A couple of weeks ago we received a message from Kenya asking if we were interested in helping to promote a scheme which supports documentary filmmakers in East Africa. ‘Sema Stori’ simply means something like ‘tell a story’ in Swahili, so if you search for the title online, many different kinds of material pops up. What we are specifically concerned with here is a scheme linked to Docubox and Comic Relief (the tagline on the scheme’s website is ‘Stories that Speak’). The aim of the scheme is to offer mentorship by an established filmmaker and funding to make a documentary on one of four important topics: Mental Health, Early Childhood Development, Gender Justice, and the Right to Safe Secure Shelter and settlement. The scheme was promoted in Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, offering up to £10,000 each for a maximum of ten films. The scheme had an applications deadline in May 2019 and the completed films have been made available in August 2020. You can access the films on the Facebook Channel of Sema Stori. Unfortunately, we have withdrawn from Facebook and closed our account so I have not been able to see the films. But since there are aspects of the programme presented elsewhere, I have decided to do some more research.
Documentary in East Africa
There is a long tradition of documentary filmmaking with a focus on ‘social documentary’ in East Africa and in other anglophone African countries. This is often seen to derive from the legacy of British colonial film policy which saw documentary film as a means of aiding social education. (It was also a means of propagandising on behalf of British interests) At the time of independence in the 1960s it did also provide the new nation states with some basic infrastructure and a small group of trained personnel. In other parts of Africa, similar ‘legacies’ meant that the early film cultures of the new nation states followed a different trajectory to that of francophone ex-colonies where French colonial policy promoted French culture and laid a foundation for more artistically inclined films in countries such as Senegal or Ivory Coast. The British-influenced documentary approach resulted in what some commentators described as ‘development filmmaking’. In the last ten years, 50 years after the end of the colonial period, we might expect this legacy to be no longer visible but it seems to have survived in a changed and updated way.
Who are Docubox? Here is the statement on the front of their website:
DOCUBOX IS THE EAST AFRICAN DOCUMENTARY FILM FUND
We exist to enable talented, driven, focused and accountable East African artists to produce unique films that unearth new realities and cross trans-national boundaries. Through training, development and production grants, screenings for people who love documentary films, we promote East African filmmakers and share their unique stories with the world through creative documentary. We currently fund fiction under The Box.
Based in Nairobi, Docubox in the modern parlance of film development work, appears to be an important hub – an organisation that brings together funders such as NGOs, charities and other resources with aspiring filmmakers, and practitioners prepared to take on mentoring roles. Its aim is to promote film as an agency for social change. One of the driving forces behind Docubox is Judy Kibinge who was born in Kenya, lived in the US as a small child and educated in schools and higher education in the UK before working in advertising, corporate video productions and eventually as an independent filmmaker in Kenya, gaining an international reputation. Docubox is a Kenyan organisation but its funding partners include the British Council, The Danish Centre for Culture and Development (CKU), the Ford Foundation, Comic Relief and Hivos – People Unlimited (Netherlands). Docubox has used the available funding to create a range of projects covering both social documentary and fiction and as well as online screenings it has organised documentary screenings in Nairobi courtesy of the screening facilities of Alliance Française. In this way it has helped many aspiring filmmakers to gain exposure.
Comic Relief is a UK-based charity founded by the scriptwriter Richard Curtis and the comedian and actor Lenny Henry in 1985 as a response to the Ethiopian famine. Since then it has grown significantly raising money from biennial ‘Red Nose Days’ which feature community fund-raising initiatives and a ‘charity telethon’. I have to confess that this is not something I have watched or taken part in for a whole host of reasons so I can’t really comment on the venture. A spin-off from the television coverage has involved various UK TV personalities making trips to Africa in particular to discover how the money raised has been spent. Again I haven’t watched any of these, but they have attracted some criticism with suggestions that they reinforce negative typing of Africa and Africans. Because of this I’m slightly wary of Comic Relief’s role in Docubox but it is reassuring to see that Docubox is purely Kenyan.
Docubox clearly want to see proposals for films that focus on personal stories rather than traditional investigative reports with ‘expert’ talking heads. They demonstrate this by offering examples on their website. I haven’t managed to see the films produced for the project, but I have discovered several of the video statements made by filmmakers who I assume applied. You can check the Docubox advice on how to submit and watch the short statements below (they are each only a few minutes long).
Finally I found a statement by someone who I think has been successful in making a film for the project. I think this is Eugene Muigai and his film is called ‘It’s Okay Not To Be Okay’ which should have appeared on the Facebook page of Sema Stori earlier in August.
Portuguese director Nuno Escudeiro has made an affecting documentary set in the Roya and Durance Valleys on the France-Italy border. It’s primarily an observational work so we learn about the situation through characters’ interactions and occasionally their explanation of the situation to the director (but not directly the camera). For instance, one explains that the valleys, though in France, were part of Italy before World War II and the inhabitants don’t feel they belong to either country. It’s a sort of liminal space into which Eritrean refugees try to seek asylum.
Legally, of course, they should be able to do so but the authorities also perceive the area to be a liminal space otherwise why would they suspend due legal process? This is a naive question as police are often happy to contravene the law especially when told to do so. We learn most from Cedric, one of the leaders of local people who try to right the wrong done to the refugees who are often plonked back over the border into Italy without due process. Children often find, on official paperwork, that their birthdate is 1st January 2000 meaning they have suddenly become adult so can be dealt with particularly poorly. Such cynical corruption is indicative of the way those portrayed as Other are often treated.
As to the refugees themselves, there’s only one scene when we get to hear their voices directly. Even then we don’t get to know who they are, or from what they are fleeing, rather we are informed about their generalised sense of trauma. Whilst the absence of their voices is an obvious omission, it would be unfair to be too critical as Escudeiro’s purpose is clearly to tell the local heroes’ stories and he does this successfully. These people bear witness to the wrong and do what they can to set it right.
In recent news Turkey’s president Erdoğan threatened to allow 3.5 million Syrian refugees into Europe if there was any attempt to interfere with his restarted, courtesy of Trump, war on the Kurds. The morality of using people as a bargaining chip, never mind the fact they are desperate, is unspeakable. So Escudeiro’s film is important in reminding us human’s humanity to humans in a world where examples of inhumanity are too numerous to mention. Bearing witness to the terrible treatment of refugees is necessary so we don’t feel that such behaviour can be normalised.
Fernando Solanas is a veteran documentarist and political activist who is now an Argentinian Senator. Along with Octavio Getino he wrote the statement that formulated the concept of Third Cinema in 1969. Fifty years later Solanos is still attempting to make films that demonstrate a different voice and a different argument in global cinema. This new film is a detailed and coherent attack on multinational agri-business and its rape of the Argentinian ecology. As a film it does have flaws but they don’t prevent the powerful message from being communicated.
I had expected a documentary using various non-conventional devices to make its argument, but formally this is quite conventional with Solanos and his crew moving around Argentina, starting in the far north around Salta. The footage that is captured is almost low-res and I wonder if some of it was pre-digital video. Even the higher-res footage seems de-saturated at times and the overall impression is of greens and greys. The strength of the film is the ways in which different aspects of the central problem are explored in detail and then brought into the overall argument.
In the beginning we see the felling of vast acreages of ‘centenarian forest’ and the burning of the stumps so that the land can be cleared for yet more soybean monoculture (Argentina is the third largest global producer of soybeans and a major exporter). The focus here is on several different but connected issues. The first of these is that the deforestation ignores the land rights of the local indigenous people the Wichí. Interviewed, one of the Wichí leaders says they have been living on the land for 200 years. As well as the large trees the bulldozers also uproot the smaller trees, one of which bears a fruit that is a major food source for the Wichí. Indigenous people seem to receive little support from local or national government in the face of actions by the large multinationals behind the deforestation. The film returns to the plight of indigenous people at the end of the film. The planting of soybeans is accompanied by heavy spraying of the crop with pesticides and fertilisers. Crops of various kinds are hybrid varieties and farmers are trapped by the large companies who are making profits, often benefiting from state-funded research into new seed varieties. Hybrid seeds cannot be saved for planting next year and farmers must buy new seed for each crop. Large bio-tech companies like Monsanto are going one-step further and genetically modifying cash crops to be able to withstand the toxins that kill insects. They have persuaded some governments that these GM seeds are produced by a unique process that can be patented so that the companies can charge even higher prices without fear of competition. (The same practice which operates in some pharmacy contexts – Monsanto is now owned by Bayer.) Monoculture also destroys jobs. Large acreages of a single crop are easily harvested by modern computer-controlled machinery. The groves of peaches that might have existed previously employed armies of pickers. Latin America has suffered heavily from the migration of the rural unemployed to already overcrowded cities.
The new monoculture has other bad consequences. The ecological change has forced out beekeepers and the crop is now at the mercy of global prices for soybeans (and the oil and flour extracted). Like all monocultures, moving away from traditional and largely organic methods requires more inputs of fertilisers and insecticides. These are all noted by Solanos and his team as well as the impact of spraying which is often carelessly done by aerial delivery that allows spray to drift over schools and villages. The documentary extends this investigation to show that the high levels of spraying (fumigados) have created a major problem of agri-toxins entering the water supply and being ingested by large groups of people. As well as visiting hospital wards, the team led by Solanas interview many local people, including teachers and parents of young children and claims are also made about the damage to various groups of workers in silos, nurseries and transportation.
Having established the range of problems with the monoculture, the alternatives are also explored – mixed farming and organic farming/horticulture – before returning to the plight of indigenous peoples. There is some comedy in these sequences which leavens the relentless presentation of the damage being done. Solanas is offered a glass of ‘chlorophyll juice’ (a smoothie of wheat grass) which he reluctantly accepts and swallows, putting on a brave face. There is also a strange contradiction in two of the statements we hear. On the one hand we are told that the agri-toxins from spraying and run-offs into the water supply are everywhere in Argentina and everyone tested has traces of them in their bloodstream and on the other we are told that Argentina has more certified organic growing land than anywhere else. Perhaps I misread the subs?
This film succeeds as a ‘social documentary’. It isn’t just about voiceover narration, facts and figures and talking head experts. Solanas and his crew travel to all parts and meet people and talk to them. Also important is the way the different issues are brought together. On the downside, I think some of the issues could be explained a little more clearly. I’m not sure what local audiences and other Latin American audiences will make of the film. From a European perspective and I should state, that of someone who has thirty years of practising organic horticulture, most of the issues in the film were familiar. What I learned was the detail of how indigenous people are once again marginalised and made almost invisible. The damage to eco-systems is a global problem (the palm oil plantations of South East Asia present some of the same issues) and it would seem to be that Argentina needs to strengthen regulation of agri-business practices to a considerable degree. It also makes me aware of the dangers facing the UK if we leave Europe and are pushed into trade deals without the same protection we have as part of the EU.
This documentary was followed by a discussion after its first screening at ¡Viva!. It would be interesting to know what was said. Below is a French trailer for the film and a snippet with English subs (which ends very abruptly):
I approached this screening with some trepidation. I’d chosen it because it fitted my schedule. I’m always slightly wary of documentaries and I’m not sure why. I rarely choose to see documentaries at my local cinemas but when I do get to see them I nearly always find them rewarding. This one certainly sounded grim and when I arrived at the ICA (which didn’t have seat reservations for this screening) I found myself sitting behind the tallest person in the cinema. With poor raking in the cinema this meant I had to lean sideways to read the subtitles. It wasn’t a good start but I needn’t have worried.
People live and work on or near to rubbish tips all over the world and I can think of both cinema documentaries and fiction films set in Brazil, Egypt and India in which potentially positive stories can be found about their lives. I wasn’t aware of the same scale of living with rubbish in Moscow. Rummaging about in Cairo or Mumbai sounds relatively attractive in comparison to surviving a Russian winter in a makeshift hut on a waste tip in the snow and slush. But apparently this is what hundreds, if not thousands, of people do every year. The film’s title comes from a quote from Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths (1902), a play depicting ‘Scenes From Russian Life’ amongst the poorest classes. Hanna Polak’s film focuses on one young woman and offers us glimpses of her life over a 14 year period, starting when she was 10.
Hanna Polak is a celebrated Polish documentarist and a humanitarian campaigner. Reading her biographical details, her list of films and awards over the last fifteen years and the range of her work with charitable organisations, I’m surprised (and perhaps shamed) that I haven’t come across her before. After the screening she gave a spirited account of how she made her latest film and used the opportunity to encourage us all to promote the film and the various campaigns around it. In short, Hanna Polak embodies what was once called ‘social documentary’. Her films are meant to not only show the world but definitely to change it. In Putin’s Russia that’s a tough call.
The genesis of the film was a project that Polak began in order to try to help street children in Moscow. It was they who introduced her to the communities on the dumps. For a long period she worked to help children with medical problems, getting them access to treatment. She always carried a camera and took both still photographs and film footage but most of the time she was too busy to do this systematically. It was only later that somebody suggested that she make a film and that she realised that she might be able to do more for the people on the dumps if a film showed what was happening to a much wider audience. The decision to make the young woman Yula, the central character in the story was in effect retrospective and we see glimpses of her as a child before we get more sustained coverage of incidents from her later teenage years onwards. Across the 14 years, Hanna Polak had other films to make as director, producer and cinematographer including Children of the Leningradsky (2004) about street children living around a Moscow railway station. She made other social documentaries as well as, presumably, jobs to simply pay the bills. She graduated from a cinematography school in Moscow so she had contacts in the city but she had to look elsewhere for funding. Something Better to Come is co-produced by Polish and Danish/Nordic public funding (an example of Scandinavian support for charitable/aid-related work?).
The difficulties of making this film – physical, organisational, personal etc. – mean that it doesn’t offer many ‘aesthetic pleasures’ but it packs a powerful punch as a social statement. Yula herself is a remarkable young woman and Hanna Polak amused us by revealing that the 23 year-old Yula is now living a carefully organised life in Moscow which allows the filmmaker limited interview time. “You get one hour, then I must do something else.” Yula’s family lost their original apartment in Moscow and ended up homeless and eventually on the dump. Years later, almost like a miracle in a fairy tale, the Moscow authorities discovered that the family had property rights that were still valid and Yula got an apartment. In the meantime her father, like many others, had died. Life on the dump is hard. A temporary shelter may need to be moved every few days as the only work available is searching through the new rubbish for recycleable material and it’s important to be close by. The trucks and bulldozers move the mountains of rubbish and the ‘recyclers’ are paid in vodka for what they find. Alcoholism sits along hyperthermia in winter and various diseases associated with dirty water and contaminated food as major killers. The recycling is an illegal operation controlled by gangsters. Hanna Polak faced dangers working with the people of the dump and finding money to complete her film was a problem. Now she spends her time trying to find ways to promote her film. If a screening happens near you, please go to see it and support her cause.
Trailer for Something Better to Come:
There is a long story behind this film and watching it was a strange experience for me. I’m not sure what sense I made of it but the film was impressive formally and important as a historical document. What it means in terms of contemporary India is less clear and I would need a great deal of research to offer even an outline response. In his introduction, Festival Director Tom Vincent explained that he and his co-director had wanted to include a politically committed documentary as part of their 100 Years of Indian Cinema Anniversary and that when this film appeared at Berlin earlier this year, they sought it out.
This is a documentary, mostly in the form of eye-witness statements with a brief historical background and some ‘live coverage’/reportage of events in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh in 1984. Over three summer months communal riots in the city left 41 dead, many critically injured and hundreds of shops and homes looted, wrecked and in some cases set on fire. The main conclusion of the film is that these riots were orchestrated by the various political parties in the state as part of their jostling for power. The police seemed to have either turned away from the trouble or simply established curfews which made it impossible for poor people to earn a living and who therefore suffered real hardships. Only a few of the perpetrators were ever prosecuted. Before the film, Tom read out a statement by the director Deepa Dhanraj who suggested that her film was prophetic about subsequent communal riots in Mumbai and Gujarat. It’s dispiriting to think that she was right. Even so there are some positives to take away from the film.
The poor archiving facilities in India mean that films have been lost. A healthy stock of archive film helps younger filmmakers to explore the past and the issues at stake in this film depend on knowledge of Hyderabad from its days as a princely state with Muslim rulers throughout the British Raj and how that change after 1947 with the absorption into the Union and the changes in power in Hyderabad city. The most devastating part of the film for me was the demonstration in the closing stages of the ways in which the different parties (from communist to nationalist to conservative) were prepared to instruct their supporters just to vote on religious/sectarian lines. Democracy becomes farce on this basis. Can social documentaries like this change opinions by exposing these kinds of issues. It’s interesting to reflect on the impact of popular cinema addressing similar issues and the ‘New Bollywood’ film Kai po che based on Chetan Bhagat’s novel approaches the issue with its references to the communal riots in Gujarat.
What Happened to This City? also has a value as a historical document about India in the 1980s. It’s a good-looking film. Shot on 16mm, it was , like many Indian productions of the period, not properly archived but a print turned up in the Arsenal Cinema in Berlin and this print along with a negative from India enabled a German project to produce a new HD digital print. The results are surprisingly good. For me, images of 1980s India came flooding back, especially with key landmarks such as the Charminar in Hyderabad. India in those days had few cars (and those mostly old-fashioned Ambassadors) and no US branded goods. It was a less materialist and supposedly more ‘planned’ society, but corruption was rife and the police didn’t have a good reputation. Deepa Dhanraj was a brave young filmmaker. In this interview in Jump Cut magazine in 1981 she describes the ecology of political filmmaking at the time and her own work in a group making socialist-feminist films. It’s sad to think that one of the films she was making then was about piecework for women working at home that paid low rates for beautifully made garments then sold cheaply in the stores of Europe and North America. Not much changes.
The question I can’t answer is whether the appearance of this restored film on the festival circuit has any relevance for politically-committed documentary films in contemporary Indian film cultures. The industry is now more corporatised, there are co-productions and filmmakers returning from abroad. There are dozens of television channels in a more pluralistic media ecology but are there enough committed filmmakers able to fund themselves to make films like What Happened to This City? It’s good that Anand Patwardhan is still very active but I don’t know enough about what else is happening. Seeing this film has energised me to look out for more documentary material. I found this document on ‘FilmIndia Worldwide‘ published to cover the Indian entries in both Berlin and Rotterdam Festivals this year useful in providing some more names and ideas.
Bravo to BIFF for screening this film. Can we have more like it please?