Reflections: Stephen's Children with Brandon Bray
with Brandon Bray
Reflections is a BitterSweet podcast series formed out of the idea that in seasons of uncertainty we can ground ourselves by recalling past moments of faithfulness—holding on to the hope extended by the good work of those who use their lives to serve their neighbors.
In this series, we ask our contributors to look back over the catalog of BitterSweet stories they were a part of and discuss the how and why of the story that impacted them most.
Hosted and produced by Robert Winship.
Episode Six: Filmmaker Brandon Bray discusses “Sweetness In The Garbage Slums of Cairo"
In this sixth episode of Reflections, host Robert Winship speaks with Brandon Bray, a filmmaker based in Washington, DC, who looks back on his contribution to the story of Stephen's Children, an organization that works in the slum and squatting areas of Egypt, seeking to build strong trusting relationships with the poorest, most vulnerable children and their families.
BB: At the heart of it, it has always been trying to democratize the whole video where you didn't have to speak English, you didn't have to speak Arabic. You could literally translate the film into your own language just by watching it. And that was really an interesting idea of how far can we push that?
RW: Welcome to BitterSweet Reflections, a six-part audio series where BitterSweet contributors reflect on memorable stories. I’m Robert Winship.
In this final episode of Reflections, I talk to Brandon Bray a documentary and commercial director who looks back on a story about Stephen’s Children.
Brandon Bray is an award-winning script to screen documentary and commercial director, DP and editor, blurring the lines between documentary and narrative storytelling. Brandon has worked with clients including Facebook, Verizon, the New York Times and UPS. He is also a contributor to BitterSweet Monthly. Brandon, thanks for talking with me today.
BB: I'm a big deal. Sounds like I'm a big deal. Thank you for having me on.
RW: Absolutely. I actually just want to start by asking, what does it mean when you say that you blur the lines between documentary and narrative storytelling?
BB: Yeah, and I actually think that I started kind of trending that direction really with starting to work with BitterSweet. But it really just means that I'm always interested in finding a different way to tell a story. And for a lot of the subjects that I approach, I kind of approach it like a regular documentary. So, I'm doing interviews and I'm thinking about how we want to compile this thing. And then through that, maybe there's a side statement that's thrown out or some other way that we can turn this into a more narrative piece. And by narrative, I mean, you know, we're constructing it from nothing as opposed to maybe a purely documentary piece where you would sit somebody down, have an interview and then whatever they say, then you go film that stuff that they say, and then put it over the top of what they're saying. And I've just done so much of it in my career, I just got so bored. And so, I'm much more interested in listening to their story, whatever the subject or area, and then taking that information and then recreating something from what they've said that interests me artistically.
RW: So as a way to change up what feels like a very formulaic approach to telling a story?
BB: Yeah, I think that's right. I think, you know, when I got started in this business, it was very clear that there's a structured way that you can do a documentary and tell somebody's story. And the more I did it, it just started to feel like I was working for a news organization instead of actually putting any of myself into this story. And so, one thing that BitterSweet continually allows me to do is try to do insane ideas on really insane timelines. But again, it always goes back to what is the information and the subject of what you're trying to do, and how can you actually help people understand that better?
And I think we've gotten to a place where we're just so saturated with so much media, if it's just something that we've seen a million times over—maybe the format could change as well. You know, maybe if you're in a theater and your forced, you know, you've paid, you're sitting down, you can have a lot more liberty. But if it's going on to the web, you have to try to push yourself just as creatively as the subject that you're even talking to because they're risking something too, by allowing you in.
RW: I think about documentary a lot, as you said, there's just so much media out there that we're able to consume and so much good high quality documentary film, TV, with directors that you like, with actors that you like, or even people that are unknowns, that can deliver at the same level as a Hollywood producer, at least in terms of documentaries. But that said, there is such a strict formula to them. Everything looks good, but it doesn't really engage, from one documentary to the next, doesn't engage you any differently. And, and in some ways can lose an element of humanity or reality in so doing.
BB: And I, I think you're right. I think that's changing very fast because there's...some of the work that's entering right now is just so different than anything else. And I'd almost rather polarize one way or the other. If you're going to do a documentary, don't like, don't give me all the fluff in the B roll in. Let me just actually sit with it and let it be what it is. And otherwise, if you're going to go the other route, you know, go all the way with it. I think either way, it probably is more my personality to—I can see whatever they were trying to do, and I can see if they were sacrificing something to get there. And I think for me, it's the process of, did you try and did you risk quite a bit to get this done? And if you did, then I think it shows in the work.
RW: It's sort of the paradox of art that in a way, restraints can be liberating or can create a confine from which you are able to draft something or create something new. But in this case, you do have this extreme freedom and still, and maybe even more so, are able to deliver or work without constraints to create something new or to invent within a form that you're familiar.
BB: Yeah. I think that's well put. I actually fully disagree that, you know, anytime I hear somebody say, man, I just wish I had clients to let me do whatever I want. I'm like, no, you don't, that's not because then there's no, there's nobody telling you what success is except yourself. So, you better have a pretty good idea of where you're going. And also, you're actively building guardrails while you're driving this car to say, what is the world that I'm living in and how am I going to get out of it? But otherwise, you know, you're just going to sit down at an edit and you're going to think, man, I wish that I had put in some rules before getting into this. And that's a very difficult thing to learn in real time.
RW: Well, what does success look like for you with a short film? Something like “Love, Dad,” which is what we're going to talk about.
BB: That's an interesting question, because I think that I've run the gamut of what that might look or feel like. Videos like these, they live on the internet and they get passed around in this very internet way of not living anywhere for an incredibly long amount of time, or they get a fair amount of attention. And then that kind of goes away, but there's for each one of these, what I really wanted to show was a completely different side of a city that you would normally just go to see the pyramids. So, I think success for me is, have I looked at this thing have identified all of the cliches that we could possibly go down, and then have I have I sort of backtracked to condensing this whole thing down into its most concentrated form—so that ultimately, you know, when you get back to however long it's going to live on the internet and who's going to see it, can I maximize this message in under five minutes, four minutes, three minutes, so that people get a very real understanding of what the situation is on the ground?
So, yeah, I usually have a set of rules, or recently that I have done with them, which is, can I do it under five minutes? Can I use no words and convey the story that I want to tell? And can I distill the whole story down to virtually a singular action? And so, those are kind of my guardrails that I have done several projects with BitterSweet, where I look at those as some success. That's the storytelling part. But, also the success is…you know, I would hope that the individuals that I'm working with in these environments feel like I'm bringing the maximum amount of what I have to offer artistically to the table. So, I'm avoiding all of the things that I would hope somebody, if they were filming me, they would avoid. If that makes sense.
RW: The short film that we're going to talk about is called “Love, Dad,” which focuses on a father who works at a waste and recycling factory in Cairo, as well as his relationship with his young daughter over a period of time, and this is part of a larger profile of the organization, Stephen's Children, which works in the slums and squatting areas of Egypt, building trusting relationships with the poorest and most vulnerable children and their families. So, what is the story of “Love, Dad”? And why are you interested in telling it, or why were you interested in telling it?
BB: This story first came about through a woman named Maggie Groban, who is known as Mama Maggie. They're in this area, but the location was what kinda hit me sideways, because it's like a suburban neighborhood just outside of Cairo. It's a full-blown working city known as Garbage City, but there's a specific group of people called the Zabaleen and they run this area really with no government oversight. It's kind of its own autonomous region. There's nowhere in the world…there's no other structure system in place that could match what they do just outside of Cairo. All of this trash comes in and then it then goes into this labyrinth of streets.
The name Zabaleen, the colloquial term is "garbage people," but I think it's the most ridiculous thing in the world because they are the most entrepreneurial individuals I have ever seen in the world. And they're able to see something that nobody else sees, which I think is the definition of an entrepreneur—or see value in something that no one else sees. So Mama Maggie, she comes into this this area and she does something incredible. She puts a school right in the center of the whole area. And so, long story short, this whole story was interesting to me as we got into it, and I became less interested in really focusing on this Mama Maggie character, even though she's like a patron saint in the area.
RW: You kind of already listed what your approach was to this. And I guess I'll reiterate that: which is you make a list of all the things that you either have already done, or the things that you've seen done. And you try to move those aside and figure out what else can we do or how else can we better tell the story? Is that right?
BB: Yeah. And there's, sometimes those things are just out of your control, but ultimately I'm much more interested in trying to create a universal understanding of a story, you know, and then let the atmosphere itself be the character that really drives that lesson home. So, for each story I'm hoping that you're getting a taste and a flavor for how somebody lives their life in an area and in its own words, without using any words, while you're really focusing on a universal truth that has no city that it lives in. And so, I'm always trying to find those little, I don't know, nuggets of truth. And then if I can do it, then it just becomes a, can we logistically do this? Because at this point in the process, right, we have…most of these are 10 day shoots. So, I usually burn the first five days. I don't even shoot. So, I'm just trying to talk to people. I'm trying to understand, you know, where we are in the world right now, and then before I…so that technically is great in theory, but then that also means that you need to get everything done in half the amount of time.
RW: Other contributors have lamented the difficulty of going into a story, or going into a city, whether in the U S or abroad, and having maybe three days. And they really just want to spend the first day, if not spend that entire amount of time, just getting their footing, figuring out who's who, what is the actual story and listening in a big way. Now you have a little bit more time, but you also have to kind of deliver in a bigger way.
BB: If you're shooting something, you're not learning anything. And so, you probably need to be learning something before you're filming something. But again, this always goes back to this idea of, we treat these types of projects, like commercial projects, where they've hired you for a day. And usually those clients, they want the maximum amount of footage for the day. And it's just painful because you then carry that bad lesson onto other projects. And before you know it, you turn around and you go, I don't even know what I'm shooting anymore or why I'm shooting it. And so, these trips are like a reorientation, like a psychedelic for your brain to sort of reorient itself and say you need to start over.
RW: You said that, and this is certainly true of the few short films that I've seen, you try to keep any dialogue out of it. You have some sort of natural sound and you have a score for each of these short films, but you prefer to work without dialogue. Why is that?
BB: I think that this has gotten me in trouble with other projects because there's times where…I think the lesson here is that you should do things needed at that time. And I think it worked for a couple, and so you just keep trying to replicate some things because it worked last time, in theory means it has to work this time, right? And that's a good lesson to learn in anything, that I got lazy in my own lesson. So, at the heart of it, it has always been trying to democratize the whole video where you didn't have to speak English, you didn't have to speak Arabic. You could literally translate the film into your own language just by watching it. And that was really an interesting idea of how far can we push that? And, can you actually do it in a really short amount of time? Okay. Well, that's pretty tough, too…and it just kind of snowballed from there. And it just felt cleaner. It felt like a more elegant solution and trying to… Also, these are real people, and so as soon as you introduce dialogue into something, things become very not real, very fast, because it feels fake. And so, it's much easier to have somebody do something than say something, and it all kind of made sense. But yeah, I think at the heart, it just feels much more universally understood.
RW: Now in this film, as I said before, it focuses on the relationship between a father and a daughter over time. And he works in what looks like an aluminum recycling portion of one of these plants. And she, at the beginning of this is a young girl and you've already kind of alluded to that she grows up and moves to Canada. Were all of those featured in the short film actors? Was this a fully dramatized version, or had you filmed any of the real players?
BB: Yeah, these were all characters that just lived around the area. The little girl in the film, she was actually one of the students at Mama Maggie’s school. But otherwise, everybody else was just in and around the city itself—which presents a lot of issues. Number one, because it's very difficult to explain to even somebody that understands how this all works, what you're trying to do. It's very difficult to even come up with something that remotely sounds good about what you're trying to do in these situations where you're like, okay, so I'm going to film you working with these cans. Where's it going? Well, it's kind of confusing. What's the story about? That's kind of confusing, too. But luckily everybody was totally down to help us. And Stephen Jeter and I were both filming in that aluminum factory and I'm definitely sure if we didn't get anything, like those guys, I don't know how they're alive. It's truly incredible because I could barely see while we were filming, because there was so much smoke, no ventilation, and they're literally just burning down aluminum cans into hot molten…these bricks,that look like gold bricks, but they're just pop cans.
RW: It's a very strong visual component of the film, even as short as it is. You managed to capture both the labyrinthian look of this kind of garbage city, but especially these molten furnaces where they're burning down aluminum. What is the sensory experience of being in that place?
BB: It looks like hell…it's just unreal. We had a fixer, well, we had multiple fixers, but one of them, he was with us to help us film in this area and he left, and he was so angry with us. He was like, I don't know why you would be filming in there. Like, it's not good for your health. Like, you guys need to get out of here immediately. And we just kept filming in it. And so, it wasn't fun. And it also each night since, or especially while we were shooting, I think we were just saying, I don't know how a human being can withstand that, much less for 12 hours a day, six days a week. They had one day off. It was heartbreaking, really. It was very difficult.
RW: You have narrative challenges and you have logistical challenges—especially the narrative challenges—how have those changed the way that you approach storytelling after this, and even after Congo, which was a little bit before this, but are of a piece with some of these earlier international BitterSweet projects.
BB: I feel like every project that you do, especially in this world, there's really no plug and play solution. Your whole career is just compiling different bits of knowledge—and in Cairo, it was a totally different set of circumstances to figure out. And the only thing that comes through is, I think, checking yourself at the door each time and going, is this the right approach for this story? And if you're putting…sometimes I'm putting way too much of myself and putting my need for whatever this needs to be, ahead of the third point of are you really simplifying this down to the core for the story? Or are you getting cute with equipment and trying to do things that you don't need to do? Because there's a lot of humility through these things that you, the require a lot of self-reflection to say, is this really the right thing to do? But I think overall, if you're…having that ability, and then seeing your subjects sort of reflect it back to you, give you a pretty good indication for I've pushed things too far. Or, they actually contribute and then add something to it to say, wow, I totally wouldn't have thought about that—that’s the docu side coming out, so now I can add that into the narrative side. But yeah, I don't know that it's totally changed my approach to storytelling other than just it's changed my approach to the humility that you need when you go into each project. I think it's a really good reset for anybody in any type of work. And BitterSweet does this for me, but I think doctors do it with patients by working in areas where they don't have good medical care. I think so many people can do it in in their own way. It's more of a state of mind, I think.
RW: With each of these stories, and really thinking about not just BitterSweet, but telling anybody else's story, I have been asking each of the contributors, how do you see empowerment ? What does that word mean to you? What does empowerment mean to you?
BB: I think it's ultimately handing something over. Power's the hardest thing to hand over. And I think that to hand it over it, it has a weird effect of not only benefiting the person in front of you, but it weirdly empowers you as an individual as well. Kind of like I was mentioning before, but I think that the humility that these projects demand and the self-reflection that they also demand of anything from how much am I pushing to get myself into this piece? Or how am I concentrating on my subjects enough? Am I offering them what I should be for this story? They're empowering me to be the best storyteller that I can be. And, you know, like in some of these situations, we're empowering them to tell us a different side of a story that they've never even thought of in their life before, as a nuance to a story that somebody would find interesting, that would just seem irrelevant and like a detail that nobody cares about. I think those are my favorite points—for them to realize you spent all this time on a seemingly irrelevant detail. So, the empowerment issue is interesting, because it's such a two-way street on these projects because you lean on each other so hard, and if one person doesn't push back, the whole thing falls apart. So, you're totally reliant on each other and empowering each other to get anything done
RW: Reliant on the subjects, I guess, as much as the rest of the crew of Jeter and Dave and Kate and Jessica, and all them.
BB: Yeah. You're totally reliant on...even more so than your crew because not only are you in a really foreign place where you don't understand exactly what's going on, but a situation like this, you know, you're asking them to do insane things. I can't imagine if somebody came into my life and they were like, some of the things that I ask them to do, whether it's, you know, at the end of this piece, we basically are fast forwarding in time. So, we have the younger guy who's in the area working, now he's an older father kind of reflecting on everything. Even having him fake write a letter, to which we sort of found out that he actually…the idea in my script was he's writing his daughter a letter that she receives. What we found out, right when we put a piece of paper down, that he couldn't read or write. So, I mean, it's a lot like that. That's a great example of, I'm now in a situation where I've thought of something in my, you know, American mind and it's completely different here. And I've set this whole thing up based on one idea. And it's those little mini landmines where you hit them and you're like, wow, I need to really reflect on that. So anyway, we him trace along some of the lines to sort of cheat it, but it was really powerful moment for me to feel that as a creator of a story. And then at the same time, just the humanity behind it, who's just a normal guy that worked in this area his whole life. And we were like, hey, can you come into this thing and write a letter? He was like, sure. He had no idea how to write a letter. He was like, yeah, I'll do it. Just the willingness and the beauty of him just doing that because he knew somebody in the area. It was great.
RW: You've said that it is always your aim to make each story, or each short film or film, into something that is universal both through a dialogue-less script, if you will, in trying to capture these universal ideas in simple images and frames. Over time, what do you think is the relevance of this story now, four years later?
BB: As I think back on this whole project, I think what I continually go back to is how uncomfortable it is to get close to any process of how something actually works. I mean, why would you go to Cairo if you're not going to go see the pyramids, right? Why would you go if you're not going to like, this is why…? And yet the most interesting story is probably just down the street, and no one will go, you know, because it's just garbage, and it's trash, and it's easy to see, and it's pointless. There's no value there. And it's probably one of the world's most incredible mechanisms that's playing out right in front of your eyes.
So, I think it just always reiterate the…you don't totally understand the whole story because you haven't seen the process and watching people process garbage or waste because somebody else didn't want to see it, look at it, smell it, think about it. There's a lot there to reflect on. On the flip side, too, without the garbage, these people wouldn't have jobs. They wouldn't have a life. They've built their entire universe around waste and waste management. To remove that would just be, you know, gutting the entire culture. So, it's a weird give and take for the whole situation that has two sides. But I think that there's a lot to reflect on that, you know, as we continue down this path of having no idea where the beginning or an end of something is, and I just take it and I consume it and then I throw it away and there's a lot for us to see in this still.
RW: Thank you so much for your time, Brandon.
BB: Yeah. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview as well. Appreciate it.
RW: This short film, “Love, Dad,” is part of a story called “Sweetness In The Garbage Slums of Cairo.” I encourage all listeners to go check that out. There's a full story, lots of really amazing photography, and this film that goes with it, was originally published in October of 2016. And you can see more from our guest, Brandon Bray, at decade dot IS.
A contemplation on a father’s selfless love for his daughter and the hard work endured to ensure a future.
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Read the full story about Stephen's Children for BitterSweet Monthly, Issue 023 Sweetness In The Garbage Slums of Cairo, here.
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