Showing posts with label governess films. Show all posts
Showing posts with label governess films. Show all posts

Friday, November 2, 2012

My New Music Video: GIVE PEACE A CHANCE with Bajah + The Dry Eye Crew

I'm really excited to release the following music video I completed with Sierra Leonean superstar group, Bajah + The Dry Eye Crew.

"Give Peace a Chance" was produced to promote peaceful elections in Sierra Leone, coming up on November 17th. There is already rising tensions in the country in anticipation of the elections so this song and music video is being used to encourage youth to not be swayed into violence.

Today, our music video made the top story on Sierra Express Media.  Check it out:

This project was exciting for me as it confirms the power of collaborating with local artists who have incredible influence in societies affected by pressing global health and development issues I cover in my films.  I'll be sharing more about an initiative I am developing working with these artists (musicians, filmmakers, poets, etc) but in the meantime, enjoy the music video and feel free to share and forward.  

Sunday, August 5, 2012

How I work as a Brooklyn-based filmmaker for UN and NGO agencies

I get a lot of filmmakers and development colleagues who ask me questions about how I was able to build a career as a filmmaker working for the United Nations and other NGOs. And also, at the same time as keeping my foot planted in the artistic and sociopolitical movements in Brooklyn.

Today I'll be speaking and will address some of these questions on a panel entitled, "Female Documentary Filmmakers" at the Art of Brooklyn Film Festival from 4-5:30pm.

Never heard of the festival?  Either have I but its been labeled as Brooklyn's Tribeca.

The festival runs from Aug 4-12 and you can find more info at

Hope to see you (and feel free to forward!)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

High Level UN Meeting on Youth and Conflict

Today I'm looking forward to sitting on a high level panel at the UN on the issue of youth and conflict.  I was asked to participate in this because of a film and poetry initiative I did with UNFPA and the Women's Refugee Commission called Youth Zones (which you can view in English, French, Spanish or Arabic at

With Youth Zones, I traveled with youth activist Chernor Bah from Sierra Leone and poetry mentor, Luke Nephew from the spoken word/creative writing non-profit I work with - Urban Word NYC - to Liberia, Colombia, Lebanon, Northern Uganda and New Orleans to document the struggles and resiliency of young people facing conflicts and natural disasters.  My talk will focus specifically on the poetry workshops and how young people in emergencies can benefit and heal from such creative, safe spaces.

As part of my efforts to engage local artists in my film related outreach activities, I recruited Bajah from Bajah + The Dry Eye Crew to also sit on the panel to discuss his experiences as a youth growing up in war-torn Sierra Leone .Here is a really great 3-minute clip that touches on the experience of Bajah and his bandmates.

If you are attending the ECOSOC event at the UN or are interested in being a special guest, send an email to the RSVP listed on the invite above.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A new music video for the Olympics featuring Sierra Leonean Superstars - Be an extra!

TONIGHT, in Fort Greene Park, two major superstars from Sierra Leone will be performing a special track they produced to celebrate and cheer on the only athlete representing their country who will be competing at the Olympics - Olay Sissay, a long jumper.  I have been filmming the behind the scenes making of the track and will be shooting footage for an upcoming music video.  I need your help.

Let me introduce these two incredible artists and new friends.

Janka Nabay is considered a major figure in "Bubu Music", a traditional music in his native country that he mixes with the eclectic sounds of Brooklyn indie artists known as his "Bubu Gang".  He will be releasing a new album in August under David Bryne's label, Luaka Bop.

Janka Nabay & The Bubu Gang are collaborating with hip hop sensation Pupa Bajah from Bajah and the Dry Eye Crew, also from Sierra Leone, whose music blends many influences in hip hop, including funk, dancehall and reggae. They are part of a growing international hip hop movement, though they are among the first of these acts to gain an international presence, with their music being featured in the Hollywood film, "Blood Diamonds."

If you are located in NYC, please come to this FREE show, and show support by wearing the colors of blue, white and/or green in honor of the Sierra Leonean flag! 

And speaking of the flag...

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Contest for Best Photography in the (One Life) World

Hi all,

I have some personal thoughts about my role documenting Africa, the Motherland.  Click the link below to read my personal perspective and while you're there, vote for my photos.  The One Life Photography Competition will give winners a New York City photo exhibition and a $25,000 cash grant!

Click "Collect Me" HERE...or

Friday, June 29, 2012

New Documentary Film to Premiere (Please share!)

I am someone who adamantly hates being a slave to my cell phone.  Yet, I've come to the realization that cell phones will revolutionize women's healthcare, particularly on the African continent.

With that said, I'm very excited to announce the World Premiere of a new film I've completed on the use of mobile phones in assisting women in Tanzania suffering from a childbearing injury called obstetric fistula to receive free treatment.

The film, entitled "Mobile Phones + Fistula:  What's Next?", co-produced with UNFPA and the Campaign to End Fistula, will debut at the historic Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF) - East Africa's largest film and music festival taking place July 7-15, 2012.  The film has also been accepted into the Women's Panorama program which takes select films and screens them in the villages in Zanzibar.

For more information about exact screening times and subsequent screenings, please subscribe to this blog or join our Facebook Film Page at

You can read the film synopsis below.


Around the world, nearly 350,000 women will die each year in childbirth.  Of those who survive, 50,000-100,000 will develop a horrific childbearing injury called obstetric fistula which leaves women incontinent and shunned from society.

Although in many countries free treatment for fistula repair is available, the majority of women living with fistula cannot afford the transportation to the hospitals providing the treatment.

In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, an innovative mobile phone program at the CCBRT Hospital is allowing funds to be transferred through the mobile banking service, M-PESA, to 'community ambassadors' who assist in identifying and facilitating transportation for women suffering from this condition.  Since the founding of the project in 2009, there has been a 65% increase in the number of surgeries performed at CCBRT.

"Mobile Phones + Fistula:  What's Next?" is a new documentary film by Emmy-winning filmmaker, Lisa Russell, with support by UNFPA and the Campaign to End Fistula.  Shot on location in Tanzania, the 15-minute film documents the life-changing program at CCBRT and includes testimonies from women living with fistula, community ambassadors, fistula repair surgeons, and fistula advocates.  The film, which will be distributed in both English and eventually Swahili, will be used to inspire replication of this good practice as well as develop new ideas about using mobile phones to reach women and girls living with fistula in the future."

"Mobile Phones + Fistula: What's Next?" will have its World Premiere at the historic Zanzibar International Film Festival and will be part of the Women's Panorama program.  It will then be available for screening events globally and hosted online.

For updates about the film, join our Facebook Film Page at http;// 

Genre:  Documentary Short
Technical Data:  HD, Color
Running Time:  15 minutes

Monday, June 25, 2012

How I Get Music for My Films

Those who know my work have come to appreciate the great lengths I go to to get good music for my films.  Most of the time I try to get music from artists who represent the country I am shooting in.  As music can become a pretty expensive line item in a film budget, I try to negotiate with the artists or labels something in exchange for their contribution.  Sometimes the content of my films alone (many are humanitarian based) will do,  Then others come up with some sort of bartering offer which I usually jump on - exchanging shooting for music. 

Case in point... I went out for my birthday a few weeks ago to a spot in Williamsburg called Zebulon and a great band was playing.  The vibe was high energy and the crowd was movin' and groovin'.  I knew the lead singer had to be from West Africa but didn't know where.  I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he was from  Sierra Leone where, in February, I shot a film on how solar power is saving women's lives and I still need music.

I contacted the manager who put me in touch with Luaka Bop, David Byrne's label.   I know this label well considering it was the label that my friend and creative partner, Zap Mama, was on at the time I was looking for music for my film,  LOVE, LABOR, LOSS on obstetric fistula in Niger.  Working with Zap Mama taught me the power of working with performing artists in the distribution phase of my films that I utilize to this day.  And the philosophy is one I share with my incredibly talented friend and comrade, Maya Azucena, that has culminated in some interesting collaborative projects.

So, Luaka Bop agreed to let me use the music from the band - Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang -  in exchange for shooting some interview and b-roll of the lead singer who has an incredible story of growing up in war-torn Sierra Leone and found his way to music as his salvation and his career now here in NYC.  I loved this!

Now, not every label will be as cool as Luaka Bop but my point is, it's worth looking into.  You have to realize that some artists will benefit from being aligned with your film because you're reaching an audience they may not otherwise reach.  I try to add other incentives - like linking to their site from my film site, offering to distribute their promotional materials at my screenings, inviting them to speak at the screenings and so on.  Think from the perspective of the artist or label - if they aren't getting money from you, how else can they benefit from aligning with you?

Here are some photos from the shoot.  I'll post the video when it's done.  For those of you who live in NYC, they are playing a free show at the Fort Greene Park on July 10th.  I highly suggest you check them out!


Friday, June 22, 2012

How to Shoot on a DSLR in Africa

My upcoming film "Mobile Phones + Fistula:  What Next?" that documents the use of mobile phone technology to help women living with obstetric fistula in Tanzania access free fistula repair treatment, was the first time I shot a film on HD using the DSLR camera.  I learned A LOT - made some mistakes - and wanted to share them here.

The camera I used was the Canon EOS Rebel T2i and I used a separate audio source.  I don't normally have a second person with me, but this trip I worked with an audio professional who assisted me with second camera and sound.  I ended up bringing my Panasonic HVX 100 and used the p2 cards with a Seinnheiser lavalier set and/or Rode shotgun mic to capture sound.  I had heard about the audio syncing software, PluralEyes, that would sync multicamera audio in post production so I could take the beautiful images from the DSLR and match them to the sound off the Panasonic.  So, I left for Tanzania, hoping for the best.

The first problem I encountered was adapting to using a still camera as a video camera.  I shoot in a very run and gun style, in sometimes very rugged and hot environments in the different African countries I primarily work in.  With the DSLR camera, I wasn't able to manuever the camera in all sorts of directions that I'm accustomed to because I couldn't SEE what I was shooting (the LCD screen is static on the back of the camera.)  I also had a hard time figuring out if I was in focus or not.

Another issue I had to get accustomed to is the fact that the camera will shut off if it gets too hot.  Although some resources state that this won't happen if you use fast memory cards and use a normal work flow, this wasn't the case for me.  If interviewing, I had to remember to turn the camera off and back on again regularly (and I tried to do this while I was asking a question so not to clip the interviewees voice.)  It was sort of a hassle bc of letting myself get immersed in the interview, I had to constantly keep my eye on the timecode. 

In addition to this, the batteries die relatively quickly.  I only had three spares (the same I bring with me when using the HVX) and I couldn't go a full day without having to recharge.   This was not easy considering I was working in hospitals and rural areas where access to an electrical outlet wasn't always convenient.

Then there is the data management aspect which is challenging enough to do with even two people, let alone myself.  When the cards were full, I had to dump them onto my computer and hard drive.  I tried to dump the p2 material at the same time so I could keep it organized.  I would label folders by the dates that I would shoot. Sometimes I would go through 3-4 cards in a day so had to remember to label them Feb 21a, Feb 21b, etc.  This took a considerable amount of time and organizational focus which often times would distract me and pull me out of the conversations and the content I was capturing with my subject matters.

And finally, the thing that is most stressful about shooting on these cameras - is the fact that you don't have a hard tape as a master.  Once you dump your footage, that's it.  You wipe the card clean and if your hard drive or something fails, you lose it.  So, every night at my hotel, I would have to remember to do a second save - as the back up.  Unfortunately, one of the worst of all things happened to me while shooting - I lost a 32gig card.  Thankfully, it didn't have much real content on it - mostly broll - but traveing in rugged areas, in a lot of different locations, and making sure that tiny card doesn't get misplaced was challenging to say the least.

When I got back to NYC, I wasn't as pleased with my material as I usually am.  Yes, the images were amazing bc of the chip in the DSLR.  But I had to really go through my footage to find non-shaky, in-focused broll (the interviews were fine bc I used my tripod but the handheld wasn't the best material I shot.)  And to top it all off, the PluralEyes software didn't work with DSLR material in Avid Media Composer (which is what I normally cut on) so I had to manually sync all my footage.  Talk about extremely time consuming and a downer.

So, for those of you planning to use these DSLR cameras for your shoots in Africa, I would suggest the following, knowing what I know now:

- Bring extra SD cards and Canon batteries (more than you think you will need.)
- Try out different lenses - the beauty of these DSLR cameras is your ability to change the glass.  I have a standard lens, a long lens and a fish eye.  
- Get a steadicam to get steadier shots (there are relatively cheap ones.)
- Use a rubber eyepiece eyecup.  They only cost $9 on Amazon and helps you see what your shooting better.  It also can help keep your checks or nose from oiling up the screen, Also good for those wearing glasses.
- Edit in FCP unless Avid fixes the inconvenience with Plural Eyes.
- Use an image stabilizing effect to smooth out shaky shots.

I ended up shooting a few more films since this film on the same camera and with a few tweaks, had much better results.  And the best part is this camera is affordable.  It has similar features as the Canon 5D that are more popular but its a lot more affordable (check the ad below for both camera and standard lens - not a bad price at all!)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

YOUTH ZONES Arabic Version

YOUTH ZONES Spanish Version


Really excited to announce that my film, YOUTH ZONES (about young people in Colombia, Liberia, Lebanon, Northern Uganda and New Orleans who are helping to rehabilitate their communities after conflict and natural disasters) has been translated in French, Spanish and Arabic.  Here is the French version.  Watch and share for World Refugee Day (which is TOMORROW!!!)

Monday, June 18, 2012

World Premiere at ZIFF

Hello friends and supporters,

I've been absent from blogging here for a while but that's going to change.  I have some new films about to be released and a few new shoots that I completed this year.  Please check back or subscribe to my blog for these updates.

As for now, big news is that the mobile phone and fistula film I shot in Tanzania will be having its world premiere at ZIFF - the Zanzibar International Film Festival.  It's East Africa's largest film, music and arts gathering.  I am not much of a film festival filmmaker, but this one is an important one for me considering the subject matters I cover and of course, the fact that many of my films are shot on the African continent.

Want to hear more about ZIFF?  Here's a short film:

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A New Film on Mobile Phones and Obstetric Fistula in Tanzania

In the last seven years of my work as a filmmaker, I've filmmed three short stories on a devastating women's health issue called obstetric fistula - a childbearing injury that leaves women leaking urine or waste or both, continuously, for the rest of their lives. I filmmed in Niger for "Love, Labor, Loss", in the DR Congo for "Mama Madou" and in Liberia for "Freedom from Fistula." (Links to these films are online.) In all locations, it was incredibly heartbreaking to talk to women who are so ashamed and psychologically distraught about their condition that they live their lives in total isolation, away from their communities and sometimes even their families.

The flip side of this tragic story is that a growing interest in the issue has resulted in many medical programs that offer free fistula repair services. And when a woman gets a successful repair, her life takes turns around and she can begin to live her life with dignity and purpose. It transforms her in every way possible. I've seen it over and over again and it's mindblowing.

Unfortunately though, in really remote places - like the places I've filmmed - women are so far from the facilities that provide the surgeries (and many cannot afford the transportation to the facilities) - they never seek help and live with their condition for the rest of their lives.

That's why it was so exciting for me to shoot this new film on how mobile phones are changing the lives of women living with fistula. In Tanzania, where I just spent over a month working on some exciting new projects for maternal health, there is a new program by the CCBRT hospital which uses a country-wide network of "ambassadors" (healthcare professionals, or other community leaders) and a mobile financing scheme by Vodacom (called M-PESA which sends transport funds by phone) to pay for a woman's transportation to the CCBRT hospital in Dar es Salaam. It takes only a few minutes - the funds are transferred from the hospital, the "ambassadors" visit a M-PESA agent to collect the funds, and the woman gets on the bus and makes the long journey to the hospital.

Once she is there, she receives free lodging, food and treatment.

This simple process of transferring money by phone has helped double the number of women receiving treatment at the CCBRT center and the hope is that it will help not only treat the estimated 2,000-3,000 new cases of fistula that occur each year in the country, but it will also allow the hospital to address the backlog of women who have been living with fistula (I filmmed two who spent over 40 years leaking!), in essence making fistula obsolete in Tanzania.

I can't really articulate how incredible it feels to be able to tell a more positive story about these women and this issue. For the most part, it's been a primarily heartbreaking story but this is allowing me to witness and document how technology is making progress for women and maternal health in an entire country. I'm really honored to be so closely involved in this issue and to see first hand the good work that so many people are committed to doing and the effect it is having.

If you want to learn more about obstetric fistula, visit UNFPA's Campaign to End Fistula at

If you want to learn more about CCBRT and the great work they are doing, visit here.

Thank you to UNFPA Tanzania, CCBRT, the M-PESA ambassadors and all who helped make this project possible. I'm excited to start editing!

* We just received word that the film has been accepted to the inaugural GSMA Mobile Health Summit occurring in Cape Town, South Africa from June 6-9, 2011.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Brooklyn to Tanzania: "Mama Creator"


As a documentary filmmaker who creates films with UN/NGO agencies, I get the luxury of walking in two distinct worlds. The socially conscious creative world and the humanitarian/development world. Both are infused with passionated, committed people, both strive for social progress and both experience the webs and flows that come with the success as well as the challenges in trying to make change in the world.

As co-founder of I have been working to bridge these two worlds around the issue of maternal health. And this week, I have seen the power of that bridge during a workshop taking place in Dar es Salaam Tanzania and at the he Sauti za Busara festival (East Africa’s biggest music festival that occurs in Zanzibar each year and showcases more than four hundred African musicians over five days.)

With the support of the UNFPA office in Tanzania, I brought Brooklyn based artists, Maya Azucena (an award winning singer and co-founder of and Okai (one of NYC’s most talented percussionists and emcees) to write and record a new song on maternal health in collaboration with some of Tanzania’s top musicians. This included “Mzungu Kichaa” (a Danish citizen who has lived in Tanzania for a large part of his life and speaks fluent Swahili), Lady JayDee (known as one of the most famous R&B singers in East Africa), Fid Q (a famous emcee and hip hop artist who works with NGOs such as EngenderHealth, FHI, USAID, and others) and Mrisho Mptoto (a well known TV personality and spoken word artist). The song was produced by Ambrose “Dungu” – known as Tanzania’s most prominent music producer.

As part of our workshop, I screened my film “Not Yet Rain.” Afterward, the UNFPA Representative in Tanzania, Julitta Onabanjo, sat with all the artists and presented to us the challenges facing women in pregnancy and childbirth in Tanzania. She answered questions from the artists who then took pen to paper to start writing the lyrics. It was an inspiring process to witness, especially between artists who have such different cultural and lingual references but share similar professional and musical inclinations.

After the workshop, the artists spoke about how interesting it was to be able to interact with an institution on such a unique level. We all agreed that having the sort of access and support that we received from the UNFPA Country Office enabled us to be more on point with lyrics that can touch on the important messages and ideas about maternal health.

The song that resulted is called “Mama Creator” which is sung in Swahili and English. At nearly 4 minutes long, it is an uplifting song with a memorable chorus and strong lyrics. Many who have heard it in Tanzania believe it has the ability to become popular with local radio stations because it has so many famous musicians and is such a strong song. We also see its importance in the mission of in bringing it to an international level and engaging other artists around maternal health.

The test will come when we release the song and music video on our website and through local Tanzania channels on International Women’s Day (March 8th). I’ll be editing a mini-documentary about the creative process and producing Advocacy Packets that provide guidelines to organizations on how to attract and retain the involvement of creative communities in the maternal health movement. We then hope to return to Zanzibar for the Zanzibar International Film Festival to do a live performance of “Mama Creator” with all participating artists, show the mini-doc and host film and music workshops with other artists attending the festival.

My hope is that by bringing these two worlds together around the issue of maternal health, that we draw new audiences into the fight to make the world a better place for women.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Urban Word Live!!!

This year I'm really excited to try out some new technology. I'm partnering with Urban Word NYC - the nonprofit I spend a lot of time with that gives free workshops in spoken word poetry and creative writing to NYC teens - to do an online broadcast of their 2010 slam season.

That's right - you can watch the slam from the comfort of your own computer and its totally free. The preliminary slam starts February 28th.  Check the site for the rest of the schedule.

If you want to check out some of the most talented young social commentators (ie poets), please join our Facebook Fan Page at


and visit our site at

Friday, December 18, 2009

Happy Holidays!


As 2009 comes to a close, I want to take this time to thank those of you who have supported me and my work on behalf of women and young people. Whether as a colleague, a friend, an audience member, or a supporter, I couldn't have asked for a better year in being able to do the work I care so deeply about. As a colleague of mine said last night, "2009 was your year" and it was! It would not have been possible without the support I receive from so many of you.

As Maya Angleou wrote, "If one is lucky, a solitary fantasy can totally transform one million realities."

Thank you for helping me realize the power of a dream.

Many thanks and happy holidays!



Highlights of 2009
- April 2009: Premiered "Not Yet Rain", a short film on unsafe abortion, produced in association with Ipas
- May 2009: Traveled to the Cannes Film Festival with the pitch reel for my new film, "The Parliament of One" on US-UN relations.
- May 2009: Received the Emmy® Award in the "Outstanding Advanced Media Interactivity" category for "Bi-Racial Hair" starring Zora Howard and produced as part of the WGBH Lab with the National Black Programming Consortium.
- June/July 2009: Keynote at nine National Youth Leadership Forum conferences in Boston, Philadelphia, DC, Atlanta with "Love, Labor, Loss", on obstetric fistula in Niger.
- August 2009: Filmmed in Northern Uganda for "YOUTH ZONES", a film and poetry initiative with UNFPA and Women's Refugee Commission.
- September 2009: Filmmed exclusive interview footage with Pete O'Neal in Tanzania in preparation for a book/script on his life story.
- September/October 2009: Filmmed at the UN General Assembly and completed second round of interviews for "The Parliament of One."
- November 2009: Invited to join the Editorial Committee for the Maternal Health Task Force.

2010 Projections
- Develop and launch - a film and new media initiative to increase civic engagement to meet MDG Five on maternal health.
- Premiere "YOUTH ZONES", a film and poetry initiative with UNFPA and Women's Refugee Commission profiling young people in conflict and natural disasters in Liberia, Lebanon, Colombia, New Orleans and Northern Uganda.
- Research and development with award-winning choreographer, Tamilla Woodard and activist Joao Brando, on a live theater piece focused on sexual violence in the DR Congo and the Conflict Mineral Trade Act introduced by Representative Jim McDermott.
- Continue fundraising for production funds for "The Parliament of One" and "Myth of the Motherland."

Show your support of independent artists: Make a tax-free donation.
As independent filmmakers, we spend more of time raising funds than actually working on the projects we care about. Governess Films can definitely use your support to keep our projects moving.

If you are interested in making a tax-free donation to Lisa Russell's independent documentary projects, please visit the following sites:

And choose either,

"The Parliament of One"
"Myth of the Motherland"

Thank you!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Reflections for this Holiday Season

As the holiday celebrations and gift-giving ceremonies ensue, I wanted to send some personal reflections. While I don't have much time to write about and share personal experiences I have behind the camera lens, I wrote this piece last year originally for and felt it was appropriate to share for the holidays as we reflect and appreciate what 2008 had to offer.

I also wanted to send a special thank you to the many colleagues, friends, collaborators, and supporters - you know who you are - for your continued investment and faith in the power of film and the belief that a better world is possible.

Happy Holidays.


Behind the Scenes of LOVE, LABOR, LOSS
By Lisa Russell

"The baby is not breathing." It was one of the most disturbing statements I heard while shooting my documentary film Love, Labor, Loss in Niger just a few years ago. I had traveled to this West African country to shoot a film on obstetric fistula, a childbearing injury caused by a prolonged, obstructed labor that leaves women childless, incontinent and often ostracized from their communities. It was our second day of shooting and my intention was to film a successful Cesarean section, illustrating one way to prevent obstetric fistula. Unfortunately, the woman we had filmed had waited too long for the surgery. We were left filming her newborn baby as he was dying on camera.

That day, we were visiting the Central Maternity Hospital in the capital, Niamey, intending to shoot interviews and b-roll of the country's most prestigious hospital that focuses primarily on women in difficult labor. When the OB/GYN first introduced us to this patient, she was lying on her side with the back of her hospital gown soaked in blood. Like many other women in Niger who encounter troubles with their pregnancy, she had spent several days traveling by foot, donkey cart and taxi to get to the hospital. "She has been here since 6 am," the doctor explained. I looked at my watch, realizing she had been waiting for over six hours. I asked why she has been waiting so long for her surgery. The doctor explained to me that women must come to the hospital with their "supplies" - meaning all the bandages, syringes, and other items needed for their surgery. This woman's family had been roaming the streets of Niamey since dawn begging for the last $20 needed so that they could trade it for another woman's supplies so the surgery could begin.

Within the next hour, the $60 worth of supplies arrived and the patient was immediately prepped for her c-section. It's obvious this poor, rural woman has never had surgery before (the c-section rate in Niamey is only 2%) and fear covered her face with every move the doctors made. The anesthesiologist waited for the surgeon's go-ahead so that he could sedate her right before the first cut is made. The surgery was quick and the baby was pulled from her abdomen in a manner of minutes. My cameraman and I were both surprised by the seemingly simplicity of the operation.

It wasn't until the child was wheeled into the post-delivery room where the nurse began CPR that I realized how critical the situation had become. The nurse began by putting a suction hose up the infant's nostrils to drain mucous while doing compressions on the baby's chest. I thought this was normal procedure until five minutes passed. I asked what was wrong. "The baby is not breathing," she said as she looked at me, keeping her confidence that all would be all right.

Finally, after about eleven or twelve long minutes after we had arrived in the room, the baby choked for air and began to cry. The nurse pulled out a mouthful of mucous and placed an oxygen mask over the baby as she began to clean up the blood. "He is going to be okay," she confidently told the camera.

When I screen and discuss my film, I don't usually tell this story. The stories people want and expect to hear about obstetric fistula are those about the large numbers of women whose lives have been destroyed by this relatively unknown condition and the numerous programs that are repairing women's fistulas and giving them a new life. They expect to hear about how fistula is perpetuated by early marriages and women's voicelessness when it comes to decision making about their health care. These are all important aspects of the challenge of obstetric fistula.

But in this story, a woman, in labor, is at the country's most adequate facility and is not served because she is poor and her family lacks the resources and know-how to advocate for her life. A woman is at risk of delivering a stillborn baby because a mere $20 cannot be materialized. A doctor, capable and passionate enough to save this woman's life, waits helplessly for the supplies to arrive as he watches her wait in pain and misery. And a camera crew, ready to share a positive story about progress being made in fistula prevention and treatment in Niger, filming a near-death experience with camera equipment whose cost could cover over 100 c-sections.

This story demonstrates that obstetric fistula is not just a woman's issue, nor is it just about the developing world. It is about the economic disparity between the haves and the have-nots. It is about our inability to prioritize people's lives and about legislation that restricts funding based on political battles. And it reflects a sense of complacency towards striving for social equality and progress. The gap between rich and poor countries and between rural and urban areas continues to create conditions that make women at risk for obstetric fistula - lack of education, lack of employment, scarcity of safe motherhood services and indeed, early marriage, which is often justified by the economic security it gives the family.

Because I came to filmmaking with a public health background, I look at obstetric fistula through a human rights lens. Whenever I screen my films, therefore, I try to balance pointing out the effects that local cultural practices - such as early marriages and unattended births - can have on maternal health and mortality, with drawing attention to the legislation and policy that can hamper efforts to improve global women's health. This includes U.S. policies such as the Global Gag Rule, the $34 million withdrawal from the United Nations Population Fund, certain restrictions in PEPFAR funding, as well as our country's refusal to ratify CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) which is considered the international bill of rights for women. If we could adhere to the ideals and promises made in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to the promises made at the Cairo and Beijing conferences, and could strive towards the goals outlined in the Millennium Development Goals, than maybe we can realize a future where women are not dying in pregnancy or childbirth and their newborns have a chance at a hopeful and productive life.

I believe it is critically important for people, particularly youth, to get a comprehensive introduction to the numerous factors that contribute to inequalities in global health. As Americans we have been programmed to believe that writing a check or organizing a fundraiser alone is enough of a contribution. And while fundraising is definitely an important element in advocating for social change, I believe we need to be watchdogs of the promises made by our leaders and act as global citizens who work in solidarity with women who lack the resources and voice to make change at the global level.

It is partly for this reason that I seek out screenings with young people and engage them in conversations that range from the personal to the global. I do this through integrating different art genres such as film and music and spoken word poetry. I believe we need to empower a more critically thinking, self-expressive generation that can simultaneously focus on personal growth as well as strive for a change in global consciousness. At the National Youth Leadership Forum three times each summer, we transform a 450-person auditorium filled with high achieving high school students interested in medicine anticipating a 90-minute keynote speech into a down-to-earth, honest discussion. We talk not only about obstetric fistula, but the social injustices between the privileged and the poor, about personal ambitions like living your life for a greater purpose and staying true to yourself despite the pressures of becoming someone you're not. The response proves usually very positive as young people feel engaged in the bigger picture and feel they genuinely have a role to play.

When I go back and listen to the footage of that moment in the post-delivery room years ago, I can hear my voice whispering to my cameraman, "Are we really going to film a baby dying?" as the nurse's determination to save the newborn perseveres. By now, I've learned its the personal experiences that give us the strength and perserverence to fight the long fight.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Working in Animation

Ever since I heard Brett Morgen of "Chicago 10" speak about using innovative technologies in storytelling, I've been curious how to integrate mixed media in my work. Liberia??? Check? is the first project where I'm working with animation and I'm learning a lot in the process.

I decided after not being able to pull enough young Liberians in Park Hill together for a mock debate about the elections, that I would set up my piece as sort of a "delegates" meeting where representatives from places like Colombia, Palestine, Jamaica and finally, Liberia, are given the opportunity to share their thoughts on the election. My good friend and colleague, Sol Guy agreed to do the voice over for "MC Unite" who is presiding over the meeting. When he calls up PJ - our Liberian delegate - we segue into the footage I have of him in Park Hill asking people on the streets their points of view. It was fun to work on this with Sol because also shot a segment in Liberia so we talked about how interesting it is that Liberia is so fascinated with the U.S. He traveled with the artist, MIA, for his new MTV Canada - check it out to learn more about Liberia.

Lovisa Inserra is my new animator and she is fantastic! We decided to first develop the storyboards for the piece that she will then animate once we get feedback from the Open Call community. Pulling the stills she created into my sequence, I came to realize that when you decide to work in animation, you must also sort of become a sound designer. The background noises of the courtroom, the VO, the music, the clanking of the gavel, all help to enhance the credibility of the scene. So, I had to add about 6 audio channels.

The other interesting thing about working in animation -and probably in fiction in general which I don't get a lot of exposure to - is the ability to "set up" scenes to relay information critical to your story. After going through my interviews and footage with PJ, I realize that in order to best contextualize the relationship between Liberia and the U.S. (in a few seconds!), that I will need him to read from a script. I'll cover the VO with images from the WGBH Sandbox and my own broll I shot in Monrovia, but because I didn't think of this prior to shooting, I will definitely need to make another trip out to Staten Island and will need to indicate it in my rough cut.

I'll end this with posting a few of the stills from the opening. I opted to go for a very colorful, youth feel in order to attract a younger audience.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Mix for "Liberia??? Check!" (WGBH/POV Short)

PJ (far right) with Sam and Frank Davis (aka AKG)
Liberian DJ PJ (far right) with Sam and Frank Davis (aka AKG)
in Park Hill, Staten Island

One of the things I enjoy most about the filmmaking process is the opportunity to mix with creative sorts of all types. I met with an artist in my neighborhood - Pete Miser - about music, I have talked with several beginning filmmakers about assisting as a PA and I had coffee with an animator - David Sutton - who will do an opening for my piece. But probably the most fun I had was mixing with the young Liberians in Staten Island during my first shoot there yesterday.

I came up with the idea for my pitch after spending 10 days in Liberia last month for a shoot I'm doing with the UN on young people in conflict settings. I was in awe with Liberia's strong fascination with our country. They L-O-V-E George Bush and think 50% of Americans do too(!) I guess this should not be surprising given it's historical relationship with the U.S. - freed American slaves returned to Liberia in 1822, formed a new government and now the "Americo-Liberians" as they are called, are often the ones running the show, holding political and financial clout. Liberia also has the first female President in all of Africa and they now have strong diplomatic ties to America. So, in Monrovia, e-v-e-r-y-b-o-d-y was talking about Obama and Clinton and to a lesser degree, John McCain. Being from the States, I became an "official" ear for Liberians to share their thoughts on the elections.

"The White House is about to become the Black House!"

"A woman should not be President when a country is at war. She couldn't handle it!"

"If the United States had a female President, they would take better care of the community."

So when one kid asked me if I thought Liberians should get to vote for the next U.S President since the outcome will have such an impact on Liberia and the African continent as a whole, I appeased his question by developing my pitch, "Liberia??? Check!"

I needed to get more footage though than what I could use from Liberia. Thanks to a wonderful Brooklyn-based writer-now-collaborator, Ruthie Ackerman, I was able to enter the gritty, but fascinating world of the Liberia that's been resettled Stateside. It's in Staten Island and boasts the largest Liberian population outside of Africa. The streets there aren't too different from Monrovia where old women set up shop to sell small goods for income, young men are blasting hip hop from their blown-out speakers and parent-less children weeble-wobble through deserted lots on too-big bicycles. The sunset gives permission for drug deals and gang violence to throw civil war-like tension between the Liberians and the African Americans who lay claims to the neighborhood. The Wu Tang Clan who grew up there refers to it as "Crack Hill" or "Killer Hill." Ruthie has been working with the Liberian refugee community for more than a year now, collecting their stories for a book and a longer documentary film. (If you want to know more about this fascinating community, read her article, "Liberia: From One Battlefront to Another" here.)

Ruthie introduced me to PJ - a 34-year old slim man sporting a gold chain bearing the seal of his home country. Back in the Gambia, PJ was the hit DJ, spinning music for his refugee brothers and sisters before coming to the States. We first met PJ's mom who was questioning his choice of an outfit, urged him to hurry up to not keep his guests waiting and was tending to things he needed from her. Moms and sons in little Liberia are apparently no different than anywhere else.

I couldn't ask for a more perfect "host" to this community than PJ. Outcoming, comical, charismatic and definitely confident, he took to the streets asking Liberians young and old alike who they would vote for in the elections and why while interjecting his own commentary and ideas. I originally had hoped to set up a mock debate and vote with young high school students but the candidness of the interviews with a back-drop of real Park Hill life bustling in the background, gave me plenty of material to work with.

Liberian Auntie Street Vendor
Liberian Auntie Selling Goods on the Street

At the end of the day, I started thinking about how this project has brought together an interesting group of people and situations in such a short amount of time - the ex-combatants in Liberia and a former DJ celebrity in Park Hill and Pete Miser's beats and Ruthie's dedication and the beautiful old Liberian women selling plastics on the streets and the dude in the wheelchair smoking a cigarette. This may seem like a strange mix for a short 3-minute film on the elections, but to me, in many ways, it defines what this election is all about. Isn't it?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

On top of the water u see Brooklyn...

...Brooklyn, LIBERIA that is! More on the shoot for UNFPA on young people in conflict settings and natural disasters coming soon!