May 19, 2023 | FEATURES | By Joshua Kalenga
My most memorable experience at Colorado College, ironically, took place in Zambia, my home country. I say that not to discredit any of the amazing opportunities I have received in my four years here, but to emphasize how incredibly empowering the Colorado College Documentary Exploration Grant was for me. Yet, as I graduate, I am still grappling with the complicated ethics of documentary filmmaking.
“Faced with a lead pollution crisis that began 99 years before he was born, a young activist fights for the wellbeing of his hometown,” is the logline for “Kabwe Ka Mukuba,” a film directed and produced by myself and Audrey Hubbard ’23, with support from the CC Documentary Exploration Grant. But behind these 24 words lies over a year of research, emails, film, stories, and a multitude of ethical questions that keep us awake at night.
Kabwe is not my hometown. I was born and raised in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, where a lead pollution crisis of Kabwe’s scale seems a lot less possible.
This is an essential detail – although viewers from the West may perceive me as an ‘insider’ in Kabwe because of my ‘Zambian’ identity, I don’t see myself that way.
Insider-outsider dynamics are at the heart of many of the ethical questions that plague documentary filmmakers.
Who is the right person to tell a story?
Nandini Sikand, director of “Soma Girls,” a film about girls in Kolkata, India who reside in a hostel created to protect them from the sex trade, describes struggles with her positionality as a filmmaker. Sikand said “other aspects of my subject position are more problematic: I am a half-Bengali academic/filmmaker raised in New Delhi now living in the United States, and I do not make my living as a sex worker.”
I relate deeply to Sikand’s struggles with her identity. In my case, I often reflect on my positionality as someone who, despite being Zambian, now attends one of the most expensive colleges in the world. Moreover, even though I grew up two hours away from Kabwe, I don’t have first-hand experience of its lead pollution crisis beyond brief visits in my childhood.
Why, then, should I be the one to tell the city’s story?
Documentary filmmakers are vehicles through which subjects are able to tell their stories. Yet, we must remember that the filmmaker is the driver of the vehicle, and what we see as viewers is filtered through their windscreen.
To address our positionalities, it was important that Hubbard and I center the voice of the film’s protagonist, Caleb Mulenga Bwalya, as much as possible. This decision is reflected in the film’s creative choices – it is largely narrated by Bwalya, rather than some seemingly omniscient voice of God.
Yet, I think it would be disingenuous for us to suggest that our own voices are not present in the film. There is only so much that the camera can capture or the edit can contain, and decisions about structure, soundtrack, and pacing are all made by filmmakers.
For example, in our film’s climactic scene, Bwalya laments the possibility that if nothing is done to stop the lead crisis, “there is not going to be Kabwe anymore.” The sad piano score fades away and the audience is left for a few seconds with Bwalya, who appears to be contemplating the weight of his statement.
This carefully selected moment is a reflection of the central emotional truth that Hubbard and I wished to capture in the film. It is ourperception of what is most troubling about the Kabwe lead crisis.
In this way, every documentary filmmaker is an outsider. Once one turns their camera on someone else, they hold a great degree of power over how they are represented. Thus, I see it as the responsibility of every filmmaker to reflect on the perspectives and biases they bring to a film to ensure that they are using this power responsibly.
In “Kabwe Ka Mukuba,” it was especially important to us to make a film that avoids the pitfalls of poverty porn. Sikand describes poverty porn as “a Western fascination and voyeurism of developing nations.”
I see it as the kind of cinema, especially prevalent in the ‘African’ documentary space and NGO advertisements, that presents its subjects as though they have no agency of their own, gazing upon them with a Western curiosity that exploits their suffering for dollars and YouTube clicks.
Thus, Hubbard and I decided to frame the story of Kabwe’s lead pollution through the experiences of our protagonist, Bwalya. As a young activist fighting to raise awareness about the crisis, he is clearly highly knowledgeable, mature, and driven. In contrast to the depiction of passive individuals in poverty porn, we hope Bwalya emerges in our film as the incredibly optimistic and dynamic force he is.
Bwalya’s unwavering determination to effect change in Kabwe is reflected in the film’s symbolism of trains. The various train shots juxtapose Kabwe’s identity as a transit town against Bwalya’s decision to stay and fight for its future. While many people, including viewers (and makers) of the film, come and go through Kabwe, Bwalya remains.
“Leaving Kabwe is not an alternative thing that I’ve thought of doing,” he says at the end of the film, seated on train tracks.
Another creative choice we made to avoid perpetuating the harms of poverty porn was our deliberate exclusion of the commonly used shot of random ‘African’ kids dancing in front of the camera. This shot, in my opinion, is the epitome of the dehumanization and exploitation that often accompanies the Western gaze in Africa.
Yet, despite Hubbard and I’s commitment to centering our subjects’ voices and avoiding poverty porn, tough questions remain. For example, we are still debating the ethics of including a scene in which a father remarks that the lead crisis has negatively impacted the “intelligence capacity” of his young daughters.
As I continue to navigate these and other questions, I carry with me a few general reflections from the process of making the film.
I do not believe that anyone is constrained entirely by their positionality and perspective. We all have room to learn and grow. In our case, the film was backed by a year of research on the topic. I believe in the value of journalistic rigor and that careful and responsible journalism can help trump subjectivities.
I do not believe that there is a single ‘right person’ to make a film or that it should be seen as a zero-sum game. In fact, wouldn’t it be fascinating to have documentaries created by different individuals on the same topics, similar to how we have different interpretations of, say, Batman?
This diversity of perspectives could provide much needed multifaceted narratives in our society.
The process of making a documentary has forever changed how I watch documentary films. It has encouraged me to reflect on the filmmaker’s point of view and consider that I am seeing the world through their eyes. I believe that documentaries should be watched as a starting point for understanding our society, rather than an end.
One of the reasons I have always been drawn to journalism, and why I am particularly fond of documentaries, is the ability to capture personal experiences and convey emotional truth. Writing and editing for The Catalyst for the past four years has been my second favorite CC experience. I hope that my final article adds some perspective to the wider conversation about the ways in which both journalists and filmmakers can deal ethically with their human subjects.