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Nov 26, 2023   |   Blog Post

A Race Against Time: Behind the Scenes Q&A with Denis Onyodi 

Denis Onyodi (left) filming Domingos Abilio, a community health worker. Photo Credit: Kat Tillman

By Raisa Santos

Associate, Communications

In a fast-paced and ever-moving world, it can be challenging  to find focus. Film is one way to hone in on what matters and what is at stake.

Denis Onyodi did just that by capturing the challenges of polio eradication in Mozambique. As director of VillageReach’s latest film, 72 Hours: A Race to Reduce Polio Lab Sample Transport Times, he had the task of showcasing why reducing the time it takes to move a polio sample from communities to the laboratory from one month to 72 hours can be the difference between devastating outbreaks and eradication. 

Running a race can be filled with a sense of urgency, and reducing polio lab sample transport times is no different. There is no cure for polio; it can only be prevented, and vaccines are available. But after watching 72 Hours, audience members feel a sense of hope that  we can make it to the finish line through innovation and collaboration. 

To celebrate the film passing 75,000 views, I caught up with Denis to learn about his process and some behind-the-scenes snapshots from filming.  

Denis Onyodi filming the Ministry of Health in Mozambique. Photo Credit: Kat Tillman

What was your process like coming up with this film and working with everyone to make this project come to life?

We had to do this film about this polio outbreak and the work that VillageReach is doing in the community, but how could we make the film watchable? That was the battle that we had. Aside from just portraying children who have been disabled by polio, we had to show the whole system, so that was the challenge in our hands. It was a process, I must say, and a lot changed from our first treatment to what we see in the final video.

How did you come up with the narrative behind the film – where it was taking place, who you were going to include, etc? What are some changes from pre-production to the final video that occurred over the course of the creative process? 

I like to call it a creative challenge that VideoConsortium/Skoll Foundation gave us: to come up with a character-driven narrative that speaks about an organization that’s effecting change in a community. In the case of VillageReach, initially I said, “Let’s find the health worker in a remote community that’s actually at the frontline of this polio sample testing program.” And so that’s what we were pursuing.

Initially it was random, it was about Zambezia, it was about Tete. We did not know which province we’re going to work in. Then we followed the story of patient zero from Malawi and then to Ranjisse in Tete. When we found that child and his family, then we found Dr. Banda and we thought, ‘Bingo, I think we have a story here.’ Because then we have the health worker and then we have the very first patient. And so that’s how we ended up there.

So the changes that happened were the story was not as character-driven as initially we had hoped it would be because it became a bit technical, especially in the aspects of how VillageReach works with the government. We thought this was not going to come out very clearly through this character that we had found. We also wanted to be sensitive to the child and his family in how we portrayed them.

So quite the creative challenge. But the story evolved quite a bit from what we have there. A bit of the technical, working with the government, a bit of Dr. Banda, and the outreach in the community, a bit of the family that was actually our patient zero in Mozambique.

Denis Onyodi (middle) lands in Tete province airport with Arsenio Manhice, VillageReach Advocacy and Communications Manager and Kat Tillman, VillageReach Director, Communications, who were on location during the filming.

What was the most emotional or impactful moment for you during the making of this film?

I think just seeing the family of Ranjisse was very emotional. I’ve been in documentaries for a couple of years, but this just struck a chord deep within me, and it felt touching. She [Ranjisse’s mother] had three children that were all down to polio-related illnesses. Just seeing this woman living in very humble circumstances, surrounded by three children all crawling around, it felt so helpless. 

Because of the delicateness of the situation, we could not take too much of her time. So we had to film. The sun was so high up, I think it was about 1:00 or 2:00 pm. It was very hot. Ideally, I would have said, ‘Let’s just take some time out and let the sun go down.’ But we just had to shoot. So after a few pleasantries, we put her in front of the camera and she just froze. That for me was a very, very challenging moment. 

We’re working through a translator and I asked her, “What’s up?” She was saying nothing. The translator says it’s the first time she’s ever seen a camera.

I said, “We’re going to pause this filming.”

I’ve done this before. I flipped the LCD for her so she gets a sense of what she looks like and this woman just looked at herself on camera for the first time and she just beamed with excitement and joy. It was a very, very emotional moment for me and a few minutes later when we resumed the recording, she was suddenly speaking to us and that was emotional.

I mean, this poignant reminder that you are never in control of all the variables as a documentary filmmaker, and you have to slow down to the pace of your community, of your subjects, of this story that you’re chasing if you’re going to do justice to the story.

Photo Caption: Sandra Campos, Ranjisse’s mother, during the filming

What’s something about the film that might surprise the audience, whether behind the scenes or in the content itself?

For me, a surprise which was for my director’s wish list, was just being able to actually track down a patient zero to a very remote location, especially in this post-pandemic world that we are in, was nothing short of a miracle. That for me was a surprise. To know that we were able to find the patient zero for me, was the most beautifully surprising thing. I don’t know whether that comes out clearly to the audience. But that for me was a shocker in a good way. It just legitimizes the story.

Was there a scene that was cut from the final version that you wish could have stayed in the film?

Interestingly, we were also able to find the second patient. This was a place about one kilometer from Zimbabwe, but I don’t think I wish it would have stayed in the film. It was a very sad sight, so my conscience is clear that we cut out that bit.

But the bit that I thought could have been a little bit longer was the montage of the movement of the sample from the village to the health center. That bit ended up being pretty compressed to about 30 seconds. I had invested so much emotion in that bit and I hope to have seen a bit more of it, but I mean, less is more, I guess.

What considerations went into choosing the opening and closing shots for the film, and what impact did you want them to have?

I wanted the [opening shot] to be more than just an establishment shot. I wanted the main character, Dr. Banda, to lead the audience into this community, which has just taken on a new pronounced significance as being the place where polio broke out. This is patient zero, so I wanted the opening shot to lead the audience there and so that the entire sequence leading up to where he says, “This is Mangolopsa, where we found the first case.” I wanted the visuals to depict that. Even the walking in is symbolic of when the health workers work into this, depicting the health care at the last mile, really. 

The closing shot, I’m not so sure how that came out, but the VillageReach Country Director did justice to raising the tempo and bringing out that message of hope. The goal is to eradicate polio. I was keen on how we can end with hope. As much as the story started with the [polio outbreak] and the sad story, we needed to end on a high note. There is a solution and this is what we are really about. This is what VillageReach is about, the solution.

Your film ends on such a hopeful note. I do like the transition from something that has been a problem to a feeling of hope in the future, that one day polio can be eradicated. I think that was really clearly conveyed in your film.

One of the things that we had to place safe with was to try not to do a story that’s a bit too sensationalized. We’re trying to get an audience from an emotional point of view, but how can we keep it objective? I know we have an agenda, but how can we keep the story objective and spare us from overly sensationalizing it? So we wouldn’t want to focus too much on the story of Ranjisse, which is a very sad story. The story of polio in these communities is very upsetting. How do we present the truth and present the story of hope but also show the ugliness of the problem?

Why was this project important to you?

I think personally, as a filmmaker who’s been working mainly on socially impact stories for most of my career, this was a very significant project. And telling the story of a polio outbreak in a post-COVID-19 world I thought it would resonate with a global audience because then they would understand the stakes.

Even I came to understand fully how polio works and spreads through the research for this film. There’s so much that I did not know about how polio spreads, how fast it spreads. I did not know that polio has no cure. So there’s so much learning in this for me and so being a part of something that could potentially inspire change or at least reflection was a powerful thing for me.

Thank you for this interview, take care and goodbye! 

Learn more about the Polio Lab Sample Transport Program

Check out the trailer below. You can watch the full film on Youtube.


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