“I think it’s all about telling personal stories, and I think it’s about telling personal stories with a view to affecting change to a large group of people.”
Eswatini, formally known as Swaziland, is a small country in southern Africa, with a 2017 census putting the population at 1,093,238. Male homosexuality is illegal and members of the LGBTQ community have no rights.
In 2017, following a UN report that called for a law to protect the LGBTQ community, the Foreign Minister, Mgwagwa Gamedze, rejected it saying that (as supposedly) so few LGBTQ people live in the country, there was no point in having a law.
However, Eswatini has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the entire world. It’s believed that around 27% of the adult population, those aged 15 to 49, have the condition.
Filmmakers Samuel Weeks and Aidan O’Neill, who is also a photographer, are teaming up with two LGBTQ groups based in Eswatini, ESGM (Eswatini Sexual and Gender Minorities) and Rock of Hope, with the hope of gaining a unique access to the varying stories of Eswatini’s LGBTQ community to sympathetically represent their diverse experiences of oppression.
A GoFundMe page has been set up to receive donations for the project, and if the pair are able to film they hope to screen the 25-minute long documentary at film festivals in 2020.
As they prepare for the trip, GAY TIMES caught up with the pair to discuss the film’s importance.
What made you want to make this documentary in Eswatini specifically?
Aidan: Eswatini is a country that’s been dear to my heart for a long time now. I used to work in fashion, and then in 2014 we did a collaboration with Victoria Beckham and an organisation called mothers2mothers. They were working in Swaziland, and they were heading out on a cycle to go and visit the sites and raise money. Long story short, I ended up on the cycle, photographing for them. But it was Victoria Beckham who was saying that transmission of HIV from mother to child could be reduced from 40% to below 2%, and that just blew my mind. I went out and started researching about mothers2mothers, went to the cycle, and fell in love with the country. On the last day that we were there, one of the kids within the programme, which is really rare, tested positive. It was one of those moments that was a punch in the stomach. I came back, and I thought, ‘I’ll do a couple months and that feeling will pass and I’ll go back to being happy shooting fashion.’ And it just progressively got worse and worse and worse. And then one day we had a dress on set that was £35,000, and I just thought ‘We could save so many lives with that money.’ It was the tipping point, where I was like ‘Fuck, what I’m doing here is kind of a nonsense, in a way.’ I went home to my then girlfriend, and I was like ‘You know what, I can’t do this anymore, I’ve got to help or do something.’ But the only thing that I could do was images, tell stories. So, between the start of 2015 and June of the same year, I went about selling everything I owned, and everything I couldn’t sell I gave away. I ended up with two bags, camera bag and clothes bag. And I moved to what was then Swaziland, but since 2018 it’s been Eswatini. So, I moved out and started to document what a country looked like that had the highest prevalence of HIV in the world. And that’s kind of how I fell in love with Eswatini. That’s how basically we started.
Sam: And then you spent six months in Eswatini.
Aidan: Yes, so I spent six months living there, making work. So basically, I started to research HIV prevalence in the country, and found out it is the highest in the world. They say it’s 27%, but it’s much higher than that in some areas. Reading figures like 250,000 people have HIV within a country, I found that scale almost impossible to care on. So for me, it was trying to tell that story in a much more personable way, trying to distil those huge figures down into a single person. When you look at the work, you can relate to it as it’s your cousin, it’s your brother. Bringing all those figures down to one, that was really the core of why I was there anyway. I made a book, came back, we sold the book, had exhibitions here in London, raised some money, and I’ve been out every year since. It feels like a second home at the minute, so that’s how Eswatini started.
Sam: At the end of the day, before you left, you were asked to go back.
Aidan: Oh yes, on a recent trip, that’s how this new story started. Last year, I was out visiting a couple projects we’ve invested in since, and I was approached by an organisation out there, Rock of Hope, to see if I would go and help tell their story, document the work that they were doing. But sadly, I had two days left, so there wasn’t enough time. But the seed was planted then, and it just tapped away. It’s taken about a year now, as I think it was about this time last year I was out there, and I stated chatting to Sam about the idea of how we could help in some way.
What sort of work is Rock of Hope doing there at the moment?
Aidan: Advocacy – they implemented the first Pride march two years ago, as they’ve had their second Pride. Basically, legislation, changing the laws slowly.
And with you having so much experience in Eswatini, are you expecting any difficulties in being able to film there and getting all the stories that you want to tell?
Aidan: No, having friends, having connections and proving that you’re not just flying in, making a piece, and flying out a week later. It’s a country that I really care about – I do see it as a second home now almost. We were only chatting earlier about the country’s affinity, and how it’s similar to Ireland in a way. It’s a small-little country, small population, a lot of similar stigma and biases are still hanging around, similar to the place that I grew up in. But also the good things; people are super-friendly, people take you under their wing and just embrace you. It’s so much like Ireland in a way. I’ve also tried to learn a little bit of the language as well, I’m dreadful, but I try.
For people who don’t currently know, what is it like for the LGBTQ community out in Eswatini?
Aidan: Well it’s illegal to be gay. I think to speak as someone who isn’t gay, who isn’t from Eswatini, I don’t exactly know. That’s why we’re going to make this film. I guess the trickle-down effect of it being illegal is that people don’t, there’s kind of a carte blanche to just be insulting, to be violent towards people, because it’s coming from above them that it’s wrong, which is so bloody ridiculous. The law isn’t necessarily implemented, but they don’t do anything to help in any way. Going out and telling these stories is how we really find out what it’s like.
Sam: But I also think that the reality of being kicked out your home, your family home, being fired or not being able to get a job and being the victim of violence on all levels is very realistic from the people that we’ve spoken to. It’s illegal and the reality is pretty harsh and as a result, people are hiding in the shadows, and staying in the closet, and they’re not able to live their truth. Which is obviously a stark contrast to us, sitting here in London where we have every freedom. We have made great strides towards equality in the West. But the reality is, in Eswatini, and a load of other countries in the Middle-East and in Africa and across the world, people are still living the shadows, and living in the closet and their existence is illegal, which is completely ludicrous.
Do you think this documentary project could be a starting block for you two to look into the countries where it is illegal, and help shine a light for the people living there?
Sam: I think, and this is a question we’ve been asked quite a lot, this is our first film together, this is my first foray into working on more long-form content. I think, with the style of Aidan’s work, and the fact that we were invited back to Eswatini, we wanted to focus on them as a singular entity and dive deep and tell their really personal stories. It goes back to the statistics things, with people being drowned in the statistics and drowned in news stories and facts and figures, so I think our aim is to make something which will affect the viewers as deeply as possible and we hope to tell stories which almost places the viewer in the room with these people, like it’s your family member telling you the reality of their life. And I think that’s the way that you affect change, I think you’ve got to get people at their core. And you’ve got to make it relatable to the viewer. That this could be your son, your daughter, your grandfather, your grandmother. And that’s how you affect change. I think we’re drowning in statistics and facts and figures and you become numb to them. The only way you change people’s opinions, and you create change is by getting people at the heart.
So you’d say your desired impact of the film is to show the human side, rather than throw facts that the situation?
Sam: I think it’s all about telling personal stories, and I think it’s about telling personal stories with a view to effecting change to a large group of people. I’m a member of the LGBTQ community, so I have a certain empathy, I have a certain experience, very very different to my brothers and sisters in Eswatini, but still, I have a great empathy with them. And I think – actually I don’t think, I know – that it’s a really important story to tell. It’s a really important story that people need to know about, because all we’ve heard about for three years is Tr*mp and Brexit, and people are bored. I think a lot of people are unable to see through that cloud of endless facts and figures, endless news stories about things that matter, but do they matter? People are not being able to live their lives in a truthful and genuine way, and that’s really sad. I think that sums it up.
Aidan: We don’t know if this will be a bigger project, we’re not against the idea of this growing and going to different countries. But I think at the minute, because the door was open to us, as opposed to us going and forcing ‘Oh, we want to make a film here, and this is because we want to.’ The people of Eswatini that said ‘Can you help us tell this story?’ I think that might be the difference at the minute, because you know people’s safety, people’s security is paramount. The rest will fall into place. But possibly.
Sam: I think as a result of being invited to tell this story, we want to tell it in a really sympathetic and respectful way. All we’re trying to do is tell the truth. I’ve worked with Aidan for nearly ten years, on a number of projects. We’ve collaborated on quite a few of NGO projects and charity projects together. But that’s why I think that he’s the perfect person to make this film with, because his work is so personal. In a way, it’s brutal, and it’s really honest, but it’s also beautiful, and I think that’s our aim, to make something brutally honest, personal, and that people can relate to, but is also a joy to watch. And as a result of that, there’s a hopeful message. We must focus on positivity, and what we can achieve tomorrow, next week, next year, in the future. We’re not looking to tell a doom and gloom story. We’re looking to highlight a reality to then affect positive change, which is what we do in all the work we make together. In all our charity work we do we focus on the hope that must exist for the world and society to change and for our lives to be better.
One thing I saw in the trailer, you mentioned that Eswatini had their first Pride, and there was a lot of references to Stonewall. Do you think their Pride could be their Stonewall, or is there a lot more that needs to be done before we can say that?
Sam: I think that a seed has been planted, and I think it’s so amazing that the members of the LGBTQ community in Eswatini feel that they can march and they can shout, and they can say that it’s okay for them to exist. And they did it at the risk of protest, at the risk of violence, but they still did it. And I think that’s the seed, and that’s the catalyst for achieving great change in the near future. And I think it’s a really really positive thing. And making this film, we just hope to navigate that path with them, and accompany them on that journey and support in any way we can, which is essentially why we’re making this film because we believe that it’s the right thing to do, and this story needs to be told. I think that making the comparison to their first Pride march and Stonewall is a good thing to do, but there’s still a lot of work to do.
Aidan: I don’t think we could’ve made this film maybe as little as five years ago, because since the first Pride, people are more willing to speak now. I think we’re on that first wave of change, but it’s literally just the first wave. To be able to look back in five or ten years, when the laws do change and say that we were part of that in some small, tiny way, that would just be huge for us.
I saw that there are hopes that this could be finished in 2020, and showing off at some film festivals. Do you know roughly when in 2020 this could be done?
Aidan: It’s probably going to be a budget thing…
Sam: This is a really low-budget film, which was deliberate. And we are currently in the middle of raising funds. And we’ve already had some really generous donations, but we still have a long way to go. We’re almost at 25% of our budget, so we hope that towards the end of the third quarter of 2020, we’ll have something shot, we’ll have something nearly ready to be shown and to submit to certain festivals. And we hope that it’s a powerful enough story to reach as many people as possible.
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