Shannon’s interview with Jennifer
As I understand it, you have an undergraduate degree from the University of Nairobi.
How did the experience of attending an African university, as an American foreign student influence your perspective and world views?
Did the experience provide a new perspective in viewing Africa?
Did the experience provide a new perspective in viewing America?
I actually attended University of Nairobi as part of a year abroad program at UCLA.
So I initially spent a year there and then returned for further field studies, but my undergraduate degree is from UCLA.
I wish every student had the ability to study abroad, even for a quarter or semester. Time abroad, and by this I mean actually living somewhere else – not just visiting, provides an education that is totally different from normal studies.
My year at University of Nairobi completely changed my worldview.
First and foremost I was there at a time where students, just by the nature of being educated, were a political threat to an entrenched dictator. I realized that education is not just something to make my own life more complete, the concept of “knowledge is the power to make change” is very real.
That sounds so “slogan-ish” in a way, but it is absolutely true.
The other thing that really struck me was the power of the media and how even well meaning films / TV shows / blogs / books can bolster myths and stereotypes. Kenya in real life was nothing like Kenya of the movies and the Kenyan view of America was incredibly askew.
For example, when my classmates learned I was from Los Angeles they would ask me 1) if I’d ever been shot? 2) what gang I was in?
They’d seen a lot of gangster films (alla Boyz in the Hood or Straight Out of Compton) about LA and just assumed every Los Angelino was some sort of gangster (if not that, then a movie star). I had to explain that even though films show a lot of gangsters in LA, Los Angeles was a big diverse place with every different type of person imaginable.
Living in Nairobi provided the same experience for me. I’d seen films that featured slums and poverty, but Nairobi is huge and has the same scope as Los Angeles when it comes to complex culture and diverse inhabitants.
A very powerful subtext of your film, A Small Act, is in the fact that Hilde Back, a Holocaust surviver, gave Chris Mburu a scholarship as a young boy, who then goes on to combat future holocausts, genocides and crimes against humanity today.
That wonderful chronology of events helps create a beautiful cycle of hope and healing.
What about this particular subtext of the story has meaning to you?
I believe in hope and my personal style of filmmaking always has a lot of heart.
I love the idea that by doing something small, kind and somewhat selfless, Hilde was healing one of her deepest wounds and she didn’t even know it.
She decided to help someone, she had no idea that Chris would grow up to fight genocide, but he did.
He had no idea that she lost her parents in Nazi Germany.
I don’t know if I believe in fate, but I believe that each of us knows right and wrong, and when we make the “right” choice, it comes back to us in some way. Maybe we never know how our actions impact other people, but it is important to remember that they do.
As a 14 year old girl growing up in America, I am growing up in a culture that frequently describes “success” in terms of material measurements.
A person is considered “successful” based on how big a job title they have and how big a salary they make and how big a house they own and how expensive a car they drive and where they take their vacations and how much stuff they consume.
However Mr. Mburu, by contrast, represents a different kind of value system in terms of “success”. His work as a human rights lawyer, is a success of conscience, a success of something larger and vastly more important than materialistic measurements.
Your film, A Small Act, has helped me to see this contrast of the value of “success” of Mr. Mburu’s story more clearly, because it is radically different form what I am exposed to as a young American, growing up within the American “success” value and culture.
I was able to gain insight not only about the different views of success, but also their repercussions and actual value and importance.
To me, this is one of the powerful impacts of a bold and beautifully crafted documentary film like yours.
Ms. Arnold, could you explain what you think is the potential of documentary filmmaking to help to tell the story of our global community in a way that might challenge our time honored ideas about “success”?
As a 14 year old girl growing up in America, it is your job (and the job of your generation) to redefine success and what it means to you.
You actually have that power.
I can tell from your email that you are most likely a leader and a thinker.
So I would ask you to ask yourself when you felt most successful — was it in accomplishing something meaningful, or acquiring something of status?
Documentary films provide an experience akin to traveling.
The audience gets the opportunity to watch a true story from a different culture or meet a person with a different world view.
Documentaries can help viewers broaden their understanding of the world, provide a call to action, expose injustice.
Books can do the same thing, so can some narrative films. But what do you do with these newfound bits of knowledge? Do you change your own culture? The way you live your life? The people around you? I think documentaries can provide a great catalyst for change, but to redefine the definition of success takes a cultural shift, and culture is shifted by people.
As part of the Pencils for Africa program, I have learned about the Scramble for Africa which occurred over a century ago.
I can see a new “scramble” ongoing today, an attempt of imperialism of the minds of my generation.
There are so many competing financial interests in the commercial media, from video games and television shows, to movies and all sorts of materialistic product. Often times educators and parents are the ones who see this scramble in affect, but us, the targeted, do not.
For example, I am sure you know of the documentary film, Web Junkie, in which we see that there are young people my age in China that are so addicted to video games that they need to detox from these video games by attending a military style boot camp.
In the modern media world that my peers and I are growing up in, what is the best way for beautifully crafted ‘artisan’ storytelling like A Small Act to still reach us and educate us?
Your mind is your own.
Just like your body is your own.
Would you eat nothing but fast food three meals a day for all year long if you could?
I mean, maybe you’d want to, maybe it is delicious (to some) but there seems to be no doubt that overindulging in cheap, fast food is going to have some serious repercussions on your life, even for someone who is still in their teens.
Even though the TV, internet and our roadways are covered with ads for Whoppers / McNuggets / Del Tacos (just to name a few), we all still try to consume some fresh meals because we want to take care of ourselves. So why not apply the same logic to your minds? Yes, there are lots of cheap and fast ways to entertain ourselves, and it is fine to enjoy them, but what is the long term impact of never breaking up those “empty mental calories” with something more thought provoking? What media you consume is up to you.
Films like A SMALL ACT are not that hard to see. But what really helps filmmakers, is word of mouth. When people like you ask their friends to see A SMALL ACT then I know I’m reaching a new audience. And I hope that people will love the film enough to tell other audiences to watch.
Together with four other girls who are my fellow Pencils for Africa (PFA) teammates, I have co-founded the PFA Film Festival.
We have been inspired by excellent films addressing African themes, such as A Small Act, and we wish to share these films with our community.
All of us believe strongly in the affective educational and bond strengthening community.
Although we have a basis for our cause, we still need help executing being as young as we are. Most of the adults we know have not even seen the African theme films we have seen, let alone discuss them extensively and learn and grow from them, as we have done.
Ms. Arnold, do you have some thoughts or some guidance for five young girls, all 13 or 14 years old, who have no idea what they are doing with the PFA Film Festival but strongly feel they must do it anyway?
You are already doing it!
You’ve created this film festival and you are promoting it and you are interviewing me!
You are already sharing these films with new audiences and creating discussions. So I think what you are doing is great.
I would not say “you don’t know what you are doing,” because clearly you are already doing something.
You might be “learning” but you do know how to do a lot. For example you’ve found some films, you’ve organized the festival, you’ve reached out to filmmakers. My advice has more to do with making sure you show the whole scope of Africa when you select your films.
I think it is great to raise money for those in need, but also make sure your audiences know that there is a huge middle class in African countries and there is a lot of innovation and business and development. I think most films about Africa (mine included) can focus on poverty and it can create the impression that all of Africa (or Kenya) is impoverished, when nothing is farther from the truth.
In fact I decided to make A SMALL ACT because the aid workers / lawyers were Kenyans and the only refugee was European. That was the opposite of what I had been seeing in films about Kenya.
So make sure you question the message of the films you share.
Is the message something you believe in? Does your slate (all the films) show various views? Do you have some scope?
This can be important in setting up a festival.
There are some great films that are created by Kenyans that you might look at.
Do you know the film Pumzi by Wanuri Kahiu? If not then google it, it is great and it is the type of film that can counterbalance some of the images audiences are used to seeing when it comes to Kenya or Africa on the whole.
Good luck with your festival!