A Creative Reflection on “Sentenced to Debt”

Thoughts on the production process, group work and ethics.
By Michael Baillie

“Sentenced to Debt” is an investigative documentary that explores the often unregulated relationship between a client and his or her money-lender. These money lenders are often referred to as ‘skoppers’ within the communities they work in because of their reputation for using violence. The story was one that gradually came to us after a long process of visiting with numerous social organisations, government departments, and aid agencies. Although this was a lengthy process, I felt that in the end it was rewarding in terms of the story that we got because it is an important story and one that may otherwise have gone unheard.

Besides negotiating the logistics of investigating and covering the story, there were also the logistics of managing the team of Colourblind Creations. It is these logistics in terms of the personal experience of producing Sentenced to Debt that shall be dealt with through the course of this essay. It is important to reflect on the production process at its completion because often one is unable to divorce oneself from the process while it is in motion. Reflection allows one to take stock of what went on and what was learnt and what can be changed for future productions.

An important aspect of this production cycle was the group component. The amount of work that goes into producing a 24 minute documentary is huge and can only be completed successfully if it is carried out by a group of dedicated and committed people. I felt that group cohesion was rather bumpy in the initial stages of production but then, as time passed, the group found a natural rhythm and was able to accommodate individual commitments. In this regard, it was also very important that roles were established within the group so that expectations could also be set. This establishes a certain amount of accountability and responsibility for certain tasks and duties. Without the establishment of roles and accountability it is all too easy to pass the buck onto one of the other group members.

I had difficulty at the outset of the project in terms of trusting other members to get things done. I tended to want to do everything myself and this created tension because individual roles were blurred and people were no longer sure of what they were expected to do. With time I learnt to trust other to get also play valuable parts in production. One also comes to learn that different people have different strengths and that these need to be appreciated because they do a lot to enrich the final product.

Through the course of the project there were a number of ethical considerations that had to be made. A good example was our use of the hidden camera and the ethical concerns that it raised. Our first concern was that using hidden camera footage would immediately cast an element of guilt on to the money lenders that were to interview. We resolved this issue by making explicit in the documentary, our reasons for using a hidden camera. Secondly, we were concerned for the safety of those who would attempt to use the hidden camera. Rumours about the violent tendencies of the money lenders were abundant and as such we had to accept the possibility that an interview may turn nasty. On the whole I feel that the hidden camera proved to be a very important tool in the gathering of information and vital for telling a more complete story. Making the bag and testing it out was a rather time-consuming process and developing a technique for shooting with it was hard work but fun nonetheless.

I found that the documentary was constantly on my mind and that I was continually thinking about what we were arguing and how best to present a piece of information. Developing a script and then repeatedly fine tuning it was also a very taxing process that I think saved us a lot of time in the long run. Having a very precise and specific map in the form of a script allowed to us breakdown and develop the narrative and argument that we wanted to present. It also meant that we broke the documentary down into smaller chunks and made the overall goal of 24 minutes a little less daunting. In the end I think we overshot in terms of the interviews we got about the basic issues of money lending and if we had scripted earlier then we may have saved ourselves more time but we may not have fully understood or grasped the issue as firmly as we did due to the extra leg-work.

This documentary was the first time that I had to really tackle the problem that is posed by working with people of another language. Many of the case studies we did were with people who didn’t speak English and so we had to use a translator for interviews and for the editing process. It proved to be a tedious practice because the translator was, at least initially, not familiar with the issue and thus it was difficult for her to ask follow-up questions and probe as we might have been able to had we been able to communicate more effectively with the case studies. When it came to actually sitting down and translating the interviews, I personally felt quite ashamed of our inability to speak Xhosa. One woman in particular had poured her heart out to us in the interview and we had been oblivious to the commitment she had made to us.

This feeling that we were in someway abusing people for our own benefit, was something that I felt on more than one occasion. Over the course of producing “Sentenced to Debt” we worked a lot in the Sun City community and relied on them heavily for Case studies and general ‘cut-away’ shots of the environment where ‘skopping’ is very common. We were outsiders that just arrived in a community and began to ask very difficult questions and endanger the wellbeing of those that worked with us. In the long-run I hope that the work we did will benefit the community but for now it feels as though we were just tourists that arrived and got what we needed before leaving again. While we were doing our work I have no doubt that we treated people with the respect and dignity that they deserve. I feel, however, that in the way that we just arrived and then abandoned them when our work was done, we in some way disrespect the relationships that we had developed. It comes down to a personal commitment to return the favour to the communities that we were engaged with by visiting occasionally and helping out where possible, and also by believing that the work we do will have positive long term effects on those people.

Having completed the documentary I feel that the overall experience was valuable in terms of the lessons that we learnt. It gave us the opportunity to produce a full length documentary of broadcast standard in an environment wherein it was safe to make the occasional mistake and then learn from it. The amount of work, planning and stamina that producing a 24 minute documentary requires is completely different to that required for the production of shorter pieces. It teaches one to make a plan and get the work done. There were numerous occasions where an interview was unusable or where the equipment broke down and we just needed to go out and do it over again. At the end of the day excuses are not going to produced something great. That can only come from hard work, dedication and tenacity. I feel that we have produced work that is of a high standard and something that we can really be proud of.

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