After returning from our trip in South America, it took the two of us some time to process and collect our thoughts on the experience. We’ve finally gotten to the point where we felt we could put those thoughts into words and share them with you.
The filming process
We have always been incredibly close friends, often on the same page about just about everything. But working with a friend can be a toss-up, especially when you’re living together in a foreign country, often sharing a bed and basically everything else. While we’ve had a few small arguments, we have always managed to find ourselves on the same page about the work we are creating. Working together, we established a flow that really allowed us to get the most out of what we were doing. It wasn’t long before we had fine-tuned the art of telepathy—anticipating follow-up questions in interviews, agreeing to set up shots without exchanging words and bursting out with the exact same ideas simultaneously. We quickly realized that as a unit we had an energy that was contagious. People were opening up to us, crying to us and sharing in their struggles. Because of this, we felt the need to always be our best selves, which can be hard to do all of the time.
There were times when one of us felt too ill, or tired or hungry to function, yet one of us always managed to pick up the slack. We were there to support each other, to push each other and to make sure that what we were creating was not only the truest representation of someone else’s story, but one that felt honest to us as well.
Leaving ZZ’s family in Lima felt really difficult for many reasons. We spent three weeks with her incredible family and experienced life the way they do. We lived in their homes, ate with them, traveled with them, cried with them, and even watched as they slaughtered our dinner. Our lives were so intertwined for those weeks. Moving on to the next part of our trip felt strange because we suddenly weren’t surrounded by the Peruvian family we had come to call our own.
Every person in ZZ’s family that we spent time with was more than hospitable. Theirs is such a tight knit family network. Everyone is involved in each other’s lives and provides a support system to one another. They understand the family the Henschels became for ZZ all of the years she had been far from home and unconditionally welcomed us to be a part of their family. They often told us:
“Nuestras casas son pequeños, pero tenemos mucho cariño”
(Our homes may be small, but they are full of heart.)
They shared personal stories and experiences from their past with us, and they welcomed us in sharing the experiences of this journey with them.
When family is present in your life it is easy to take them for granted. As we watched ZZ and Julie leave for their flight, we were struck by the fact that they didn’t know when they would see their family again. For most of us, that is such a foreign feeling. It’s difficult to describe the sadness you feel when you say goodbye to someone without knowing when you will see them again. It’s a powerful combination of emotions tied together by an underlying feeling of the unknown.
ZZ’s relationships with her family members have been stretched over huge spans of time and across continents. But no matter how far away she is, how long it’s been since her last visit or how much it costs to call, ZZ has put so much time and effort into maintaining her connections with her family, calling them as often as possible, visiting when she is able, and contributing to their lives in any way that she can. Seeing this made us both think about how important it is to make the effort to maintain family connections, to pick up the phone now and again and be present with your relatives. ZZ showed us the unconditional love and effort that has kept her family together.
We could not be more lucky to have parents and sisters who have supported us on this crazy adventure. It started off as no more than an idea and a few notes we jotted on a piece of paper last December. We can only imagine that it must have been difficult for our parents to hear that we we would be self-employed for the next year of our lives (a.k.a. no paycheck), but they let us prove to them that we were capable of making this happen and for that we will always be grateful. And to our sisters- you guys rock! We love you and know that you are always around to hear about all of the ridiculous things we ate, the hikes we did that were absolutely not safe, or the crazy sunburn we were too scared to tell mom and dad about.
Spending time with such a close and inviting family has also allowed us to see how important it is for all of us to be connected to the stories of our own families. It is likely that people in our generation go to a family gathering only to sit in front of the TV or play on their phones. But for us, being relatively disconnected from the outside world while being so immersed in family stories has opened our eyes. It’s crucial to talk to your grandparents, ask your mom where she came from, ask your dad about his party days and really take the time to find out what life was like for them before you came along. While these might not be questions you would think of asking, they allow you to understand why people are the way they are.
None of this would be possible without the support of our family, friends, mentors and programs at Duke that helped us get to where we are now. A special thank you to the Benenson Award for not only giving us the fiscal support but also for affirming that this piece was worth creating.
Challenges & Rewards
Needless to say, there were aspects of filming while traveling that were challenging. It was pretty hard to wrap our heads around how hard it would be to make a film. We had very little experience and nowhere near enough hands. We won’t lie, we made a lot of mistakes. We didn’t anticipate how challenging the initial language barrier would be, we neglected to start the camera during one interview, we forgot to charge batteries, accidentally left equipment at home and ended up having to use a whole lot of duct tape to doctor our equipment when needed. While frustrating, those mistakes only helped us to become more focused moving forward. Somehow we managed to make it work. And we did it well.
Being new filmmakers, we both struggled with being pulled in two directions. While it is obvious that you need to be physically present at all times, being behind the camera creates distance between those who are recording the story and those who are telling it. With headphones in your ears, an eye on the equipment, and the camera between interviewer and subject, it can be difficult to feel fully engaged. We felt like we needed to constantly have the camera running. Ten days is an incredibly short time to spend with individuals whose life story you are going to tell. Because of this, we decided to put the camera away every once in a while, using that time to strengthen our relationships and open up about our own personal lives. We may have missed some footage that would have been great to have, it only deepened the trust between everyone and allowed for more honest content when the camera was rolling.
One of the most rewarding aspects of filming was the perspective it gave us on our entire experience in Peru. By filming our entire journey, we were able to not only travel with ZZ and her family, but also to gain an understanding of each person’s experience from their perspective. With every interview, we gained an insight into that person’s experience and why this journey was important to them. In many cases, sitting down for an interview and having the camera rolling presented an opportunity for us to share moments with each person, to ask difficult questions, and to have conversations that gave us a greater sense of understanding of this trip and its significance to everyone that was a part of it.
Debriefing with people about our trip upon returning to the United States allowed us to identify perspectives we had adopted over the course of this experience. We both realized that the value of rich experiences can be so much greater than the value of money or material things. We felt most happy and fulfilled when we were stepping outside of our comfort zones, meeting people we wouldn’t normally interact with, and most of all taking the chance to just be and get to know who we really are as individuals. There are more venues for learning than just institutions, and there are far more measures of success than just money. While those things can be important components of having a happy and healthy life, there is so much unharnessed potential that can only be uncovered when you throw yourself into life experiences that are so far out of your comfort zone that that potential reveals itself. That’s why it’s important to push yourself into those experiences. You don’t have to travel to another continent to leave your comfort zone, it can happen within a few miles of your home. Simply starting a conversation with a stranger or spending time with people who are different from you is enough to push your own limits and tap into different parts of who you are. Regardless of where either of us ends up in life, we will always be able to look back on this experience and know that we set out to do something new and challenging, and as a result of that we learned, changed and grew in ways we wouldn’t have ever expected.