Outside, Dar es Salaam sweltered under the oppressive glare of the tropical sun. The airport, however, offered a sanctuary of cool, dry air—a temporary reprieve from the sticky hustle and bustle of the city. The airport speakers crackled with static and my ears perked up at the announcement summoning a passenger to a gate number. I have a penchant for missing flights, so I remained vigilant, determined not to fall victim to the same fate this time. I rearranged the tchotchkes I had bought from the curio shop downstairs — an ebony carving of a Masai moran was tucked into one corner, and a small raffia painting was in another.

“Are those for you?”

“No, not really. Just a few gifts for friends.”

I inspected the stranger. Tall, light-skinned, handsome, with long dreadlocks. Young, at least early 30s. The dashiki he wore hinted at a certain level of education; among the East African intelligentsia, there’s an unexplained fondness for them. My mother chalked it up to too much education yielding diminishing returns on good taste. The stranger had an accent; I guessed he may perhaps be Rwandese. Or Ugandan. Swahili is the preferred lingua franca in Dar es Salaam, and a stranger who starts a conversation in English is likely a foreigner. Soon, we were chatting away about what had brought us to Dar es Salaam. He was a management consultant on his way back to Kigali after a vacation in Zanzibar. I was a Yale undergraduate, and I had come back home to Tanzania to make a documentary.

“A documentary about what?” the stranger asked. “About being gay in Tanzania,” I replied. “Well, that is fairly broad,” he said. I told him that the documentary was about four gay sex workers living and working in Dar es Salaam. 

My new friend was intrigued: he wanted to know more. How old were they? In their early twenties. Where did they live? In a makeshift shack near the city center, sometimes they were homeless. Did they have families? Not really, they had all been cast away by their families and had formed a family of sorts and shacked together. Had they given approval to be filmed? Yes, they had. Written approval? Yes. Did they have access to health care? No, they did not. Three of them were living with HIV.  How was it filming the documentary? Challenging. One day whilst shooting local police arrived and took my crew and me to the police station. A relative with local connections had come to bail us out.

The stranger was silent. “Why are you making this documentary?” he asked. I was taken aback by the question. Because I wanted to, why else? I wanted to make a documentary and had received a Yale grant to make one. Was that not a good enough reason? “So you are going to show the lives of young, poor, African, gay sex workers to the world. Why? And who wants to watch that?”

That stung. Twelve years later, it still stings.

A few years earlier, Tanzania had grappled with a major public relations crisis after the release of “Darwin’s Nightmare,” a documentary film that focused on how a thriving fish export business had flourished to the detriment of the local population in the Lake Victoria region. Lake Victoria is the world’s largest tropical lake and, after watching the film, a New York Times critic described the region as marred with famine, HIV infection, violence, disease and desperation. The review was befitting a horror film.

I watched the film when it came out, cringing in embarrassment. It felt like someone had found my family secrets — the deep, dark and nasty — and was shouting them out aloud at the public square. It was distressing enough to see fellow countrymen wiping away maggots from Nile Perch skeletons; the fact that the rest of the world had to see it too was another problem altogether. Could we be allowed some dignity of suffering poverty in secret?

The review posed a question as to whether documentary filmmakers have an obligation to present problems in a way that leads to the discovery of solutions, and where the ethical line to cross lay when exposing human misery. There is also the question of who gets to watch, which was what the stranger asked me: Why did the world need to see young, poor African sex workers eking out a living in dim bars and sweaty brothels? And after the world saw that, what then? I do remember croaking an answer: “It would be educational.” 

Arms akimbo, the stranger stared at me with disbelief. “Educational for whom?” I struggled to articulate a compelling justification for my project. “Will the people in the documentary get to watch it and decide that it is educational?”

Why was this stranger tearing down my project so viciously and effortlessly? 

The interrogation continued: once the world has been exposed to these images, then what follows? If the subjects I had filmed were later detained by the police for being gay and sex workers as a result of the release of my film, what steps would I take? I sat in silence, on the verge of tears. I had no reply. 

Some hours later, I flew back to Yale. As I settled back into my academic routine, I diligently sifted through the footage I had captured, meticulously searching for something for my documentary. Yet, despite my efforts, it remained an unfinished project. The stories were raw, painful, ugly; they refused to be molded into some kind of cinematic beauty. I had found someone’s family secrets — was I to air them in public? 

Like many Yalies, I found myself settling into New York City after graduation. Amidst the turbulence of navigating life in a new city, I was grappling with some challenges that had left me traumatized; so, one evening, I welcomed a friend into my snug Brooklyn apartment. We made margaritas and settled down to watch the 1967 documentary “Portrait of Jason.” Jason, a Black gay man, narrates his life story in one evening as he becomes increasingly drunk in front of the camera. As he recounts his years as a sex worker and the humiliations he suffered as the result of racism and homophobia, Jason’s pain becomes increasingly palpable. The directors behind the camera ply him with more alcohol even as they prod and taunt him to reveal more. The sadistic exploitation of this vulnerable man for the sake of creating a cinematic spectacle left an ugly, bitter aftertaste. Witnessing Jason’s unraveling, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of empathy. 

As the credits rolled, my friend turned to me, “I could craft a documentary about you. Picture this: margarita after margarita, you talk about your current trials and tribulations, I’ll do the recording.” She snickered in delight. “You have a knack for the theatrical, you’d be hilarious,” she promised. I was curious: who would tune in to watch my story, and why? “It would be entertaining,” she replied. A gust of deja vu washed away the tequila’s lingering haze. 

Entertaining for whom? 

We finished our drinks, I escorted my friend out. A few days later, I quietly blocked her. Over WhatsApp, my mother had some choice words. Why doesn’t she give the margaritas to her son and record him? He sticks up Chinese restaurants, doesn’t he? Wouldn’t that make for an interesting film, she hissed. The events in my Brooklyn apartment stirred memories that were at that point buried deep. For in a quaint, unassuming airport halfway across the globe, sitting with a stranger clad in cheap dashiki, a simple lesson had found its way to me. Telling stories should perhaps not cause harm; when in doubt, it may be best to leave some tales untold. Documentaries beckon us to peer into the lives of others, to look under the carpet, to unveil what our subjects may prefer to keep hidden. There, we find life in its unabashed form: ugly, messy, twisted. Yet, even for the most wretched and vulnerable subject, the storyteller must offer dignity. 

Reflecting on my return to Yale from Tanzania, I found myself grappling with the persistent inquiries from friends about the completion of my documentary project. Faced with their curiosity, I felt a pang of discomfort knowing that I lacked the expertise to navigate the ethical complexities embedded within the subject matter. In response, I chose to deflect, feigning the loss of crucial footage stored in a hard drive. Instead, I redirected their attention to a lighter endeavor: my thesis film, a whimsical romantic comedy short. Together, we convened in the cozy confines of Timothy Dwight’s basement, indulging in laughter and camaraderie over drinks and snacks. There, I sought solace and found refuge in a genre where I felt more adept at storytelling. Quietly, to myself, it became apparent that while  I possessed the technical skills to film a documentary, I had yet to develop the muscle to handle the profound ethical questions posed by documentary filmmaking.  In the simpler, artificially saccharine world of the rom-com, I was home at last.

Noel Maimu, TD ’12, is an advertising producer and founder of the TV commercial production company Sinematic in New York. He is a passionate advocate for initiatives that champion the rights and visibility of Black creatives and entrepreneurs. Based in Brooklyn, New York, he can be reached at nmaimu@sinematic.tv