Archive for January, 2011

A silver lining on war

A mother sweeping the streets, killed in Mogadishu by Al Shabaab.

A silver lining of a cloud riddled with bullets – it’s still silver.

When I arrived at the refugee camp in Dadaab I was bowled over the head with the monstrosity of what I saw. The millions of lives shattered in the name of meaningless political conflict had me losing hope for a while in any human institution. In that camp, hundreds of thousands live without homes or families, and it’s enough to make me despondent about being on this planet. In a world where such atrocities can take place, where they take place without the entire planet rushing in to right them, just what is the point? And how savage are we…how hypocritical our smiling faces and cautious policies in the face of madmen and rapists of countries.

There is a thread of rationality to the previous argument, but there is I hope a stronger thread to this one: it’s getting better. Way better. Listen to Steven Pinker on TED (or read his essay) for an understanding that we as a race are getting less, not more violent. While the scale of killing may be increasing, our tolerance for it is sharply going down. Remember that rape, stoning, hanging and stake burning were relatively recently the norm (stoning is, in fact, still the norm in Dadaab, but that’s a separate discussion.) Under that lens, I begin to see our growing horror and sensitivity to these practices as the strongest force working to eradicate them.

This perspective does not excuse us from horrified vigilance. On the contrary, it emphasizes the role of changing cultural norms in eradicating this violence. And some cruelty is not acceptable.

I don’t think that we will ever achieve total peace (and it would involve a Huxlian level of societal control that doesn’t sound like a good idea) but I do believe that war is preventible in the way isolated acts of violence are not. Because those who cause war are (usually, hopefully) subject to political incentives, it’s possible to imagine a world where most countries are so against the very idea that it almost cannot happen.

Then again, it’s possible to imagine that world collapsing when someone decides to throw a nuke. But we have our silver lining for now.

Foli Rhythm

Sent to me by Mark, it is very beautiful and mesmerizing.

Is it representative of Malian culture? Respectful? Nativist? Are we watching as a participant or an observer?

What does an American notice as we watch? What would a Malian notice? Either way it is a beautiful film.

Guest Post: Sex for Survival by Liban Rashid

LibanI have asked some friends of mine from the Dadaab and Ifo camps to to write guest posts on my blog about their lives and experiences in the camps. This post is from Liban Rashid, a young Somali man who came to Dadaab as a child about 18 years ago and has been there ever since. He is the PVP Coordinator of FilmAid. Prostitution is a huge problem in the camps, and thank you Liban for your description of it and your message.

Sex has become one of the many businesses that Somali refugees brought to ifo camp to make money that is enough to feed families. Some are involved in the business secretly while others have places that are known around the Camp. EVEN THOUGH sex workers are not common in the Somali culture, there are a good number of prostitutes who are very active in Dadaab Camps. However, these prostitutes lead fearful lives. A prostitute’s life might be at-risk once a family member finds out about the profession.

Ebla, who chose to be anonymous for security purposes, said that even her neighbours do not know about how she makes her living. If they ever find out about her job, they will not only isolate her, but will burn her alive, Ebla said. Ebla has been in the business for 2years now. “I sleep with about two men every day” she said. “I charge for $2 each man, depending on the agreement.”

Unlike Ebla,there is a well-known group of prostitutes who have a whole block in the camp designated just for them. The group is best known as the “group four.” The group is well connected and organised. Osob, a prostitute from the group who chose her name to be anonymous for her security ,said she joined the group in order for her and her child to survive when they got a baby out of wedlock. Adar said she earns $5 dollars a day, enough money to feed her and her child. Still, Adar said that she feels bad about her profession and wishes she had the skills to do another business: a wish that all the members in the group have.CAN YOU HELP THIS GROUP TO BE IN THE SAFE SIDE? Every thing is everything.

Reverse shock

Hes got shining teeth, he has decorated them, they said in Somali, staring as I sat in the back of the truck.

Jet engines rocketing for hours on end. Flexing my privilege. London UK and a hostel filled with drunken teenagers traveling around the world and partying every night. Most of them are “broke” and that word means too many things. Cold weather.

Hedonism, toasted bagels with the inside cut out and veggie cream cheese and if you don’t like it they make you another and don’t look you in the eye. An amazing roommate who surprised me by picking me up at the airport (thank you Dan!) Taxi drivers and illegal taxi drivers, a war seething just below the surface. Deep down we’re not all that different. But we are.

Dishwashers that “don’t work,” houses that “are dirty.” Bright refrigerators that never go out and hold plastic bags of exactly 100 baby carrots that all look the same and “chicken breasts.” Everything comes in neat little cups that you use and then forget about. Everything is designed to be forgotten.

But I can’t forget, and not because of the constant facebook posts from my new friends marveling at my travels or saying they miss me and our discussions online. Not because of the gigabytes of photos waiting to be uploaded or the terabytes of video waiting to be sorted.

Because I opened this box and 300,000 souls reached their hands out of it and said “help us” and though I sometimes want to close it shut it’s not the type of box that closes.

My Virgin flight ended with a video charity appeal. They wanted our foreign currency for their charity in Kenya. In the middle of New York airspace every screen was showing images of starving, smiling Masai children amid hopeful music. I lost it completely – and then a few minutes later it was over.

Reverse culture shock is a bitch, but I have faith it will sort itself out a bit better.

Sent from my iPhone

Lose our own soul

I feel that our generation is destined to gain the world but lose our own soul. We will have perfect vision, perfect hearing, perfect lifespan as the world falls to ruin at our feet.

Sorrow and Joy we live and we love

Places have a way of blossoming open right as one is about to leave them. Three days before I am to depart Nairobi it has revealed itself to me in the glory of a thorny rose.

I just came back from a two hour cab ride with a lovely man named Joseph. John’s African name is Jenga; he’d seen the wooden game but did not know what it was called until I told him. Jenga implies building in Swahili, one who will build great things. Joseph told me that his taxi company, which regularly takes in $15 per fare, requires its drivers to work 24-hour shifts and pays them $110 per month. John is 45, has three kids and a wife, and he seemed like a very smart man.

I was coming from drinks with a work friend Grace and a new friend Boris. Boris and I met serendipitously, when my friend Cary (who is in Vietnam) noticed he changed his number to a Kenyan one on Facebook. He came over to the office an hour later and we hit it off immediately. That kind of serendipity, that kind of openness to meeting new people, that’s what pushes life forward.

The next stop was an orphanage far across the city, which took about 45 minutes. We were going to visit my friend Yasmine, who came here from Australia to volunteer in the orphanage for two weeks and shoot a documentary. While volunteering, she fell in love with a tiny little baby. She can’t adopt until she has been here for three years, so she now lives in the orphanage.

My new friend Joseph Jenga and I walked into the orphanage, and neither of us were expecting what happened. Twenty adorable young children raced towards us, clinging to our clothing and asking us our names, telling us their names, asking about our clothes and are braces and whether we came with their friend Francis. I picked one up, I put one down, I didn’t quite know what to do. They were all orphans. We went into the next room and I saw Yasmin’s baby. To be honest I’d always thought she was a little crazy to change her life plans for a kid she didn’t know. But then I saw the baby, and the baby smiled. And Yasmine told me that the baby had been found, a week old, by the side of the road in a plastic bag. And the baby had a mother and that mother was my friend. I understood how you could change your life to become a mother.

Joseph and I left with a camera. We’d come to the orphanage because I have been trying to capture 100 hours of video tape to bring back to New York, and I only have one tape deck. The other FilmAid cameras broke, and Yasmine offered to lend me hers. “I don’t lend it to most people, you’re lucky,” she said…I guess it just felt right to her. I told her that she was allowing me to sleep this week and thanked her.

On the taxi ride home I thought about how tired I was, how I would never have enough sleep this week. Then I reoriented to where I was, looked around, felt my body in a car in Kenya and not inside my head…and the tiredness disappeared.

When I went back into the office I gave Joseph Jenga a $13 tip. It wasn’t much to me; it was three days pay to him. That didn’t seem fair. He told me that he was trying to support his kids, that he was going to leave the taxi company soon and find a new job. He asked me to keep him in mind if I heard anything. We exchanged numbers.

I’m capturing two tapes at once now. Yasmine’s camera is playing back the audio, which the tape deck didn’t. It’s a tape made in 2005, and refugees from Kakuma are sending video messages to new refugees from the tsunami. At least three of them say “I am a refugee here so I don’t have anything to give you, but I give you my love and support and I hope you can have strength in this time of great hardship.”

I believe in some moments the chaotic tangle of the universe opens up and it’s possible to see through to something else entirely. Those moments say to me, “Keep going…keep going.”

Teaching film in Dadaab

After editing a film in Dadaab, I spent two and a half weeks teaching film as part of FilmAid’s Participatory Video Project. Ordinarily the PVP curriculum consists of individual units focused on different aspects of filmmaking, to form about a year’s curriculum. Our class was a general one, though, where I tried to teach a group of 12 students everything about filmmaking. We lost a few days at the start of the class, so we had to condense about 60 hours of work into 13 days.

In my mind, this is the most important work that FilmAid does. Our large screenings are very public, visually stunning, and do provide the community with useful information. But these trainings are designed to change lives in a focused way. Ideally (and we are moving towards this goal) the PVP program turns out a large group of filmmakers empowered to tell stories on a par with any other film school in the world. The training was also the most meaningful part of my time here, as I really got to know my students personally.

Training a class is in many ways like training an army. Yes making film is lots of fun, but the students I am teaching are also becoming warriors. Their films are weapons and they are fighting against oppression, for knowledge and understanding.

I decided to focus my time on conceptual teaching and “soft skills” of filmmaking, discussing abstract concepts such as composing shots and introducing characters. (I am indebted to Rob Milazzo, a former film teacher, for some of the style and techniques I used.) Because the hard skills of using a camera can be learned gradually through discovery, I believed the transfer of knowledge and discussion of higher elements of filmmaking was more important. I wanted to instill in the students a feeling of the power they had as storytellers, that even in a documentary they were constantly choosing and responsible for every element of every frame.

We began with shot composition, where I showed them several dramatic newspaper photos. We discussed the symbolism of different elements, the use of composition, color, and choosing a background. We discussed different ways the subject could have been photographed and what they would mean. We watched film examples, including a few from “The Graduate” and a fight scene in the desert from “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.” (the best question about the fight scene: “why are they fighting with swords? Why don’t they use guns?”) Then we moved on to character introductions, discussing the different ways characters can be introduced. “Taxi Driver” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” were two examples used.

Most of the class chose to use themselves in our character introduction exercise. They got up to the front of the classroom to discuss their lives, and then we discussed as a class how to best portray the life events. One student described the bombing of his village, the loss of his family, and his journey alone across hundreds of miles. I was stunned, and could not even process the words coming out of my own mouth as I asked him whether he would portray this through interview or action, what shot sizes he would use.

It was hard to tell the results of this theoretical approach; the Somali- and Ethiopian-speaking students often had a hard time understanding what I was saying, and for cultural reasons were not telling me when they didn’t understand something. It worried me that some seemed far more engaged after the two-hour lesson on using the camera than in all the theoretical discussions. One student told me “thanks Mr. Michael, we learned so much today!” “What about when we discussed Scorcese?!” I wanted to reply.
This is why I was pleasantly shocked when we did our first sample interviews. Not only were they for the most part brilliantly shot and executed, but they did literally everything I had asked. When prompted as to why they had chosen a particular camera angle, for the most part they had deep motivations.

Their own footage was the best teachable lesson. “What have you included in this frame?” I asked one group, pointing to the corner of the frame. “There is our subject and their house.” “What else?” They could not see anything else in the frame. “There is a giant ‘USA’ in the center of your frame,” I exclaimed, pointing to the USA material used to construct their subjects’ house. “Did you want that there?” They laughed, and I repeated, “you are responsible for every single thing in your frame.” That was when it really sunk in.

For their final projects, four-minute character introductions, they chose to work with Handicap International, a group that advocates for disabled peoples’ rights and spreads land mine awareness. Of the three subjects for the three videos, one was a blind man, another a parapalegic woman, and the third a schoolteacher. They shot the films over three days, and we had the last four days to edit.

My students’ biggest request was that they be taught Final Cut Pro; not having access to laptops, they had no opportunity to learn editing, and this seriously impacted their abilities as filmmakers. (Personally I cannot understand how anyone who has not edited a film is in a position to make one.) My admittedly ambitious goal was to teach them editing and have them edit the projects themselves in only four days, with only two computers. (In fact, they *had* to edit themselves, because two of the films were in Somali!

The first day of editing started three hours late due to logistical issues. I was nervous about our ability to accomplish our task in the time we had. We set up outdoors with a long extension cord connecting the laptops and external hard drives. They fought the glare with their eyes to see what was on the screen as I showed them the basics of Final Cut Pro.

I believe in teaching the real thing and not dumbed-down solutions like iMovie. The first hour was immensely frustrating, as some of them struggled to learn how to use a mouse at the same time as grasp advanced subjects such as the Final Cut Pro timeline. But once these concepts are grasped FCP is very intuitive to use, and so the challenge was only to fight the frustration along the learning curve. Lo and behold, within (I am not joking) 1.5 hours, all but a few students knew how to edit on Final Cut Pro. I never expected this.

For expediency, I then assigned the best editor from each group to work with the team to assemble a rough cut. They already had log sheets of every shot, so they found their clips easily. As they worked, I continued to show them more advanced techniques and tools whenever they seemed ready.

The rough cuts were between 12-16 minutes, and I told them to make them four minutes. With about five hours left to go of our total editing time, one group responded by deleting all their work and starting over. I was shocked but had thankfully saved a backup copy during lunch; we began working together to cut it down.

The last day, I took the editing desk and pared each group’s project down, asking them what was being said in Somali and questioning everything that did not seem necessary to the story. They saw how tight it was possible to make the edit and seemed to learn from watching me as well.

I spent a sleepless night spent polishing the edits and adding credits, and we finished the class with a viewing of the films. Dawit arranged an amazing party in the Ethiopian section of the camp, complete with an Ethiopian coffee ritual and delicious Injera.
I left by a bumpy 6-hour car ride the next day, satisfied and thoroughly exhausted, the completed films sitting on my hard drive.