Sleep doesn't come easy when you have a lot on your mind, this is especially true when you find yourself halfway around the world. What was keeping me awake wasn't a thought but a sound. I was grappling with music -- in particular, what music I should use for the film I was in the middle of shooting. Any filmmaker knows the important role sound plays in a film. I needed to find music that would capture the intimate moments in the film, music that was just as intimate as the moments I was sharing with local families out in the field, and more importantly, with the mothers of the village. It was the one missing piece needed to bring the film to life.
The sun was flirting with the horizon when I arose out of bed at 5 a.m. one morning, and like most other days, I was wondering what this new day would hold. But unlike other days, I wasn't home -- I was in Africa, a place that spiritually feels like home. I packed my gear and hopped in the 4Runner with my producer and the WaterAid team. We were headed to Tsarafangritra, a remote village in Madagascar, the one place that could (and eventually would) fulfil the final piece of the film I was searching for.
The drive was long and quiet. As we sped through the narrow and winding roads along the lush-green mountainsides, we came across small bustling towns with young merchants trying to sell their fish and hand-made accessories; farmers pacing and nurturing their rice fields; and locals shying away from a photo. We pulled over next to a snack hut before we started the second half of our shaky off-road journey. My producer and I bought fresh coffee from the hut. I can still remember the taste and smell of the coffee and the way it went down; soft and smooth, with hints of citrus. After finishing, we were on our way again. Finally, two hours later, we arrived at our destination. Most of the village was still asleep -- except for the few women who had already started their treacherous hour-long hikes towards the contaminated and only source of water they share.
The field was silent, mist was tickling the tall grass; the only chill of wind I felt in the ten days I spent in the country. There was a furtive energy underneath it all. The sky was layered in clouds, which quickly disappeared by the rise of the early sun. Wild chickens clucked around dry hedges surrounding the mud-built homes in the village.
There we were, inside a small room, shadowing Veronique -- one of the mothers featured in the film -- as she attended to the crying needs of her infant. The room was quiet, except for the baby. Often dressed in yellow and with radiant smiles, Veronique is the matriarch of her family when it comes to collecting water -- most, if not all women in her community carry this responsibility. Filming her with her baby was tranquil; the sun was slicing through a small break in the window and just barely landing on her hands. And here was one of the most beautiful and heroic mothers I've ever met, after having spent most of the morning trekking for water with her baby on her back, providing the kind of tender care and affection only a mother can. I held my breathe; as a mother and child harmoniously embodied love to create the perfect picture.
And then we heard it; the final piece.
All of a sudden, a new sound came flooding in. Just a few yards away, we could faintly hear a choir of children, in imperfect harmony. My producer and I shared a look of puzzlement and gave one another a nod to seek out the source of the magical hymn. I rested the camera by my hip, dipped my head out into the scorching sun and took a peek outside. There they stood, at least ten children, dancing in a circle. Instantly, the energy of their voices pulled me in; I couldn't turn away. Chills were running down from my heart, to my spine and through my camera, and back up to my heart again. I looked at my producer once more, and without any words, we both knew what this was. It was the final piece I was searching for.
The song was being sung in Malagasy, Madagascar's national language. I kept hearing the word 'mama' repeated, so I immediately ran to our translator and asked her what they were singing. She said they were singing a traditional song, a song about their mothers. It all felt so surreal. Time was moving slowly.
The winds were heavy and cold again, only this time, I was back home. I stood under a layer of sweaters as I usually do to keep warm while brainstorming or working. I had a lot on my mind again and my journey was far from over. I knew that I had to adapt the Mama song, and I had to do it while staying true to the Malagasy culture. I felt as though I had the hopes of all the people of Madagascar riding on my shoulders. I knew that if I could just replicate even one percent of what I felt when I first heard the children sing then I would have done them justice. I reached out to a brilliant composer, Stephen Jover, who I proudly call my friend and asked him to help me replicate this harmony. From there we would work tirelessly to create the bed-track. But there was still one issue: where was I to find a local Malagasy singer from Toronto?
I got in touch with a few African-inspired musical organizations but found little to no leads. So I reached out to the online Malagasy community, but without any real leads, the chance of finding what I was looking for was looking grim. And then, like the sun that found its way through the break in the window, I was contacted by several live Malagasy singers, all residing in Montréal. One of them stood out among the rest, a young lady named Fi. After listening to her tape, her voice echoed those of the children. I felt that her voice would capture the magic I was searching for, and more importantly, would resonate with mothers everywhere. I could continue on about the emotional experience we shared when we finally got into the studio, but I think the lyrics, appropriately translated, say it all:
"I've made this song in her memory,
as one day, we will get separated from each other.
She has endured pain and has suffered a lot,
in nourishing and in raising me.
She bore the unbearable,
in making me the person I am today."
Finally our film was complete and it brought to life the vision I share with Madagascar, that everyone will realize the importance of access to clean water for all humanity. How it gives mothers more time for what matters, and that even the tiniest support helps mothers like Veronique have more quality time with their family.
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