Undermined: An Epidemic In South Africa’s Gold Mines

Filmmaker Q&A with Director Mo Scarpelli

Is there a particular video, film, campaign or filmmaker that had a major influence on your career?

Zack Canepari & Drea Cooper’s “California Is A Place” showed me how independent doc shorts for online were possible, and also that they could be quirky, stylized and emotionally resonant. This, along with MediaStorm’s short multimedia pieces, opened my world to that wonderful blurry space between film + journalism on the web.

Jason Tippet’s “Only The Young” showed me how cinematography in doc can rival that of narrative features, and tell a human story.


What motivated you to make this film?

I learned through epidemiologist Jonathan Smith (he’s in the film) about thousands of miners dying silently in the mining camps in South Africa, Lesotho and surrounding countries. I’d worked with Aeras before on a film series about the rise of drug-resistant TB across the world, and their Dir of Communications at the time, Kari Stoever, and I decided to team up to make this short that directly confronts the neglect of gold miners with TB.


Please tell us what camera(s) you shot with primarily – and any other special equipment that you used and why you used it.

Canon 5D Mark II and Mark III. Jonathan Smithand his team shot most of the footage while working on his film THEY GO TO DIE and his VOICES Campaign involving similar issues.


Please tell us about any special styles or techniques that you used during the production of your film to help tell your story.

Jonathan’s interviews with widows of miners are heartbreaking; he gave me a hard drive of 10-12 of these… it was obvious his team had spent the time to build report and was sensitive to peoples’ pain around sharing their stories.


How did your story evolve from day one, to the very last day in post? Is your story what you thought it would be?

It was a collaborative process! The story was pretty straight-forward, and with a particular message, but there were some interesting side topics that came up along the way and I found a way to weave in.


Please describe the most rewarding experience you had while making this film.

Screening it at the SADC TB conference in 2013 – I wasn’t there, but my Producer at Aeras told me about it… it’s exactly the place and people we wanted to see it, to face what was happening to gold miners directly.


What advice can you give to other impact filmmakers?

Listen, listen, listen. You’re a filmmaker – you don’t have the answers, and I guarantee there is no one solution that will solve anything anyway. So listen as best you can to at least do justice to the issue or conflict in your film, and reveal the nuances of an issue. It’s not your job to provide solutions, necessarily (that’s a big burden) – it’s your job to make people think, make people feel, and make people grapple with the solutions that may be out there.


What’s your favorite part about the filmmaking process and why?

People, always people. I like absorbing who people seem to be, talking with them about who they are, and this gives rise to why they think what they think. And then everything they think and everything they are from one moment changes in the next, because humans do that constantly, and nothing is certain… and I love to be privy to it all.


What’s the one item you always take with you when working out in the field and why? 

Lotsa lens cloth. Too much of my earliest footage is smudgy because I’d just use my shirt to wipe the lenses. Yuck.


What do you want audiences to take away from your film?

What they will!


Please list key points that should be covered in a post-screening discussion:

*What did the audience previously know about tuberculosis? Did they know that behind HIV, TB is the leading infectious disease killer in the world? How have their perspectives of the disease changed after seeing UNDERMINED?


Please provide information on any recent developments regarding the issue or subjects of the film. How have things changed or not changed?

Unfortunately, miners continue to be infected with TB, and drug-resistance is on the rise.


What opportunities are available for those interested in getting further involved?

Follow Aeras work
See Jonathan Smith’s feature-length film about miners : http://theygotodie.com/



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