Dawn of a new day
When award winning South African filmmaker, Ryley Grunewald decided to volunteer on the Africa Mercy Ship, her break from filmmaking became the inspiration for an award winning documentary.
“One night I had the most profound experience when, moved by all the surgeries that were happening around me, and the volunteers who were paying to volunteer, I began to question what I was doing with my life in South Africa” she laments.
A year later she returned on board to film The Dawn of a New Day. It follows the lives and surgeries of Ambroise (34), Hyancithe (10) and Fadila (11), who have debilitating and disfiguring ailments needing specialised surgery. Like many Beninese, they could not have otherwise been able to afford or access medical care had it not been for the nautical hospital. They were randomly selected for the film. Though they have compelling stories, it is a testament to the directorial skills of Grunewald that their back stories are portrayed so poignantly.
With this documentary, Grunewald wanted to highlight the issues around access to healthcare in Africa. But mostly to inspire viewers to volunteer in aid of those less fortunate.
The staff working on the ship are volunteers. They actually have to pay to volunteer which in itself is a demonstration of the commitment they have. One of them is South African Dr Teritius Venter. He spends nine months of the year on the ship, away from his family and wife, Trudi, who is also featured on the film.
Grunewald cleverly intertwines the story of the Venter’s and the strain his chosen path has on their marriage, with those of the patients.
At one point we are watching a surgery of one of the patients, the scene then cuts to Mrs Venter talking from her home. Through the cinematography, Grunewald juxtaposes the rural landscape of Benin, the clinical structure of the ship with the suburban setting from which Mrs Venter speaks. This illustrates the core of the story; Dr Venter leaving the security of a successful private practise to answer an altruistic calling but leaving his wife for months at a time. Just as the viewer settles in to watch Mrs Venter mostly in standard sit down interviews, we are jolted into dusty streets or a surgery scene. These sequences are brilliantly filmed, avoiding exposing the blood and gore mainly by shooting on reflective surfaces rather than directly onto the subject. One gets a sense of the intricacy and invasiveness of the operation without being nauseated by the sight of open wounds.
Editor Nick Costaras, has taken the 90 hours of footage and cleverly sewn it together to produce a seamless narrative. The overlap is not confined to visuals only, sometimes even the voice over from the previous scene is carried into the next scene without sounding out of place. Grunewald’s own isolation is echoed when, during the film’s world premiere at the 2011 Durban International Film Festival she, recounted the nine months of shooting, on board and in Benin. Though challenging, performing the duties of researcher, director, producer, cinematographer and doing the sound, her motivation was the need for this story to be told.
Her work on The Dawn of New Day, won best her Best Cinematographer of a Documentary and Best Director of Documentary at this year’s South Africa Film and Television Awards.