Interview by Ashlin Simpson
‘My Stolen Childhood’ focuses on Ghana’s tradition of ‘trokosi’ which forces young girls to live and work with priests in shrines — some for the rest of their lives — as ‘payment’ for the sins of family members. The subject of the documentary is Brigitte Sossou Perenyi, who was one of these girls.
The film quickly became the third most-watched video on the BBC News site, with 1-million YouTube views and 3-million Facebook views. Importantly, the documentary has been watched by millions of people in Ghana and Nigeria.
The documentary was a co-funded project between Code for Africa and the European Journalism Centre. It was produced by London-based On Our Radar and Pearlworks Productions. Brigitte worked alongside UK journalists Paul Myles and Angela Robson to produce an in-depth, personal piece on trokosi.
On 7 November the film won an Association for International Broadcasting (AIB) award in the ‘human interest category. Brigitte delivered a moving speech while accepting the award with Paul.
Brigitte was also recognised as one of the BBC 100 Women in 2018 for her work as an activist.
But this is more than just an African story produced by international media: it’s an outstanding example of collaboration among experts with a range of skills combined with sensitive storytelling.
We spoke to Angela, Brigitte and Paul about the process of producing ‘My Stolen Childhood’.
* Conversation was edited for clarity and brevity
How did this all begin?
Brigitte: Reverend Walter from International Needs Ghana connected Angela and I in 2011. I had just moved back to Ghana in mid-2011, so we started having a conversation back and forth. It was basically how Angela approached me, she wanted to establish our relationship — nothing was forceful, nothing was — “I’m a journalist I just want to write about your story” kind of thing.
I started working with International Needs in Ghana, Angela got a grant from Marie Claire to come to Ghana in December 2012 to write an article. That was my first time meeting Angela face to face. We spoke and right away she made me feel comfortable and wanting to know more about who I am.
I really liked that about her, so when she approached me about the impactAFRICA grant in 2015, I was afraid but she was someone I came to trust and decided ‘okay, let’s go ahead with that’. We wrote the grant proposal together.
Since age 10 I’ve known I want to share my story, but had never built enough trust with someone to help. When Angela and I received the grant, I was like ‘Okay, that’s scary’.
After that, Angela introduced me to Paul. Now I have to tell you the truth, as I said, I have a difficult time trusting someone with my story because I want the person I’m working with to see me for who I am, not just the story I have.
With Paul I was a bit hesitant, but at the same time Angela spoke highly of Paul. Paul and I met in Zanzibar for the first time and he was immediately highly respectful of my opinions and my voice. I think he asked me “What do you want from this? What do you see yourself gaining from this? What does this look like for you?”
When we were brainstorming the idea for the story, he turned to me and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if it’s sort of like you’re on a journey to finding your happy place.”
And I said, “ Well, I remember when I was a child in my village, I was once happy, I was happy with my family so it will be sort of on a journey to finding my happy place.”
Paul: Angela had done a story with Brigitte many years before and had stayed in touch and followed up on it.
What we can learn from this is that many journalists publish the story and then move on and don’t keep contact. Angela had built a personal relationship and a trust over the years after that initial magazine story was published and I think that’s what allowed us to do such a great in-depth project when the moment was right.
Angela: It was a very slow process and we became friends first. After that, she came to my house for Christmas and we did the story. We just got to know each other — I think it was that trust — that power together.
Dealing with disagreements, planning and collaborative journalism
Paul: We try to work with communities to share their own experience in their own words and to lead their own storytelling. The distinction is that Brigitte is the narrator and she brought that to the table, so she was able to connect to the people she interviewed and spoke with, because of her personal relationship. She was able to narrate the story in her own words, which makes it more authentic and powerful to the audience because you’re hearing from someone who is directly being affected.
And what we can bring is experience in providing production values and experience in pitching and obviously, the sort of legal experience and planning for a more difficult project like this. We also provide an outsider’s view, which is useful in terms of saying “this is what we feel like the most powerful structure for the story is” and that was the interesting part — and that’s where the disagreements came about.
We had to discuss and plan together and make compromises that was really interesting as a filmmaker, because a lot of people treat someone as a character or a subject .
What we did is, before we agreed to go into this project together, we spoke a lot about why we want to do the project and how we wanted to do it. — Paul
We both agreed that we didn’t want to make it just another story about an African practice — we wanted to explore in more depths. And before starting, we did quite a bit of work with Brigitte on brainstorming the story. There were a lot of post-its involved.
Brigitte: A lot.
Paul: And a lot of marker pens while we tried to structure out the story and lay it all out on several walls in an office in Ghana.
Brigitte: And several locations in our car in London.
Paul: The big step for us, which we haven’t always done on previous projects, was to make the brave decision to involve Brigitte in the pitching and the editing process. Many people like to get back to the edit and have full freedom to do what they want. Anyone who has made a film knows that when the rubber really hits the road is in the edit.
So it was important for Brigitte to be involved and that comes with its challenges, because it’s a very personal story. It’s difficult and I think at first viewing some of the more emotional moments Brigitte naturally didn’t necessarily feel like that’s what she wanted to show on camera. One example would be especially the emotional reunion with her mom for the first time in the cottage — it’s a very powerful and universal moment that would actually help to connect to many audience members and make them relate to Brigitte and relate stronger to the story. That was part of our negotiation process.
As with any creative ideas, if there opposing views and you can work through them, and we did, it becomes a stronger project at the end of it.
Brigitte: To be blunt about it, it’s very challenging watching your life, which you feel you built, you’ve learnt a great way of suppressing certain emotions and you don’t want to bring it up again. It’s very difficult to have to relive those during the filming.
The editing was very, very difficult for me emotionally and spiritually. But what I had to remind myself ‘okay you’ve trusted the team all this while, almost a year now’.
I had to understand that they had my best interest at heart and not out to put my life out there for people to ridicule — nothing like that — so it was that crucial moment of me trusting again, because it was like back and forth, do I trust them? So doing the edits was really a test moment for me where I told myself,’ I think they are very genuine about putting the best story out there’.
We believe in the same thing: the objective to get the story out there, connect with the audience and to inspire and impact. That’s what I told Paul and Angela.
I want people to find hope — Brigitte
I don’t want people to pity me, I want them to see strength in this story.
I had moments in the edit suite where I realised, especially when I wanted to have my Ghanaian family dinner scene in the film at the end, that I want the world to see my whole family. But then they explained the high-low, high-low of filming. So it was like killing my baby — I don’t know if that’s the term you use.
I had to remove myself from the story for a moment and see that this is for the many young people out there, especially young girls who may be going through stuff and don’t have the strength to pull back and reclaim their voice. This is for them. So I had to see the bigger picture. It was me allowing myself to trust my team and to know this is not just about me.
So the editing part was the most difficult bit for me because this was where we cut, and some things are omitted and it was very difficult for me.
I’m very privileged. I’m very fortunate to have people with hearts, people who were looking at me as a person, people who are working with me not just, “Oh you went to school for International Relations. Alright, what do you know about film, what do you know about telling the story?” It wasn’t about that. It was a collaboration from day one to the end.
I believe we should form such teams where the journalists can come down and be on the same level with survivors. They remove themselves and remove the sensationalism and just see the story as a human story. They need to see the subject as a human, as somebody.
Paul: I think that’s the key as well for this type of storytelling. Rather than people like me and Angela doing a sort of parachute journalism — jumping in to try to capture a complex story and then leave.
Code for Africa (CfA) is the continent’s largest federation of data journalism and civic technology laboratories, with labs in four countries and affiliates in a further six countries. CfA manages the $1m innovateAFRICA.fund and $500,000 impactAFRICA.fund, as well as key digital democracy resources such as the openAFRICA.net data portal and the GotToVote.cc election toolkit. CfA’s labs also incubate a series of trendsetting initiatives, including the PesaCheck fact-checking initiative in East Africa, the continental africanDRONE network, and the African Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR) that spearheaded Panama Papers probes across the continent. CfA is an initiative of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).