Independent media and artistic expression are crucial cornerstones upon which devastated countries can build a peaceful future. Around the world, youth programs focusing on the arts provide a platform for communication that helps young people from varied backgrounds to understand and appreciate each other. These programs help unlock the inherent creativity of young minds—giving them confidence in their own talents and their contributions to the localities they inhabit.
A program called “WeOwnTV” has been nurturing a new generation of young media makers in the war torn West African country of Sierra Leone. WeOwnTV (which means “Our Own TV” in the local language of Krio) is a free media education program founded on the guiding principles that no one is more qualified to tell Sierra Leone’s story than Sierra Leoneans themselves; and, that media can help an underrepresented group, especially youth, define their generation.
WeOwnTV represents what is possible when a team of dedicated young leaders witness the role media can play in building communities and transforming lives, combined with support of grassroots organizers, youth media organizations, and committed funders. Smart partnerships and hard work continue to make a lasting difference in the lives of the Sierra Leonean youth who, every day, expand the reach and impact of our youth-centered organization.
Planting the WeOwnTV Seed
In 2002, two first time filmmakers Banker White—a multidisciplinary artist from the Bay Area—and Zach Niles began working on the award-winning documentary “Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars.” Banker and Zach spent nearly four years traveling back and forth to the region while producing the film, adding the necessary depth and humanity that lacked in foreign media representation of the country’s decade long civil war. The transformative experience created a long-standing relationship with the people and provided a space for Sierra Leoneans to tell their own story.
While Banker and Zach witnessed the impact of their film on the Sierra Leoneans whose stories were told by the film, musician Alhaji Jeffery Kamara (a.k.a. Black Nature)—the young star of the film—was deeply influenced by the opportunity to tell his story to the world. As Black Nature traveled around the globe with the film and the band doing interviews, he was forced to dig deeper into his past and become accustomed to answering very personal and painful questions about the loss of his family and his experiences as a refugee. He witnessed the inspiring effect that his story had on audiences.
When Black Nature began to understand the healing and confidence that can result from honest self-expression, he started brainstorming with Banker on various ways to help other Sierra Leoneans have similar cathartic experiences. Black Nature had taken to film very quickly and adeptly during the production of the documentary film—his open interview style uncovered honesty and depth that Banker and Zach, as foreigners, could never have matched.
Drawing from this experience, it was clear that with the support of their team, Banker, Zach and Black Nature would move forward in building a program that would put cameras and storytelling skills into the hands of Sierra Leonean youth.
Backstory of Sierra Leone:
What most people in the West know about Sierra Leone is wrapped up in international media reports and Hollywood interpretations of the country’s darkest hour—a 10-year civil war (1991-2001) that was marked by extreme violence against civilians, struggle for control of the country’s diamond mines (the infamous blood diamonds), and forced recruitment of child soldiers. The war claimed more than 50,000 civilian lives, and the number of persons raped, mutilated or tortured is much higher. Women and girls suffered uniquely throughout the conflict, and children were singled out for unconscionable abuses. The scars of the war run deep and are reflected not only in the way the outside world sees the country, but in the way many Sierra Leoneans have come to view themselves. By giving young people the tools to explore their world and express themselves, WeOwnTV enables them to share their stories and creative voice with the world—and reawaken their imaginations to the possibility of positive change.
Our Own TV: Global Support Helps Sierra Leoneans Tell their Own Story
In 2008, with a grant from Creative Capital, “WeOwnTV” launched a three-year filmmaking collaboration. The team expanded to include Sierra Leonean media makers and community leaders—Lansana Mansaray (a.k.a. Barmmy Boy) and Arthur Pratt, in addition to involving humanitarian partners, including the IRC (International Rescue Committee).
In addition, the San Francisco-based Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC) made a significant difference in the future of WeOwnTV through its support for the program. Impressed by the vision feuling WeOwnTV, BAVC offered a fiscal sponsorship agreement and a Media Maker Award of in-kind technical support. Moreover, BAVC welcomed Black Nature (who was living in the Bay Area at the time) into the Elements Program—a digital media-training program for at-risk young people that provides 150 hours of industry-standard training in media production as well as an additional 150 hours of job skills development. Black Nature quickly excelled in the program and was honored as BAVC member of the month during his graduation. Following this training, Black Nature traveled back with WeOwnTV team as a mentor for the first workshop in Sierra Leone, and has been an instrumental ambassador of the program ever since.
Video: “A Workshop Changes Everything”
Providing Creative Space for a Future to Be Realized
In August 2010, with the support of individual donors and a foundational grant from Freedom to Create, WeOwnTV: Sierra Leone Media Center was affixed to the side of a newly refurbished building in the heart of Freetown. Along with a team of volunteers and alumni students, Banker and Arthur had officially opened the media center’s doors, conducting mentor-training classes for returning students.
The center now offers classes in computer skills, film and television production, social networking, journalism and scriptwriting. The WeOwnTV student filmmakers have access to production and post-production equipment and studio space in order to produce their own films, television journalism, music videos, commercials and public service announcements.
The goal of WeOwnTV is to not only use the very personal aspects of artistic self-expression for individual growth but to have WeOwnTV graduates be a part of a new media industry in Sierra Leone—creating jobs and opportunities to legitimate youth dreams of success. Whether or not the graduates continue on in the field of media production, the WeOwnTV team hopes that each student takes away a renewed sense of self and understanding of the possibilities for the future.
Lessons Learned: Leveling the Playing Field and Building a Sustainable Program
1. Grounding courses in self-expression skills rather than media production skills created an inclusive and fun environment for participants.
Because so few young people in Sierra Leone had prior experience with new media technologies, early workshops focused on storytelling and creativity rather than technical skill. Creativity, at its root, is a form of self-expression, and through a series of improvisational exercises the workshop asked the students to simply “play” with a camera in their hand, starting them down a road they’d never been encouraged to take before. This sense of play, with no right or wrong ways of doing things, eliminated the fear inherent to the learning process and allowed students to learn technology through direct experience and trust their instincts as they interacted with the world around them in new ways.
From this foundation of trust, WeOwnTV then incorporated a variety of group creative exercises focused on encouraging collaboration, mutual understanding and appreciation of each other’s ideas. Basic technical skills were constantly being built upon, but the open environment created at the outset of the workshop was crucial in helping the budding filmmakers to progressively expand on their ideas and explore new methods of expressing themselves in their work.
Video: “Creativity Flowing from Day One”
2. Approaching the workshops as teacher trainings and designing a replicable curriculum increased the self-reliance of participants and long-term sustainability of the program.
At the end of the month-long workshop, students had produced an impressive array of personal video diaries, short documentaries, and a series of short-narrative films based on collective experiences. The workshop graduates surpassed all expectations with their personal growth, their initial skill level, and it became clear that these graduates were well suited to become mentors and instructors for other young Sierra Leonean filmmakers. Drawing on the WeOwnTV staff and students’ firsthand experience of the workshop, the team has begun to develop a new, easily replicable, curriculum that can be marketed to other organizations working around Sierra Leone and Africa.
The “training trainers” approach of developing local leaders aims to build on a spirit of self-reliance as more young men and women are given the opportunity to explore their own creativity. The ongoing free education will continue to be supported by the US-based team; however, the goal is to move the center quickly to a level of sustainability where instructors will start earning a salary (supporting the daily activities of the center) and graduates will gain project income through freelance work administered by the production arm of the organization, WeOwnTV Productions.
Video: “To Create Our Own Space”
Changing the Media Culture
As in many African countries, there is ample political rhetoric to suggest a focus on what is universally called “youth voice” but the reality as experienced in Sierra Leone is that these voices are never given priority by the entrenched powers.
Outlets for alternative television and film are extremely limited despite an active and fairly free press in Sierra Leone, with numerous daily and weekly independent news publications. There is only one nationally-run television station—the state-owned, Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC)—and the film industry is rife with piracy, consisting mostly of Nigerian or U.S. produced films.
Particularly in post-conflict nations like Sierra Leone, youth media has the opportunity to transform the national media dialogue and therefore transform the future of the nation. It is only through the determination of young artists and the influence of the country’s diaspora that young people are beginning to use the tools of modern media to communicate among each other and to the outside world. With this as inspiration, WeOwnTV hopes to grow this organic interest in new media into an industry that gives a legitimate outlet to the voices of Sierra Leone’s youth.
Appreciating the independent, unfiltered voices that have the opportunity to be amplified through film, Paula Cavagnaro is a committed contributor—as a supporter and consultant—to independent film festivals and international film projects. Paula is a creative marketing and public relations professional with more than 15 years marketing experience established on a well-rounded background managing complicated marketing programs including promotional launches, event production, artist development and aggressive public relations campaigns.
Zach Niles is the co-director and producer of the award-winning documentary Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. He is the associate producer of the film Peepers and for the television series Live at the Fillmore. Zach recently served as acting director for Ciné Institute, a film school in Jacmel Haiti. He also manages the band Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars and works producing and promoting music tours by artists such as Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, George Michael and Madonna.
Emilie Reiser is a technology educator in New York City, working with youth in public schools and community-based organizations to develop creative media projects. Most recently, as director of programs at Vision Education, she led professional development workshops for educators, taught multi-media student programs and developed curriculum for innovative uses of creative technology in the classroom. Emilie has also worked teaching creative media production with youth internationally in Africa, Brazil and Haiti.
Banker White is a multi-disciplinary artist based in the Bay Area. In a perpetual state of creation and collaboration, recent work in film-video and the fine arts has been awarded and supported by Creative Capital, Freedom to Create, the California Council for Humanities and the Bay Area Video Coalition. Banker co-directed and produced the award-winning documentary Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. He is a graduate of Middlebury College (BA 1996) and California College of the Arts (MFA 2000).