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Bob Maddams - Feeding the world's imagination
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Bob Maddams - Feeding the world's imagination
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Ethopia's new Gem; In one of our poorest countries  filmmaker Bob Maddams is reminded of the power of filmmaking

 

In Ethiopia, the roofs of the houses are corrugated iron. Flying 20,000 feet above the remote northern highlands, you only see them when they catch the sun and glint momentarily, like a diamond reflecting the light. You can see hundreds of these winking flashes on the flight from Addis Ababa to Gondar, where my colleagues and I from Gem TV were going to shoot a half-hour drama. Each little flash was a home, and each home has its own story. We were on our way to make a film about two such families living side-by-side on a mountainside.

 

Gem developed from a 1997 a youth development project to teach Addis Ababa youths to become community filmmakers. Today, it is one of the few professional video production outfits in Ethiopia, specialising in documentaries and dramas with positive social messages. On this occasion we were making a film for Austrian Development Co-operation, an organisation working with rural communities with the aim of helping them to improve their standards of living. The people were Amhara, subsistence farmers whose livelihood comes from a half-acre of rock-strewn land, two or three scrawny cows, some chickens and some goats.  Beneath the corrugated iron roofs they live in houses that are made from wood poles, lashed together with strips of tree bark and plastered with mud and cow dung. Floors are bare earth, stamped down and occasionally carpeted with grass. Most furniture is made from the from the same mud and cow dung plaster that holds the walls together, and there is no electricity or running water. Often a family of nine or more live in a one-room dwellings. 

 

These kind and generous people have lived and farmed in this part of northern Ethiopia for thousands of years and their culture and traditions run deep. However, the modern world is encroaching fast and change is needed to break the relentless cycle of poverty. One tradition holding back  their economic development is the traditional role of women. Despite the fact that women share much of the work, they have little say in the running of the home, and are largely excluded from agricultural training and basic education.  We hoped our film would change that.The audience would be local farming communities and the film would be shown in villages as a video on wheels. It is not uncommon to see more than a hundred people gathered under the shade of an acacia tree watching a Gem film on a television set on the back of a pick-up truck.     

 

Our budgets for these films don’t run to employing professional actors, even if they exist in this part of the world. We recruit our cast from the community and turn people, who in some cases have never seen a television before let alone a film crew, into performers.  Our crew were all in their mid to late twenties. There were three women: Adanech, the director, Kebe, the sound recordist, and Selam, the production manager. The men were Habtamu, the camera operator, and Sintayehu, who looked after lighting and was also going to be the film’s editor. As producer, my main job was to make sure that Adi got all the coverage she needed and that what she got would cut together. As producer, I was responsible for making sure that we always kept to the thrust of the script and that the key points came across. Everything was shot on mini DV using a Canon XL1 camcorder and we had a very basic lighting rig comprising three lamps, some gels and a reflector.  Oh yes, and we had a clapperboard, which proved particularly useful because even though we were shooting on video our edit suite did not possess a time code reader. So despite the fact we were shooting on video, we shot in a distinctly filmic way.

 

As Gem does not possess a monitor, the director, Adanech, had to communicate very precisely about the shots she wanted with the cameraman, Habtamu, much in the same way as used to happen in film in the days before video assist came along. The only way I could gauge how things were going most of the time was by closely watching the set-ups being shot, but, isn’t film supposed to be a visual language anyway?

 

I’ve always maintained that filmmaking is all about planning meticulously so that nothing can go wrong, and then coping magnificently when it all does. The next few weeks were to put this code of practice – into practice – big time. When we arrived we found that a road was being laid through the mountains, and huge Komatsu scrapers and tipper lorries carrying tonnes of earth were ploughing up and down all day next to where we would be shooting. In addition the big rains were only weeks away and most afternoons were accompanied by freak rain and hail storms assaulting the corrugated iron roofs Recording dialogue was going to be a nightmare. And that was assuming we could find actors capable of learning their lines in the first place. Undaunted, Adanech threw herself into the casting and two days later she not only had her two key families, including children, but all the other characters, learning lines parrot fashion. 

 

The shooting days quickly fell into a rhythm: up at 5.30, breakfast at 6.00, into the 4WD by 6.30, arrive at location at 7.30 and turn over by 8.00.  We would shoot all day, and often well into the night, and be back at the hotel usually by 9.30, where we would promptly review and log rushes for an hour. And that was our routine every day, seven days a week, for three weeks. Union rules and overtime do not apply in Ethiopia, especially when you’re trying to beat the big rains.

 

The actors were a revelation. The story follows how one of the women’s life spirals out of control. She has a selfish and stupid husband and she becomes a victim of HIV/AIDS and dies. Credit to the actors they all gave 100% emotionally in every scene, which can’t have been easy as they had never had to perform before. As Adanech explained to me later, the secret was to find actors who genuinely believed in what the film was trying to do, and she had been very aware of this during the casting. They were incredibly hard working too, especially the women.  In between set-ups they didn’t retire to the air-conditioned trailers; they milked cows, fetched water, scavenged for firewood, breast-fed children, repaired fences with their bare hands and cooked meals. Thanks to everyone’s hard work, patience and no little good humour when it was required, we managed to beat the big rains and actually finished shooting a couple of days ahead of schedule. On the last day the families invited us to their homes for the most unusual wrap party I have ever been to.  All of us, cast and crew, drinking tella, a fearsome home brew which tastes like a cross between stout and cough mixture and is drunk out of cow horn mugs, and eating meat and injerra, the flat, bitter tasting pancake that is eaten everywhere throughout Ethiopia. This was followed by the men doing bouts of energetic traditional dancing, shaking their bodies as if they had been wired up to car batteries. 

 

We often hear the great and the good at television festivals and black-tie events wax lyrical talk about the positive role drama films can play in improving people’s lives, especially in the developing world. But it was in a mud and dung hut, drinking tella, that I heard an Ethiopian woman put it most succinctly. She was one of the NGO workers working with the community.  ‘It’s very difficult,’ she told me, ‘we spend all our time talking to people, trying to train them in methods that can make a big difference to their lives, but it is only when they see one of these films, when they see a story about people who they recognise are like them, that everything suddenly becomes clear. It really is a case of seeing is believing.’

 

Gem TV grew out of a youth project in Addis Ababa that took 12 young people from poor backgrounds and trained them to become community filmmakers. Today, GEM makes programmes throughout the country for many NGOs working in Ethopia, including Unicef, UN Development Project, Save The Children and many others, addressing such issues as HIV/AIDS, women’s rights, child education and health and sanitation. Its biggest challenge is securing kit. If any readers have surplus video equipment, we will almost certainly welcome it, especially editing and post-production tools. To find out more about Gem or to pitch it, please contact bobmaddams@aol.com.

 

Source: Direct Magazine Winter 2004-2005

 

 

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