The Making of Girl Connected: Koen in Peru

Girl Connected — a powerful documentary film about five inspiring girl leaders from five countries around the world — took Koen Suidgeest and sound recordist Tjodi van Elk to Kenya, Peru, India, Jordan and Bangladesh. In this blog series, Koen shares some of his experiences from the making of the film.

Seventeen-year-old Josi is a remarkable person. It was because of her that we boarded the long flight from Amsterdam to Lima (Peru), and a day later onwards to Pucallpa.

Pucallpa is a medium-sized town on the edge of the Amazon. It’s situated an hour north east of Lima by plane and sits on the bank of the Ucayali River, which flows into the Amazon River many miles further. Josi had just arrived some weeks back, since she recently started university in the town. Her secondary education was completed back in Sepahua, her home village a two-day trip in a small boat up the river into the rain forest.

In her free time, Josi is a member of a colorful group of teenage activists who call themselves Líderes en Tiempo Libre or LTL, which translates to Leaders in Free Time. This group tackles issues of teenage pregnancy, gender violence, high school dropout and access to reproductive health care. Their focus is mainly on their peers, as they use their own ‘language’ to reach them – they rap, dance and talk with them in their own vocabulary. The group believes that by making things debatable, they create awareness and solutions.

Generally in these activities, it’s Josi who is the spokesperson for the group. She has the microphone, and with a convincing argument runs around between a few hundred high school students getting their view on the responsibility of both partners to avoid teenage pregnancy. She’s extremely open in her choice of words. “I’m not saying you shouldn’t have sex! That’s your personal choice. But think about what you’re doing, and use a condom,” she proclaims at the top of her lungs. That sentence alone includes two words that are generally taboo.

When the music starts and a group member starts rapping about the issue of the day, Josi picks up a small hand-drawn banner, climbs onto the stage and starts dancing with it. It says: “Take responsibility!” while her t-shirt says: “I love myself, so I take care of myself.” As she jumps around to the beat of the music, her smile is proof that she thoroughly enjoys the job.

But not everything is what it seems. If you ever have the opportunity to meet this determined, intelligent and passionate person, you’ll soon realize that at heart, Josi is extremely shy. When first meeting her, she’ll shake your hand weakly with her eyes drawn to the floor. A timid smile unveils her kindness, since she’s not one to say: “Pleasure to meet you.” When asking her questions, her answers are short and she prefers not to talk too much.

At first I thought that it was because of me. I am a European man nearly three times her age and twice her height. Understandably she might need some time to feel relaxed, despite my efforts to break the ice. I then saw her with others in the town, and she largely acted the same. It was clear from the start that Josi is an introvert.

At one point, I began to doubt our choice of character when we first met. In my ignorance of what a determined teenage activist ‘should’ be like, I started wondering how I hadn’t caught this issue and questioning whether my intuitive choice of Josi out of various other strong stories from Peru was the right one.

Luckily I was wrong. The days we worked together, Josi taught me something important I had not considered before. I live in a culture where the extroverts do the talking (and hence shape ideas and opinions). But Josi proved to me that it isn’t necessary to be outgoing in order to be passionate. You just have to believe strongly in what you are talking about, and then the words will come by themselves.