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On Building Up Trust and Getting People to Open Up

Noe Mendelle, Director of SDI, was asked to make a documentary about a housing research project led by Edinburgh University and Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Here are some reflections on her experience.

The Cement City

The Home Space project is based on a 20 year research on how the suburbs and land around Maputo is changing. The cement city aka Maputo city centre is like a fungus growing at the expense of the land around it. The suburbs around the city are mainly self-built dwellings, first out of bamboo now slowly being replaced by cement blocks and corrugated iron. At a time when land had no value, plots were given to poor people mainly dislocated during the war, to cultivate. Over the years families grew and so did poverty and plots got divided and sold off, often sacrificing the allotments where women grew the household food.

“Barrios”  mushroomed all around Maputo in what appears an up hazard fashion but functionable.  After many years of peace, now Maputo is fast developing into a beautiful city, favoured by many Europeans to move in and make their fortune. Entrepreneurs and land developers are ceasing an amazing opportunity to get rid of the slums and buy off the land for peanuts and build all the infrastructures alongside elegant villas and condoniums. The poor are happy because for a very brief moment they have money in their pockets and the promise of another plot of land far away from the city. Most employment for men will be in the city, therefore to be living even further away than they already are will mean that in no time at all they will mainly drink and eat their cash before having a chance to construct a new house. To put it blantly they are being squezed.

Meeting Luis and Mama Maria

For the documentary I am working with families who are living in different parts of the city to see how they get affected. The family the furthest away – 20km- consists of a polygamist, living with his second and third wife, in a 2 room- house. The furniture consists of one bed and one chair and my guess is that it is for Luis, the head of household. Last year he sold half of his land in order to keep drinking. The first day I was introduced to him and went to ask him for permission to film, the ritual around this request is very typical of traditions of that part of the world. I had a male fixer who spoke Changana and the three of us stood there under the shade of the tree for at least an hour, with a lot of greetings and enquiries about health and good being of the family but nothing too specific, followed by long pauses and silences before we get to the matter in hand, but then quickly diverted by something else, then a return to the request, then another greeting to a passer by and so on… The outcome was to ring him and then maybe we could make direct arrangements. Of course it took several phone calls and several visits before I saw him again. That gave me plenty of opportunities to meet up with the main wife and sit under the tree that she uses to sell her vegetables to passers-by, who are only neighbours as we are in the last rural part of the boundaries of Maputo. But not for long, as neighbours are all splitting their plots and selling it off to better off families from the city centre who are wanting to pursue the national dream of building their own homes. The wife did not say much while I was hanging around and I started to despair that I will not be able to cover their story until I proposed to go with her to her Machamba (allotment), another 8km away from the house. We got there soon after 5am and desperate to get her to open up I took the line of provocation asking if this plot of land will be the next sale by her husband Luis. She retaliated very quickly that the land is hers and not to be sold by her drunken husband. The sad reality is if the land belongs to anyone it will be the man. Widows are often thrown out their houses after the death of the husband either by sons or uncles.

‘It is very important not to give up with the silence of characters and use different spaces to get them to open up’

The allotment was beautifully kept, planning the basic food to keep the drunken husband, herself, her daughter, her 2 grand-children and  the third wife with her off springs and a little surplus to sell in order to buy basic necessities. It is very important not to give up with the silence of characters and use different spaces to get them to open up. The allotment was her space and from then on I could not get her to stop talking.  We kept meeting other women at the water point, with the same determination on their faces and one can only imagine that their stories are not too dissimilar to Mama Maria.


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On Filming in Maputo, Mozambique

Noe Mendelle, Director of SDI, was asked to make a documentary about a housing research project led by Edinburgh University and Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Here are some reflections on her experience.


Maputo's suburbia from the plane

I rented a room in the centre of town as public transport tends to be reduced to “chapas” – little mini buses which are always so full that you have young men’s bums sticking out of the windows and they have this tendency to break down, making any journey a challenge to time and patience…

First morning, after a night of heavy rain, I woke up to the croaking of frogs and a city landscape transformed into lakes of murky waters and floating rubbish. I’d never thought of packing my Wellington boots. My project is about the way the city of Maputo has dramatically expanded over the last few years, creating a large suburb of what appears to be endless slums. For the first few days it was extremely difficult to access the families I was going to work with, as the lanes were transformed into a slalom of mud. As days passed by I grew more anxious, having only 3 weeks to research and film this project. But the sun returned and I was able to get on with the next challenge, getting to know my families, and start filming.

‘The camera is not only a way of measuring the distance of our two worlds but also an obstruction to a helping hand’

At the beginning of  every shoot I always returned to the same debate in my head: do I start filming immediately, or do I allow myself to settle in? In the context of Africa often you don’t even get a choice as people don’t allow you to film… full stop. There is a well funded suspicion that cameras will take your soul away, only to financially benefit the filmmaker. How can I explain to them that I make a living wanting to give voice to forgotten people… I might be genuine but they don’t really care about me being a messenger. They look at my immaculate white T-Shirt probably produced by child labour in China and my chauffeured 4 wheel drive and hiss “What’s in it for me?” And I think of Sergei Dvortsevoy, when he talked about “feeling bad at turning people’s lives into Art and then abandoning them to their own devices” which led him to his decision to give up documentary. He  could no longer stand that strained relationship with his characters. I tried as much as possible to delay payments by bringing presents, mainly in the form of rice, flour, oil and then at the end some money for the ones who need to buy medication and a new capolena (material used as skirt) in order to offer those women something colourful and for them. But every visit was a reminder and a re-negotiation of that relationship.

It is harder to do it with characters I feel emotionally involved. The camera is not only a way of measuring the distance of our two worlds but also an obstruction to a helping hand.

Mama Teresa

Mama Teresa, left

One of my characters is this lovely old grandma who during daytime looks after her two ten months old grand-children and goes fishing at night. She normally walks 8km to get to the sea, in the dark, barefoot, carrying her nets on her head. The night I went with her, even for the sake of the film I could not let her walk when I knew I had a car at my disposal… so I decided not to cheat it either in the film and pretend she walked there… but how do I communicate the distance she has to walk every night to go fishing? When we got to the beach the tide was still high so we had to hang out for a couple of hours. Mama Teresa  then proceeded to walk in the sea with her fishing companion, up to their necks, despite the rain and the cold wind. They walked and pulled on their nets till 2am.

It was pitch dark and impossible to film so I sat in the car with my assistant, a local young man, who just finished his MA in sociology but could not find any work in his field at university because he was not member of Frelimo, the national party. He went on explaining his political frustration as a young citizen, waiting to see the generation of the Heroes of Liberation to die off to create a gap for change. But he now realised that they have already produced a class of technocrats who were protecting their interests, leaking that corruption into different parts of society… such as the police.

Just as we were mentioning them, a truck with ten officers, armed with old Russian rifles appeared. The chief, short and angry, possibly drunk, made us get out of the car and question our presence at 2am on Friday night by the seaside. Any other country, we may have had an apology for maybe interrupting what could have been a romantic interlude, here we were immediately treated with suspicion. Of course we had to provide papers for the car, and for ourselves. The search of the car brought the presence of the camera, which made us even more suspicious despite my permit for filming. His preoccupation was, it was pitch dark with nothing to film and the car did not belong to a TV company. We insisted that somewhere in the vast darkness we had a couple of fishing people and that not all cameras belong to TV. The rifles got closer to our chests for extra dose of intimidation,  as we were trying to convince them to fine us , if we had broken the law. Corrupt police hate fines, as it is paperwork leaving trails behind and they only get 10% of the fine, which amongst several of them is not worth the trouble… what they really want is to get people into panic and give them money to let go. Disappointed that our cold sweat did not turn into cash, they drove off, just as our couple was coming out of the sea.

What comes first: the film or the people?

I did not dare getting my camera out for a while but when they started climbing the rocks I just had to go. Mama Teresa was shivering in her wet clothes and her tired limbs made her extremely slow at climbing those slippery rocks. I stood there with my camera, thinking that I should go and help her, but if I did I did not have any ending to this sequence and maybe I did not have any scene as it was so dark. Help Sergei… what comes first the film or the people? You have your answer but I am still searching for mine… or in this case I chose the film. Mama Teresa greeted me with a happy laugh and a clap of her hands. She was so delighted that we were still there, not just because they were going to get a lift home, but because she felt we cared enough to stand in the dark and worry about them. Her life is like a little scratch on the video… it will be seen by people beyond her world. She laid her catch at my feet as proud as a cat with a dead bird and when I enquired how much it was worth she said 200 medicais equivalent of 4 beers or 4 cups of coffee local price!

Click on the links to read part II or part III of this thread.

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