Sisters Of The Wilderness: Ronit Shapiro

Ronit Shapiro

We interviewed Ronit Shapiro, producer and creator of the inspiring documentary Sisters of The Wilderness. 42 Acres will be hosting an online screening of the film on Thursday 23rd April, with a live introduction and Q&A with Ronit.

What was the motivation behind Sisters of the Wilderness, and why is this project is important and timely?

In 2005 I was asked to organise an event at the Royal Geographic Society in London, to raise awareness to Africa’s wild nature. The keynote speaker at the event was the late Dr Ian Player, a much beloved South African conservationist and a deep-thinking writer. Little did I know at the time that this meeting with Dr Player would make such a profound impact on my life.

Hearing Dr Player talk was a great inspiration and touched something deep within. Then reading his books, in particular Zulu Wilderness, Shadow and Soul, made such an impression that this led me to change my entire career.

After working in corporate communications for many years I decided to use my creativity and story-telling skills to tell stories that matter. I want to share universal untold stories that need to be heard. Stories that can make a real difference to timely social and environmental issues that affects us all.

Passionate about the wellness of people and the environment, I intuitively felt that human and nature interconnect. I got affirmation to my intuitive feeling when I read the works of great writers, philosophers, poets and naturalists, and especially when spending time in nature.

In 2010 I wrote to Dr Player and asked his permission to make a film inspired by his life and pioneering work in the wilderness. Dr Player lived and worked in the African wilderness nearly all his life. He fought to protect wilderness and promoted a worldview of interconnectedness and deep ecology.

Over many years, he and his Zulu mentor and bush guide, Baba Maqgubu Ntombela, introduced thousands of people to the iMfolozi Wilderness, an ancient wilderness which nestles within the oldest game park in Africa, the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi park in Northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

Dr Ian Player and Baba Maqgubu Ntombela

Dr Player wholeheartedly supported my initiative to make a social impact film set in the wilderness. He invited me to visit him and his wife Ann in his farm Phuzamoya, in the Natal Midlands in South Africa.

This was the beginning of four extraordinary life-changing years of in-depth mentorship by Dr Player, and a special friendship developed with him and his dear and wise wife Ann. Sadly, Dr Player passed away at the end of 2014. His passing created a deep void. At the same time, I was determined to continue with the film and social impact project.

I aspired to create a moving image story to reconnect audiences with nature and raise awareness to the value of nature to our well-being. In particular I was drawn into the African wilderness, which is unlike any other wild nature, with its primordial wildlife and fauna.

A moving experience, that I had on a wilderness journey in iMfolozi, gave me confidence that this is where the film should be set and that this precious wilderness must be protected. Since time immemorial this sanctuary maintained its raw wildness. Here an ageless spirit survives and one can sense a spiritual connection to the land.

The iMfolozi valley was home to the first people of Southern Africa and later became the heartland of the Zulu people, who lived here in harmony with nature and with great respect (inhlonipho) to Mother Earth and all creation. This is also the place where the Southern White Rhino was saved from extinction. This wilderness is alive and it enriches and revitalises its visitors, physically and spiritually. 

In the film, I wanted to ‘transfer’ the audience to this primal place where no barriers separate human and nature. A journey into this wilderness is an intense experience where one can expect to undergo a personal transformation. It is an immersive journey within and without, in a place of great inspiration.

Sadly, the iMfolozi Wilderness is now severely threatened. An existing open cast coal mine on the eastern border of the wilderness is expanding regardless of its devastating impact on nature, the surrounding rural communities and their livestock. There are additional proposed coal mines in very close proximity to the park’s southern boundary which threatens to devastate even further this fragile nature ecosystem and the nearby communities.

Furthermore, as home to one of the largest population of Rhinoceros in Africa, the park is increasingly a gruesome poaching scene due to illegal hunting for its highly-value horn.

Wild nature is fast disappearing due to humanity’s careless and irresponsible behaviour over generations. But we can stop this destruction! If we allow ourselves to pause and listen to nature and appreciate the value of nature to our wellbeing, and let nature remind us that we are nature and nature is us and what we do to nature we do to ourselves; that if we harm nature, we harm ourselves. When we develop an awe and reverence to nature, for nature sustains and nourishes us, we will be on the path to avert the destructive trend.

Ronit with Dr Player in 2011

To that end I created Sisters of the Wilderness, and this is what makes it important and timely.

How did you reach out to the young women who feature in the film? 

The young women in the film were chosen through a year-long search. I approached many organisations and individuals in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, who work with young women and or in conservation and sent them a brief of the women I was looking to engage in the project. 

In particular I was looking for young women with a spark of leadership and an interest in nature who have never been to the wilderness before. Additionally, I was looking  for women who experienced difficult situations in their lives, even traumatic situations.

One of the goals of the project was to give the five chosen women a spring broad, create opportunities for them and enrich their lives. 

The women had to write an essay on why they want to be part of the project, what their future plans are and so on. There were more than 50 candidates. Then of a short list of 10, each girl went through several phone interviews. Following that the girls, which I thought would benefit from the project most, were chosen. 

What did you learn about womanhood during this project? And sisterhood?

The five young women deeply inspired me. It was beautiful and moving to watch how these women who met just one day before venturing into the wilderness, bonded and embraced each other and how naturally and effortlessly a wonderful sisterhood emerged from the shared experience in the wilderness. I truly believe that the wilderness experience stimulates and enhances connectivity. The audience will surely feel it throughout the film. 

The journey these women go on in the film sound like a true rite of passage. In what ways did you see where the young women were in their lives (their age, or stage in life) reflect in their personal experiences throughout this journey?

Each one of the women grew through the process. The self-discovery and healing journey was apparent from the very beginning. The women gradually opened up and shared their personal stories, their pain, struggles and their hopes for a brighter future. Each day of the journey was a revelation, each night brought new insights.

The women reconvened three months after the wilderness experience. They had another opportunity to spend time in wild nature. Over three days they shared their reflection on the wisdom they gained from the wilderness experience and what happened in their lives since. 

The changes were on many levels. They grew up in confidence; Of the five, one woman reported on achieving better grades at school, one gained courage to face difficult challenges in her life that she previously feared, another woman secured a job promotion and sponsorship for higher education, and one became more proactive in setting goals and taking steps to achieve higher education and career goals. All reflected on the fact that in the wilderness they found calm and peace, which enabled them to think clearly. As one said, “there were no distractions…”

At 42 Acres we believe the land and wildlife have many lessons to teach us about ourselves and our true human nature. Tell us some of the ways in which this was evident on this journey, for the young women, and for you…

Along the journey the women had opportunities to share learning and insights in circle. A theme that emerged in all conversations was the impact that being in true wilderness has on us. The fear that one experiences when one is exposed to the elements and in close proximity to wild animals, knowing there are no fences between us and wild nature, is very powerful. This element of fear is present along with an element of awe and appreciation to the land and the animals.

There is recognition that the wilderness is a reflection of something primordial, the home that we all came from originally, and also a reflection of our inner wilderness. The outer journey and the inner journey are linked, there is a spiritual element to the experience. It enables us to see nature in a different light, to feel and connect with it the way our ancestors did. One becomes aware that we are nature and nature is us. 

You feel elevated and refreshed when you see the immense beauty of the natural world ,and in contrast when you go back to the ‘real world’ you then see the stark reality, the damage that we inflict on the environment. We all felt this strongly when we saw the devastation of an expanding open-cast coal mine on the border of the iMfolozi wilderness, like a deep open wound in the land. 

The women were guided by professional wilderness guides who added tremendous value to the experience, sharing knowledge and wisdom about wild animals’ behaviour, the interconnectedness of all things and the importance of respect to the land, respect to each other, respect to oneself and respect to creation overall. 

What role do you feel film has today as a medium to raise environmental awareness, and consciousness around our union with nature?

One Nature Films was set up a social impact film production company with a vision is to create engaging high quality films that inspire, connect and make a difference. One Nature’s motto is ‘Reviving Nature in Our Imagination Through Storytelling, Music and Art.’ I deeply believe in the power of film to change hearts and mind and in turn make a social and environmental impact. 

Making a film is challenging, but making an impact film is even more demanding. Nonetheless the fulfilment, what can be achieved and the audience that can be reached are far greater.

As part of the impact programme, we take the film to rural and underserved communities, we organise educational screenings, with post screenings talks. We see a tangible impact through the feedback we collate from audiences via our audience feedback questionnaire and anecdotal feedback. The impact range from awareness rising to the issues, through a heightened interest and willingness to get involved.  

What advice do you have for young activists who want to make an impact, either with film or otherwise?

Follow your bliss” said Joseph Campbell…  

If you feel passionate about an issue, don’t hesitate, go out and talk about it, find ways to engage others, your passion will shine through and people will listen. Have faith and perseverance. Film is one way to do it but you can use your creativity to find other imaginative ways to raise awareness, move people and affect a change. 

Join Ronit for the exclusive 42 Acres online Q&A screening of the film on Thursday 23rd April. Click here to book.

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