On 22 June 2001, Chris Rawson (now my husband) returned from Ghana, West Africa. Exhausted and smelling like death, he brought with him forty hours of invaluable film footage that would eventually create a career-changing documentary.
When the Africa Project (as it came to be called among those working on it) first began, Chris and I had not even met. That was more than two years ago. Rawson came to BYU as a transfer student and business major, but he did not remain in business for long—his heart belonged to film. He quickly became friends with Tressa Lyn Halcrow, also a film student, and they began planning projects together.
About the same time, the Humanitarian Aid Relief Team (HART), an aspiring appendage to the World Health Organization (WHO), was in the process of planning an annual relief mission to study and treat buruli ulcer patients in Ghana. The buruli ulcer is a bacterial infection that spreads and eats slowly through the skin of the patient. Although the infection is found in many parts of the world, Ghana has been affected epidemically. HART is based in Provo, Utah, and with remarkable convenience, the project leader heading their next mission was Chris’s roommate. WHO wanted film footage to use in an instructional video for indigenous surgeons; Chris’s talents were suggested, and he was offered the job.
Immediately, he began discussing the project with Halcrow, and they decided to shoot a documentary while they were there. As the next step, they invited fellow film major McKell Brockbank to join the team as a codirector. Brockbank approached the experience with a firm belief that this was a divinely-authored destiny. His undeviating faith in and enthusiasm for the project helped the team believe they were going to accomplish something that would impact people for good. Halcrow approached the project with stunning efficiency. She seemed to be born for her role as production manager. Rawson and Brockbank would travel to Ghana, while Halcrow would manage details from Utah.
The team began planning what they wanted the documentary to focus on, and they called upon the expertise of fellow student and film theorist Benji Harry. They determined to focus on the main group involved in the project: a student volunteer; a Ghanaian and an American doctor; a patient and one of the patient’s relatives. They wanted to avoid a strictly Western perspective, so in order to present the subject more truthfully and effectively, the filmmakers planned to document patients stories in their own voices.
They searched for financial sponsors and created a number of informative pamphlets on the buruli ulcer to this end. They hoped that by sending out the packets they would find sponsors to fund travel, lodging, and immunization expenses. Also, they used these materials to pitch their idea to the theater and media arts faculty, hoping to be granted the use of department equipment. They were well received by faculty who brought up questions that helped direct the team, and they agreed to meet again after their questions were answered. Most projects die and are buried at this stage; Rawson, Halcrow, and Brockbank were elated with the response.
Just two weeks after this success, the film team suffered a great loss. Brockbank’s life was taken unexpectedly while visiting friends in Oregon. Halcrow related in her journal on 29 October 2000, “I received a sad notice this evening. McKell Isaac Brockbank died while visiting a friend on the west coast. He was at the beach with his friends last night (yesterday) and they went out on a jetty. He and his cousin were swept off by a huge wave, and the following waves took their toll. . . . McKell was a good friend, a good film student.”
The excitement that surrounded the project temporarily waned. What kept Rawson and Halcrow from giving up on the project was a new and relatively obscure grant opportunity. In one of Rawson’s classes, a professor passed around flyers for grants within the College of Fine Arts and Communications. As the pile made its way to Rawson, he was not thinking of the Africa Project, but when he saw the ad for the Oscarson Discovery Grant, it grabbed his attention and he kept the flyer. He and Halcrow decided to apply for it, using materials they had organized the previous semester, and by a miracle they received a sufficiently significant amount of funding to reawaken their dormant hope for the project.
Everything picked up momentum. Rawson and Halcrow renewed communication with WHO to define the roles and responsibilities of both parties. They established contracts describing what was expected of the surgical footage and how WHO would compensate them by funding part of the trip. This provided a unique challenge, in that neither member of the team had done this before, and they had to learn the proper way to conduct this type of business.
So many things had changed over this period of time that it took considerable effort to reorganize and update their plans. The fact that the trip ever occurred is a credit to Halcrow’s hard work and organizational skills. They were down to only a one-man crew to actually go to Africa, and they needed another cameraman. Airfare alone to Ghana would take up the majority of the money received from the Oscarson Discovery Grant; much more was still needed. The buruli ulcer was a disease completely unknown to them, so they needed to research and prepare themselves, organize the format of the documentary, and schedule and film all of the preliminary interviews. They had less than three months to make all preparations necessary for a six-week shoot in a foreign land. Halcrow had to coordinate efforts between her crew and the plans and expectations of WHO and HART. She also began to orchestrate presentations to be made to the theater and media arts faculty to request their support and arrange for the documentary work to provide class credit for both herself and Rawson.
Wayne Brockbank, father of their deceased friend, entered the fray to help financially, in a loving show of gratitude to his son’s friends and in an effort to remain involved with the project in which his son had so fervently believed. WHO also helped with travel and living expenses. The necessary equipment was loaned by the department. The Africa Project was on.
They eventually brought Gary Wilson on as a cameraman to replace Brockbank and accompany Rawson to Africa. The two journeymen got their passports in order and endured a cruel amount of immunization shots. However, getting the visas in time was a task that required some maneuvering.
Less than a week before the scheduled departure to Ghana, the visa office contacted Halcrow. A small financial glitch had surfaced. In order to receive the visas in time to fly out, they needed to send forty dollars cash to the Ghanian Embassy in New York City in less than three hours. Rawson and Halcrow began calling everyone they knew with remote connections to New York. Rawson now says that he found this a little exciting, because he felt that after having overcome so many hurdles, something like this could not prevent them from making it to Africa. Finally, they found someone to help them. His sister, Melissa Rawson, had a friend from college who was currently living in New York City. The friend, greatly appreciated by the crew, was generous enough to personally deliver stamped, self-addressed envelopes and the correct amount of money to the embassy before they closed that day. The visas arrived in the mail two days before they left for Ghana.
Preparation for the work to be done in Africa also challenged Rawson and Wilson, as neither of them had attempted a documentary before, and they were unfamiliar with the equipment they were bringing. The team’s apprehension with regard to these issues could certainly not prevent the trip, however. They decided that they would never learn by study as well as they would learn by actually doing what needed to be done, so they moved ahead with the plan that Rawson would read as much as possible of the equipment’s instruction manuals during the long flight to Africa and consider that preparation enough.
Rawson and Halcrow had been working on the Africa Project for nearly a year and no one had left the country. When Rawson and Wilson did leave, however, they were prepared for anything, or at least they sincerely hoped so! They even had raincoats for their cameras. Their experience in Ghana was a memorable one. Among the many details with which one might be concerned, such as fear of mosquito swarms, intense heat, unfamiliar food, animal sacrifices, public showers, and the tendency of adventurous, young men to climb vines into very tall trees, was my fear that they might get sick. Rawson, Halcrow, and Wilson, on the other hand, were concerned with the safety of the luggage, language barriers, lack of good lighting in the operating rooms, and what the intense heat would do to the equipment.
Me Nsu Bio “I will weep no more”
We all worried about the people we were getting to know through this experience. Jacob was the patient who had been chosen early on as one of the foci of the documentary. He had contracted buruli a number of times, and over the course of attempted treatments he had an arm amputated, developed a permanent limp, and his remaining hand was disfigured. Samuel was not personally infected, but he was present to make sure that his son, Emanuel, was treated surgically. As Rawson spent time with these people, he got to know them, and would send e-mail to those of us waiting at home with the progress of the trip. We all became involved with their lives, through prayer and mutual concern.
After five grueling weeks, the crew returned, and I was elated. They had survived! Halcrow could stop worrying about “her boys in Africa” and post-production work could begin. I got to help a little in organizing the footage in preparation for editing. This was my first experience with movie making. We spent the entirety of that first week after the trip just logging tapes. Every second of film was accounted for and described in the most informative spreadsheet ever compiled. At times, the pictures were disturbing, and I had trouble watching; a great deal of the footage was for WHO’s surgical video. I quickly became accustomed to seeing knives, skin, bone, and blood in combinations that I could not have handled so easily before.
As for the rest of the work, turning forty hours of tape into a twenty-six minute documentary, I could not do much to help. My duty was to not complain for months as Rawson turned the raw footage into a polished documentary—instead of taking me out.
The Africa Project was never so blessed as it was with the addition of James Stevens, a uniquely brilliant composition student, who spent quite literally hundreds of hours writing the music to accompany and assist the documentary. Night after night, Rawson would bring his recent updates of the documentary, and Stevens would play or sing what he had written to augment it. Another composer, Eric Hansen, and various other musicians assisted in the writing and recording of the music, but for the most part, the genius of the work lay with Stevens.
Six months after the documentary was shot, Rawson and Stevens finished the editing and sound for the first draft of the piece. Now, four months and several versions later, it seems that the technical work on the documentary has come to an end. It was hailed as Best Documentary and as having the Best Original Musical Score in Final Cut, BYU’s annual film festival. Halcrow is currently working on finding more venues in which to show it, and we all have high hopes for this small film we have loved for so long.
Rawson is still in contact with Samuel, who hopes to come to the United States soon and work here as a carpenter, a career he has been excelling at for years in Ghana. His faith and hope are inspirational, and I look forward to meeting him, if we can all manage it.
I am saddened that I could not go with the team to Africa, because there are some things that I will never understand. Discussing his experience, my husband recently told me, “Nothing compares to being there, watching people get their feet or arms cut open, seeing more than a hundred people waiting for surgery, and knowing that less than twenty will receive treatment.” In constructing the video, he had to focus on simply capturing “some bit of the truth. Maybe bringing people even a little closer is good enough.” It is my belief that he, Halcrow, Stevens, and Brockbank did succeed in bringing us a little closer to these people. I may never meet any of them, and I may never see Ghana, but in learning of their experiences I have come to better understand people in general. Films like this one have power to make us all a little more sympathetic, and in a very real sense of the word, more alive. Appropriately, the documentary has been titled Me Nsu Bio, which, in Twi, a Ghanian dialect, means “I will weep no more.”
You will have to see the documentary to see how the stories end.