Sodom and Gomorrah is a hellish place in Accra, Ghana, where children eke out a living on a scrap heap of discarded computers that the West no longer needs.
The children scavenge and then sell computer parts for a pittance, while they dream of escaping illegally to Europe to live like those whose computers they are harvesting. And all the while, toxic chemicals in the waste slowly poison them. Producer Jens Jarisch went to Sodom and Gomorrah to meet some of these children, and also followed the e-waste on its journey from docks in Germany to Sodom and Gomorrah, where it collects in a pile - well out of sight and mind of its original owners.
Children of Sodom and Gomorrah won the Directors' Choice Award in the 2011 Third Coast/ Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition. Originally produced in German in 2010, this version was made for ABC Radio National by Sharon Davis with narration by Rebecca Massey, sound engineering by Russell Stapleton, and additional performances from Josef Ber and Thuso Lekwape. Jens Jarisch was the writer and original producer.
For more than 20 years Sharon Davis has made groundbreaking local and international documentaries for ABC Radio in Australia. As a founding member of the features program Radio Eye, she covered the first democratic election in South Africa, and was present when Kosovars streamed across the Macedonian border to escape the war. Davis’s work has been recognised by numerous awards including a Third Coast Award and Australia’s most prestigious prize, the Walkley Award, four times. She has been a finalist in the Prix Italia several times and received a Special Mention in 2006 for When Time Stood Still. Davis has also taught radio production across southern Africa and the Pacific, as well as lecturing at University.
Jens Jarisch has spent half his life in Berlin, where he currently works as an independent producer of one-hour radio documentaries. He has squandered valuable years studying literature, occupying himself with random travels to peculiar places all along. Spellbound by the world's sound, he began recording what he found most difficult to grasp, trying to reveal the hidden and make it audible. Jarisch’s work runs to twelve documentaries and has been awarded with several national and international media prizes.
Hear more from Sharon Davis.
Learn more about the Australian show 360 Documentaries, where this English version of Children of Sodom and Gomorrah first aired.
Check out the Prix Italia - the European media competition that awarded Children of Sodom and Gomorrah its annual prize for Radio Documentary, in 2010.
Thanks to Jens Jarisch and Katja Giersemehl for the photos from Ghana.
Curious about other winners from the 2011 Third Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition?
BEHIND THE SCENES with Sharon Davis
First - what's the general process/motivation for adapting a radio doc or feature into another language? This is seldom done for American radio, but seems more common in Europe and Australia.
The first consideration is the quality of the piece itself – is the story worth translating, have we heard other programs like this before, or does it offer something new to the listener? Will it work as well in another language, and is there enough “room” or space in the original recordings to do a translation? You also need to be able to get your hands on the original mix and the original sound files so that you have some flexibility in the translation/mixing process.
Where did you first hear Jens Jarisch's Children of Sodom & Gomorrah, and what about THIS feature inspired you to take on the English adaptation?
Children of Sodom and Gomorrah was the winner of last year’s Prix Italia in the documentary category. The arts editor of ABC Radio National, Tony Macgregor, heard it and thought it would work well in English. As soon as I heard it I wanted to work on the adaptation. The story was really compelling, shocking actually, and well recorded with great moments of actuality – and it had a level of complexity often not heard in programs, combining issues such as the illegal dumping of e-waste with stories of the African children’s lives and their desire for something better, the attitude of the West towards refugees and immigration (a subject that features prominently in our national political debate). It was moving and personal, as well as being profoundly political.
What did you and Russell Stapleton bring to the adapted version, as producer and sound engineer? How much was Jarisch involved in the adaptation process?
All of the original recordings that Jens did in Africa were in English, so we had those to work with as a base, as well as the interviews with Frontex. In the original version there was, of course, German translation alongside the African voices so we had to take those voices out and remix, without losing the original rhythm of the program. The original narration was in German, as were the interviews recorded on the German wharves with Customs officials. The program was heavily narrated so we had to replace the German narrator with an English one. In that case it was a matter of finding a narrator that could fit the “tone” of the original piece, although we wanted to change the position/relationship of the narrator to the rest of the material. Russell and I spent a great deal of time with our narrator, Rebecca Massey, discussing the tone that we wanted to hit with her voice.
We had access to the original ProTools session. The timing of the translation was often longer than the German script so we had to “peel back” atmospheres that were otherwise hidden in the original. As all the actuality is in English it also gave use the opportunity to adjust the timing of events so that they could be woven around the script in ways that weren’t possible with the German, creating more synchronous moments. There were hundreds of occasions where perhaps a half a second was added or subtracted which meant adjusting the atmospheres accordingly to accommodate the English script. It did end up being a major edit and remix, although it “sounds the same”.
Russell also used processing (compression/EQ) on our new voices which attempted to match the original mix.
To Jens' great credit, he trusted us with the adaptation and was very happy with the end result.
How similar to the original version does the adapted version of "Children...." sound? Do you hear an 'Australian-ness' about the English version, compared with the European feature tradition it was crafted in?
I hope there is a great similarity with the original version – it was such a brilliant program to begin with. We wanted to be very careful not to lose that, to maintain the integrity of the original. Our narrator intentionally sounds a little different from the German narrator – as I said we spent a lot of time talking about how to pitch her narration and she is less “distanced” from the rest of the material than the original narrator and that could be seen as a stylistic difference between Australian and European feature making.
Interestingly Jens himself thought that the English version allowed him as a listener to get closer to the piece. In a letter he wrote to us afterwards he said “…I do not have the impression of listening to a translation or an adaptation but to a piece that had been designed to sound like this from the start. It's a matter of language, too, of course. I seem to be able to get closer to the protagonists because there is one barrier less; the whole programme is more consistent which has the effect that I am drawn into it even more magnetically.”
Was it hard at times to be re-telling / presenting someone else's story? Would you have made different decisions than Jarisch did, at any point, as reporter, narrator or producer?
It is hard to take on someone else’s story and reshape it – it’s a big responsibility and, as I said we were so taken by the original that the biggest challenge for us was not to lose its power. The one question that I have been asked about is the decision we made to repeat key words or phrases of the Frontex officials over the top of their interviews. In the original version the interviews were in English and these key phrases were repeated in German. The decision was made for both rhythmic and content reasons to keep these in but repeat them in English instead of German. I think what it does is underscore the jargon that officials use; statements often full of bureaucratise, the same words used over and over again, become meaningless.
Tell us more about the show this aired on, 360 Documentaries.
360 Documentaries is a features and documentaries program on the ABC’s national broadcaster Radio National. We broadcast both international and local features and documentaries from our on-staff local producers as well as from local and international freelancers. Our focus is social and cultural as well as an interest in the feature form itself. Part of our brief is to explore the ways that we use the radio to tell our stories, to make use of sound and content in new and interesting ways.