they were happening. We could move in and out of the surgical and treatment areas. They would introduce us to people and explain our project and get permission to film. It was not as awkward as one might imagine. In South Sudan, family comes to care for patients, both pre-op and post-op. Those families would camp out near the hospital and we got to know them as well.
JMS: The doctors are such pillars of their community. We spent enough time there that we developed a good relationship with the doctors and that really allowed us to be a part of a number of lives and to gather emotional and intimate material. The doctors were a great introduction to the communities and the families. On a couple of occasions, folks would come up to us during some really disheartening moments, and they would remind us that this stuff happens all the time. Every week, every month. And they would say “We’re glad this is happening while you’re here. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be an accurate representation of what we go through.” And that gave us confidence and a bit of responsibility to tell their story in its truest form and bring that back to an audience.
AE: You alluded to some of the tragic things you witnessed, so I have to ask, inversely, was there ever a sort of detachment offered by your position as the filmmaker? Or were you always consciously aware and never detached from what your were filming?
MS: Some of the cases, the clinics had actually saved because they knew they were complicated surgical cases and that visiting doctors had expertise. If you were an average person in a room with a dirt floor and no lighting and a mastectomy was taking place in front of you, there would be a weird, other-worldly sense to it. But I found that as I was trying to tell the story of that thing happening, part of my mind was working on the problem of “What am I shooting? What’s Jon Michael Shooting? How can we capture this moment in time?” So for me I often didn’t experience the moment of what was happening until I reviewed the footage the next day. In some ways the act of filming protected me from experiencing it in that moment.
JMS: I certainly agree. That there’s a level of detachment, but I use that word carefully, because there were instances during filming when people lost their lives and we were there during that time. Even though you are making a film and you’re seeing it through that lens, you have empathy for what’s going on, the people and families involved. [Beyond the surgery rooms] there were times when there were at least 100 members of a rival tribe that came into the village and they all had AK47’s they were shooting into the air and the filmmaker side of you says “We have to get that!” And that’s fully what takes over. I remember even in that particular moment, after we got those shots, our sound guy Glenn had the same thought process and he ran into the crowd to get the sound. And the doctors had to tell us, “That’s not the best idea. You might want to take a step back.”