This World AIDS Day I'll be reflecting on my extraordinary year working with women living with HIV/AIDS to make the unique feature film, 'Pili'. As an academic specialising in global health, I thought making a feature length film about real women living with HIV / AIDS would be the most memorable thing I did this year. Academics tend not to double up as film producers, and the learning curve seemed, at times, insurmountably steep.
Making the film was a pretty extraordinary way to spend 2016. We set out to make a different kind of film: compelling but not sensational, and one in which the cast and crew are not detached from the story they tell, in our case that of women living with HIV. It stretched me to the limit, inspired me, and sometimes broke my heart. It was an experience that I will never forget, but even that pales in comparison to how I felt when I first screened the film, a few weeks ago, back in Miono, Tanzania.
I knew that the women who took part would be the ultimate arbiters of failure or success. What if they didn't like it? What if no-one showed up to the screening? The predominantly female cast had trusted the production crew to represent their lives on screen and that the film had to be good enough to make some money for them through international distribution. If the women in the film didn't like it, then all would be for nothing.
The cast screening of PILI took place in the community in which the film is set: the small town of Miono in the Pwani region of Tanzania. Miono of rural town life in Tanzania, it has a few bars, a local health clinic, a market and is surrounded by fields in which the majority of the town's inhabitants work. It does not have a cinema. To screen PILI we set up a mobile screen in the school playing fields, managing the accompanying perils of high wind, primary school children keen to interfere, and curious secondary school children keen to help.
By 6.30pm people started to arrive and an aura of chaos surrounded proceedings as one of the set-up crew began negotiations between a mandazi seller and the kids that had been following the crew around. At 7pm I arrived with the cast of women to a crowd of 250 people. Children sat on the floor to the right, the cast sat on chairs to the left, tables acted as benches for the first line of seated audience members, people stood behind them three rows deep, some people sat on shoulders, and then pockets of people broke from the crowd in their own groups. By 7.30pm it felt like the crowd had doubled as more people came, school children emerged from their late afternoon classes, and the audience was continuously lit up by piki-piki and bus lights as more people were transported to the screening.
Everyone whooped when the character 'Pili' (from whom the film's name is derived) danced to Tanzania reality TV star Peter Msechu's song Nyota, they laughed at every scene 'Ana' the local gossip peer educator was in, and they cheered when the name 'Juma Nasolo' was mentioned - he was the local snake man (charmer is too simple to cover his skills), famed across Tanzania, who had died earlier in the year.
Throughout the film the cast were smiling. Smiling and laughing.
No-one in the cast seemed awkward about seeing themselves on screen. They had all introduced themselves and their characters at the beginning of the film. We had agreed this was the best thing for them to do so that everyone understood they were playing a character. This was really important for Bello Rashid who plays 'Pili' - as the lead, she is in every scene and her character has to make increasingly difficult choices. Bello is such a good actor that you believe 'Pili' is real, and while there are similarities to their lives, it does not mean she would make the same decisions.
At the end of the film I got all the women to stand at the front and take a bow. Miono is not a big clapping audience and instead we just got mobbed by cheering children - particularly the twins who play Pili's son 'Ibrahim' in the film. As soon as the credits ended everyone walked off home, ready to return to work the next day.
Leaving Miono I felt the enormity of what we had created. The women in the film seemed pleased with the final product, but at the end of the day being in the film does not help them with their everyday lives. It doesn't pay for food, or address their HIV status, or pay for their children (and their own) education-related expenses. It is an expression of their lives, their stories - nothing more - but it is such an honour to have been faithful to their experiences.
The plan is for PILI to be premiered at an international film festival in 2017 and get worldwide distribution to make the women and communities in the film some money. All money raised from the project goes back to them. However this is a big if, for now the women are back working in the fields and the story of PILI, their story, continues. As one of the actresses, Sesilia, said at the outset of the project 'Pili is everywhere.'