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Wednesday, September 15th, 2010 - 5 comments

Are Western filmmakers entitled to tell Africa’s story?

Who is really entitled to tell someone’s story? My initiative aims at giving professional artists at the local level – filmmakers, musicians, poets, photographers, etc – a place where they can influence imagery and story about their own places and their own people.

“Why is it when people make films about Africa, they always show the bad parts of Africa?” Is an American with extensive world and filmmaking experience more capable of capturing realities on the African continent than a less-experienced African filmmaker? Is a South African filmmaker who has not left his country more credible to shoot a film in the Congo than a Westerner who has a career background in war-torn societies? Uniting Artists and Activists for Maternal Health from Lisa Russell on Vimeo.

These are questions I have been asked repeatedly – and often grapple with – working many years on the continent as a documentary filmmaker for UN/NGO agencies.  It has sparked endless conversations with both my African friends and my fellow Western filmmakers colleagues. Even with a public health background, am I really able to capture the true essence of what young people experienced during the war in Lebanon?  Or what AIDS orphans need in Malawi? Or how maternal deaths impact families in Ethiopia?

I raise these questions because I think they are important questions not only for media and filmmaking but for the larger global health and development arena.  Soon, world leaders, funders and advocates will come together for the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Summit. I think we need to be reflecting on how we engage individuals at the local level and how we interpret their needs if we are truly to reach the MDGs by 2015.

Giving voice to artists

I have been developing a project that aims to address the power imbalance of media makers in the global health and development world.  I am doing this by giving professional artists at the local level – filmmakers, musicians, poets, photographers, etc – a place where they can influence imagery and story about their own places and their own people.  My initiative – – which I co-founded with Grammy-winning singer, Maya Azucena, is an interactive, new media site that – in its simplistic description – allows users to utilize a library of music tracks, spoken word, film, and photos (supplied by artists from Brazil, Honduras, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Belgium, UK and many other countries) to make their own advocacy videos for maternal health.

In presenting the artists’ work to a global audience, I’m hoping to also create linkages with international agencies that develop programs and make funding decisions in their communities.

Working with artists to achieve the MDGs

What is unique, I feel, about the site, is that we are including material on women, childbirth, pregnancy, family, community themes that is captured from local artists who geographically and culturally closer to the challenges and opportunities that exist at the local level.  These artists have such remarkable access and such impact in their communities, that their insights and contributions can be incredibly valuable for those making big decisions about funding and programming.  They can help us understand what we need to be doing at the local level to reach the ambitious goals of the MDGs.

Issues affecting their communities is committed to improving such community engagement by creating a linkage between local artists the content creation and with activists in the creative process and distribution of maternal health advocacy.   Artists can It is promoting a shift in the way we capture and mold stories of the developing world and is, I hope, the starting point of where an artist can supply material that says to the viewer, “this is the critical issue affecting my community or my family” and the user can create a video that is circulated, and utilized to bring attention to that particular problem.  As a colleague once pointed out, we do not need to always be sending Western camera crews to capture the realities in local communities but instead work with professional artists on the ground who can provide media makers with footage, films and news segments of how they see the realities of global health on the ground, giving us the guidance of how to repackage their material for a Western audience.  The additional perks are that we improve the environment by reducing our carbon footprint, we give employment opportunities to artists and media-makers from lower income countries and we address the power imbalance that comes along with how imagery is created, particularly in mass media.

The power of social media

The reason I believe social media can play an important role in meeting the MDGs by 2015 is based on two concepts – access and accountability.   Its focus on community engagement gives the opportunity for the general public – anyone with access to the internet – the ability to become more informed about both local/global issues that affect them as well as the opportunity to become voices in movements that evaluate and hold leaders accountable to their promises and commitments.  If we really need political and financial will to meet the MDgs, then I believe social media will give the masses a way to organize online, and if led by strong and trustworthy leadership, then will have an incredible amount of power and opportunity to affect real change.  We only need to reflect on the 2008 elections to see a clear example of the power of social media to influence political change.

I believe in the power of social media to shift mass global consciousness towards a  future where no human life is more valuable than another – that we all deserve equal access to health care, education, clean water, etc.  With, my hope is that the next time a young African man asks why bad films are made about Africa, I’ll tell him to go to my website, make his own film about Africa and I’ll watch it to get a better understanding of how he interprets his country. is launching on September 16th in anticipation of the MDG Summit.  Lisa will be a featured speaker at the UN Week Digital Media Lounge and a special media guest at the TEDxChange event hosted by and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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The views expressed in this blog-post are solely those of the author.

Comments (5)

Bloggers: Ban Ki-moon wants to hear from you « Conversations for a Better World
Thursday 16th September, 2010, 11:13am

[...] Are Western filmmakers entitled to tell Africa’s story? [...]

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El Hadji Beye
Thursday 16th September, 2010, 2:57pm

There isn't anything wrong with anyone portraying a real picture of what is going on in Africa or any other region of the world as long as it is an accurate image of what is really going on.

The only problem is that, most of the times, westerners who make movies about Africa don't really have all of the information needed to make an accurate count of the is really simple: there are always many factors to take in consideration when analyzing life in Africa, and if you're not from there you can't fully comprehend the culture, the communication style, the non-verbal communication and the belief systems.

Although I have met some Americans who speak a better Wolof than Senegalese one can imagine that some westerners are very knowledgeable on African culture but they are the exception to the widely spread ignorance on Africa.

So really this topic can get complex quickly because the argument can be made that an account of a simple African story can be made by a western film maker (especially if the westerner has spent enough time in Africa)...within reasonable accuracy, yes but the film maker will need African consultants and feedback from the community in order to have a better understanding of the context.

In conclusion, it can be done... a westerner can make a movie about Africa even though a significant contribution from African staff will help make such project successful, it is still possible.
But it is a much better product if the film maker is African and from that country (because African cultures can be very different from one to the next).


Tuesday 28th September, 2010, 4:39pm

I do conquer with the writer,i think African filmmakers should be let to tell African stories on camera as they are the ones who know them better than non africans.I have many issues with foreign filmmakers who makes african films,one they exaggerate alot,second they fly their friends,family members and 'film terrorists' who have no basic idea of africa.

Monday 4th October, 2010, 10:07am

I think that any filmmaker who is worth her/his salt should be compassionate about the issues he deals with. Only then one can tell a story with intergrity and sensitivity it deserves.

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Guest Editor

Lisa Russell

Director/Producer, Governess Films


Lisa Russell is an Emmy® Award-winning filmmaker whose background in humanitarian and international development work has inspired her to produce films about the health and well-being of our global society. Inspired by the late Jonathan Mann to pursue her Masters in Public Health in International Health in 1998, Lisa has since produced films in Brazil, Burkina Faso, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Malawi, Niger, Tanzania, and South Africa. While some of Lisa’s work has been broadcast on public television (including PBS and Channel 4 London), most of Lisa’s films are tied into advocacy, fundraising or legislative efforts with UN and international agencies.

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