I heard that the Department of Agriculture had a filming department. I went up to see who was running that, and he said, ‘okay, well, I desperately need someone. You interest me.’ Two weeks later I went to see him, and he said, ‘well, I tried to take you on as an associate producer because I could have taught you how to help me run the outfit. But the public service wouldn’t allow it because you haven’t been producing films. I tried to take you on as the director because I could have taught you that, they wouldn’t allow that because you haven’t been directing films. I tried to take you on as an editor, but I’ve got one, and that’s my quota. But we’ve created a job, you might not want it, a trainee editor.’ I said, ‘I’ll take it.’ Only occurred to me a week later to wonder what they’re paying me for it. It turns out they were paying me much less than what I was getting as a 16-year-old assistant projectionist.
Within six months, I was directing, which was very simplistic. And I was doing half the editing. I was writing the script. I was excited about all that. The only thing I wasn’t excited about was this low money.
I went over to Fiji on a contract to make documentary films and set up a documentary unit to train local people. When the British were there, they found that when somebody has elephantiasis, you see a woman with one perfectly huge arm or leg, they found that there’s a secondary disease you get when you’re living in unclean conditions, and there’s another bug that gets inside you. If it’s there for two years, it turns into this secondary disease. So they got every man, woman and child tested, and they worked out a pill to take. It kills off that bug before it gets to the secondary stage.
When I got to Fiji it was starting to show up again, and the problem was that all the healthy mums and dads were either working in the tourist industry or in the cities. In the villages there was grandparents and the grandchildren and the way that Fijians build their big houses, it takes big, strong men to build those houses, and if the roofs start leaking to get up and fix that, it’s all very physical work. The government was offering a lot of help to people to help them to clear up their villages and they were not getting much reaction from people, nobody coming to take advantage of it.
So they wanted me to make a film, to show a really bad village and then show all the things we could do to help them bring it up. The script that they wrote on that was good. It covered all the points they wanted to make. I was shooting in the Sigatoka Valley and there’s a doctor in charge of that area. He was my contact. I looked at this really bad village where they have all these little pools, and you could see all the mosquitoes breeding in them. They had pigs wandering around all the houses, people were not taking their rubbish very far away. And everybody was still going bush for toilets, and they were drawing their water from a low level, swampy area. So I found another village which had been really set up the way they wanted. I worried that the people in the bad village would die of shame if this film came out. I got hold of the guy in charge of the good village and I open the film with him walking us around the village, showing things that they do; ‘these men go fishing and these men build new houses and the women look after the rara.’ And as the guy is talking, we were looking at everything that he’s talking about. I had him walk right up to the camera so that he’s in full close up, blocking everything else out. He said, ‘our village was not always like this. I remember when it was a disgrace.’ So on screen, I put the bad village back in the past. The film worked very well. I didn’t know how well until I went back to Fiji 10 years later and I had lunch with that doctor. I said, ‘how did the people in the bad village react when the film came out?’ He said, ‘oh, they asked for it to be shown three times, and this year they just won the prize for the cleanest village in the valley.’ I thought that was great. Then I found it was bought by all the other South Pacific countries because they all had the same problem.
So that’s when you know the value of doing the job properly.
I found that if you tell a story well, it’s the most powerful way of telling the story, and sometimes you see the story from somebody else’s point of view. And then maybe two weeks later you’re seeing it on film, and it’s like from other people’s point of view, and you realise you can cover any point of view of life that you want.
You can use that to show people something.