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Filmmaker Interview: Jesse Wheeler

As I mentioned in a previous post, when I made my short film, At Last, Okemah!, one of the roles I needed to cast was that of an ethnomusicologist/videographer. I was stunned to learn that one of the actors who turned up to audition, Jesse Wheeler, was an actual ethnomusicologist – with a PhD to prove it. Jesse ended up getting the part and a fast friendship was born. Since completion on the Okemah shoot Jesse has been hard at work on Delivering Malawi, a documentary film currently in post-production, about the valiant fight of health education workers at Embangweni Hospital in southeast Africa. Jesse’s mother, Salome Chasnoff, directed the film while Jesse performed the crucial roles of sound design, photography, and auxiliary video. More information on the film, including a trailer and many wonderful photos, can be found at the official website: http://deliveringmalawi.com

I recently had a chance to speak with Jesse about the unique experience of making this important film:

MGS: So how do American filmmakers based in Chicago end up making a documentary in Malawi?

JW: Connections, friendships, past projects, favors…

MGS: As “outsiders,” was it difficult to win over the trust of your subjects so that they would speak to you freely? If so, how did you accomplish this?

JW: We did not find it difficult, and I would attribute this to a few things. 1) we both are seasoned interviewers and ethnographers, and we are able to connect with people relatively easily, which comes down to being present, disarming, listening, showing that what you have to offer is of mutual interest, spending time with the person, returning to the person and place, establishing a rapport that goes beyond the moment of the interview, and something that the other person feels in/for you. 2) We had the backing of the doctor, and others respect her. 3) Our mother-son relationship made certain interactions easier, as people were able to define us in that way, as opposed to only “outsiders,” “white people,” “filmmakers,” etc. 4) I have experience in Africa — I lived in Kenya in the 90s and travelled to Malawi in 91, so I have a “knowledge” of cultural mores and habits and am able to interact in ways that put people at ease, or at least keep us from being culturally offensive.

MGS: One striking aspect of the footage from your film that I’ve seen is that you acknowledge your own presence as filmmakers and your interactions with the people you are documenting. According to some documentary schools of thought, it’s better to strive for a greater sense of “objectivity.” What was the rationale behind your decision?

JW: It became at a certain point also a story of our interaction with people, not just the issues of health, etc. The mother-son team doing a documentary on maternal-child health made us feel at some point like characters in the narrative. In the trailer titled “2 Things Involved,” you see and hear us — that was a decision also based on the fact that the two subjects, the UMOZA theater group and the Sinda Jazz Band, stage events, are themselves creations of people who represent life for and to others. So our acknowledgement of our own role in that seemed appropriate. The choice to include my voice saying, “You can improvise” turns out to be quite funny, given how much trouble everyone is having in telling their own joke. If the camera makes people uncomfortable, let’s acknowledge it!

MGS: You spoke to me before about what you see as “the prominent role of music in community health strategies.” Could you clarify for me the relationship you see between the two?

JW: I see music as one of the most important vehicles in health education in that region. You have singing at the outreach clinics, where the lyrics remind women about the importance of antenatal and postnatal care, encourage men to participate in the mother and child’s health, etc. You also have groups like Sinda jazz Band who sing about health issues, encourage people to get tested, etc. You have the theater groups who use singing as part of the spectacle. There is community dancing (always accompanied by singing) to affirm community values and the like.

MGS: As an American with very little knowledge of Malawi, I was really surprised and impressed by the performance footage you’re talking about. It seems like Americans are a little more jaded about believing in the power of art to educate and affect social change. Is there a long tradition of this kind of art in Malawi?

JW: It seems to us that yes, there is. It would be quite unusual in this and other regions of Africa if there weren’t this history. Given the long-standing importance placed on the oral transmission of knowledge, as well as the enjoyability of spectacles, music and dancing, art is one of the most commonly used and most effective means of conveying a message. Other factors are uneven literacy, different languages in use, and the expense and vulnerability of electronic and print communication in rural areas.

MGS: During the years you’ve worked on this project, what impact have you seen places like Embangweni Hospital have on HIV/AIDS awareness in Malawi? Do you feel more or less hopeful than before?

JW: According to the health care professionals, HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns are having an effect, seen in the declining numbers of new cases and the number of people getting testing and seeking treatment. I feel hopeful, far more so than a decade ago.

MGS: What avenues of distribution are you pursuing? Who is your ideal audience?

JW: The ideal audience is one who cares — they can be young, old, Malawian, non-Malawian, ill, healthy, health care professionals or not, documentary buffs or not, etc. I want an audience that sees the movie, cares, is moved by it, and tells others about it. If they get engaged in this or some other social cause, ALL THE BETTER, but that portion will be small, I know.

MGS: Best of luck, Jesse.

JW: Thanks, bro!

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

4 responses to “Filmmaker Interview: Jesse Wheeler

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