We Are One Film Festival Interview: Jon Kasbe on the Special Delivery of “Blood Rider”

“This is you making an impact where there is none,” the man in charge of dispatch for a delivery service tells Joseph early in “Blood Rider,” tasking him with the seemingly impossible responsibility of getting a blood to a woman named Deborah, who has lost 800 milliliters and counting as she gives birth in a local hospital. The distance isn’t much of an obstacle, but the traffic is as the highways in Lagos, Nigeria are all but a parking lot during rush hour and only on a motorcycle can Joseph slip through the lanes while laying his foot heavily on the gas.

He doesn’t shrink from a challenge, nor does director Jon Kasbe, who follows up his remarkable nonfiction ivory trade thriller “When Lambs Become Lions” with this 17-minute nail biter, which premiered today as part of the We Are One Film Festival and will stream for free on YouTube through June 6th. Getting on a bike himself to track the frantic rescue mission coordinated by the  innovative healthcare company LifeBank, the filmmaker conveys the anxiety and exhilaration of Joseph’s mad dash, racing against the clock to reach Deborah in time, but once again pulls back to show the entirety of their experience of living in Lagos, spending time with each before fate brings them together — arguably an even more impressive feat than the death-defying camerawork necessary to capture Joseph’s fearless ride, given the logistics and patience required.

As with “When Lambs Become Lions,” in which he put in the time to understand the dynamics of a complex situation by following both an elephant poacher and a ranger protecting the parks, Kasbe marries empathy with a keen sense of how to place grave humanitarian issues in enthralling narrative terms and on the eve of the film’s premiere, which as he explains couldn’t be more timely, the director spoke about how he works with his subjects to capture their truth, keeping up with Joseph during his high-speed drive, and how to plan for a truly unpredictable situation.

How did this come about?

Google reached out to me. They were familiar with LifeBank’s work and saw my first film “When Lambs Become Lions,” which was a long process in Kenya and I had done another short film in the Central African Republic, so they just ran it by me and said, “What do you think about this? Do you want to make a short film about what they’re doing?” I dug in a little bit and realized Nigeria has a major blood shortage and it’s also the country with the fourth highest maternal mortality rate and that’s largely due to access to blood. As I dug into it, there’s another complicating factor, which is the traffic. The traffic is unprecedented and often times completely gridlocked. It was taking people up to 24 hours to deliver blood from blood banks to hospitals, so LifeBank was able to find a way to do it in under an hour and that statistic is what blew me away. I couldn’t stop thinking about that.

Somewhere between the pressing issue of maternal mortality rate and the great lengths that these motorcycle drivers were going through to bring blood t to complete strangers because they wanted to be doing this type of work inspired me. It just felt like an incredible story of hope that I wanted to know more about. When I started talking with LifeBank and the drivers and getting a sense of what it was like from their perspective [where they’d] say things like it just takes one trip where you’re going there and you arrive minutes late and the doctor tells you the patient just passed, the weight of that is on you every single ride you go on from then on. You can feel it from the way they put their uniforms on to how quickly they’re riding these motorcycles to the way they run into the hospitals. There’s such a deep urgency every time and it’s because there is that trauma on their shoulders of not getting there in time, so I really wanted to find a way to show people the incredible work that’s going on by this organization and their blood riders as well as the great need.

And when you contextualize it in the time we’re in now, it’s more pressing than ever and it’s interesting to see the way LifeBank has adjusted to the time of COVID. They’re familiar with working in situations that are chaotic and hard to predict where you have to find creative solutions to solve issues and now they’re providing free oxygen to hospitals. They’re setting up the first testing units around Lagos. They’re at the forefront of addressing the needs.

When talking with LifeBank, was their guidance helpful in knowing the right places to capture this?

Yeah, we spent months talking with them before arriving in Lagos and it was super-helpful in understanding the way that they work — when the call comes in, who gets sent and where they go, how quickly they can usually do it and what happens afterwards. But the factor that we couldn’t predict is who’s going to need blood because you just never know, and we really wanted to put audiences front and center in the present tense of what was going on. We didn’t want to make a short documentary where we had people talking about the past and things that went wrong or talking about the future and how they want things to change. We wanted to actually see the issue unfold.

What we did was diversify our resources. When we first arrived, LifeBank connected me with hospitals that they worked with regularly and then those hospitals started connecting me with pregnant women who were due to give birth in the next two to six weeks. Through that process, I started telling people what we were doing and why we felt it was important to highlight the work that LifeBank was doing and I probably met with 40 pregnant women in the first week. Ten of them agreed and were interested in being a part of the project, so we started filming with all of them because I didn’t just want to film the women in this when she was in need, I actually wanted to see them established as a character before they go into labor, so we had one camera alternating between a number of pregnant women while another camera was filming with the blood riders delivering blood all over Lagos.

Thankfully, some of these pregnant women had very smooth births where nothing went wrong and there was no additional blood needed. Some of them had complicated births where we missed it by minutes, and there was one woman named Deborah who we had been filming with, had a complicated birth, needed additional blood and Joseph the blood rider was the one who came to the hospital that night. We didn’t know that the two of them were going to become our main characters until that happened, but we committed to spreading out our resources, so we could capture things in the present tense.

“When Lambs Become Lions” has a similar bifurcated structure, which must be so much more complicated to pull off – did it immediately come to mind for this?

It’s probably the hardest way to tell this story. [laughs] But we were really focused on the emotion of it. We wanted people to feel rather than just take in information on an intellectual level. We wanted them to feel it in their hearts, and I think to do that, you have to go through it with your characters. I’m just thankful we had the time to really invest. We were in Lagos for about a month and then we spent three to four months editing. If we hadn’t had that amount of time to do this, I don’t think we would’ve been able to spend so much time building relationships and filming with people who wouldn’t end up being in the short film.

Did the other pregnancies you followed inform how you ultimately told the story of Deborah and Joseph?

Every single one was a learning process for us to get a sense of what it was like. Each drive is different, but we would learn from each one about how we wanted to film it. Upfront at the beginning, we went on rides with the blood riders without cameras because we just wanted to get a personal sense for what does it actually feel like. Of course, we came in with these preconceived notions of how we want to film it, but I really see our jobs as staying open and being comfortable stripping those away and making it a collaboration between the people that are actually doing the work. It was clear from these rides with the blood riders that it was a very chaotic, unpredictable, hectic situation where you’re going at really fast speeds and all of a sudden stopping and swerving in and out of oncoming traffic.

You never know what’s going to happen, so to embrace that and show that authentically, we got separate motorcycles that me and the other DP [David Bolen] would ride on backwards, so we had other motorcycle drivers riding for us and we’d sit on the back of it, squeezing our legs together and holding the camera with our hands so we could keep going handheld to embrace that messiness of the reality. And we were going from situations like that to being at hospitals, another hurdle where we were filming women going into labor, which is so sensitive and so special and so private and we wanted to keep it that way, at all times making sure that people that were filming felt comfortable. If anyone ever wanted us to stop or to turn the camera off, we’d do that immediately — there were a number of women that said they were interested in being a part of this and then once they went into labor, they changed their minds. We fully respected that and we turned the cameras off and moved on, which I think is important. That’s part of building trust not just with individuals and characters, but with communities because we wanted to make something that the people we filmed, but also LifeBank and Lagos and the hospital that we worked with, would be proud to stand behind.

That leads me to ask about this most extraordinary shot in the film, just as Deborah has just been admitted to the hospital with labor pains and you see the relative calm in the next room over all in one frame. How did you capture that?

It’s funny you call that shot out because right before Deborah gave birth, the woman that we were following before her, we missed the birth by five minutes. We hadn’t slept in two days and the doctor told us she’s definitely not going to give birth until tomorrow, you should go home and get some rest, so we went home and got some rest and at three a.m., I got a call saying, “She’s gone into labor unexpectedly. Hurry, come.” So we were rushing back and we missed it by minutes. It was this really strange feeling of being so thankful and happy that this new baby was born to this family we had just gotten to know this past week, but also so disappointed in ourselves and for our responsibility to the film and not actually being there in time.

After that happened, I was like, “We’re staying at the hospital. We can’t leave. We can’t miss this.” So that shot that you’re talking about where you see the two sides, we were sleeping at the hospital for about three nights at that point and I remember seeing this image on one side where Deborah was having contractions and feeling pain. Something was clearly wrong and on the other side, there was this woman who had just given birth the day before and had her baby and felt so happy and so relieved. It just felt like on one side of the frame, the goal, the ends that Deborah was moving towards and on the right side, the stakes and the pain of the journey to get there. I remember me and [David Bolen] set that camera up and we just left it running for hours because it was just this one image that tells you the whole story. We were really inspired by that moment and we shot it for a very, very long time. And in the film, you see it for just a few seconds, but it was very reflective of what the experience was like and what we were taking away from being there.

“Blood Rider” is now streaming here as part of the We Are One Festival through June 7th on YouTube.

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