Fairtrade Matters seems to have a different feeling to your photographs and films on urban subcultures, such as
‘Chi Raq’. How did you feel about the opportunity of filming tea growers in Malawi after reading the brief?
My work as a whole is all about people and telling the story of an individual or a collective group. I was curious not only about Malawi as a country, as I’d never been anywhere in Africa before, but also interested in telling the story behind – as you call it – the product. I tried to convey the day-to-day of the tea growers, and to touch upon points of the universal life: children going to school, people getting clean water, going to work, simply living their lives.
Malawi is the world’s poorest country, with an agro-based economy, and so is very different from the UK and the US, where you live and work. What was your first impression of the people and the village?
I didn’t know what to expect to be honest. What struck me the most was that the people we met were friendlier and warmer than an average Londoner or New Yorker, and a lot more accepting and welcoming. There are obvious differences between the life in the US or the UK and the one in Malawi but I found it quite refreshing to immerse myself in their community. It makes you realise how spoiled we are in the Western world, compared to the majority of people out there.
Was there anything that surprised you or amazed you in the people that you met in the community?
It was nice to go there and be an outsider. I felt it was a bit of a show when we arrived, but at the end of the day people are people wherever you go. Sometimes when you go to impoverished places, people see you as a dollar sign, but over there nobody expected anything from us. On the last day of filming, we were presented with bananas from the community. I’d never seen so many bananas in my life. It was a very humbling experience to receive a gift from the people who face so many struggles day by day.
What was it like from start to finish in this whole production process?
The whole premise of the film was not to impose too much on people’s lives and capture the genuine everyday of the farmers and the community. We tried to embed ourselves within the community as much as possible and let the characters be themselves.
You have been chosen to make the film because of your aesthetic. Indeed, I personally like your style – simple, plain yet full of depth, honesty, and tenderness. What kind of filmmaking and directors have inspired you in your representation of the Malawi farmers?
I didn’t really take any direct inspiration. I hadn’t watched any charity films prior to going to Malawi, because I didn’t want to trigger the audience into thinking those people are charity cases and need hand-outs. My intention was to empower them. It’s simply about making people think about the choices they are making when buying tea or coffee and expanding their awareness of the impact that these choices make miles away.
Can you elaborate on the elements of your shooting style and why you chose this particular approach?
I do things from a photographic background. I wanted to make each frame as strong as possible photographically. For instance the characters’ lives are filled with walking, and so walking is a quite important part of the film. We tried to capture this well so we used a rig which is similar to Stedicam. Aesthetically, my style is always driven by the subject. I don’t really try to push an agenda in the film, more try to let the people have their own voice and tell their own story. Capturing their natural environment was very important to me as well.
Are there any parallels between the style you used for filming John and his dog George and the Fairtrade film?
Stylistically, yes. All my works are similar; it’s always about the subject matter except that this film has a slightly more cinematic look, because of the walking scenes. My relationship with the subject matter is always equally important to its visual representation.
Going back to the film about Malawi and tea workers you managed to capture many aspects of their lives not just their work, but the church, the community, sharing food, the nature. What was your favourite moment, scene, or story during your time in Malawi?
The church is hugely important to these people, both spiritually and socially. It is an inseparable part of their lives, as the community is based around the church, more than in the Western culture. If there wasn't for a church, I don't know where they would socialise. And the school. I don't remember on top of my head but there was around 150 pupils in one class. When I went to school, there was around 20 kids in each class, and it was a nightmare. The children we met in Malawi were so eager to learn. To them the education is a way out of poverty. I had a very different approach to schooling.
The film is described as thought-provoking, yet Tsala’s words: ‘What future will my child have? That’s what I always think of before going into sleep’ may apply to any parent, I think.
The worries Edson and Tsala have are exactly the same as worries you and I have. The difference is that lots more people live on the edge out there. If the crop goes wrong or it rains for too long, how will they feed their kids? People in the UK have services to rely on, in Malawi, if something goes wrong, the people have nothing. So their worries are the same as ours, but realistically they face a lot more obstacles that are not present in the Western world.
What is the main challenge you see for Fairtrade tea growers?
Clean water is the one thing. As soon as you provide people with clean water, you revolutionise their lives and the functioning of their community. I think Fairtrade has already done an amazing job in providing that. Apart from this, they need more help, and ideally sell more of their products.
What do you want the audience to gain from this film?
The whole point, ideally, is to help people like Edson and Tsala. Hopefully, the consumers will be more aware of Fairtrade, consider the origin of the products they buy, who is behind them, and how they are manufactured.
I guess, if not for the movements like Fairtrade, an average consumer in the West would never really get to hear the personal stories of people like Edson and Tsala? Do you think it is important to document such stories?
It is. I think it's always important to raise awareness and making us, Westerners, realise how people like Edson and Tsala are affected by the choices we make, learn how they live their lives and how we, living miles away, can help.
Tsala says: “My life would have been extremely difficult without Fairtrade.” Could you describe the impact of Fairtrade on the people you met in three words?
Empowerment, safety, and probably confidence, as well.
The filming took place about three months ago. When you think about Malawi now, what comes to your mind?
Sadly the farmers have experienced huge floods since then, which affected the growers' areas we visited. I often think about this… Besides that, the warmth and generosity of the people is astounding. It also amazed me how patient they were, and generously offered their time to us.
Indeed, over the last month more than one million people in Malawi, including tea growers, have been affected by the flood. What is your message to people in the UK?
Consider the impact of your shopping choices. You can buy PJ tea or Fairtrade tea, but it is the Fairtrade tea that will help people get back on their feet.
Any final thoughts?
The approach I took was not a safe option and a very different one to a standard charity production. The film is about humanity; about the day-to-day lives in a part of the world that is covered quite often but, to me, a lot of what you see and hear is a bit too sentimental. Hopefully, my work will contribute to the empowerment of the farmers and show them as they really are. I'm very excited for the world will see it.
Fairtrade Matters is currently screened across the UK, as part of Fairtrade Fortnight.
Will Robson-Scott can be contacted through HLA www.hla.net.
Photos: Kate Fishpool, Andy Powell