I had been thinking about the trip ahead for eight years, and had spent €5,000 to get here. And now, just as I was about to start, I felt like quittin
I was standing at a dusty border crossing in the very south of Angola, in southern Africa. Trucks heading north trundled past, accelerating away from the Angolan customs. A ragged collection of travellers, traders, beggars and thieves sheltered from the early afternoon sun under sparse trees.
Dusty minibuses, some emblazoned with punk graffiti, skidded to a stop, boys hanging out their sides, calling for passengers.
Incongruously, two ten-year-old girls in blue school uniforms approached, holding out a well-creased piece of paper and, in English, asked would I buy “a line”. Having grown up on the border with Namibia, an English-speaking country, they were bilingual (at least; they likely spoke at least one other, local language), and were raising money for their school.
I was supposed to be starting the process of shooting a documentary film here: a road movie following me as I travelled north, to the town of Kuito, where I had worked with the charity Concern, nearly a decade earlier.
But to make a film you need a cameraman, and to make a road movie, you need a car. And my cameraman colleague, Guy, and his jeep, were stuck on the other side of the border.
The border guards had taken against him, on a whim, and found a series of excuses not to let him enter the country.
Eventually, he gave up, and turned around to head back south. Briefly, I thought about crossing the border, and going with him. We’d find some kind of story to film, and the company would be good.
But I hadn’t waited eight years to make a random film about Namibia. I was aiming for Kuito, a town that had become iconic during the Angolan civil war of the 1990s, having suffered a siege more severe than that of Sarajevo. I wanted to find old friends there, and record their stories.
Luckily, I had brought the camera. But I had had just a couple of hours practice with it, and had a nauseating feeling that any footage I shot on my own might turn out to be unusable. And I was afraid that carrying €4,000 worth of equipment alone, on public transport, would be ostentatious, and make me a target for mugging, or worse.
So I had plenty of reason to be daunted by what lay ahead.
Just then, as often happens when one is feeling vulnerable, I met someone. He looked like a backpacker, but turned out to be a lone aid worker with a UN agency, working with displaced people in the border area. He knew the region well, and his own comfort reassured me.
I was afraid to take out the film camera at the border, as border guards are prickly about security, and so I took out my mobile phone and handed it to the UN guy, Daniel. He shot a minute’s worth of grainy, shaky video of me with the border at my back, explaining ruefully why I was there.
Then we shared a taxi to the first town north. The next day, I took out my camera proper, and went looking for a bus station, and for people to talk to.
I met a local named Aristotle. In perfect English, he showed me around his shop, told me of his vision for the future of the country, helped me buy a bus ticket, and set me up with somewhere to stay in the next town north. I was on my way.
It took just four days, by bus, minibus, jeep and, briefly, motorbike (as a precariously-balanced pillion passenger), to make it to Kuito. There, I found an old Concern colleague, Augusto Alegre. He had been a reassuring guide to the town when we worked together, helping me negotiate the complexities of local custom and geography.
But I had never asked him about his personal story, and now I did. His father was Portuguese, and had abandoned him overnight in 1975, when the Portuguese left Angola. Alegre had seen action in the civil war and been injured. Later, as a civilian, he was active in the defence of Kuito. He lost six children to illnesses, but had six more.
It was stories like this that I had returned for – stories of extraordinary strength and resilience, told by people of great generosity.
The journey home was less eventful, thankfully, and at least some of my 37 hours of footage turned out to be usable: editor Ray Roantree found workable shots where all I saw was camera shake and dust storms, and cut together a 25-minute documentary for RTE.
The film never would have happened without initial “seed” funding from Irish Aid’s Simon Cumbers Media Fund, mentoring from independent filmmakers Barrie Dowdall and Donal Scannell, and the verve and support of RTÉ’s TV Documentaries Unit, in particular Anne Roper.
And had Guy Tillim not encouraged me to go it alone, and a passing UN worker not helped me through those first, anxious hours, I may have backed out just as I was beginning. The decision to go ahead turned out to be not merely the start of a journey, but the start of a film. That cameraphone footage turned out to be crucial.
Angola After the War screened on RTE One on Thursday September 23, and is be available online on the RTE Player (www.rte.ie/player) for a time.