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American Film Showcase: Building Bridges in Burundi

By Lyn Goldfarb

On Sunday, June 17, I arrived in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, in the middle of the night after a 25-hour flight. The airport was small and rather empty, but then again, it was after midnight in a remote part of the world. I did not know what to expect, but was excited about the challenges and possibilities of coming to Burundi, a country that few people know about.

I was here as a film expert under the auspices of the US State Department-sponsored American Film Showcase and its grantees, the University of Southern California (USC) School of Cinematic Arts and partners IDA and Film Independent. This cultural diplomacy program is an opportunity to provide information, context and access to a documentary world too often not accessible to countries off the tourist and cultural exchange route. It is a chance to begin a dialogue about documentaries and the power of film in a country undergoing profound transformation. And for me, it was an opportunity to experience another country and its people through a workshop where I was able to learn about the concerns and ambitions of young people on the move.

Making documentaries in Burundi is a challenge. It is one of the poorest nations in the world-a landlocked country bordered by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania and Rwanda. It borders Lake Tanganyika, the world's longest fresh-water lake, but it has little industry, few natural resources and almost no tourism. Burundians speak French and Kirundi; and the population is primarily Christian.

Burundi had been a colony of Belgium, which ruled by fueling ethnic conflicts and promoting divisions among the Hutu, Tutsi and Twa peoples. Since independence in 1962, the conflicts have continued, with the country engulfed in political unrest and a brutal civil war until 2006.  

The city of Bujumbura is poor, underdeveloped and bustling. There are few foreign visitors, except United Nations delegations and NGOs. We were told not to go out at night by ourselves, but the city did not feel unsafe.

I was in Burundi with Anne Buford, director of the 2011 documentary Elevate, and Rachel Gandin Mark from USC. We had been invited to screen films and conduct a three-day documentary workshop as part of FESTICAB, a four-year-old film festival showing features and documentaries by filmmakers from Burundi and throughout Africa. This year, for the first time, FESTICAB screened American films: Elevate, the Academy Award-winning Undefeated from Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, and Tiffany Shlain's Connected.

FESTICAB films were shown at several venues in and around Bujumbura, including our hotel, Club du Lac, a sponsor of the festival, which screened the movies on an inflatable, outdoor stage on the beach. Amazingly, the sound and picture were great.

We stayed in Burundi for five days. After meeting with FESTICAB Director Leonce Ngabo and Anita Doll, the public affairs officer from the American Embassy, about the details for the week, we launched our workshop on Tuesday. We covered the basics of story and character development, structure, research, visualization and pre-production, and I screened clips from a number of films to show the diversity of styles, techniques, purpose and impact of documentaries.

Lyn Goldfarb teaches a workshop in Bujumbura, Burundi

We held our workshop at the American Corner, part of a classroom at CEBULAC (the Centre Brundais pour la Lecture et l'Animation Culturelle), which operates the only public library in the capital. The American Corner, which opened this year, offers access to the Internet and English-language books and resources, and has become a hub for American cultural activities.

We worked with 10 students, primarily in their 20s; most were university graduates in communications, and a few were still in college. Most were working in some of form of media, as journalists, filmmakers and actors. They were more experienced in film than we had expected, due to the strong presence of the Burundi Film Center and FESTICAB. I was impressed by the level of education and skills of our students. They were interested in making a film based a true story, learning the techniques of telling a story through film, and making a film of which they would be proud.

The students represented the new generation of Burundians who, at least from what we experienced, had put the ethnic conflicts behind them and were eager to build a new creative and cultural community.

While our students all spoke and understood English, their grasp of the language varied-one of the challenges of conducting a workshop in another country. We began the class by talking about why we became interested in documentaries, what documentaries mean to us and what the possibilities could be. Anne and I showed clips from our work.

After lunch, we spent the afternoon talking about the wide range of documentary styles and approaches, and I showed and discussed five-to-ten-minute clips. In addition to our work, I picked films that I thought would resonate with the class in terms of either subject matter or accessibility, including Rabbit in the Moon, Born into Brothels, Mad Hot Ballroom, Daughter from Danang, Harlan County USA, Man on Wire, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Made in LA.

On our second day of class, we focused on storytelling. I broke down the elements of story, and we talked about how to structure a documentary, covering topics such as style, themes, story arc, shots, scenes and acts. We also discussed choices we make, such as music, narration, point-of-view and use of footage and stills. And we talked about how to set up a story and what information is revealed to the viewer in the set-up of a documentary.

We devoted the afternoon to a case study of Elevate, which follows four West African teens from a basketball academy in Senegal to prep schools in the US where they pursue their NBA dreams. Our students had many questions about the film, and Anne was eager to talk about how it was made and the choices she made. The discussion continued as students talked about the importance of documentaries in telling stories and opening Burundi up to the world.

That evening, FESTICAB screened Elevate and Undefeated at the outdoor stage at Club du Lac. Chairs were set up on rattan mats on the beach; the atmosphere was wonderful and the audience was interested and engaged. 

On day three of the workshop, we continued the discussion about story and structure, and then focused on preparation: finding the story, setting up shots, choosing locations, addressing sound and noise issues, and preparing for and setting up interviews. I distributed several handouts, including my teaching notes and charts for preparation, story concepts and shot lists.

After lunch, we divided into three groups, with Anne, Rachel and I each meeting with a group of three or four students, who presented their projects and ideas, which we discussed in detail. We talked about the themes of the documentaries, story, set-up and main characters, as well as central problems and how they might be resolved.

The students' ideas included: stories on deforestation and other environmental issues, the impact of the civil war, children growing up in prison, children who are taking care of their families, and the lives of young girls coming to the city for a better life but ending up in prostitution.

At the end of the workshop, we provided our students with certificates, and with information about international film festivals and competitions, free subscriptions to the IDA, and other information to help them on their journey to make their documentaries.

That night, we attended a reception hosted by the Charge d'affaires Sam Watson in honor of FESTICAB. Many of the filmmakers and cultural leaders in Burundi were invited to the event.

A second workshop was organized by the American Embassy for Girl Guides, a sister organization to Girl Scouts, whose mission is to empower young women who have been traditionally under-represented in leadership in Burundi. The embassy purchased five Flip cameras for five teams of two girls each. Our goal for the one-day workshop was to teach the fundamentals of documentary filmmaking as well as how to use the Flip cams. Following the workshop, these young women, both Girl Guide leaders and staff, would work with mentors to produce three-to-five minute documentaries, which the embassy intends to showcase this fall.

That afternoon, the French Cultural Center in central Bujumbura hosted a screening of Elevate. The audience had many great comments and questions for Anne. It was a lively discussion, most of it translated into French.

For me, these workshops were just the beginning of an ongoing relationship we hope to continue with our students through e-mail, Facebook and Skype. The American Film Showcase provides an incredible opportunity for American documentary filmmakers to show and discuss their films and the issues they raise; demonstrate the potential of documentaries for social change, empowerment and cultural awareness; and build bridges between countries nurtured by mutual respect, creativity and a vision for a better world.


Lyn Goldfarb is an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, specializing in historical and social issue documentaries, primarily broadcast on PBS. She is currently working on new forms of documentaries, including interactive, web based and installations.