The locations for Pili are set in the Pwani region of Tanzania. Without a budget to build sets we were entirely reliant on the kindness and trust of people to use their homes as Pili’s house, their field as a work space, their council offices for the Vikoba meetings, bits of beach to drive along, real Care and Treatment Clinics (CTCs) that people living with HIV use to access counselling and clinical support, and, er, a very sweaty stationery shop to photocopy in.
Using real life CTCs was both an incredible means of attaining authenticity for the story but also a complete headache. The first headache was an ethical one: how to protect the identity and comfort of people living with HIV when a film crew shows up at the clinic. As it turned out, this headache was not too difficult to overcome. We had clearance from the Doctors and Clinic Managers to use the CTC for filming. On shoot days all equipment and crew would stay away from the inside of the clinic until I and, most often interpreter Anitha or Ansity, had explained to everyone waiting what our plans were and discussed any issues people may have. This would involve an explanation of what the film is about, what we would be shooting, and subsequently to see if anyone would want to appear in the film as an extra – noting that in doing so they may be identified as HIV positive. I assumed most people would not want to do this and we would have to navigate a way of filming so that the camera did not focus on them and pull in some extras from the street. To my surprise the majority of people were not bothered, with some being actively open about their status and wanting to appear in the film.
The willingness of people to be in the film led to a much more practical headache: participants in the project had to complete fully explained consent forms. One thing I have learned from making this film is that people were incredibly open and supportive but uncomfortable when they had to sign something. It made them suspicious. The fabulous interpreters in the crew helped me communicate that these forms are to protect them rather than me. But of course once signed, the problem was then identifying who was where and had signed what in a busy functioning CTC: we lost one extra that we had covered in fake blood to a counselling session, and most extras rotated from meetings with the Doctor, dispensary and laboratory and then left after they had been seen. All of the time the crew had to be mindful of those who did not want to participate, the functioning clinic, and not to film any extra children (this is a criteria of the QM ethics committee that became more and more difficult as babies were everywhere). Most clinic days are busiest in the morning and thus the majority of the scenes, particularly those with a lot of dialogue, were shot in the afternoon – when we did not disturb the natural rhythm of the clinic, those involved were clear consenting participants, and the background sound was more manageable. It is a genuine testament to the generosity of the (often overworked and underpaid) health professionals that we were able to shoot in two CTCs, one laboratory, a pharmacy, and a medical dispensary.
We were able to film in every location we asked to film in. Some people charged a small fee to do so depending on the location and how long we were there which was fair enough but often led to my first negotiation or dispute of the day (turns out being a producer means you settle 5 disputes a day). One dispute of the day was with the manager of field workers who wanted a little extra money than that agreed with the field owner. As guardian of the much-protected budget I grumbled about this, however little did I know that the field manager would end up giving an incredibly sensitive performance as Abdul and would bash through his wall to create some extra light for us to shoot in his house (he negotiated this after knocking through a quarter of the wall). He also insisted on having a photo with me at the wrap lunch so clearly we ended up friends than financial foes. What can I say – people of Pwani – total gems!
The lead councillor whose office was in the town hall met people through his window and under a tree (in ridiculously hot weather) as we shot scenes in the main hall. The family that lived in Pili’s house fixed the broken door for us to use, provided us with extra porridge and wood as props (and had the kindness not to laugh at me as I wafted the fire and tried to make porridge like the spoilt Londoner I am). We paid for such materials, but this was often after they had anticipated what we needed and done the work.
Of course there were problems with shooting entirely in real locations rather than on set. We had a weekly battle with barbers and bars playing ear-splitting music over dialogue. We recruited two men to help with crowd control when shooting market scenes who promptly picked up big sticks to control a wave of children leaving school (and I hasten to add quickly put down!). Motorbikes, chickens, ducks and children would run across the shot. Pool players in the local bar found DOP Craig, AC Gary and Sound Tom running after Bello running for a bus hilarious (as did Bello). Filming on a road led to a regular dance with the Msata-Saadani express bus and our biggest foe – Vumbi! (Dust!). But ultimately we lucked out: when the board appeared people were quiet, no obstacle was too difficult to overcome, and everyone was ready to be an extra or give an emotional turn and then go back to work at a moment’s notice.