participatory filmmaking in africa


Went to a panel discussion at NYU Wagner School of Public Service tonight, with participation of FilmAid, Communication for Change, and Barefoot Workshops (skypeing in from South Africa) -- all organizations that teach video workshops in refugee camps, NGOs, and educational settings in Africa. I showed up a little prickly after a long day at work, expecting the same-old panel talk with a few US-based organizations peddling brochures covered in dusty brown children.

And I did largely encounter what I expected, with the exception of Barefoot, that also invited a budding Nigerian filmmaker, in Capetown for a video workshop, to participate in the discussion. The filmmaker, Jonah, had lost both of his parents to HIV/AIDS and wanted to shoot a documentary to educate Nigerians about the disease. Education is largely the goal of these trainings, offering refugees and other at-risk populations a media-driven tool for battling gender-based violence, disease, and even female circumcision.

I suppose in a way, I did not know what was meant by "participatory filmmaking." I thought that these folks maybe collaborated with Africans to make feature films that were competitive on a global scale. Pardon my ignorance. Most of the films were in the style of PSAs, or stories that appealed to a local audience, and the quality was kind of hit or miss.

I understand that the local communities are the target audiences, and mainstream audiences are not a main target (as far as I could tell no distribution networks even exist to this end), but I think that high-level filmmaking should still be a goal.

I suppose I would have liked to have seen the act of filmmaking itself used as a vehicle for radical autonomy, ie, equipping the refugees with the tools and vocabulary to make films on par with those readily consumed in the West. I had a great conversation with MTV Africa head Alex Okosi about this a couple years ago, and he said that a rising number of Africans are fairly sophisticated movie viewers.

I think these video workshop participants should be grappling with the same creative dilemmas as independent filmmakers. All it would have taken to do this was a bit of diffusion here, some tighter sound editing there, a little bit more attention paid to the picture itself and I would not have felt like these organizations were doling out a remedial film education.

I have seen the curriculum for some of the inner-city video programs happening in New York and they are teaching youth at a more sophisticated level. Although, disclaimer, I have not seen these organizations' curricula, and I must also admit that funding may play a significant role, since FilmAid was so much better than the other two.

I do not believe that, even in the remotest villages with no access to television, that a person cannot enter into the pantheon of acclaimed filmmakers if given the same tools and vocabulary. My ten cents.

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