I have had my first taste of producing a radio documentary. My experiences of the process of producing my documentary are reflected on this page. They are reflected through a series of audio talks, where I have recorded my own thoughts and opinions in the process of producing the documentary; and listening diaries which contain all I have gleaned from listening to other documentaries. A detailed plan of the documentary is also included, together with the final product.

"Uhambo Lomphilisi: A healer's journey"

The documentary-making process
This audio documentary process is broken down into three stages: the proposal; the process; and my reflection. In the proposal, I will discuss different interpretations of what a documentary is, and will identify an approach I will follow in producing my documentary; in the process, I will highlight how I have gone about the process of research and content gathering for my documentary; while in my reflection I will present audio talks on how I have seen the experience of producing an audio documentary.

An audio documentary is a production of sound and real-life narrative aimed for radio. My audio documentary will look into the lives of three traditional healers who also have or have had professional working lives, outside traditional healing.

Section 1: My plans
In literature dealing with the definition of the documentary, it is possible to identify a wide spectrum of arguments about what the essential power of this genre might be. Some see this power in its ability to deal with personal stories and broad societal concerns; others focus on the ability of the documentary to take an audience through a journey in a story; while others place emphasis on the role they play in providing more context to a particular story. Many of these discussions seemingly agree on two points regarding the power of documentaries. Firstly, documentaries are designed to engage audiences through skilful story telling; secondly, they stimulate the widening of human knowledge.

Gordon Govier, for example, talks about the importance of the production skills involved in generating content, which he says will “ease an audience through a documentary” (2003). He then  describes a documentary as a “theatre of the mind” and as a “journey”.  Both of these images are intended to invoke  the importance of production skills in the kind of storytelling that one finds in documentaries. Production skills are an essential element in the process of storytelling in documentaries, as it is through production that content is edited and designed, to ensure the angle of the documentary is followed, and its message is reflected to the audience.  Govier explains that it is of value to think of the documentary as theatre of the mind because of the importance of keeping the documentary interesting and worthwhile enough for the audience. 

The  second point that the literature seems to agree on is that documentaries should provide audiences with new knowledge and insight. The definition that I like best, in this regard, was published in 1961, but is still, to my mind, very relevant in the modern context. This definition proposes that the central role of the documentary is to stimulate… a widening of human knowledge on all fields” (Rose, 1961: 8). This definition takes into account the creative freedom of producing a documentary, but emphasises that a documentary should enrich one’s knowledge. This is a view shared by Godmillow and Shapiro (1997, 80) who define documentaries as “discourses that claim to describe the real, to tell the truth”. This definition identifies a focus on how documentaries reflect reality and the truth, in sobriety or genres such as science and entertainment.

I would like to keep both of these concerns in mind in the approach I follow when I produce my documentary on traditional healers.  On one hand I am interested in using creative means a documentary, to ensure the message in the documentary is brought out as effectively as possible. On the  other hand, I am interested in a “widening” of public knowledge about traditional healers.

I kicked off this process, by creating a documentary proposal.

I have also been influenced in my documentary style, but certain documentaries and documentary producers I have come across this year. These documentaries have been from different modes of the documentary genre. I have completed a listening diary, where I have written about these influences.  

Section 2: from Plan to Product
Before beginning the process of conducting fieldwork for my documentary, I took notice of the importance of good planning. The topic I had chosen was a complex one, and I knew that the interview process was therefore likely to be challenging. The documentary topic I have chosen deals with traditional healers who also have other professions. I want to look at how the traditional healers have managed to adapt to their professions, whilst also being traditional healers.

I see this as being a complex topic, as the practice of traditional healing faces many challenges and debates from within and outside the Xhosa culture. From within, there is still that divide of Xhosa people who believe and do not believe in the abilities of traditional healers and their healings. There is also the deterioration of knowledge amongst the Xhosa youth, of the practice of traditional healing. From outside, traditional healers have been portrayed in a particular stereotype in the media, and there is also the debate on how traditional healers and traditional medicine should play a bigger role alongside mainstream medicine in South Africa. So indeed, a topic dealing with traditional healers could be a contentious one, and I knew that the interview process was therefore likely to be challenging.

In order to ensure that I found the material I needed to make the documentary come together,   I would therefore have to plan the interviewing process well. I went looking for guidelines that would help with this process, and found them in InterViews, Steiner Kvale’s (1996) classic text on the different stages of the interview process. Kvale was, of course, talking about social research, but I think his guidelines are of value to the documentarist as well.

The first two stages of Kvale’s schema - that of thematizing and designing the interview process - provides important guidelines for planning one’s research. Stage One, that of thematizing your research relates to the process of deciding on a focus and formulating the overall question that guides the research process. Stage Two, which relates to designing your research, concerns the process of planning the research strategy - in other words, the ‘how’ of the study. It also relates to reassurances about the interview, the interviewer presents to the interviewee ─ these would include consent for the interview to be undertaken and confidentiality matters. The third stage of the fieldwork process then concerns the process of conducting interviews. It is here that Kvale states the importance of the interviewer to manage the interview in such a way that the interviewee will be fully comfortable and be able to give well articulated answers. An example of strategies the interviewer could employ including asking short, brief and simple questions.

Staying close to Kvale’s guidelines for the thematizing stage, I highlighted key themes that I wanted to explore in my interviews. These  included childhood memories (I was interested in tracing such memories back to the time before the healers got the calling); the moment of realisation (here I wanted to capture their responses to getting the calling); balancing different worlds (I was interested in exploring how they have managed to balance their work as traditional healers and their day-to-day jobs), etc.  I also took into considerations ethical guidelines Kvale mentioned; here I was particularly interested in his comments about the need to establish and creating a mutually respectful relationship with my interviewees.

Then, following the guidelines that Kvale offers for the “designing” stage, I generated question themes for the interviews, linking them closely to the themes I had identified as well as my concern about maintaining a respectful relationship. I wanted to design my questions in such a way, that I would give the interviewee the sufficient platform to fully tell their story. From the interviewee’s response, I will then ask them to speak more of the topics they raised in their answers, which I believe will be very useful in the documentary.

Before I made any recorded interviews, I had also gone and gotten to know the traditional healers and one of the sources who will feature in the documentary, bust who is not a traditional healer. I got the sense that they were possibly less stressed without me having a recorder with me.  In the interview process, I will work on making the interviewees feel comfortable, by conducting my interviews in isiXhosa, the mother tongue of the traditional healers and one of the non-traditional healer sources. I will also ask them to introduce themselves and where they are from. Taking into consideration that I will be interviewing Xhosa people, they will give long introductions as they will be giving account of who their ancestors are, where they were born, who raised them, etc. Should I interview individuals who are not traditional healers, I will ask more questions in finding out who they really are and where they grew up, etc.

In my interviews, I also identified new themes which could form part of the documentary. I have included these in the guidelines I have previously set, and have followed them in my interviews with other traditional healers. These themes include the early age in which the healers received their initial calling to become traditional healers; the graphic dreams, hallucinations and illnesses which accompanied the calling; their initial reluctance to heed the calling and the dire consequences of this; how some individuals from the Xhosa culture itself, have given the traditional healers problems in their professions; and the general decline of the knowledge of traditional medicine within the Xhosa culture, and its consequences to the appreciation of traditional healers.

I believe I incorporated Kvale’s guidelines well in my fieldwork. Because I had planned well for my interviews, and because I had I built trustworthy relationships with the traditional healers and other sources for my documentary, I have ended up with very rich field material. I am also faced with the tricky task of selecting material for the documentary, from the very fruitful interviews I have conducted. Considering this, I have decided to produce a 30 minute radio documentary, after which I will have a 15 minute documentary which summarises the content addressed in the 30 minute version.

Section 3: Reflection
Below are four sets of reflections I made before, during, and after producing Uhambo Lomphilisi. 

The first reflection I made, involved my feelings about conducting research for the documentary: 

The second reflection expresses my concerns about producing the documentary in English, instead of in isiXhosa, the language spoken by the traditional healers in the documentary:

The third reflection includes my description of how Uhambo Lomphilisi begins: 

The final talks is a reflection of how the documentary has been received, and my overall impressions of it:

Podcast Powered By Podbean

The final product: Uhambo Lomphilisi (A healer's journey)