Pili is a film based on the stories of women living with HIV/AIDS in Pwani, told by these women, and filmed where they live. The women in the film are played by women from the region rather than trained actors. The majority of these women are HIV positive. Although the character of Pili is fictitious her life, the story and the everyday risks she encounters are based on the stories of 85 women Director Leanne and I met between November and December 2015.
The main roles for the film were cast in December 2015 during the recce and research visit to Tanzania. It was at this time we knew we had found someone special in Bello Rashidi who plays Pili. We were introduced to Bello by her sister Sikijua who plays Zahura in the film when we asked her to bring people along to an open acting workshop run by Leanne in Miono. Bello impressed Leanne and made us think that shooting a film in Swahili with untrained actors was possible if we had someone like this as the lead. However, we still had reservations about this right up until the shoot. Given this film is part of an academic research project we could not coerce Bello into playing the role, and she may find it too much or refuse to play some of the scenes if she did not like them. Fortunately for us none of the above happened. There was the odd diva moment (how many eggs she insisted on having in a chips mayai for example), but this was mostly outweighed by the consistently evocative and subtle performances she delivered.
We knew Sesilia would be perfect for the character of Cecilia as the part was written for her; likewise with Sikijua as Zuhura. Neema would play the pharmacist as she did a great turn in the December workshop in this role. It made sense to use the children of the actresses as the children of Pili – these children would have minimal screen time because of the requirements of the QMUL ethics committee, however to not have them at all would be unrealistic given all the women were Mothers.
We had a number of outstanding roles to cast when we returned to Miono in February. For these parts we asked the women we were working with who would be best, showing them photos of people we thought would be good. The women were unanimous in agreeing that Siwazurio would be perfect for the part of Ana – the peer educator gossip – and Mwanaidi ideal for the part of Leila – head of the Vikoba group.
All other roles were often cast on the day. This occurred through a practical process of bus driver plays bus driver or stationer plays stationer, and at times through accident rather than design. The best casting was when someone we had lined up to play Abdul didn’t turn up. This left us an hour away from shooting the scene in the middle of a field way out from the centre of town to find someone to play the role. Looking around we noted two options – farm labourers working in the fields or the field worker manager Barry. We went with Barry who had previously expressed an interest, who brought much needed sensitivity to the role of Abdul and as soon as the scene was wrapped passed up lunch and went back to work in the field.
The biggest headache of on the day casting was extras. Extras mean extra time for explanation about the project and extra consent forms. They also meant extra management of expectations – most extras (despite being told otherwise) thought participation would be short, sweet and pay a Hollywood salary. I should add that the extra in the photo below was lovely – she was just sat by the port watching the dhows, was happy to participate and had no rider.
Although we were fortunate to shoot in the health centres, we were unable to have real Doctors play the Doctors. This is understandable given how chronically understaffed rural health centres are and the demands on Doctors’ time. Fortunately we were able to recruit volunteers and health workers from the centres to play key medical roles and in one instance, got the barman from where we were staying in Bagamoyo to play a Doctor.
The only exception to our no trained actors rule was Nkwabi who played Mahela. Nkwabi was involved with the project from the early days of our recce in Bagamoyo in November 2015 and is well known in Tanzania from his role in the popular series Siri Ya Mtungi. The character of Mahela is a difficult one and we needed someone with experience who could bring depth to the character and provide support and reassurance to Bello in key scenes. Nkwabi not only played the role as Leanne intended, but went along with the low budget, make things happen ethos of the project with support and kindness for what we were trying to achieve.
The commitment and talent of the cast demonstrated that you can work with untrained actors, in another language, in a resource poor setting and deliver excellent performances. Of course I’m biased as I had an intense period of work with these people, but ultimately I am confident that audiences will agree.