YES, Britain’s down in the dumps. Jobs are going, tackling the massive deficit is going to prove painful, and many of us have still not quite thawed out after the coldest winter for a generation. And yet we should really count our blessings, since other folk have it far, far worse. Take Sierra Leone, the west Africa nation left dirt-poor after a succession of governments and coups, and a violent civil war that lasted more than a decade. Average life expectancy is under 50 years and infant mortality is tragically high. Organisations offer slightly different statistics, but they’re all dreadful. The United Nations Population Division ranks Sierra Leone worst of 195 countries, with 160 infant deaths per 1,000 live births. Then there’s HIV, the virus that can lead to failure of the immune system. At 1.5% of the adult population, infection rates in Sierra Leone are deeply worrying. It’s even more widespread in urban areas: 2%, apparently, in the capital, Freetown. About 90,000 adults and children are estimated to be living with the virus. A 1995 survey found 27% of the workers in Freetown’s sex industry had HIV, with more recent claims suggesting 70%.
The human cost is obvious, but illness and death also have knock-on effects for the economy and society, and make it even harder for Sierra Leone to fight poverty.
The added sadness is that HIV infection is preventable and manageable, with treatment allowing sufferers to reasonably confidently expect a life as long as those free of the virus. In Sierra Leone, though, it’s reckoned that only 7% of people are aware they have HIV, and that only 0.5% are receiving treatment.
Organisations trying to help put this down to stigma and discrimination, with many people afraid to have a test or receive treatment because they’re scared of being abandoned by their families, ostracised by their communities and in the case of women even beaten by their husbands.
The situation in the former British colony was something of an eyeopener for Suffolk-based photographer and filmmaker Bob Edwards. He’s made three documentaries in Sierra Leone for Christian Aid, one of the bodies working with local partners to care for HIV sufferers. He’s showing one of his films in Halesworth next Saturday (May 8). The 30-minute HIV A virus, not a moral issue shows what’s being done to care for sufferers, the attempts being made to educate the public and change entrenched attitudes, and explores some of the reasons why infection rates are what they are. Unfortunately, much seems to be down to deep-rooted male attitudes to women and sex. It’s common for many men to have multiple girlfriends and, as several males testify in the film, they much prefer not to use a condom thus negating one of the best techniques for preventing the virus being passed in body fluid. Women, says Bob, tend to have little say when it comes to sex.
Some groups of people are also said to be at high risk of infecting multiple partners because their jobs involve regular travel: organisations like the army and police, for example, and truckers.
Lack of knowledge is a problem, too, which might be linked to literacy. If there’s a lack of understanding of the illness, it’s hard to convince people about what they need to do to safeguard health.
“Almost everybody’s got malaria in Sierra Leone and is sick every now and again with flu-like illnesses, but it’s not necessarily life-threatening,” Bob explains. “They can understand malaria, but they can’t so easily understand HIV and how, when your immune system gets suppressed, you become open to other infections. So you don’t ‘die of HIV’; you die of tuberculosis, or sarcoma; or, like a woman I photographed, you can die of shingles.”
As well as showing his film at The Cut arts centre in Halesworth, Bob is staging an exhibition in the concourse of photographs he took in Africa. The images in Faces of Sierra Leone are mostly vibrant, colourful portraits.
Many will be for sale, framed, at prices ranging from £45 to £150. Money raised, after costs, will go to the PLHIV (People Living with HIV) centre in Freetown to help buy a Toyota Land Cruiser.
The type of vehicle that’s nowadays ridiculed if used for the school run in Kensington and Chelsea, it comes into its own on the dusty roads and rocky tracks of Sierra Leone. “It’s a kind of African workhorse. It can take all the rutted roads and cope with the wet. It has an exhaust system that comes out of the top and so it doesn’t get stuck in water.”
The PLHIV centre is unique in providing home-based care. Carers, who themselves have HIV, are trained by the Methodist Church of Sierra Leone to visit ill sufferers in their homes and help them.
Bob says a Land Cruiser will allow carers to get about much quicker some walk miles to a client’s home, carrying food on their heads and can also serve as an impromptu ambulance to take the really sick to hospital.
The goal is to raise £25,000 over the next year enough to buy the vehicle and cover the wages of a driver, fuel and maintenance for two years.
“This centre, I think, is remarkable; and the woman who set it up is coming along to introduce the film. It’s a unique place because it’s a centre just for people with HIV, so they can come and sit and talk among themselves without worrying.
“The biggest problem in Africa is stigma: people don’t want to get tested, because if they’re found to be HIV-positive then they can be thrown out of the family house. The husband may drive the wife away; they’re not allowed to eat with the family. No-one wants to go through that.”
Bob, who lives near Eye and has been a filmmaker for more than four decades, was very taken by the African nation. “Sierra Leone is a beautiful country; it’s just been destroyed by war, by corruption. But the people have such a positive energy. It’s almost like an equation: that the poorer you are, the happier you are. And then you come back to whingeing Britain . . . You look at what they’ve got out there and they’ve got nothing: 80% unemployment in some parts; among the highest infant death rates in the world. It’s pretty much at the bottom.”
A BBC online profile says there’s been substantial growth in recent years, “but Sierra Leone remains bottom of (the) UN’s league for human development”. In 2004, the CIA World Factbook reckoned, 70.2% of the population was living below the poverty line.
“But I had the privilege of going on dirt roads in these Land Cruisers, way into the bush, and people would welcome you with a big bowl of food with rice and fish. You’d all sit around with a spoon. They’re just so open and generous.”
Though you’d never know it, Bob took the photographs “more or less en passant, with a little snapshot camera” as he made the film for Christian Aid. Did he ever feel he was an intrusive eye poring over other people’s misery? There’s one picture, for instance, of a woman with HIV and shingles a lady who sadly died a week after the photograph was taken. Does he ever question his role in such circumstances?
“No. To be honest I’m far too busy wrestling with a camera and tripod and trying to get the sound right because I make these films all by myself.” Folk weren’t photographed without being asked: everyone who was pictured or filmed had been approached beforehand and was happy to help with the project.
Although he’s generally a one-man band, Bob does turn to an objective eye during editing. “I’ve got a friend, a professional editor, who comes in and takes a look at the rough cut. ‘Bob, I know you love that shot and are really attached to it, but it doesn’t tell the story. Take it out!’ You’ve got to have that second view.”
HIV A virus, not a moral issue was quite a complicated undertaking as Bob had to produce a number of versions. There was one for Sierra Leone, for instance, in which he had to obscure the faces of some people who didn’t want their identities revealed: prostitutes, for instance.
Then there was one that needed a particular scene to be pruned. Christian Aid gets some of its funding from Irish Aid, the arm of the Irish Government that helps developing countries. A senior official objected to a scene shot at a market, where a campaigner was trying to convince men of the merits of condoms in stemming the spread of HIV. To get her message across she pulled out a large wooden penis and sheathed it in a condom…
Bob will be showing the unexpurgated version at Halesworth: faces and market-place demonstrations intact!
He acknowledges Sierra Leone has buried itself in his soul. “I want to go out there again. I’d like to spend part of the year there.” He has one or two ideas about what he might do there to help, and would like to get his teeth
into some kind of project. “I just found the people so absolutely delightful. As an older person, you get a respect in Africa. Here, you’re just an old geezer and people look through you!”
n The showing of HIV A Virus Not a Moral Issue is at The Cut in Halesworth at 12.30pm on Saturday, May 8. It will be introduced by Charlotte Walker, who ?ran the HIV/Aids programme in Sierra Leone.
n The exhibition Faces of Sierra Leone is at The Cut’s concourse from Thursday, May 6 until Saturday, June 5. Entry is free and galleries are open from 10.30am to 3pm.
Photographs with numbers on them can be bought. Purchasers can fill out a form at reception; the picture will then be printed on non-fade archival paper, framed locally and delivered.
n View Bob’s photographs at http://gallery.me.com/bobji#100008
BOB Edwards has been a documentary filmmaker for more than 40 years. “I started as a director in BBC Television at the age of 21, with a wonderful programme called Late Night Line-Up.” The discussion programme ran between 1964 and 1972. “I worked for the BBC for about seven or eight years, and then I went freelance. I worked as a sound recordist, as a film editor, and in other aspects of film-making.” Bob was nominated for a Bafta in 1978 for recording an opera. Sounds a hard task. “Easier than you think, actually. Orchestral musicians tend to ‘mix’ themselves. You have to do only a few little tricks.”
He has many arts films under his belt, profiling creative people such as sculptor Barbara Hepworth and composer Benjamin Britten. There was a documentary on the first televised performance of Britten’s Peter Grimes. The BBC moved the production crew to Suffolk and the set was at Snape Maltings. “I was there for about three months, making a film about the making of the opera.”
He worked in the film industry until the mid-1980s. “I was producing a film for Channel 4, a Robert Louis Stevenson story set in the South Pacific but in fact we decided to shoot it in Sri Lanka. I went there for three months to sort out locations and various other things, and then civil war broke out. The whole thing, two years of work, collapsed. The finance couldn’t be completed. I then helped teach at the National Film School and in 1986 worked with a friend on a film about Greenpeace. We went on a little boat all the way around England, causing as much trouble as we could about toxic pollution!” What kind of things? “Well, block pipes, hang banners all the usual stuff.
“I found these Greenpeace people really lovely and delightful to work with, and they said ‘Why don’t you come and join us?’ So I did.”
From 1986 until 2000 he was a full-time campaign co-ordinator for Greenpeace International, living in Amsterdam for a while and also setting up an office in India. Bob was involved in the battle to stop toxic waste from ships and pipelines being dumped in the North Sea. “It was a campaign we won. We got agreement from all the governments around the North Sea to stop the discharge of waste.” Greenpeace’s political strategy in the mid 1980s involved “playing one country off against another. We managed to get Britain dubbed as the Dirty Old Man of Europe, which stuck. They hated it! Britain and France wanted to carry on doing this dumping, and then there were the clean Scandinavian countries. It was a fascinating time. I really enjoyed causing trouble, actually!” In terms of documentaries, the digital revolution brought opportunities.
“When I started making films, a roll of film that ran for 10 minutes would cost about £100 in those days a lot of money and then another £150 to process it. The cameras were £40,000 or £50,000 each. Everything was expensive. Only people with money, or working for a professional organisation, could make films. But suddenly you could make your own film with a camera costing less than £2,000, with digital software and so on. So then I started making my own.”
Bob produced a series of films shown at the Harleston & Waveney Festival, and got involved with a friend working for Christian Aid. “She asked if I’d be interested going out to make some films for them. I went out over three years to Sierra Leone and made two films about their HIV/Aids prevention work and another film about governance.”
Bob’s still taking photographs and making films. At the moment he’s trying to get the BBC interested in one about Hollywood. He brings out a handful of DVD he’s made recently. Bob enjoys making film portraits of interesting folk: such as “a wonderful woman in her 70s who operates her home as a country house hotel in Nottinghamshire” and an Indian DJ. Ideas often spring from chance meetings. He met a classical violinist at her sister’s birthday party, for instance, and found she was going to Buenos Aries to learn how to play tango. That’s interesting, he thought; can I come along and make a documentary? Hailing from an Irish family, Bob was born in 1945, was brought up in the midlands and went to university at Sussex. For a long time London was home, but 11 or 12 years ago he moved to East Anglia. He shakes his head at the surreal way property prices have rocketed; the London flat he bought for £6,900 in 1978, for instance, went for £590,000 in 1999. “I didn’t do anything to deserve it! I didn’t work for it.” He’s lived in various places in this neck of the woods, but about four years ago bought a rural home near Eye from a friend who’d been there 17 years. The filmmaker enjoys the quiet of his adopted county, as well as the big skies, of course. “And I like the fact it’s not terribly fashionable. I find the people rather nice: very unpretentious. People say ‘How can you live in Suffolk? It’s really flat and boring,’ and I say ‘Yes, it is really flat and boring; don’t come here!’ It is not flat and boring, of course.”