There is a story that every Gorilla Highlands lover of culture and history is eagerly awaiting: the Punishment Island documentary. An Italian documentary film maker Laura Cini (pictured smiling in the centre of the photo above) has been working on it since 2011. It will tell the sad tale of Lake Bunyonyi’s Akampene Island where pregnant but unmarried girls used to be left to die.
Laura, it is common for video projects to take long, but five years is quite some time…
You would be surprised to find out that 4-5 years is the average time to complete a documentary if you aim to reach industry standards. No comparison with my film, but the Oscar-winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” was produced in five years. The documentary industry is tough. It takes a long time to develop a story and to put your budget together.
But I have to say that in these five years, I also made another documentary which is about to be released. This made it double hard but it also saved me. I could switch from one to the other finding new enthusiasm each time.
What has kept you going? Why this story in particular?
The challenge, I guess. I have to finish something I’ve started, no matter what. Of course there were times when I wanted to give up and go back having a normal life but the support of my partner and close friends encouraged me to persevere. There are so many people I have to thank. This production has really been a joint effort, there is no way I would have made it without the help and dedication of so many, starting with my local crew.
The story was incredibly fascinating for me right from the beginning. It was the boundary between legend and real life that intrigued me. The island is submerging and I thought it was someone’s duty to catch the story before it became myth. For some unknown reason, it happened to be mine.
How much time have you spent at Lake Bunyonyi, how much editing behind your computer and how much looking for funds?
I made my first trip when I volunteered for Edirisa, one month. Then another month for research, then another seven weeks for further research and first part of shooting, then another month for last part of shooting. So almost five months but we also did lots of pre-production work on the phone with my local crew. Then probably five months in the cutting room. And we still have to do some bits of shooting and post-production isn’t over.
I can’t really say how much time was spent looking for funds – too much for sure. Sometimes you spend a month working full-time for a single application.
What was your experience with crowd funding? Did you have any other sources before the Italian ministry of culture offered you support to complete it?
It was a totally crazy journey, one of the best and worst experiences of my life. You can’t only rely on what’s happening online. You have to go out there and meet people, and it took time to find out what kind of events would work. The best was a tour with gospel concerts in the Christmas period. They allowed us to present the project in the middle of the concert and then we collected money on exit. We did that in Tuscany and in Rome and it worked like magic.
Then we did all kind of other things. A group of musicians in Florence organised a couple of concerts for us and we also did lots of vintage markets – I ended up selling most of my possessions, and friends donated lots of stuff. Then Philine, one of the directors of photography, gave me a big hand raising money in Germany and Julia, former Edirisa volunteer, did a good job in Austria. I had lots of support from two amazing women in particular, an Italian and a French one.
From a human point of view, it was an emotional experience. I was totally exhausted physically, I got a very bad conjunctivitis during crowdfunding which I transmitted to everyone on my team. We had to go up on stage with sunglasses and in heavy pain and had to drive to remote locations at night not seeing anything. At times I thought my end had come…
We didn’t have other funding at all, our production company Ombre Elettriche had to borrow money to complete the shooting.
Did you know right from the start that you would find women who were rescued from Punishment Island?
No, not at all. Everybody was saying it was impossible. I followed an instinct or maybe it was excess of enthusiasm, I don’t really know. But I had just graduated from Anthropology at that time, I was full of anthropological enthusiasm and had cravings for impossible missions. The research trip was a disaster for three quarters of it, but then there was light at the end of the tunnel.
Did you hear anything shocking from the women you interviewed?
Yes of course, when you find out that it is actually a real story. For a teenager being left on a tiny island to starve, waiting to be rescued by a man is a shocking experience. And we now know for sure that girls died there. But there are other twists we didn’t expect, you will find out about them in the documentary.
Does your research confirm that the practice got abandoned in the 1940s?
It’s hard to know as old local people don’t know their age but I would definitely say later. Some women were abandoned there even when the practice was officially prohibited. It’s interesting to mention that prohibition was not necessarily a good thing, as women kept being punished privately, using even worse methods.
How do you deal with the issue of women’s rights within the context of culture?
During my degree course I concentrated most of my studies on Africa, so I had some background knowledge. Still I was aware that I had to be very careful in approaching such themes in a culture which is not mine. I wanted to avoid any kind of cultural judgement so I decided to approach the documentary with a different, original style inspired by local culture. I didn’t want to make another western documentary about the tragedies in Africa.
My mission was to tell a human story, part of our universal heritage. I left all kinds of judgements behind. I believe that the worst thing is that we Westerners went to Africa and totally erased local history and customs, telling them that everything they were doing before us was the work of Satan. I reconstructed part of that local history as I think that people can learn more about gender issues through their own past experiences, rather than from principles coming from the outside.
Have you met any resistance by local people?
I wouldn’t say resistance, no. Issues, for sure. I didn’t just want to collect their stories, I wanted to build a human relationship with the people in the film that was going beyond the stereotypes. That has been tough, for me, and for the local members of my crew. It has been a very challenging process, painful at times, but I think we all learnt a lot from that.
Will this be your last story from Uganda?
I don’t know. Last time I was there, I promised to myself that it was. But I’m very attached to Uganda, especially the lake. It has become a second home for me and miss it. I will be back for sure, maybe for a holiday for a change, or for some screenings. But if I was to make another documentary, it would be about post-colonialism that still rules people’s life, something I feel very passionate – and angry – about.
Interview by Miha Logar, production photos from Laura Cini’s archives