I’ve set out on a journey to make a new feature documentary which has the working title “Back to Ground Zero”. It’s a project which began a year ago after I was contacted by Zakaria (“Zac”), a former refugee from South Sudan now living in Punchbowl, Sydney. Zac was looking for a person to tell his life story: of how as a ‘lost boy’ he managed to escape the horrors of the civil war in his country and eventually end up in Australia, and to document his attempts at realising a life long dream of building a school in his village.I couldn’t help being moved by the pictures Zac showed me of the village of kids being taught in the open under trees. Suffice to say that he was very persuasive. It then occurred to me that the building of the school was a metaphor for the whole nation and the challenges it now faces. Following this whole process – the struggles, the highs and the lows is what the film is going to be about.
Shooting has in fact has already started. In December 2012 I set off with Zac to his village. I stayed almost a month, and the first part of the film has now been completed. We are now well on the way.
The country – the youngest in the world – is really going through a tough time. Much of South Sudan’s GDP is spent on defending its borders because there’s still a protracted border war with the North going on, mostly over the issue of oil. The infrastructure is bad – the roads are a mess – there are few hospitals, the education system is less than basic. If kids are lucky enough to go to school, very few end up beyond year 10.
South Sudan’s capital is Juba, and the trip to the village was a day and a half journey by potholed road. As we drew close to the village it became clear that this was no simple welcome. Hundreds were by the roadside. Zac pushed through the jubilant crowd whilst bulls were slaughtered and women danced in celebration. His three brothers, whom he hadn’t seen for 25 years, were there to meet him.
The next 3 weeks went by quickly. Zac consulted the clan chiefs about plans for the school. He’d returned to the village with enough money to get the first stage of the project moving thanks to funds raised by his small support committee. In the end, however, nothing proved simple. The workers nominated by their clans weren’t happy with their wages, and the well on the school site ran dry. Yet despite these obstacles, two months later the bricks start rolling off the production line. Zac returned to Australia with promises given and expectations raised.
Filming of this project will continue through 2014 when a major fund-raising effort will centre on a walk between Coolangatta and Sydney. By the middle of the year Zac’s committee should have raised sufficient money for the next stage. In October 2014 Zac plans to return to the village, and I’ll be there with him to film what should be an eventful 3 months.