A (smiling) reality check


Freelance director of photography Tim Chevallier took time out from a busy schedule to document Operation Smile’s latest medical mission in Malawi.

The international NGO provides free surgery to disadvantaged people with facial deformities – mainly children with cleft lips and palates – and they invited Chevallier to volunteer his skills.

“It’s important that people divert from the mainstream,’ says Chevallier. “I’ve been shooting a lot of “reality’ stuff lately and doing this makes one realise the importance of taking a reality check.’

As the photographer on the mission, I’m chatting to Chevallier from the shade of a mud hut along a road to Lake Malawi. We’ve finished documenting a week of surgery and now we’re off to the lake to relax with the team. The bus we’ve been travelling in is having brake problems after the driver stepped hard on the pedal to avoid hitting a child running across road. While the driver tightens the bolts on the brake callipers, Chevallier practices his Chichewa with the locals.

“I’ve been spoilt with this project because I’ve come home,’ says Chevallier who grew up in Malawi. “These are the loveliest people in the world and it’s inspiring to watch these medical pros come into this environment and witness the immediate effect they have on people. Their lives have been changed by this surgery.’

It’s not all lakeshore sojourns for Chevallier and the other volunteers. The mission is hard work and one has to be sensitive to patients and medical professionals. “To film this requires a solid understanding of protocol. You’ve got to avoid being intrusive, not just of the patients and their family but also the medical team as they work,’ explains Chevallier. “Once you understand how far you can go it becomes easier.

You’re filming in an environment with a lot of pain and you’ve got to understand it’s a process; it’s necessary to push the limits somewhat to capture that emotion.’

Chevallier decided to shoot handheld so he could manoeuvre easily in the operating theatre and around the frenetic activity in the hospital. But much of the story happens outside of the hospital and Chevallier focused on two individuals, went to their homes and captured a sense of their lives. He explains the importance of setting the scene and about shooting the environment and the people on the periphery.

“But ultimately it’s in the hospital where it comes together and it affects you no matter how objective you become.’

It’s been a worthwhile reality check for this filmmaker who has shot for the likes of National Geographic Channel and Survivor South Africa. This project has compelled Chevallier to want to come back to Malawi and spend more time there to work on other projects.

By Anton Crone

screen africa magazine – january 2013


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