Turkish filmmaker Oğuzhan Çineli and Tanzanian filmmaker Asraf Said Mswaki’s feature documentary “White Potion” follows the life of a Witchdoctor in Tanzania, and the lives he influences, including the hunting of people with albinism for the use of their body parts in potions and spells. This eye-opening documentary will screen at Berlin Lift-Off Film Festival on Thursday 8th February at 6:45pm at the Union Filmtheater. We interviewed directors Oğuzhan and Ashraf (Ash) to hear a little more about how this film came to be, and their paths as filmmakers.
Interview by Sneh Rupra
What drew you to this issue as the subject of your documentary?
ASH: As film students, we have Documentary Film Making as a compulsory course. At the beginning I was not interested in Documentary film making. I wanted to make fun, comedy and action Hollywood type of films, and thought that documentaries were not my type. But after watching some documentaries in class, I got interested in documentary film making.
One day I was on Facebook and I saw news of albino killings in Tanzania, which is the country with the most cases, and that the government had banned witchdoctors’ licenses, and there was an arrest crackdown throughout the country. This clicked in my mind, as I started thinking of a documentary about the issue immediately and started searching if there was any documentary concerning the issue. I found few from different news channel (Al-Jazeera, BBC, and RT) on their YouTube channels. They were really good films and they did give me a good insight into the issue. My interest was to see how the community was associating with the beliefs in witchcraft, and experimenting if this solution was going to work.
OGUZHAN: Actually Ash was the one who brought the idea to us. Our producer Kadir and I were looking to shoot a documentary film abroad. Our mentor suggested that we get in touch with our classmate, Ash, so we did.
￼How did you go about building connections and trust in the community you were filming in?
ASH: This was a very disappointing time. I was scheduled to leave Istanbul earlier, on the 10th of June, so I could prepare everything in Tanzania before the crews’ arrival. Neither the tickets nor funds came. They all went silent after a series of many excuses for delaying the funds. We turned to our school for equipment and a little of anything that they could offer. “You are too late to ask for aid from the school, you should apply for such things two or three months before.” This was the answer we got from the school, another big unexpected disappointment from them. “Let’s just give up!” I thought.
I asked Kadir what he could add financially to the project, and if we could get equipment, then why not fund the project ourselves? I am from Tanzania, I lived in the country for 21 years. I turned to my friends and kept asking for anything that they could help with, whether it was a place to stay, transportation etc. We became the sponsors, and our connections were friends and family.
Building trust in the community was not difficult, as we had a good idea that this was a positive film and it was for the community’s own good. We got a positive welcome from the community and collaborated well with them.
OGUZHAN: Our connection was Ash. It was his country, so we were lucky to have him.
Was it difficult deciding how to tackle such a sensitive cultural issue?
ASH: It was not that difficult, since the government and the community in general had started putting pressure on the issue.
OGUZHAN: My biggest concern was to interpret such sensitive issue properly, because I was going to make a documentary in a culture when it was also my first experience in that country.
Were there any unexpected challenges you faced during production?
ASH: The whole production was an adventure for us. We were students embarking on the big journey of filmmaking. We had little time and resources for pre-production. We didn’t even have a guide until the last half of the production. So almost everything was unexpected, but we concentrated on the story and plan, and eventually things worked out well.
OGUZHAN: Even our travel was not clear until last minute. It was not possible for us to achieve most of the things we planned, but somehow everything worked out. During the shooting I kept taking notes to memorize the shots that came into my mind. The language barrier was not unexpected, but was the most challenging. I kept asking Ash what they were talking about during whole time.
￼How was it filming with the children?
OGUZHAN: I coached children in my high school and college years, so I am good with children. They were helpful and brave albino children who wanted to be heard, so they made the shooting even easier. Due to their skin disorder, there were many things to take into consideration, such as shooting times, because their skin is highly sensitive to sun.
￼How do you think this film will impact the conversation surrounding the
￼treatment of albino children in Tanzania, and on the African continent?
OGUZHAN: In order to solve an issue you should change the way that people think. Films are one of the most powerful mediums to do that. As a foreigner and an observer from the outside, I tried my best to achieve that. I was also deeply affected by the environment, so I hope this film can help to make a difference.
ASH: Our plan is to partner with NGOs and other stakeholders to provide educational sponsorship for children with albinism to study in boarding schools. To help the children with albinism to return to their homes and families. To repair and support the welfare of the Buhangija and Kabanga Center for Children. To host a screening campaign in Lake Zone and the capital of Tanzania, Dodoma, and anywhere around the world to raise awareness, and to make a call to action. To help provide vocational training education for victims so they can get proper employment to improve their livelihoods.
We hope that by doing this, White Potion will impact the conversation surrounding the treatment of albino children in Tanzania greatly.
￼How has the experience of making this film changed your perception of
OGUZHAN: Before I went there, Ash was the only Tanzanian person I knew. The culture and geographical location was also not familiar to me. There were many things that I will remember. They are very respectful to their elders, which was similar to my own culture, and was one of the things I liked. Although there is poverty in the country and they have needs, they are not only good-humored, they like to dance as well. Overall I was very excited during whole my adventure of making a documentary in Tanzania. I was fascinated with the beautiful nature and people of Tanzania.
Are there any new projects on the horizon that you can tell us about?
ASH: Yes, there a 3 projects in consideration. 3 books that we want to adapt to film:
• The Long March to African Unity: Achievements & Prospects by Mengiste Desta (Documentary)
• Vanishing Heard by Ole Kulet (Feature film)
• What a white man told me in Zimbabwe in 1980 by Thula Bopela (Short film)
OGUZHAN: I am in the process of writing a feature film scenario that I would like to shot in my country. However, I specifically enjoy exploring the world and experience new cultures and places, therefore I seek opportunities from abroad as well.
Are you looking forward to screening White Potion in Berlin?
ASH & OGUZHAN: Firstly our crew is very appreciative of your selection, and we are very excited and looking forward to be screened in a city such as Berlin that harbours so many cultural events.
Tickets are now on sale for Berlin Lift-Off, where “White Potion” will be screening.