Our world is changing faster than ever. COVID has taken away our freedom to travel and connect. Black Lives Matter has revealed how entrenched systemic racism remains. And Western hegemony keeps declining as other parts of the globe claim their rightful places. And yet, most of the stories we feed ourselves about ‘them’ are still made by ‘us’. Makmende Media has always understood this problem, seeking collaborations with media professionals in so-called underdeveloped parts of the planet since its inception. And now, with a pandemic that keeps on raging, Makmende is letting go off the Western gaze even further. For example through participatory filmmaking.
Nils Elzinga | June 1, 2021
The bible even mentions locust plagues.
Ever seen a locust up-close? Looks harmless enough, right? Well, looks can indeed be deceiving, as this little creature has gained historical notoriety for its swarm attacks that decimate crops and destroy lives.
In the summer of 2020, Ethiopia and Somalia experienced the worst locust invasion in 25 years. The Dutch Relief Alliance (DRA) wanted to produce video content about the emergency relief they were providing, to inform donors of the severity of the situation. But covid made flying in a film crew impossible. And the lockdowns imposed in both countries made travelling into affected communities impossible even for local film crews.
So the DRA, a network of 14 NGO’s from the Netherlands, started looking for ways to tell stories directly from within the communities they worked with. And that’s where Makmende Media, known for its capacity to work with people in remote areas from its base in Amsterdam, entered the equation. The impact agency came up with a simple yet clever idea, playing into the possibilities of modern technology: why not let the affected farmers themselves film the unfolding relief response with their smart phones?
“We call this approach participatory filmmaking”, explains Marit van der Heijden, Creative Producer at Makmende. “It’s related to the phenomenon of user generated content, and the core idea is to let people actually tell their own stories. And that makes the result much more personal. So we selected eight employees of local organizations aligned with the DRA and gave them a crash course in DIY filmmaking with their smartphones. Then we stayed in touch with them throughout the process.”
Abdullahi Adi Hussein, a Food Security and Livelihood Officer working for a local NGO, was one of them. “At first I honestly found the idea of shooting video myself very challenging”, he recalls. “But after receiving training from Makmende, filming actually went pretty smooth. I was instructed on how to properly hold my smartphone while shooting, how to adapt to weather conditions like direct sunlight or clouds, where to film and whom to interview. After the filming, I sent the footage to Makmende through WhatsApp. It worked well.”
“Covid created lots of anxiety and tension in my mind”, Hussein continues. “But going into the field and gathering information like this, documenting how my community was impacted, felt like a practical way of contributing to solutions. And the resulting videos portray the real scenario as it unfolded on the ground.”
Helene Boeser, Desert Locust Response Lead at SOS Children’s Villages, the organization coordinating the DRA’s response, wholeheartedly agrees.
The footage paints a vivid picture of what it is like to endure that kind of tragedy.
“What was also nice for us, was to see the motivation of the staff of our local partner organizations. These are people that we hold dear in our hearts, and normally we would work closely together with them on the ground ourselves, but covid of course made going in impossible for us.”
Giving the local perspective more and more space is a broader movement within the world of development cooperation, Boeser emphasizes.
“Localization is the future, without any doubt. The DRA, too, works hard towards localizing our efforts. But how to do that effectively? Makmende’s innovative proposal helped us to take the next steps into that unknown territory. Their participatory approach really has big potential. I would recommend other organizations to try it out.”
“I love this approach because you really get to know the people you’re working with”, says Makmende’s creative Marit van der Heijden. “It lets locals tell their stories from the inside, showing us their real challenges and solutions, not the ones we think they have or should pursue. It’s them informing us, not the other way around. Like when one of the Somalian women explained to me that it was too dark and noisy to film inside of a swarm, so it was better to position herself a little distance away from it. That’s something I would never have come up with, never having been there myself.” Van der Heijden pauses for a second. Then: “The world is just really ready for this, don’t you think?”
Abdullahi Adi Hussein certainly enjoyed this way of working together across borders and continents: “Yes, telling our stories ourselves has been an adventure. It was empowering to be a part of this project and to feel connected again, a great antidote to the sense of loneliness that has been with me since the outbreak of covid-19 and all the resulting restrictions.” As Makmende Media itself likes to put it: ‘Stories can bring people together or tear us apart. We choose to connect.’
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