Tag Archives: sara terry

On Tour: Launching a Dialogue

14 Mar

March 9, Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, Annapolis, MD

Kony 2012 didn’t really come up tonight – no one in the small, but engaged, audience had encountered the viral phenomenon, and its counter conversation. But I couldn’t help reflecting on it once again, as I have continually for the past few days, and what it says about how we tell stories and engage with them in a culture that is increasingly driven by multi-tasking, texting, 140-character bites of information.

Kony 2012, to my sense – and to others who’ve been critiquing the campaign – makes it all too simple: here’s a bad man, hurting poor Africans, and if we in the West can stop him, the world will be a better place. And buying a bracelet, and making Kony as famous as George Clooney, is going to be a big part of making us all feel better about doing something important to make the world a better place.

Now, I’m oversimplifying in some ways here, too. But that’s pretty much the gist of the campaign. It doesn’t engage in, or encourage, a discussion of the complex realities of the situation; of who the “bad guys” are, or even of who the “good guys” are (the assumption is that we in the West are the good guys); it most certainly does not reflect the thoughts or desires of Africans, who don’t even get to speak for themselves (except for the one formerly abducted child soldier whose story features in the film).

But I love the dialogue that’s been launched by this campaign, and I do hope that a generation of young people will become more aware of the world we live in, and more committed to being a partner in finding solutions to the challenges that face us all. But that requires deeper thinking than what the Kony 2012 campaign is asking of us, and I’m not sure how we encourage that kind of journey. I’m concerned by the rush of information in the world today – and the oversimplification of critically important issues into tweets and “likes.” We have got to give much more of ourselves to understanding complex issues, and learning how to deal with them in ways that may push us out of our comfort zone, causing us to critique our own assumptions and perhaps even to adopt new frameworks for understanding how we engage with the world.

Which brings me to Fambul Tok. What I love about sharing this documentary is that it never, ever leaves an audience without a host of questions. Post-screening conversations go on for a half hour to an hour or more. Based on the 82 minutes they’ve just spent watching a film that allows Africans to speak for themselves – that explores cultural solutions to justice and reconciliation that fly in the face of Western norms – audience members find themselves grappling with all kinds of questions: How is this kind of forgiveness possible? What is the role of community in supporting this kind of reconciliation? Is it possible for us to do something similar in the West? Do we have something to learn from Sierra Leone, and Africa? Is the West really getting it right with its overarching priority on prosecution and punishment? What role does apology and forgiveness have in our own lives?

None of these questions – and the soul-searching, transformative wrestlings required to begin to come up with answers – are the stuff of viral campaigns. But I do believe they spark the kind of thinking that will lead us to become more constructively engaged in the world, and will help us learn how to be better partners in the process.

Fambul Tok 2012? Now that would be interesting!

Post by Sara Terry, OSIP touring filmmaker


On Tour: Discussing Joseph Kony

14 Mar

March 8, Weinberg Center for the Arts, Frederick, MD

First off, I need to say that I think it’s a really good idea for as many people as possible to know who Joseph Kony is – the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which for more than two decades waged a brutal war in northern Uganda, that went virtually uncovered by the Western media for most of that time. At the same time, it’s worth noting that the LRA hasn’t operated in Uganda since 2006, and is now considered to be barely hanging on, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.


Kony has become quite the household name over the past few days – especially among middle schoolers – thanks to a 28-minute documentary by Invisible Children and their “Stop Kony 2012” campaign. It’s exploded as a viral phenomenon on the internet (with more than 70 million views)– and so has a storm of critiques, both of the film and the organization behind it.

We talked about it a little at last night’s screening of Fambul Tok and I hope it comes up again tonight and tomorrow night, the last screenings of my OSIP tour.

Because I want to talk about not just raising awareness – but HOW that awareness gets raised. The Kony 2012 doc has been widely criticized (and rightly so, from my perspective) for perpetuating the myth that the West/”the white man” needs to save Africa from all its problems. It’s great that more people know who Joseph Kony is — but if we’re learning about him through a lens that reinforces Western stereotypes (and misrepresents and diminishes Africans and their capacities and cultural wisdom), then the learning brings with it a huge negative. We have to question the storytellers — and the ways we tell stories — as much as we question everything else. The very way we frame stories, the perspective we bring, the questions we ask, the way we let others speak for themselves (or not) is an absolutely critical part of this dialogue.

It’s something my collaborator Libby Hoffman pointed out when we first began working together on a still photography project about forgiveness traditions in post-conflict African countries, a collaboration that ultimately led to us meeting John Caulker, the founder of Fambul Tok, and to the creation of the Fambul Tok documentary. As a peacebuilder, Libby was, and is, very convinced that the way you see something, the lens you bring to a story based on your own perceptions and filters, is as important as what is seen. In other words, like the law of quantum physics, the storyteller directly impacts the story being told. It was a sobering thought for me, as a longtime journalist, and gave me much to aspire to. Early on in our work, in 2007, Libby shared this quote from the Nigerian Booker Award-winning author Ben Okri – words which became our shared inspiration as we learned the story of Fambul Tok, and brought it to others through our documentary:

“We have to re-discover Africa. The first discovery of Africa by Europe was the wrong one. It was not a discovery. It was an act of misperception. They saw, and bequeathed to future ages, an Africa based on what they thought of as important. They did not see Africa. And this wrong seeing of Africa is part of the problems of today. Africa was seen from a point of view of greed, of what could be got from it. And what you see is what you make. What you see in a people is what you eventually create in them. It is now time for a new seeing. It is now time to clear the darkness from the eyes of the Western world. The world should now begin to see the light in Africa, to see its sunlight, to see its brightness, its brilliance, its beauty. If we see it, it will be revealed. We only see what we see. Only what we see, what we see anew, is revealed to us. Africa has been waiting, for centuries, to be discovered with eyes of love, the eyes of a lover. There is no true seeing without love.”

I think the West has done more than enough “talking” for Africa, judging Africa by Western standards of crime and punishment that have little to do with local traditions of justice through reconciliation. And for me, that includes the Kony 2012 campaign, particularly because it advocates what most Ugandans do NOT want: military intervention by the US, and a trial at the International Criminal Court for Kony. In answering criticisms of their campaign on their website, the founders of Invisible Children said this:

“We are advocating for the arrest of Joseph Kony so that he can be tried by the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a precedent for future war criminals. The goal of KONY 2012 is for the world to unite to see Kony arrested and prosecuted for his crimes against humanity.”

It’s a popular concept in the West – that we will prosecute African warlords and prove to Africa and the rest of the world that war crimes are not okay. Unfortunately, that conversation rings hollow to so many people in Africa – who criticize the West for not indicting Western leaders considered, in the eyes of many, to be responsible for war crimes as defined by international law (Henry Kissinger is a popular example for many; George W. Bush is a more recent candidate). And many African human rights activists – including John Caulker – argue that the West would do well do listen to Africans, who have a lot to say about the role that local traditions and culture can and should play in resolving post-conflict dilemmas.

Just watch Fambul Tok – you’ll see what John is talking about, and the amazing impact of a cultural tradition in addressing truth-telling, forgiveness and reconciliation at the grass-roots level.

On the internet, a few of the posts from people who are outraged that anyone would criticize Invisible Children suggest that other activists (and storytellers) are simply jealous that their work has not had the same impact. I’m not jealous. But I will tell you this: I wish 70 million people would watch Fambul Tok, and realize how much the West has to learn from Africa. Maybe then we might begin to start seeing Africa in the new ways that Ben Okri so eloquently urges us upon us all.

I’d like to leave you with three of the most recent links that have come my way, one from a Westerner who has worked on the ground in northern Uganda for years, one is a posting from the Fambul Tok website and Libby Hoffman that pulls together many of the best critiques of Kony 2012 and Invisible Children, and one from a site that pulls together responses from the people we should all be listening to in all of this – Africans.




Post by Sara Terry, OSIP touring filmmaker

On Tour: Sara Terry in New Jersey

14 Mar

March 5, Monmouth University, Long Branch, NJ.

Okay… Sorry, but I’m going to get a little touristy here before heading into all things (or at least some things) film… I got to Long Branch with some time off on my hands – and I’ll admit it, I couldn’t resist driving south about 10 minutes or so to Asbury Park, NJ. Yes, I was a huge Springsteen fan back in the day, and am still an admirer of the man… I drove past the Stone Pony, where he and the E Street Band played all those years ago, and went along the boardwalk and cruised downtown, thinking about what it must have been like back then for a young Springsteen – feeling the presence of times past and the people who lived them. I felt that several times during my two days in the area.

The bed and breakfast where I stayed was actually one of at least 3 (huge) guest houses built on the rambling estate of a wealthy man whose main mansion no longer exists (the large guest houses are mostly gone, too). This is a community that was “the” place to be for summering magnates and their wealthy friends, a place where US presidents in the early 20th century came for a bit of rest along the seashore. There’s not much left these days to let you know that was ever the case – except perhaps for Wilson Hall on the campus of Monmouth University, a palace built a nouveau riche magnate who went bankrupt and lost everything. The building remains, stunningly renovated in recent years… again, the presence of times past and the people who lived them.

Interestingly, part of the post-screening Q and A at Monmouth also dwells on the idea of presence. I’m asked about how I worked in the field as a filmmaker and what I was able to accomplish with cinema verite scenes — footage achieved when the camera merely observes what is taking place in front of it , without direct comment to camera by the people in front of it. The camera is almost a bystander, allowing the viewer to be a fly on the wall. I love cinema verite and the skill that it indicates in the filmmaker; it’s not easy to get your subjects to forget that there’s a camera in your presence and at least one or two people standing there with the camera.

Getting these kinds of scenes was one of the hardest things we did in making Fambul Tok. There’s just no way that white people with cameras can melt into a crowd in a small village in rural Sierra Leone, west Africa. Often, in fact, you’re surrounded by small children who are fascinated with your every facial gesture or move. For us, the challenge was a serious one – we were living proof of the law of quantum physics that the act of observation changes what is being observed. There were a few occasions, at least, when our presence at a bonfire inhibited a perpetrator from coming forward to testify. In the early days of filming, before people had become familiar with us, some Sierra Leoneans thought we were members of the Special Court, come to take testimony on camera to be used in prosecutions. That’s what white people with cameras had come to signify. Over time, as Fambul Tok the program became more established – and no prosecutions resulted from perpetrators coming forward – our presence was less of an obstacle. In some communities, where we filmed several times, we were welcomed as brothers and sisters, and given local names that became the names which everyone called us. It took time, and there was never any way to minimize the fact that we were white – and that we were carrying cameras – but our presence became something that we all negotiated together. And in the end, the film is graced by several cinema verite moments that are a testament both to the skill of my crew (Henry Jacobson, Virginia Lee Hunter, Eric Becker and Jake DeVito) and to the generosity of the people we filmed. Thanks to them all, the presence of place and people and events has been recorded – and is not left to the imagination of those who come in later years, wondering who was once here, and why.

Post by Sara Terry, OSIP touring filmmaker

On Tour: Fambul Tok at Rutgers

6 Mar

March 2 – Rutgers University, Newark.

It’s a cold, rainy night in gritty Newark, but a good group turns out for the Fambul Tok screening, which is being shown as part of the Women’s History Month Film Festival.

On this trip, I’m loving the way that the post-screening conversation is guided by the interests of people in the audience. Some questions that pop out first in one place never even surface in another. Acts of forgiveness that seems impossible to some individuals make perfect sense to others.

At this screening, the Q and A is moderated by Dosso Kassimou, the president of Newark’s African Commission, and an immigrant from the Ivory Coast. He embraces Fambul Tok’s message of using cultural traditions of resolving conflict as something familiar – a practice that has deep roots across the African continent, though it takes different shapes according to country and culture. It’s an idea that seems to resonate with this audience, an acknowledgment that people so often do have answers to their own problems – solutions that can be far more effective than the tools that outsiders bring.

We talk a bit about the South African word, ubuntu. It translates in a variety of ways, but the one I love most is, “Because you are, I am.” It’s a sensibility that underlies this distinctly African love of, and commitment to, community, the understanding that my being depends on your being, and vice versa, the idea that without each other, we cannot be complete.

Tonight, this is the idea that stays with me as I walk back to the hotel in the rain. I have a lot on my mind, and am wrestling with many things. I want to live this idea of ubuntu more fully.

Post by Sara Terry, OSIP touring filmmaker

On Tour: Perspective

5 Mar

March 1st – the road from Erie to Allentown, and thoughts on perspective.

It was just one of those days where things don’t go as planned – my 11:15 am flight from Erie to Philadelphia/Allentown wasn’t happening. First the flight was delayed out of Philly, due to weather, and then, once on the ground in Erie, engineers found a mechanical problem. And pushed back the already delayed flight. And pushed it back again. And again.

By 2 pm, I called Brigid at the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation (my travel guru) and suggested that I get a rental car; I was sure I could drive the 300 miles to Allentown in time for the Q and A after the film. Brigid and her boss were reluctant – they didn’t want to impose on me. I, on the other hand, couldn’t wait to get on the road. Perspective. From Brigid’s kind point of view, I was being imposed on by having to make such a long drive. From mine, it was freedom and control over my own destiny. There’s something about getting behind the wheel of a car and heading off on a road trip that makes me happier than almost any thing else. I’m in control – I’m not dependent on anyone else to get me where I’m going, or to keep me from getting there.

The drive was long, and gray, not particularly scenic. But I had time to think and to listen to music, and to think some more – a good journey. Brigid had been concerned that it would be stressful; for me, it was relaxing. (Not to mention the fact that I was simply grateful to be driving on huge, paved highways; a similar drive in Sierra Leone, across dirt roads, would have taken two days). Perspective.

Six hours later, when I got off the Pennsylvania Turnpike, not far from Allentown, I asked the woman at the tollbooth how long it would take to get to town. “Well, that depends,” she said. “It could take you a while. Allentown is really big.” I stifled a very good-natured laugh. I’d just driven 300 miles in six hours, and had only a short way to go from my perspective. Not to mention that I come from a city (Los Angeles) that takes two hours to drive across at its widest part. Perspective. I smiled and thanked her and went on my way, and pulled up outside the theater about 10 minutes later. The Fambul Tok screening had already begun, with some 80 people inside – the biggest crowd yet for an OSIP screening, the staff told me. I waited for the film to end and went inside the beautiful theater for the Q and A.

There were a lot of great questions – many from a personal perspective. One woman wanted to know if something specific had happened in my life that made me want to help try to make the world a better place. A man talked about his own life experiences, and being brought up in an “NAACP oriented family” where much discussion took place about being black in America. But, he said, nothing he’d ever heard compared with what he’d seen on screen in Fambul Tok, and the story of Sierra Leone. “And those people went through that, and still they found love and compassion.” He said the film had given him a whole new way to consider challenges in his own life. Perspective.

At the end of the evening, after most everyone had left, a man and woman came up to me and told me that the audience had been almost entirely made up of people who were part of their social service programs – a veterans program, a half-way house, a drug treatment program. I’d had no idea. But what they told me gave me a whole new framework for considering the post-screening Q and A, and where the questions were coming from, and why. They told me they were sure that there would be many interesting conversations, sparked by the film, the next morning.

I drove away from the theater thinking about Fambul Tok in a new light, and what its message could mean for people who were struggling with some of these challenges. I wish I could have eavesdropped on the conversations that happened after the film. Perspective. It was a day full of so many.

Post by Sara Terry, OSIP Touring Filmmaker

On Tour: Remembering Bosnia in Erie, PA

2 Mar

At Mercyhurst College – the first stop on my OSIP tour with Fambul Tok – and there’s a small group inside the beautiful theater here, the second screening today. It’s spring break, so the first screening was a small group, too. I’m never actually worried about numbers – small audiences, big audiences, whatever – I’m just always grateful to have an opportunity to engage in a dialogue about the question that drives most of my work: What does it mean to be human?

This afternoon’s group was an engaged audience of older people, including a man who’d been a Peace Corps volunteers in Sierra Leone back in the early 1960s. I tell him when we meet that I envy his experience – I’ve often wished that I’d had the opportunity to know this peace-loving country before the war. I’m looking forward to the Q and A with this evening’s audience, which will start in another half an hour or so.

But as I sit here, I’m thinking about another country, and another time: Bosnia. I learned today that Mercyhurst College has one of the leading forensic science/forensic anthropology programs in the US. The woman who tells me this says frankly that she is squeamish about such things, that she can’t even stand to see someone get a shot on TV. And in turn I tell her a bit about the forensic anthropologist in Bosnia, the one who taught me how to be comfortable in the presence of bones.

Ewa Klownowski is a Polish-born (now citizen of Iceland) forensic anthropologist who has worked in the mass graves in Bosnia for some 15 years. During my first long-term project as a photographer (“Aftermath: Bosnia’s Long Road to Peace”), I came to know Ewa quite well, spending hours and hours with her at exhumation sites and in warehouses where she re-constructed skeletons and helped families identify the remains of loved ones. Ewa was kind to the bones, almost reverent – handling them gently as she puzzled over which bones belonged to which skeleton, apologizing to them if she accidentally stepped on one while laying them out on cold concrete floors.

For me, the exhumations and warehouses were almost unbearable at first – so full of death and sorrow. But to Ewa, this work was about life – about restoring the identities of those who had been massacred and left nameless in mass graves, about bringing the truth to the families who were still living, hoping for answers about what had happened to fathers, brothers, uncles, sisters, mothers, cousins.

Bit by bit, day after day, I began to see through Ewa’s eyes – to understand that this was a story about our humanity, a story about love. Because Ewa is one of the people who showed up after the war was over, who refused to allow the dead to be left nameless and forgotten. She refused to allow the evil of that war to be the final comment on who we are as human beings; she fought with all the science and humanity she possessed to insist that the story have a different ending – that the dead be brought back to life, in a sense, by giving them back their names.

I learned a lot from Ewa in those years. She taught me how to see – how to understand that war is only half the story, and that the stories that come after war are the stories, I think, that help us answer the question: What does it mean to be human?

Post by Sara Terry, OSIP Touring Filmmaker

OSIP Podcast #7: A conversation with Sara Terry, Director of Fambul Tok

23 Feb

It has been a pleasure getting to know the filmmakers selected for this tour. They are an ambitious and accomplished bunch. Sara Terry started off as a reporter then photojournalist working in conflict and post-conflict settings, and it was this work that actually led to her partnership with Catalyst for Peace and eventually resulted in her incredible film Fambul Tok. It’s a complicated and moving story of healing, following a series of grassroots community reconciliation efforts taking place in Sierra Leone.

Check out the film’s trailer here:

During our conversation, Sara’s energy and focus blew me away. She has traveled all over the world and engaged with post-conflict issues on every possible level. And as if she didn’t have enough to do with the photography, filmmaking, and writing, she also founded and runs The Aftermath Project. In the podcast interview, we discussed her career path, her thoughts on making a film like this for Western audiences, the experience of filming in such tense situations.

Listen here.

Podcast music: Finding the Balance by Keven MacLeod at incomptech.com

%d bloggers like this: