Journalism in the service of society

‘How personal narratives are shaped by and shape the documentaries we make’

(Being an address delivered virtually by Cheryl Uys-Allie, a documentary filmmaker at the 12th IREP International documentary film Festival, on Thursday, March 17, 2022)

‘Our themes tend to be shaped by our own life experience. Themes that live within us become our own narrative. Audiences want to be taken along to witness a shift happen to the character, or the filmmaker, and to find meaning explored. As documentary filmmakers we also now need to relook structure from extended reportage to the basic three act film structure’

WE’re living in especially tumultuous times with war among angry and aggrieved nations driving down on us with inevitable consequences, even though the killing and mayhem in the Ukraine appears distant. The fact that a documentary filmmaker, Brent Renaud, was killed last week brings it a lot closer to home.

At the beginning of the 21st century, we thought the world was finally catching up with a move towards democratic consolidation around the world; a more peaceful and prosperous world, more liberal global citizens with tolerance, understanding towards those different from themselves. An intent to eradicate and raise conscious awareness around racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice

However, the opposite also seems true – the more things change, the more they stay the same – where in some parts of the world there seems to be regression towards a more conservative outlook. Capitalism at the expense of values and integrity, with greed being an accepted norm far from values of social justice and inclusion.

Although the majority of African countries are liberated from a colonial past, our democracies, according to The Economist’s Democracy Index remain “fragile”.

The documentary filmmaker is often at odds with repressive regimes because these regimes tend to lean on distorted truths to legitimize their grip on power.

  • In this situation, documentary filmmakers remain the pillar of hope, for those who cannot speak for themselves – our primary drive to produce documentaries is not for the money – we produce documentaries as an extension of our commitment to the broader social good
  • This is a unique position because the genre of documentary filmmaking by its nature demands a commitment to truth – in a post-truth world

Now perhaps, more than ever, it is necessary to wrestle truth from the blur of fake news, propaganda and out-right lies into transparent and open view, especially through our documentary lens.

A fundamental difference between fiction films and our trade in documentaries, is that, in fiction, Truth will not spoil a good story, whereas to us as documentary filmmakers, it’s the holy grail.

We are the translators for our time and histories, the interlocuteurs, often interpreters, with the responsibility to unpack and share the often inaccessible, and to find a way to make it entertaining enough that it becomes accessible.

Jean-Marie Teno, the preeminent documentary filmmaker from Cameroon, challenges what seems post-colonial to be visibly neo-colonial in his documentaries. In “The Colonial Misunderstanding” he takes a deeper look at Christian evangelism and its effects on African belief systems. 

I had the privilege of working on the initial stages of a film with a similar theme released recently in South Africa. The story of Manche Masemola as told by filmmaker, Letebele Masemola.

Manche was a 14 year old Pedi girl from Ga Marishane in Limpopo province, South Africa. In 1924 she attended Christian classes with the Anglican missionaries in a nearby village. She was beaten by her parents and eventually to death for converting to Christianity.  Today, Manche is one of 10 statues to 20th century Martyrs at the entrance to Westminster Abbey in London.  We have so many similar untold stories.  

Documentary allows us to uncover stories of our past and mediate those in our present.

Michael Moore is probably America’s Jean-Marie Teno, stinging his American public into being conscious of their broken society and where the fault-lines lay.

He has forged a version of INFOTAINMENT that seems to work with great effect.

Fahrenheit 9/11 grossed 110 million dollars, highest ever for a documentary, uncovering the staggering hypocrisy around the War on Terror. A subject arousing interest and intense debate worldwide.

By taking on Corporations, Globalization and Capitalism in documentary film-making and shredding pretensions, illusions and deceits, he targets the indifference of American Elites. This has been profitable for Moore, not purely due to the subject matter, but because viewers are seduced by the entertainment value of the film.

But the facts do need to be verifiable. That much we understand to be documentary filmmaking. A carpet of images woven by flow and pace in editing to transport our audiences into that other world we are intent on making familiar to them.

Moore’s advice:  DO NOT make a documentary – make a MOVIE.

I believe if we can get that right we can shift documentary to mainstream. With OTT and VOD platforms making documentaries increasingly accessible, …it is a time of renaissance for documentary, and yes we do need to adapt our model to make documentaries that entertain our audiences.  

They want you to make them cry, or laugh, even challenge them to think – but not to lecture them.

They want to be entertained.

Moore’s method relies on harsh comedy; the proportion of comedy to political anger, all carefully controlled and crafted.

While Moore takes on dominant issues in his own society. For us, in Africa, Teno takes on perhaps still the most dominant theme on our continent: Colonialism and the question of Identity.

According to Teno, documentary film must merge history and individual stories through the lens of a Collective “I” that gives voice to the voiceless – the documentary filmmaker speaking on behalf of this “collective”.

The dominant intent or narrative in my own work, and to most documentary filmmakers, is to give a voice to the voiceless, to shine a spotlight on the invisible with the filmmaker acting as a bridge, or an interpreter, between worlds divided by language, religion and culture.

Our themes tend to be shaped by our own life experience. Themes that live within us become our own narrative. Audiences want to be taken along to witness a shift happen to the character, or the filmmaker, and to find meaning explored. As documentary filmmakers we also now need to relook structure from extended reportage to the basic three act film structure.

Is there a character arc? Does the protagonist get her needs met? Is there potential for our character to experience growth? Is there a turning point in her journey? What do I have access to? What will I recreate to better tell my story? How do I make this a MOVIE?

My Octopus Teacher has all the elements of a movie, yet is a subjective documentary experience through the eyes Craig Foster, our filmmaker.  We need to acknowledge we are subjective. We are not journalists. We are not simply reporting the facts. We have an agenda. Telling our story is making sense of the chaos around us and sharing what we’ve learnt with our audience. Emotional responses by the filmmaker and characters in our films are not constructed. They are honest. The power of documentary is transformative.

As a filmmaker, my work history and life story are interconnected whether my life at the time influenced the documentary I was working on, or whether a documentary I was working on had an impact on my life is something we can all relate to as documentary filmmakers.

My father is a military historian having written a number of books on WWI battles and SA border wars, so I grew up visiting battlefields and having my picture taken at gravesites, and headstones of fallen heroes – people I never knew but whose stories he has kept alive in his books.

One of my first documentaries was born from his book on Bushmen soldiers, which I directed for a USAID funded series called – Africa: Search for Common Ground.

Having studied anthropology, I was less interested in the border war heroes and more so in the impact on the lives of the Kung! and Khwe soldiers and their families, enlisted to fight as trackers in a war that was not their own. They were known as “Flechas” (arrows in Portuguese) paving the way for the South African apartheid forces allied to UNITA and the US, against the Cuban and Russian aligned MPLA. Essentially, the end of the Cold War played out in Angola.

My next film was in Mozambique, where I lived for 2 years working as a stringer for the Argus Africa news, a SA newspaper. This was during the UN negotiated Peace Process, between the Renamo rebels and the Frelimo govt forces. I was hired by a Mozambican production company to direct a film documenting the demobilisation process across the war-torn country. I spoke Portuguese and the film needed to be in English. I was in the right place at the right time.

In 1994, I was hired as a field producer to assist news crews in Rwanda, mainly because I spoke French as well. I was in my mid 20s and in awe of international correspondents, but also very quickly disillusioned by what I experienced as the construction of news. In some cases it was as if they had pre-packaged their stories before we’d even shot them.

I learnt to trouble shoot, think on my feet and always have a Plan B, but also realised my mission or passion was not in news, but rather for interpreting the news, in documentary.

Close to one million Rwandan Tutsis were killed in 6 weeks, fleeing across the border to refugee camps set up by aid agencies in Goma, the DRC back then, … and a lead story I was working on was the safety of the mountain gorillas in the Virunga national park.

Kigali was a media frenzy and every network was competing for a different angle on Africa’s most gruesome genocide.

Fast forward.

For over 20 years I was married to a S.African born Muslim. His father, Somali. His work took us to Saudi Arabia and then Beirut, in Lebanon. We lived there for 5 years, where our children were born. With our move to the Arab World, my innate curiosity naturally turned my camera lens and focus toward Islam.

In Beirut I worked with a Palestinian camerawoman and editor for 4 years, with me being the producer / director and writer. It was the perfect partnership.

In the wake of 9/11 the voices we were hearing in the streets in Beirut, were under-reported by western media.

The next project became a more defining moment when I was commissioned by Teleproductions Intl, a company in DC, to direct a documentary focussing on the Arab response to 9/11, as opposed to the extreme voices captured by mainstream media. The film was called: Islam: the War Within.

Married into the faith, to the son of an Imam, this film allowed the rare opportunity to have some of my own questions and prejudices answered, as a mother of two young Muslim children.

… How do you wear a hijab and call yourself a feminist? As the mujahadin, do you share the views of the Taliban on patriarchy? As the Muslim brotherhood, why would you need to go underground in a Muslim country?   

I believe being married to a Muslim gave me a certain insider access not afforded to all outsiders. My cameraman was Syrian and we would hire sound crews in-country. We interviewed 42 people in 7 countries over 9 months with voices from Damascus to Kabul, Cairo, Dubai, Teheran, Riyadh, Algiers and Beirut. In the final film we used only 18 of the 42 interviews. It was a thesis and an early lesson in pre-production:

be more prepared and discerning before flying around to collect interviews you might not use. It took 7 weeks to edit, and 2 days later my daughter, Aliyaah, was born in Beirut.  For me, she is integrally linked to that film having carried her through all those countries.

We also made several NGO films for UN agencies and the ILO. The films were as much about creating awareness as a call to action. “Maid in Lebanon” was one such film following the lives of Sri Lankan domestic workers in the ME and particularly in Lebanon where over 80,000 Sri Lankan house-maids are migrant workers, many trapped and literally working as 21st century slave labour, (made to sleep on balconies or the kitchen floor, some even thrown off those balconies) and often primary care givers to Lebanese children at the expense of their own children back home. 

On a personal level this also addressed my own guilt as a working mother, leaving my baby son, Tareq, for weeks at a time to tell others’ stories, while his own story was being defined by my absence.

So you might say …my sympathies are pretty wide spread, but the personal intention is driven by an almost desperate need to magnify invisible voices

Yesterday’s news is forgotten today. But the film lives on as a record, speaking for public empathy and compassion.

Some film topics are time bound like “Unmasked” on the management of the Covid pandemic in Nigeria. Other film topics can consume years of our lives and will come to life when the timing is right, whether we are waiting for a stronger script, a broadcast partner, the right director, funding, …or just the right time.

That film for me is called ‘Caught in Traffic’. 10 years ago I made a short film for a current affairs program on SA women in prisons in SP Brazil – for drug trafficking – caught in the web of narco- capitalism.  I refused the commission and instead licensed the piece to the broadcaster to retain the rights, in the hope of someday expanding the story into a feature documentary or a documentary series. 

In the meantime, the next generation are not waiting to make big block buster or festival worthy documentaries. They are turning to a new genre of mobile filmmaking called micro-docs

As one of the former directors of the MultiChoice Talent Factory film academies, training young filmmakers across the continent, we had no option but to take our student training online during the worst of covid, …and this is where we were introduced to micro-docs by our online training partner –  the New York Film Academy. This was the introduction to mini documentaries, told in under 3mins and aimed at distribution across social media platforms – stories not news.  

It’s a new market and new way of consuming media. For those of us loyal to long format documentaries, what would have been a 90min feature documentary, is nowadays being bought and consumed as a documentary series in 4 to 6 parts with a lot more re-enactments and dramatization, blurring the lines between docu-drama and film.

The essential differentiator remains that documentary is fact – not fiction.     

In a world where information is more subjective than ever before, our commitment to our own truth is more critical than ever.



  • Cheryl Uys-Allie is a documentary filmmaker and Television Executive whose 20 year career has spanned Africa and the Middle East where she worked for Sky News, ABC, Reuters, TV Record (Brazil), Aljazeera and MultiChoice Africa. Over two decades she has produced and directed news stories and documentaries covering civil wars in Angola, Mozambique, the genocide in Rwanda, Tsunami in Sri Lanka, to 9/11 response in the Middle East & Afghanistan. She launched TV channels for M-Net (MultiChoice) in Angola, Zambia and South Africa. In 2018 she joined the founding team as the Africa Director for the MultiChoice Talent Factory (MTF), an initiative aimed at training passionate young filmmakers across the continent. She remains committed to building partnerships focused on developing the film industry across Africa.  

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