Monday, November 16, 2009

“If we don’t tell our stories, no one else will.” -Maisha Film Lab Participant





Last week, Elisa Roth and I spent two days with a group of young, up and coming film and television writers, directors and producers. We volunteered to teach a two-day television workshop for the Maisha Film Lab. Elisa and I used to work together at NBC/Universal. I oversaw drama programming at the network and Elisa was my counterpart overseeing drama at the studio.

When the head of the Maisha Film Lab program met with us for lunch the day before, she “warned” us about the students. She said that culturally in Uganda people are polite but also very shy and reticent and almost aloof. She also said that they wouldn’t be familiar with American television shows. Her advice was that we should approach the workshop on a very basic level.

We nodded and smiled and when she left, we panicked. We were planning an interactive workshop! We built our entire curriculum with the understanding that they would have a basic understanding of the most popular American television shows so, by way of explanation, we could discuss narrative structure and differences in genre and production models!

Yeah. We were screwed.

So naturally, we immediately settled into the hotel bar, ordered a couple of cold Tuskers, and got to work to rethink our approach for the next two days.

Interestingly, her advice couldn’t have been further from the truth.

When we arrived the first morning, we walked into a room full of people who were grateful and enthusiastic. While they have had access to studying feature and short film and documentaries with the Maisha Film Lab, there had never been a TV workshop. Television production is exploding in Africa but there really isn’t vocational training in place for them to turn to to learn even the basics of the medium, the narrative form or the production model.

To start the day, we had everyone go around the room and individually introduce themselves (it was our clever ploy to get them talking from the get-go). We were not prepared, given our meeting the day before, for how verbose and excited they would be. They were eager to learn so much and were very specific about their expectations (How do I write a comedy? What is the structure of a drama? How do we market a television show? What is the financial and production model of series television?) They also were really versed in American television and super familiar with many shows. I was, of course, pleased that “Lipstick Jungle” even came up!

The comment that I was most interested in was from a young man who said he wanted to “blow up the Western domination and bring local Ugandan stories to his country.”

It made me think about a layover I had in a Kenyan airport. I was sitting in a coffee shop and looked up at the television. “Seventh Heaven” was on. That show wasn’t even entertaining in the US! Clearly, the need for locally produced content was urgent! Sorry. But true.

So we got to work over the next two days to really dive in and download as much as we could fit in. Our “basic” class became a master’s class almost instantly. The students were eager to learn and were very quick studies.

We screened some shows that both Elisa and I had worked on over the years (“Arrested Development”, “House” and “Heroes”). We also showed the pilot of “Friends”. I was a little hesitant to show “Arrested Development” as it was a show that was considered a little ahead of its time when it was launched on Fox. It never garnered a huge audience and a lot of the prognosticators concluded that it was “too quirky” or “too indie” to have a wide appeal. I figured that this purely “American” show might not “translate”. Well, it was so much fun to screen it and hear them laughing the entire show: from the very opening when Lucille Bluth says that she wants to set herself on fire, to the ending on George Michael’s face when he’s told he will be sharing a room with his cousin whom he has instantly fallen in love with.

The word “Maisha” means “zest for life”. It really does perfectly describe the students and their spirit. They are so eager to tell their stories and really are just craving the education and the resources to be able to do so. One of the participants said “we have issues to deal with that people need to address.” They want to tell their stories locally but bridge them globally.

Having spent time in the poor and remote villages in Kenya prior to this workshop, I was so moved by that sentiment. These young people want to entertain and educate and, most importantly, inspire to make a difference on their continent through the arts.

Often when a community is in flux, it is the artists who emerge as the evangelists for change. Virginia Woolf wrote (you didn’t think I wouldn’t include Virginia Woolf, did you?):

I feel that by writing I am doing what is far more necessary than anything else.

On the agenda, we had slotted in for the second afternoon “The Future of Television and the Impact of Technology”. We decided that the “future of television”, as we know it, really is sort of irrelevant here. There are no studios. There are no networks to sell to. There are no agents/managers protecting their interests and intellectual property. There are no guilds providing benefits and collective bargaining. We really are fortunate in our entertainment world in the states, despite the struggles we often like to claim we have. My eyes were opened indeed. Perspective is a powerful thing.

Because the television industry, as we know it, does not really exist in Uganda, it was really thrilling to watch this community on the ground floor brainstorm about ways to make it happen. We spent the second afternoon having a really active, passionate, and productive conversation about the challenges, obstacles and ultimately the opportunities. It made me think about how when I started in television the systems were obviously already in place. And, they had been for over 50 years.

There were definitely some in the room who were overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges. We tried to encourage them to try and move from this “culture of no” to a culture that believes it can happen.

I was reminded of an essay about the arts I read that Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote which included:

If you recognize in yourself some such decisive taste, there is no room for hesitation: follow your bent.

This is a community who basically needs to start a revolution to get it off the ground. What was so inspiring was that most weren’t the least bit daunted by that fact.

The sense of community was so strong. They all want to help each other and they know as individuals they just can’t do it alone. It was so refreshing to experience that when I have become so used to the vitriol in the comments on different entertainment trade blogs. It’s like we have become a community in Hollywood and New York that kinda hate each other. And, kinda root for people to fail.

Truly, it was inspiring to be with these young people.

There is a spirit of independence and pride that I am finding throughout Africa that moves me. These are people who don’t want handouts. Sorry for the cliché but it works: they don’t want the fish, they want to be taught to fish. They are a resilient community. It seems clear that the biggest issue facing all of Africa is a lack of resources. Whether it’s in the poorest villages where the basic necessities to survive are lacking; or in the orphanages that are housing children whose parents died of AIDS and they have no home or family; or even in the community of young television writers/producers/directors and filmmakers in Kampala who are lacking equipment and money and an infrastructure.

But, instead of being defeatist, Elisa and I saw this group literally band together and decide that today they start the revolution.

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