How do you tell a story that’s happened in the past and has far too many levels of complexity?
That was our task when we arrived in Jos, Nigeria last year, a relatively peaceful city that every couple of years is engulfed in violence between Christians and Muslims. Our fixer in Jos had done a great job lining up all sorts of interviews with experts that could speak about the religious, political and tribal dimensions to the conflict and for the first few days we went from interview to interview. It was all interesting material, but what was I going to do with 8 hours of interviews about an event that happened 6 months earlier?
I’d anxiously tell our fixer, “We need to line up some interviews with people that were personally affected by what happened here – we need stories.” I worried my desperate pleas were not heard.
Finally as our time began to wind down, Johnson (our fixer) took us to a small church just outside Jos. There we met Victor, the pastor, who told us the story of his congregation. As the violence engulfed Jos, the Muslim community situated just next door attacked the church, killing two of Victor’s parishioners. As Victor told us this story, a group of about 15 Muslim youth, none older that 18 (and some were as young as 8), were performing military style marching drills in the opening adjacent to the church. It was surreal to have these youth lined up yelling, “Allah u Akbar” as Victor talked about struggling to forgive his neighbors. We were all deeply moved by what he heard and saw.
After a couple more expert interviews we were still chewing on what we experienced with Victor – his story was so much more powerful than all the reflections on appropriate responses. As we finished an interview with a local business man, it was suggested that we meet Ibrahim, a Muslim business owner who also was affected by the violence. Ibrahim graciously welcomed us into his house, a beautiful new building that replaced his dream home which was destroyed by a gang of non-Muslims (some people would say they were Christians) along with his car dealership. After an interview, we asked if we could visit the site of his destroyed house. Ibrahim said he had not returned since the crisis but he would arrange for someone to show us. As we arrived at his burnt home on our final day, Ibrahim showed up to personally give us a tour (and as it turns out, some much needed footage). We stepped around melted plaster and broken teapots and gawked at decades of Ibrahim’s life laid in ruins. We were again deeply moved by what we heard and saw.
In the end we left a lot of expert interviews on the cutting room floor. It was outside of the scope of this project to try to figure out who was wrong and who was right – we’ll leave that to the countless commissions and councils. We included the facts that everyone seemed to agree on which would give the viewer a basic understanding of the conflict.
So how do you use documentary to tell a story that’s happened in the past? You find someone that embodies the experience in a narrative and you dive into their life as much as possible. Let the writers, ethicists, pastors and columnists figure out what our response should be (an important task indeed.) But from my point of view, my job is to make you feel the story, to push on assumptions and hopefully leave you at a place where maybe you’ll ask a question or two about yourself, your world and your place in that world.