Over the next week, I have the pleasure of welcoming Jonathan Smith, a recent graduate of the Yale School of Public Health, and a current lecturer there, to the Blog. Jonathan has been working on a documentary about his research entitled “They Go To Die” a story describing the plight of miners in South Africa. I’ll have the opportunity to talk to Jonathan about his experiences making this movie both as a film maker and an epidemiologist . The interview is split into three parts: Part 1 was a broad background to the area, Part 2 covers the filming experience, and finally Part 3 will talk about the role of storytelling in research. Jonathan has mounted a campaign on Kickstarter to help fund the editing and final steps in making this movie a reality, and if you would like to support him, please click here.

So how did you start the filming process? Did you have contacts? Did you encounter any resistance making this movie? How did the miners react when you told them?

Well, funny you should ask. My first question was, “how can I find these men?” I mean, think about the logistics of actually finding these men, who ‘disappear’ once they leave the mine, then try to get them to agree to let some white guy live with them… and film it? I literally had to start from scratch. I had no connections. It was a tough time.

At first I tried just walking through the settlements asking around for people. Terrifying. Obviously, I’m an idiot. It wasn’t the correct approach and once was literally chased out of the settlement by men with butcher knives. Amazing how fast you can run when you need to!

Later, when I went to the exact same settlement to stay with Mr. Sagati, I approached it through ‘community leaders’ – informally appointed leader of the settlement. Once my intentions were actually explained and by someone they trusted, they were more than happy about letting me into the community. That experience also gave Mr. Sagati’s family in particular (who lived in the settlement) a pretty good laugh and some ammunition to make fun of me after I told them…

Jonathan on site filming "They Go To Die"

Was there any point where you thought “This isn’t going to work”?

Everyday. Everyday for the past 2 years. But its not ‘if’ its going to work, its ‘how’ its going to work. And ‘when’ its going to happen. I literally wake up every morning wondering how the hell I will make this happen.

I maintain persistence. I seem to be constantly battling impossible tasks but with persistence, I am overcoming some of them. I’ve held meetings with the CEOs of the largest gold mining companies in the world, met top ranking health executives in the government, and granted rare access to mines – all because of persistence.

Things that cant be overcome by diplomacy, well, persistence still helps me get around them – for instance Clint Smith and I hopped a fence to a mining compound to film his poetry, “Welcome to the Mines.” I don’t think they would like us yelling “I am sick, I am tired, I am dying!” on their property… but I couldn’t imagine his beautiful and chilling poem with any other backdrop, could you? We needed it to bring out the emotion of his piece. So we said screw it, lets go. Clint literally told me, “you’re not going to make this film without breaking a few rules.” Very true. Somehow I went from cell-signaling to breaking and entering – all in the name of science!

But now the hurdle is funding, and that is something I am not good at. Everything up to this point was funded by my personal savings and by working two part time jobs as a student. I am a researcher, not a fundraiser. And despite all the other hurdles, this seems to be the most difficult.

So you went and lived among the miners and really experienced life with them. How was that experience? Had you visited that part of the world before?

The experience was amazing – something I can’t describe in the confines of text. In fact, most – if not all – of the ‘personal’ footage that will be used in the film was actually just for me, so that I could remember the families that I had bonded with.

During filming, I thought the actual film would be much different. I was still thinking scientifically. The preview shows many of the jokes and personal experiences I asked just because of the bond we had made, I never expected to use that in the film – I had originally thought the film would be very scientific (and boring). But I realized that my passion to change this was fuelled by these bonds I had made – the parts I wanted to remember about this experience weren’t the diseases and death, but things like Mr. Mkoko quietly fibbing to his wife about her cooking, or Mr. Ndlagamandla realizing he had been singing the wrong words to his favorite song. If I bonded with these moments, why would I think other people wouldn’t?

The miners welcomed Jonathan into their lives and let him document their experiences

What do you hope people will take away from the movie?

There’s a saying I have heard since I was young, that “knowledge is power.” But power doesn’t equal change, its simply power. A battery has power, but if you don’t plug it in, it doesn’t do anything. If you combine the power of knowing about a health situation with the strength of a human story, then you can motivate change.

Overall I want people to see the lives of the men – to realize they are defined by more than their disease. I do have to say… I hope people realize “that they aren’t numbers.” And I know this sounds hypocritical, but I hate when people say “people aren’t numbers, they are people.” Telling me someone ‘is a person’ isn’t telling me anything new. I don’t mean to sound too philosophical, but what is a ‘person’? Do we have similar bonds? Is there a common thread of humanity we all share? Of course they are a person. That phrase originated with altruistic goals of humanizing the situation, but we have even turned numb to this statement. We have to show what being human means – that we all share a common bond of humanity.

The film hopes to show why they are people, not just that they are people; that they have relationships, bonds, and relationships in their communities. It hopes to show hope, not despair – that there is a reason we should invest in the energies and policies that will prevent this cycle from continuing. Not just to do something because the data tells us to, but to do it because we feel something.

We’ve covered the background about the movie, and the movie itself. If you would like to support the movie, please consider donating to the Kickstarter campaign. Check back on Friday for the final instalment of this interview series, where we’ll discuss the role of storytelling in research and advice from Jonathan to budding documentary-epidemiologists.