Floris and I just came back from an experience that will probably stay with me for the rest of my life. Let me share that story with you, which not only impressed me, but also brought me to tears, and still does when I think back on it.
The seed that was to become Meet the Soldier was planted years ago, but it wasn’t until about a month ago that we flew to Entebbe, a town near the Ugandan capital of Kampala, together with a film crew from Amsterdam.
When I was a young boy there were many things I didn’t understand about society, but the one thing that really stuck with me was why people would hurt and destroy each other. If people could love their own children and do anything for them, how could it be that so many conflicts and wars were being fought and so many lives were being lost? I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. What would happen if two warriors could just sit down together and listen to each other?
And then, just recently, I learned about the World War I story.
During the First World War there was a Christmas truce. Opposing forces came out of their trenches and instead of fighting and shooting each other they played football and ate dinner together. This is a great story by itself, but for me it triggered the old question of what would happen if opposing forces could simply forget the war for just one moment and connect with each other on a human being level. “Surely it can be done!” is what I thought. However, it wasn’t until after a visit to University of Leiden that my Eureka moment was triggered.
During a meeting at the University of Leiden about 2 years ago, we were discussing the possibilities of collaborating on Storytelling projects with the use of Big Data. During that meeting a woman called Ines told me about her research on Virtual Empathy and that more and more studies show that using Virtual Reality is a very effective way for a person to relate and develop empathy for someone else, or a situation.
Wham! That struck me like lightning. I always viewed VR as something really cool to play with (movies, games, etc.) but never thought that it could actually change another person by immersing them in a situation and make them truly understand something or someone better. This was huge!
From that point on things started moving fast. We spoke with one of our partners, Mensen met een Missie, who operate across the globe to enable and connect individuals and local communities to improve their lives. We discussed what if……what if we get in touch with two enemies and let them meet each other in Virtual Reality…. what if…. what if we do it…
And so we did!
When we finally got all the paperwork and finances sorted we got in contact with Jort and Teddy. Jort runs production agency Wolfstreet and Teddy is a movie director. Teddy was very enthusiastic from the start and fortunately for us, he had extensive experience shooting movies in very remote areas that are difficult to access. Remote and difficult is what this project would turn out to be!
When we landed at Entebbe airport we got picked up by Julie, the local producer, who brought us on a two hour drive to Kampala. The road to Kampala was busy, with a lot of traffic everywhere and lots of activity on the streets. It’s always a bit uncomfortable for me coming from a western country and then seeing people who obvious have a lot less and struggle everyday. But the next days I was in for many more uncomfortable images…
The next morning we woke up early and prepared for a 12 hour drive to the Moroto district, where we stayed to visit two tribes that are indigenous to this region. Visiting these tribes turned out to be a challenge: there are no real roads going there so you have to rely on the unpaved dirt tracks that are sometimes too muddy and wet to drive on. After a 5 hour drive and another 2 hours in a heavy four-wheel drive we had to walk the last stretch to finally get to one of the ‘kraals’ of a warrior. The walk took another 1.5 hours, and we still don’t know if it was because of the anti-malaria medication or if we were simply out of shape, but many of us had quite a tough time!
A ‘kraal’ is the home of the Karamojong. They live with their family in small houses build of branches held together by clay. While visiting these homes of the local people, it struck me that I had never ever seen this before. I mean, of course you know that not everyone on our planet lives in homes with central heating, television and toys, but for the first time in my life I met people who literally have nothing. Their homes and their family is what they have; they eat what they can manage to acquire or what they get from their cattle. It was obvious that often this wasn’t enough, looking at the condition some of the children were in.
One particular memory has stayed with me after one of our visits to one of the kraals. A little girl was walking around in dirty clothes and was covered in flies. After a couple of days in a developing country you get used to these impressions, but this situation was different. The girl was so tiny, her arms like matchsticks and flies all over her face. I sat down next to her for a while and blew away the flies. As I do with my own children, I talked to her and I tried to connect a little … and noticed a smile. The crew had already left the kraal and one of the guards called me to come along. I slowly got to my feet to get ready to leave. When I stood there ready to go I felt her small hand grabbing mine. I’ve not felt an example of inequality strikes me harder as this moment did. I thought of my own kids and had to fight of my tears while our guard was trying to comfort me by telling that she would be alright.
Luckily I had enough time while catching up with the crew to process the experience by myself, but I still often think about it.
Lights, camera, action!
Back in Moroto we set up a studio to ensure we got the best possible footage of the warriors. A studio needs quite a bit of power because of the lighting and all the other equipment. During shoots we often experienced multiple power outages that required us to obtain several generators to ensure we could keep filming. Getting these generators was a frustrating and funny story, so if you ever come across Jort make sure to ask him about the details!
The warriors you will see in the documentary turned out to love the cameras we put up in our (improvised) studio. Despite the long days, starting early in the morning and continuing till late in the evening, the warriors kept on going and told us all their stories about their lives and the conflicts they went through. Together with all the beautiful footage we were able to shoot, Meet the Soldier will be an amazing experience to watch.
Especially in the northern region Uganda struggles with things like poverty, hunger, HIV/AIDS, etc. While this documentary was not about those topics, we couldn’t help but think about a way we could also help out with them. Late at night we sometimes spoke about the things we saw and what to do about them. It’s fascinating to see how your own life gets influenced once things become very personal.
So after coming back from Uganda the team met again, but this time we talked about another project we discussed during one of our late nights. It’s about poverty, hunger and children.
What if… what if we did something about that…what if…
To be continued!
By Tim van Deursen
Tim is an engineer and founder of Hack the Planet on a mission to make a positive contribution to the world. Tim believes many such challenges we nowadays have can benefit from smart easy to deploy technology. Technology can and needs to be part of solving global challenges and therefore Tim created team “Hack The Planet” that aims to do exactly this.