Maisha: “If We Don’t Tell Our Stories, No One Will”

The blog has gone dark of late because I have been working to deadlines, writing grants for the Maisha Film Lab. Maisha was founded nine years ago by director/writer/producer Mira Nair, to build up the film industry in East Africa. While there was once a thriving film culture, when Idi Amin came to power, most cinemas closed. While many have reopened, the quality of the films offered is often very low. The Maisha Film Lab first offered an annual 26 day Filmmaking and Technical Lab in Kampala, Uganda. Now their offerings extend to 8 day Screenwriting Labs in Kampala, Zanzibar (Tanzania), Nairobi (Kenya) and Kigali (Rwanda), Film Clubs for the youth in Northern Uganda (until recently the turf of The Lord’s Liberation Army), a Documentary Lab in Kampala and a Film Festival there as well.

The Labs are taught by an impressive group of international filmmakers, including Annmarie Morais, from Jamaica (“How She Move”), Patricia Riggen, from Mexico (“La Misma Luna”) and Malia Scotch Marmo (USA, “Jurassic Park”), and the students receive one-to-one attention. At the end of the Film and Technical Lab, the best four scripts written in the first week will have resulted in four short films┬ámade with professional actors (worth taking a look). The Lab participants learn about adapting scripts to film, directing, sound and editing.

The background for the Screenwriting Labs is the paucity of good scripts overall. Those who complete that course (15 from each country) end with a script suitable for pitching, or submitting to the Film and Technical Lab the next year.

The Youth Film Clubs, in which young people view and discuss quality films from the United States, Africa and Denmark (the program is funded by the Danish government), has resulted in the young people in Mbale setting off to make their own films. So one of the grant proposals that I was writing was in support of that effort. Maisha would support their filmmaking through providing the mentors and equipment.

The other deadline concerned a Screenwriting Lab just for women, again in the north of the country. The war there was particularly hard on the youth, who were forced to serve as child soldiers, and on the women, who were often raped or lost their entire families. Telling your own story takes on additional weight when the stories bear a tragic burden.

Today I wrote two letters of inquiry, one for the Women’s Screenwriting Lab and one for the FIlmmaking and Technical Lab. We have funding for that signature effort from the European Union for this year, but have to look forward to 2015. Since the Labs are at no cost to the participants, funding them is an ongoing effort.

When I was President at Acadia, I was stunned at the abilities of students brought to Canada from some of the refugee camps in Kenya, exiles from the Sudan or Somalia. They had been educated often outdoors or in tin-roofed shacks, but they competed successfully with the Canadian-born students in academics. A group of our students wanted to help out, and thought to provide books for the camp schools, but the African students asked them instead to raise money for a toilet building for the girls in the camp. Since they had to go out into the fields, they wouldn’t come to school when they were menstruating, and often missed a week of school every month. The Acadia students provided funds for the shed, and then we had some women from Somalia join us.

China has been investing in Africa for decades. It is time that the United States realized the wealth of talent that the continent has to offer.