A personal journey to volunteer on a medical ship off the coast of West Africa is the inspiration for a documentary by South African filmmaker Ryley Grunenwald. The Dawn of a New Day had its world premiere at the 32nd Durban International Film Festival and is one of seven projects selected for the inaugural Good Pitch² in Johannesburg this month.
In 2008 Ryley Grunenwald took time out of the film industry in South Africa to volunteer as a cleaner on the Africa Mercy, a ship docked in Liberia to provide free specialised surgery to people in West Africa.
The Africa Mercy is run by Mercy Ships, a non-profit organisation that takes free medical care to some of the one and a half billion people in developing nations who don’t have access to basic healthcare.
While working on the ship Grunenwald made a short film that inspired the full length documentary The Dawn of a New Day.
“I had an amazing experience while I was there, and I was really moved. – Not only by the patients leaving the ship having surgeries performed that they would never have received otherwise, but also by over 450 volunteers from all over the whoworld were actually paying money to volunteer on this ship. It really made me question my own life, what I was doing in South Africa and what my goals were. I decided that I wanted to be part of stories that I really cared about and that were actually having an impact globally,’ explains Grunenwald.
She decided to return to the Africa Mercy in 2009, while it was docked in Benin, to film The Dawn of a New Day. The shoot also took her to Cape Town, South Africa and Dublin, Ireland over the course of nine months.
The film follows South African plastic surgeon Dr Tertius Venter who volunteers on the Africa Mercy and the impact of his work on the lives of his patients, but also the personal toll on his family and the relationship with his wife. For two months every year he works in Dublin as a plastic surgeon and uses this income to support his family and his volunteer work for the rest of the year.
His story is told alongside those of three of his patients who are treated for a tumour, congenital abnormalities and a burn contracture: Ambroise, a 31-year-old motorcycle taxi driver, 11-year-old Fadila from Niger and a 10 year old boy called Hyacinthe.
“A lot of people who are born with birth abnormalities or develop tumours are ostracised from their communities and often feel worthless and ashamed and just want to hide away. The surgeries not only restore their health, but also restore them socially and emotionally. You can easily see that they’re different people after the surgery,’ says Grunenwald.
Funding for the production came from the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) and the Gauteng Film Commission (GFC), but because the film was made over an extended period on a tight budget, Grunenwald had to learn how to make the most of limited resources.
One woman crew
She worked as producer, director and cinematographer because limited bed space on the ship meant that she couldn’t take any crew with her to Benin.
“I basically had to be a one woman crew, but although I arrived alone I met some wonderful people among the local Beninese and international volunteers on the ship who became invaluable during the production.’
Grunenwald had to rely heavily on local translators. “It was a massive challenge working in completely foreign languages, and similar to South Africa they don’t just have one language. Sometimes I needed two translators to translate from the language of the patient, to another language, to English. Some conversations went really slowly, but I couldn’t have done this without the fantastic local translators,’ notes Grunenwald.
Due to the sensitive subject matter she had to work carefully to gain the patients’ trust and get access to tell their stories. She approached patients with a translator and explained what they were doing, and asked them to sign a release form if they were happy to be filmed.
“Some people did say no because they didn’t want to be filmed, and we respected that, whereas other people were really excited to have their story told. I think they saw the bigger picture that it would bring hope to other people who are in a similar situation to them,’ says Grunenwald.
She was also given “incredible access’ by Mercy Ships, who allowed her to talk to the patients and staff and film during surgery. “I think part of the reason for this is because I had established a relationship with them the previous year by volunteering, so they knew that my heart was in the right place.’
In November 2010 Grunenwald won an award for Best Pitch at the MiradasDoc Market in Tenerife, on the Spanish Canary Islands, and used the prize money to pay for post-production. Sound was done by FiX Post-Production and editing by Nicholas Costaras at Switchvert.
The film will be distributed internationally by Journeyman Pictures in the UK and Fireworx Media & Distribution in South Africa.
Grunenwald believes that there is a diverse audience for the documentary. “From a subject point of view it will be of interest to people in the medical field, people who are interested in humanitarian volunteerism, aid in Africa, disability issues and access to healthcare issues.
“But on a more personal level I think anyone who has had to struggle between doing what they want to do and being with the person they love will relate to this story, as well as anyone who has felt that they don’t quite fit in with the people around them. I think it’s a story of hope that you can find acceptance. Even though it’s about medical issues, as it’s such a personal story I think it really does speak to many different types of people,’ she notes.
The Dawn of a New Day is shortlisted for various festivals and was also one of seven projects selected for the inaugural Good Pitch² at the People to People International Documentary Conference in Johannesburg in September.