Production Journal

Twelve Disciples - Thomas Allen Harris

POV: Why did you use dramatic re-enactments in this film?

Thomas Allen Harris: In some ways I always knew that I was going to use drama in this film. When I was a kid, I used to look at Lee's photographs from Bloemfontein in the 40s and 50s and make up stories about the people. The environment was so strange and alien to me, but looking at those photos was the only way I could try to place this man who was raising me in his native land.

After I interviewed the living disciples, I came back to the U.S. and I began to write a script. I realized that in the early part of the story there is not that much documentation, and I would need a way to create visual images for this time. I was also very interested in making this film a communal project, and in creating a myth out of the 12 disciples, particularly the four that still live in Bloemfontein. So I got the idea to get young people involved to act out the story. Many of these young people are actually neighbors of the disciples, and they didn't even know their history. Many of them are not actors, but we recruited them to be a part of this film because these young people had a personal investment in understanding where they were from.

POV: How was the production phase?

Harris: I organized a three-week shoot in Bloemfontein. There's no film infrastructure in that city so I had to import people from Johannesburg and Cape Town. I went to Bloemfontein with my mother, who produced the film, and I didn't know it was going to be as intense as it was. This was the first time I've done this level of dramatic production. We had a cast of 100 people in the film. The cast consisted of 12 principals -- the 12 disciples -- and about 20 secondary characters. In order to get people on the same page I organized meetings between the young people and the disciples. The disciples told the young people what life was like back then, and the young people asked the disciples questions like, "What were you wearing back then?" and "What made you happy?" and other questions.

Before each day of production, we would do a meditation together and this bond was created between all of us. It touched each and every one of us and we knew why we were doing this film. It was as if we were retelling Greek myths using our own bodies in front of the camera.

I purposefully did not write dialogue. I sketched out all the scenes, and we improvised with the actors. Together, we created the dialogue based on our interviews with the disciples and their family members. It was hairy because we shot about 10-15 scenes a day, and each day after you finished one scene you had to go and improvise another. We're not just talking about improvising dialogue, we're talking about the choreography of the actors and the cameras as well. Also, in the towns of South Africa in the 1950s, there was no electricity, so all of the lighting on film is motivated lighting -- moonlight and so on. We also shot in many of the locations that the disciples were actually living in or had visited, so these locations had this aura that lent itself to a certain type of authenticity.

POV: Were you happy with the results of process in the end?

Harris: Yes, I was astounded by the results of it, especially considering our meager resources. At that time we didn't have any money and I really wanted a high quality in the shots. We got free film from Kodak, and this was the first film to be shot in Bloemfontein in known history, so everyone opened their doors and their hearts. I think that's the reason we were able to get something that looks not only high quality but also looks so real.

POV: What would you consider to be your strength as a filmmaker?

Harris: I think that my talent as a filmmaker is my sensitivity. This involves the kinds of questions I'll ask, the way I will look at the person that I'm interviewing and being close to someone physically with the camera. I think that that kind of sensitivity and vulnerability on my part really allows people to share their stories with me in my films.

I wasn't trained in film school. I learned how to make films working as a producer for public television, and then I started this career as an artist, so I have this background as an artist. Film is work in a very different media, and it also means that I'm part of a community of artists who are working in a variety of process-oriented ways. Whenever I approach a film, I'm always thinking about the process of the film and what particular challenges this film has to offer me as a creative person. It makes me think about how I'm going to meet those challenges in order to tell the story.