Ten days to change the world

8th October 2004 at 01:00
Matthew Holehouse and five schoolmates won a life-changing trip to help fight poverty in the mountains of Bolivia. He explains how they contended with food poisoning, altitude sickness, exhaustion - and a TV crew recording every moment

It's no longer unusual to head off, immunised and with a belt full of dollars, to Uganda, Laos or Venezuela. And with television schedules overloaded with programmes about ordinary people doing very ordinary things, nor is it especially unusual to find yourself sharing your life with a film crew.

But it's unusual to do both. It's even less common to travel to a South American village, live with its people and share the experience with a camera crew - and all before you've sat GCSEs. That's what five friends and I did in November last year for Channel 4's A World of Difference series, three films investigating how young people can act as global citizens.

We were selected through a competition, commissioned by Channel 4, challenging young people to find a viable development project that would make a real and lasting difference to the lives of people in the Third World. Judged by a panel from the Development Education Association and the International Broadcasting Trust, the three winning groups' ventures would each receive pound;10,000 sponsorship. And they'd be flown out with a camera crew to experience the issues for themselves.

Our history teacher at Harrogate grammar school, Helen Snelson, suggested that the six of us, then in Year 10, should enter. After extensive searching on the internet we hit upon Quaker Bolivia Link, a Californian charity that provides small-scale, high-impact projects for the Aymar people, indigenous Andeans. They make up 65 per cent of Bolivia's population but are poor and marginalised within their own country. An eight-month dry season, around 200 nights of frost, poor soil and a lack of safe water for drinking and irrigation mean malnutrition is widespread and infant mortality rates run at around 40 per cent. We realised how much difference pound;10,000 could make and set about outlining our project.

We wanted to help build wells and greenhouses, allowing people to boost their food production, in the village of Sivincani, 13,000ft into the Bolivian Andes. In August last year we heard that our project was one of the three winners, against all our expectations. Within months we were before the cameras, as were a group from Berkhamstead Collegiate school, Hertfordshire, who were heading to Cambodia, and another from the Old Street London YMCA, who were going to the Gambia.

The Channel 4 producers had promised to change our lives, and they did.

Channel 4 created the project and the trip; without the crew there would have been no Bolivian adventure. It's impossible to talk in terms of "had they not been there"; we were always the dispensable ones.

But I couldn't help wondering just what difference being accompanied by Adrian (director), Anson (camera), Rash (sound) and Karen (producer) had made. Without the frequent interviews, would we have thought about things so deeply? Did their press cards open or close doors? Was making the film a team effort, or a game of cat and mouse?

Certainly the crew's agenda created unique opportunities. With only 10 days to explore and film the causes, consequences and solutions to aspects of rural poverty, the schedule was tight. On the first Saturday night, which we would otherwise have spent in one of the many restaurants in La Paz, Bolivia's economic capital, we met the former foreign secretary, Javier Murillo. It's doubtful that he would have met us in his home, in the wealthy, exclusively Hispanic district of St Miguel, without the possibility of appearing on camera. And without our director's encouragement ("If you've got a question you think should be answered, for God's sake, just ask it"), no interview would have been so interesting or so satisfying.

Having spent the previous night in the mud hut of an Andean peasant farmer, we felt uncomfortable sitting in Sr Murillo's deep, immaculate armchairs, surrounded by crystal vases and Russian artworks. He didn't seem embarrassed, but he should have been. We patiently took turns asking him questions; not Newsnight stuff, but the kind of questions you'd expect from fairly bright GCSE students. After a while we switched off to his answers, a predictable seeping of cheery platitudes from a retired politician who didn't really care: yes, there are poor people, yes, the government is doing good work, yes, there does seem to be a contrast in the treatment of Hispanic and indigenous people, but hey, what can you do?

Perhaps in other circumstances we'd have accepted his excuses and thanked him for a lovely evening, but with the camera gazing at us, expectant, I felt -could you call it an obligation? - I should take Adrian's advice.

"Your government puts its flag above the village school house and yet it won't give Sivincani water to drink. Is this right?" I gabbled. His answer, blithe and non-committal, came trickling back: "Pride in homeland... rural poverty quotas... increasing co-operation..." The satisfaction of trying to take on a real politician was numbed by the realisation of how casually Sr Murillo could brush off the aching poverty on his doorstep.

Inevitably, filming did not always go smoothly. Part of the problem was a conflict of priorities. From the start, the group had been highly focused on the development project. For us, Bolivia had always been about helping the village, experiencing a different culture and trying to make sense of life in a wealthless environment. The film came second. The producers would agree that this is how it should have been; they were looking for genuine teenagers rather than wannabe actors.

Naturally, the crew's priority was the film. With their wages and professional reputations at stake, they hadn't come to Bolivia for the scenery. This worked fine at first: we would live with the villagers, see our project take shape and find out about their work, and the crew would record us and suggest activities to undertake with the community. But food poisoning, altitude sickness, tiredness - and uncertainty about the issues we had to face - made us resent the limits filming placed on us. We sometimes begrudged having to sit through interviews discussing how our perceptions had changed, or re-shoots of conversations from another angle, instead of being able to play football with the children we'd come to help.

And we seriously disliked the decision to film almost everything: from some of us being ill to the long, jolting van rides into the hills and our frustrating group arguments as tiredness swelled and tensions broke.

We'd always known we were going to make a documentary, yet we still wanted to hold back some of the trip for ourselves.

Disaster struck on the morning of the sixth day: the main camera died as the plateau's sand ate into the circuitry. Later, Adrian developed food poisoning and had to be bussed to La Paz's private medical clinic. Shooting with borrowed equipment, on four hours' sleep and with no director, the crew were not happy with their uncooperative cast. "What's wrong with you guys? It's your film." snapped Karen, as we complained about sitting in the bird muck for an interview at Lake Titicaca. We'd forgotten that the finished product was our responsibility too.

Despite the tensions over when and what to film, we couldn't help but get on well with the crew. Perhaps that shouldn't happen, and the direction should stay objective. Someone suggested they were being intentionally friendly to make us malleable. I never felt that was an issue; first, because the documentary had never been objective (it was Channel 4 that had sponsored our development project), and second, because we considered ourselves cynical enough to spot any sign that we were being groomed to create drama. The reality was that shooting a film in the Bolivian Andes with gastroenteritis, broken equipment and tight schedules would have been impossible without a genuine sense of teamwork.

It was a shame the disagreements over filming could overshadow what was a strange and rather fun process. It turned out to be harder work than I'd anticipated. Conscious of trying to appear on TV as the bright, mature young people we'd like to be, it was often difficult to relax when the camera was rolling. Keen not to be misinterpreted, I often carefully rephrased comments in my head before speaking. After being filmed singing an aria at Heathrow, one of our group, Tom, would rarely let his guard down.

As a teenager, you expect that no one really cares much about what you think, no matter how original and profound you think your ideas are. So it was rather flattering to be asked to discuss vital, world-changing issues at length on camera, and to find people listening intently, as if they'd suddenly been enlightened by our wisdom.

With the camera rolling, keen to avoid a spongy core of Comic Relief-esque soundbites about "being fortunate" and how "material wealth isn't important", I found myself trying to pull out the hazy, dissenting thoughts brewing in the back of my mind and turn them into full, living ideas. Being silently urged into saying something fresh left our discussions so much more meaningful, and helped us realise just why we'd wanted to go to Bolivia. For that alone it was worth waiting through any number of camera repairs.

The finished film is good; not how I remembered things, not always fitting with the way I felt about the journey, and nowhere near long enough to capture the experience, but still good. Channel 4's mission was to educate people about the big global issues, and how young people could help resolve them. It's hard to say if the broadcast was a success in that respect, but for six students from Harrogate, the 10 days in Bolivia were a true education.

For us, the world has taken on a different meaning, as has television. One day I'd like to return to Bolivia, this time behind the camera, and discover how things have changed for the people in Sivincani.

A World of Difference will be rebroadcast on October 12, 13 and 14 at 11.10am on Channel 4, under the 4Learning Real Life season. Matthew Holehouse is in Year 12 at Harrogate grammar school. Quaker Bolivia Link: www.qbl.org

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