Buzzing in My Ears
I forgot how exhausting it is to travel to Africa. The journey alone accounts for at least 25-30 hours of cramped air travel and uncomfortable airports. The 7-hour time change doesn’t help, where meals and naps seem to come at random. However, it’s once I arrive that the real exasperation begins.
But let me step back for a second. Skip ahead if you’ve heard this before.
The Burundi Film Center is celebrating its 5th anniversary this year, and our list of accomplishments are nothing to sneeze at. We’ve held fiction, documentary and animation classes for more than 100 students and our films have played in over 85 festivals around the world. Some of our top students have gone on to train in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and across Africa, while some or our best films were recently broadcast internationally on TV5 Monde. We created a documentary called Home Free in 2009 about Burundian refugees that is used as a teaching tool at numerous embassies and throughout the UN, we’ve created grants so our filmmakers can make films between our classes, and we’re now starting our first advanced class for how to write a feature film. Tangentially, our students have also worked on a short film nominated for a 2011 Academy Award (Na Wewe) and literally thousands of people who had never before heard of Burundi are being introduced to it through our work.
You’d think these facts would help me sleep at night. But lately, it’s been the exact opposite.
I met up with my main collaborators shortly after I arrived. A poorly planned trip the beach during the day meant a few of us arrived late and got things off on the wrong foot. As I went through our informal agenda and started listing the above successes, I could sense a tension in the air that went much deeper than any tardiness could inspire. Basically every accomplishment I listed came loaded with misunderstood resentment. In short; “So what are you doing with the money from all this?”
Filmmakers in North America and Europe accepted long ago that it is basically impossible to make money (much less a living) creating short films. Music videos and commercials, of course, not withstanding – I work in adverting myself, after all. But uncommissioned artist expressions are at best break-even ventures, and usually simply time and money sucking passion projects. Their value often rests in the big picture – bringing attention to a cause, or to you as a creative individual, for example. But despite my efforts, those explanations have fallen on deaf ears here.
Once I detailed our earnings and expenses with the team - and reminded them how much of my own money I still invest, as well as the borrowed resources we depend on from people like Papy Jamaica, and fundraising efforts where I lean on family and friends - the trust was slowly rebuilt. But these are my main supporters of the project, they’ve always believed in the big picture. I still have a much bigger hill to climb with the students at large.
I accepted a few years ago that, as a white person, I’ll always live in dark shadow of the colonial past that can’t be erased. If I’m here leading a team, I must be gaining something from their labour. Which in many ways I am, but sure as hell not when it comes to money.
Lying in bed the past two nights, mosquitos and echos of these conversations have left me completely sleepless. When I go to bed late in our downtown apartment, I hear the alternate buzzing of bugs and dance beat throughout night, the Arabic chants at about 5:15am on a louspeaker, the traffic restarting as the sun comes up at 6am, and then I’m out of bed with a unwelcomed cold shower to start the day. Part of me feels like my body has forgotten how to sleep. But it’s more that I, despite my efforts, have also been unable to see the big picture lately.
We’ve scheduled a BFC Forum 2012 to bring all our students together, talk about the past, the present and the future, and answer all their questions. I’m sure it’s the best way to handle the misinformation and accusations going around. But with everything we have planned, no matter how well it goes, I know it won’t be the end of my sleepless nights here.