Before completing his MA last September, Sam Robbins spent several weeks in Kenya producing a documentary film with Actuality Media. From the email that began his journey, to an award nomination for the finished project, here’s his account of the outreach programme.
In August 2014, I travelled to Kenya as part of the Actuality Media team. I’d been forwarded a link to their website by the MA staff, took a quick look at their page and pretty much decided right away that I wanted to do it. I’d been stuck at home for a while; before enrolling on FTV the bulk of my time was spent earning money for its tuition, then once I was there staying at home saved me that bit more from accommodation fees. I’d already lived it up in my undergraduate days, so it seemed the sensible option with no student loan available.
No surprise, living at home made me pretty restless though. I was more and more determined to get out and do something new and exciting, something ambitious and out of my comfort zone. I’d never even heard of The Study Abroad Programme that Actuality Media were offering, it came from nowhere, just some random email that I happened to pursue. I saw the words, ‘outreaches in Kenya, Ecuador and Cambodia’ and I was sold. The worst thing I could be was all talk about wanting to do this and that, it just took a little spontaneity and I was committed.
So roll-on August! That was my mentality for the next few months. I was accepted onto the Kenya outreach to be Producer for a short documentary on Palos Farm, a permaculture farm based in the sugarcane region of Kisumu. My team consisted of myself – the Producer – and three others: a Director, Cinematographer and Editor. So with twelve of us on the programme, that made three groups each working on separate documentaries within Kisumu, all of us relatively new to the work. To overlook and guide us on these projects, as it was so new to us, there were also two Production Supervisors offering their expertise in helping us create a polished piece.
Things kicked off with research. The first two weeks were dedicated to making a plan of attack. Whilst the leg work had already been done, liaising with the organisations we were going to document, we still had to discover a unique story to chronicle. Part of the outreach scheme was that each organisation we worked alongside was promoting social change in the community. Palos Farm was introducing a new, sustainable means of farming that could improve the livelihood of workers in the region. Meanwhile, the other two groups were working with the local charities SWAP (Safe Water and Aids Project) and the YCCM (Young County Change Makers). As Actuality Media were keen to find a strong protagonist to tell each organisation’s story, this meant uncovering an individual that had been positively affected by their NGO’s work. These protagonists were to take centre stage, a character with a compelling life that could promote all the work that each program had done for them.
For my group, a large amount of research was spent immersing ourselves in Palos Farm. We learnt the structure and goals of the farm, what they were growing and why, and we also met and talked to a lot of the farmhands. It took some delving and at times work with a translator, but we soon met our protagonist in one of these farmhands, a supervisor named Joseph.
Once this was decided we had to structure our documentary. This meant creating an arc for Joseph’s story, specifically pointing to how Palos Farm had helped him and his family. We had to know beforehand how we were going to edit the film together and visually capture moments that backed-up what was being said. We needed to create a shot list, determine interviewees and decide on locations and the necessary questions to ask. In all, it meant putting together a production schedule that would take us neatly into week three; shooting week.
This week was all go, early starts, long days and a lot of organisation. We weren’t just spontaneously taking the camera around the farm, at the beginning of each day we needed to know the footage we were going to be able to log by its end. Having only a week to capture all the necessary material meant our days had to be carefully structured. There were times when we were re-enacting and working with large groups of people, some with limited English and most who had barely seen a camera before. To an extent, this was also why research had to be so thorough, we needed the documentary’s contributors to be comfortable around us and the equipment before any essential work.
Once we’d collected all the footage, the final week of the month was dedicated to editing the piece. With a story arc and corresponding shot list already compiled, it was now a question of stitching the documentary together and deciding what worked best. There was a large amount of material that needed logging, including some substantial interviews that kept our editor, in particular, working a lot of long hours. The dialogue often needed subtitling and most of the sequences were regularly altered as the piece took shape. The whole process also met setbacks, such as our protagonist asking us to omit certain information for the screening in Kenya, that meant rearranging the documentary. Although we were under the clock, we managed to complete our film in time for the local screening at the end of the month; an opportunity to showcase the result of our efforts.
Of course, the month wasn’t all work though, our evenings and weekends were free to explore all that Kenya had to offer. This meant crossing the equator to visit Kenya’s only tropical rainforest, the Kakamega. It meant a boat trip across Lake Victoria to sight hippos and crocodiles, football games against locals, trips to Kisumu’s markets and nights out in restaurants and on the town. But best of all, a road trip to the Masai Mara game reserve, where we spent three days enjoying its world-famous safari drive and the great Wildebeest Migration.
For me, Actuality Media was the perfect program. If you’re into home comforts then maybe it’s not your thing, but it was exactly the experience I was looking for. I got to get out and immerse myself in a new culture and part of the world, working on a challenging project with a meaningful cause. It opened my eyes to a much wider world, all while testing and improving me as a filmmaker.
Permanent Culture is available to view below and at http://vimeo.com/106930298, (remember to choose captions to watch it with subtitles). It has been shortlisted as a finalist for the 2015 Social Media Impact Awards in the Impact Videos Category.