The ability – and courage – to tell our own stories is one of the most powerful tools we possess. But in some of the world’s poorest communities, men and women – but especially women — can struggle to make their voices heard. To amend this power imbalance and to help amplify their voices, Camfed – a charity that provides education for young girls in rural Africa – began training some as filmmakers.
It was a process that showed how this kind of storytelling can help individuals to flourish, can galvanise communities, and drive change. All of the women Camfed worked with came from backgrounds of deep poverty: many had never had the opportunity to learn outside the household. Today, their films are capturing international awards and being screened at film festivals and institutions from Brazil to Poland to Zimbabwe. The filmmakers are taking places on the world stage.
Digital Diversity is a series of articles from kiwanja.net about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. This article was curated by Olivia O’Sullivan, our Media and Research Assistant.
By Kimberley Sevcik
In 2006, filmmakers Abibata Mahama and Dominique Chadwick traveled to Samfya, a poor fishing community in northern Zambia, to lead a group of 23 women in a course that covered the fundamentals of filmmaking. A ten-hour drive from the capital, Samfya is a region of wetlands and lakes, with a fragile economy. Hampered by poor roads and infrastructure, it has historically been cut off from vital information and economic opportunities.
Although mobile phones are now ubiquitous in Samfya, when the training began technology was still a novelty, and the prospect of using video cameras and boom mikes was intimidating to the women in the group. They handled the equipment with trepidation, gingerly pressing buttons and fingering lenses. By day two, anxiety turned to curiosity and then to excitement, as they learned to frame a shot, use the zoom lens, and record each other’s voices. Determining what they wanted to say on film was equally challenging. Asked to come up with a story to share with their entire community, the women went silent until a young woman named Doreen landed on the idea of her friend Penelop’s story.
By the age of 12, Penelop had lost both of her parents, and everything her family owned. She was forced to drop out of school to care for herself and her siblings. Her aunt, concerned that Penelop’s tremendous potential would be squandered, appealed to the headmaster at a local high school, who recommended her for support from Camfed so that she could resume her education and graduate from high school.
Penelop agreed to share her story on camera, and it became the group’s first film, “I’ve Found My Way”, with Penelop as director. In chronicling Penelop’s story, the filmmakers illuminated critical issues that had long been considered unmentionable in a public forum – among them property grabbing and AIDS.
The premiere of the film was held in Penelop’s school, a decision that she made, and an act of courage. On the day of the event the women called at homes and businesses and paraded through the streets with a megaphone to rally an audience. When the film was screened that evening it was for a standing-room-only crowd.
The women practically held their breath as they awaited the audience’s reaction. When it came, it was overwhelmingly positive. Moved by the response, the Samfya Women Filmmakers spontaneously took to the stage to answer questions. One young woman asked, in a voice tinged with anxiety, if it were true that young people, too, could get HIV. A male high school teacher congratulated the women on their courage, and asked whether there would be more films in the future.
The film was then brought to a fishing camp on the shores of Lake Bangweulu, home of many of the filmmakers. A TV, a table, and a generator were carried down to the lake to set up for the screening. Women from the camp arrived at the screening carrying all of the family valuables in flimsy bags and suitcases to guard against theft from their unsecured straw huts while they were watching the film. Afterward, a young man with a wool cap pulled low on his forehead rose to tell the filmmakers that the film had made him feel less lonely as an orphan.
Branding themselves the Samfya Women Filmmakers, the women went on to screen their film for thousands of people across northern Zambia. Everywhere they went, the film was received with enthusiasm – and provoked debate – as communities took a hard look at the challenges they were facing, and began considering solutions.
The Samfya Women Filmmakers’ film also inspired behavioral change. A year after “I’ve Found My Way” was first screened in 2006, the health clinic in their district of Samfya reported a 65 per cent increase in young people seeking HIV/AIDS tests – a testament to the power of film as a tool for social change. “It isn’t easy to share your personal story,” Penelop says of the experience of making a film about her life, “but I did it so that others would learn.”
Penelop and her fellow filmmakers have experienced great personal growth since their journey as filmmakers began. In addition to her film work, Penelop manages an IT center in Samfya, where she teaches computer skills to hundreds of young people every year. She has also emerged as a leader on the world stage. In 2010, she was invited to speak about the value of education at the opening session of the World Economic Forum in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Extraordinary opportunities have opened up for her filmmaking colleagues as well. Filmmaker Abigail Kaindu was invited to meet with President Obama as part of an elite delegation of young Africans asked to present innovative solutions to Africa’s greatest challenges. Mwelwa Kamanda was selected to attend the prestigious Video Advocacy Institute in Montreal, Canada, run by Witness. Others are studying at university, attending literacy classes, or starting new careers in fields such as social work and teaching.
In recognition of the courage it took to turn her story into a learning tool, Fortune and Goldman Sachs honored Penelop with the Global Women Leaders Award in 2009. She used the prize to make a second film with the Samfya Women Filmmakers, “Hidden Truth”. An intimate, candid portrayal of the effects of domestic violence on women and children in Samfya, the film has put the Samfya Women Filmmakers on the world map. Since its premiere in March 2011, it has been selected to screen at film festivals across the U.S., Europe, and Africa, and it captured the Best Documentary award at the Zanzibar International Film Festival. It has also been screened for more than 100,000 community members in Zambia and Zimbabwe, stimulating dialogue about this once-taboo topic.
“With each film we make, my colleagues and I learn more about what we can achieve with filmmaking,” says Penelop. “Filmmaking isn’t just for entertainment. It’s one of the most powerful tools we have to connect with people all over the world so we can work together to create change.”
Kimberley Sevcik is Camfed’s Head of Special Projects. Prior to joining the nonprofit sector, she was an award-winning social issues journalist. She is the author of Angels in Africa (Vendome Press), which was named a Best Book of 2006 by the Guardian and praised in Bill Clinton’s book Giving.She is also a former contributing editor on international women’s issues for Marie Claire; a former contributing writer for Rolling Stone; and she has written for the New York Times Magazine, the Guardian, the Times of London, the Asian Wall Street Journal, Salon.com, Mother Jones, Glamour, and Good.
Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, mentor, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of kiwanja.net / FrontlineSMS. He shares exciting stories in “Digital Diversity” about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.