That Red Circular Carpet

Koen Suidgeest

That round red carpet!

Until walking on the stage for the final rehearsal, I had never quite realized that all TED talks have that red circular carpet in common. And I wasn’t even new to the talks, having been an avid fan and admirer for years (my favorite still being Brené Brown’s Ode to Vulnerability). But I just never noticed the carpet.

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Of course TED talks have a lot more in common than a carpet, not in the least a global reputation for wonder and excellence. So a day later, as I walked on stage for the actual event, it struck me once again that this moment in my life was both a crown on my work –a culmination of a 12-year trajectory involving the lives of street children– as well as an unequalled opportunity to engage new audiences. Despite having given hundreds of talks, and the documentary on which my TEDx talk is based having been seen by millions, this moment at Berklee College of Music in Valencia, Spain felt unparalleled.

Nice, right? But the above paragraph conceals a vital question. One that all people who work in human rights filmmaking should ask themselves once in a while: “How long can I keep talking about the same thing?” And more importantly: “When does all this talking about one urgent subject suddenly start becoming more about me?”

My TEDx talk was inspired by the story of my documentary Karla’s Arrival. In the talk, I argue that babies who are born and raised on the streets, anywhere in the world, can unexpectedly become a bridge for the young mother to return to a safer life in society. Plagued by low self-esteem, the homeless teen parent finally has a being to care for that is more important than they consider themselves to be. The baby provides the motivation that until then was lacking.

Inspired by the implied significance of that big circular dot awaiting me on stage, I wondered whether this event would be a fitting ending of the many and rich screening opportunities the documentary has been granted. I asked myself whether I should –so to speak– leave the party on this high TEDx-note in order to focus on the new issues that find their way into my work.

At the core of this query lies a paradox about personal success. After some time, I experience some discomfort with my own satisfaction of receiving praise and applause for the documentary (and the talk in Valencia for that matter). I enjoy the success and at the same time understand I cannot share it with the protagonists of my film. It means very little to them. And it certainly doesn’t make their dismal lives any better.

How many lives did we improve? I do what I do with a profound desire to, in tiny steps, change the world we live in. Yet knowing whether I’m achieving something is mainly a matter of trust. We hardly ever really know in what way our films change the lives of others. Do audiences give more to charity? Vote differently? Change their buying habits?

As a result, at some point any and all praise feels like it’s about the maker instead of the issue at hand. I suspect that the moment it starts being about me is a trigger to move on. Or am I wrong? What is it that people really applaud?

Let’s reverse the question (I encourage you to try this). In my case, ever since seeing the documentary Supersize Me, I have not returned to McDonald’s. Or another –less tangible– example: my all-time TED favorite has often made me think about my own (in)ability to be vulnerable with people, especially with the ones I love most. Are Morgan Spurlock or Brené Brown aware of these little facts about me? They are not. We have never even been in the same room together.

Newborn Karla in her box crib on the streets of Managua

Newborn Karla in her box crib on the streets of Managua

When I proposed to Sujeylin, the teenage mother in my film (and my TEDx talk), that we make a documentary about her and baby Karla’s life on the streets of Managua, she immediately understood its power and started fantasizing about personally being involved in educating other teens about the tribulations of raising a baby under similar circumstances. She too desired to change a world beyond that of her own. The reality is that today, six years after the birth of her daughter and four years after the world premiere of the film, she is little better off. And worse, there are still millions of girls the world over who are in the situation she was in when we made the film. The ripple effect I hoped my film to have never reached them.

It’s for that little fact –there is still so much work to be done– that I have realized that me stepping onto that round red carpet cannot be the end of this journey, however much of a personal high point my TEDx talk might have been for me. If anything, it should be a new springboard. An impulse for more action. Since we have only just scraped the surface of what needs to be done.

WATCH the documentary Karla’s Arrival for free when signing up for Koen’s newsletters here.

See Koen’s TEDx talk here.