Insights: Chloe White on Filming a Child’s First 1001 Days


Filmmaker Chloe White writes for us about 1001 Days, a project with origins in our Border Crossings initiative, an event connecting academic researchers with documentary filmmakers. The film is currently in production, with a teaser recently released online.

Until I met Dr Rose Palmer at Open City’s Border Crossing initiative my understanding of the importance of the early days of a child’s life had been pretty elementary. Rose’s PhD was exploring mental health and poverty, and she had found a project in Alexandra, a township in South Africa, where local women were trained as lay councillors to support new mothers during the early day of a child’s life. The support is geared around the mental health of the mother and the child, to ensure that a strong and healthy bond is formed right from the start.

Alexandra, which is poor and overcrowded—but sits adjacent to the wealthiest area in Africa—is a microcosm of the problems of poverty and inequality in South Africa. It is plagued by 70% unemployment, poverty and HIV. New mothers often live alone, thousands of miles from their extended families, and are neglected by the father of the baby. 80% of the mothers that our characters meet had unplanned pregnancies and 73% report physical or emotional abuse. Mothers raising families there report that they find their living conditions highly stressful, and describe their environment as pervasively dangerous and threatening. Pregnancy, birth and the first 24 months can be tough for every mother, but for women living in Alexandra the appalling circumstances there make it much harder. I was drawn to the idea of women supporting other women during the first 1001 days of a child’s life, and the transformative effect this can have on the child. I envisaged a film exploring early mental health from the perspective of a team of women who believe in the idea that promoting resilience in infants and children can help to heal their community, particularly when the state has failed to deliver on the promises made after Apartheid.

Visiting the township was an eye-opener. Firstly, to see the level of poverty that a lot of women lived in. The councillors were incredible to be around, women from the township themselves, that would travel to all corners of Alex to visit mothers going through extremely tough situations: extreme poverty, grief, domestic violence etc. Their resilience and their ability to stay positive was admirable. The other big surprise was that despite the poverty that many people in Alexandra live in, we found it was a vibrant, inviting place, where people were incredibly warm with much more character then some of the wealthier suburbs of Johannesburg. This initial trip provided us with the assurance that this was a story that we felt was important to tell. We are now in production and in a few weeks, will be heading to Rome to film with two of our characters who will be presenting at a mental health conference in Italy. We hope to return to Alexandra for a final two visits, after which we’ll have been following our characters over 1001 days.