WeOwnTV: Making Art Make a Difference in Sierra Leone
CCA alumnus Banker White (MFA 2000) is a documentary filmmaker. You may know him as the director of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, about a group of Sierra Leonean musicians who gained international renown and landed a record deal.
These days White is busy as the head of WeOwnTV. Headquartered in San Francisco, the innovative nonprofit works with young adults in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone in West Africa, teaching them how to record their lives and stories using documentary and narrative film. White crafted the program with a former refugee and child soldier, Alhaji Jeffrey Kamara (aka Black Nature).
WeOwnTV is free to its local participants, many of whom are orphans, former child soldiers, former teen prostitutes, and amputees. The video and media productions they create offer an intimate look at a nation that most Westerners know only from news accounts of its long and bloody civil war.
Earlier this year, WeOwnTV opened a media center in Freetown so that graduates of its courses can continue to have access to studios and equipment for the telling of their stories. There is a great need in the community to give voice to the history of war. There is also a great cathartic power in the arts.
CCA's Jason Engelund (Center for Art and Public Life) Recalls Meeting Banker White
This writer met Banker when he and I were students at CCA. My first exposure to his work was seeing a huge hut he'd built out of large pieces of tree bark on the Oakland campus. The next thing I knew, I was hearing a drum. I followed the sound down to the Sculpture Program studios. Banker was atop a ladder playing a beautiful, hand-carved, 10-foot-tall, four-foot-wide drum that he had made from a naturally felled redwood.
The project was the beginning of what one might call his "call and response" (to use a drumming term) with respect to his relations with communities in Africa. Watch the Big Drums video.
I caught up with Banker after his most recent return to San Francisco from Freetown:
JE: What inspired you to create WeOwnTV?
BW: When Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars was broadcast on PBS, we developed a great outreach campaign and study guide for schools here in the U.S. We wanted to also do something back in Sierra Leone. Black Nature, the young rapper in the band who was orphaned by the war, was living with me here in San Francisco. We decided to create something specifically for his generation.
The war has been over for almost 10 years, so they are no longer children but the next generation of young adults. Most of them missed out on education, many were orphaned, and today many are still living on the streets. We wanted to create a place where they would feel supported, and a part of something.
JE: I was moved by the video interview with Fatmata Mansaray, a participant in the program. As a child she saw her parents and siblings suffer wartime atrocities, and then she was taken as a "rebel wife" by the R.U.F. After six years she escaped and made her way to Freetown.
In one of her videos she talks about WeOwnTV and says, "Luckily you have come with this program. My friends also tell me I could do it. [I'm doing this] for my parents' future and for my country's future. I will stand for this role, I will stand."
The interviewer, another local Freetown videographer, asks: "Do you think this program will change your life?" "Ya, I will be changing my life. I will be steady in life, one piece, and do something that will better my life."
Can you tell us more about some of the videos and stories, and how they are helping individuals who have suffered from the R.U.F. and the war?
BW: Everybody was affected by the war. Atrocities were committed on both sides. Arthur Pratt, the interviewer you refer to, is a local pastor and youth advocate. We met Arthur on our first trip. He has been writing and performing plays with ex-combatants and former child prostitutes for the last decade. It was with him that we started the process of selecting who WeOwnTV would work with. The criteria were simple: Each participant should bring as much to the program as he or she takes from it—creativity, enthusiasm, openness, and a willingness to share.
The group is varied. There are a handful of men and women who are ex-combatants. Others are former child prostitutes. There are two polio-affected individuals. But what they share is a boldness and a passion for storytelling. In our selection process we also leveled the playing field by focusing on creative self-expression rather than technical skills.
At first we worked with a series of improvisational exercises: The students were asked to simply "play" with a camera. This sense of play, with no right or wrong ways of doing things, eliminated the fear inherent in the learning process and allowed the students to learn the technology through direct experience and to trust their instincts as they interacted with the world around them in new ways. It was from this foundation of trust that we moved forward.
Being a part of this group has been therapeutic for many members. Several have shared experiences and feelings in video diaries and other media that they never talked about before. But the program is not forced therapy. It’s a space to create and express as freely and honestly as possible. Some filmmakers have chosen a narrative way to express themselves, while others dream toward a fantastical future.
JE: Freetown was established in 1792 as a home city for African American slaves promised freedom after serving in the British military during the American Revolution. Its history has been tumultuous, and today despite its wealth of natural resources, including gold, titanium, diamonds, and oil, poverty is the norm. What do you feel WeOwnTV offers the people of Freetown? How is it helping them transform their community?
BW: The name WeOwnTV is already becoming recognized around town. Films created by the group have screened internationally at film festivals. The people are ready for the country to move forward, and groups like this give them something to be proud of. The media center’s doors opened this summer. People identify with the name, too. "WeOwnTV" means “Our own TV” in the local Krio dialect.
Soon the center will offer classes in computer skills, film and television production, social networking, journalism, and scriptwriting. The WeOwnTV student filmmakers will have access to production and postproduction equipment and studio space in order to produce their own films, television journalism, music videos, commercials, and public service announcements.
Ongoing free education will continue to be supported by the U.S.-based team, but the goal is to move the center quickly to a level of self-sustainability. Instructors have started earning modest salaries, and freelance work has started to come in. The members aren't just getting their stories heard, they are getting an opportunity to take control of their futures.
JE: Another great video on the WeOwnTV site is the group singing about what it means to Freetown that President Obama was elected here in the United States. Can you say something about the importance of the visual arts and music in the Refugee All Starsmovie and videos like that one?
BW: We were in Freetown during President Obama’s inauguration. People were so excited, feeling connected to the US and to a sense of hope. When someone’s ideas of what are possible shift—whether it's a personal breakthrough or a change in one’s life ambitions—that is a powerful human emotion.
Music and the arts are the best media to communicate these things. They speak across class lines and geographical borders. Independent media and artistic expression are crucial cornerstones upon which devastated countries like Sierra Leone can build a peaceful future.
Youth programs focusing on the arts have been extremely successful in creating a common ground for communication and eventual understanding among young people from varied backgrounds. Providing a safe space for youth to share of themselves helps unlock the inherent creativity of young minds, giving them confidence in their own talents and ability to contribute to the world they inhabit.
JE: What are some of the specific challenges that you face working in Freetown?
BW: We continue to have problems with reliable electricity and Internet access. The center now has what we call a backup generator that gives us power. When we started, it wasn't a backup—there was no city power. But things are improving slowly. As for the Internet, there are also improvements, but connections are slow and expensive.
There are also many personal dramas within the group. Their lives are still difficult, but they have really become like family and support each other when times are tough. One group of students who were having trouble with their foster families even decided to get a house together.
JE: How did your time at CCA influence your work?
BW: My work shifted while I was at CCA in many ways. I had many different interests that all were parts of my life, but seemed very separate. I was a painter, a musician. I had studied and worked in Africa. At CCA I began working more in the public sphere. My work became more cross-disciplinary, and interests that had previously been separate began to synthesize.
I started the drum project, which became very collaborative and performative. It also took well over a year to complete. I really got into the documentation of the process: both the work and the many people I met who helped me along the way. The way I was living my life became the work. I can say now in retrospect that that is what brought me to film. It was also around this time that I began an oral histories project with an aging grandmother.
JE: Who were your mentors at CCA?
BW: Stephen Goldstine, Mark Thompson, Linda Fleming, Ignacio Valero, Lydia Matthews, Jack Ford, Clay Jensen, Bud Schmitt . . . So many great people, and all for so many different reasons, both in and out of the classroom.
JE: Have you focused only on socially engaged work since you graduated from CCA?
BW: Not entirely. I had two residencies at the San Francisco dump (now called Recology). That is an amazing program that had a huge influence on my work. So many ideas coming at you in the form of waste—chaotic and fun. I served on the advisory committee for many years and still play the big drums representing that program in San Francisco’s Carnival parade every year.
I also got a San Francisco Arts Commission grant together with that program and organized a beach cleanup and public art performance video called Social Landscape.
In the last couple of years I also have done work as a director of photography for music videos and independent narrative films. My doc work has also stayed in an intensely personal realm. For the past few years I have been working on a documentary about my mother, who is struggling with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
JE: What are you most excited about for the upcoming phase of WeOwnTV?
BW: 2011 is a big year for Sierra Leone, as it is their golden anniversary. The theme of our project next year is "new beginnings." The team believes it’s time for Sierra Leoneans to turn on the television and be entertained, educated, and enlightened by media created in Sierra Leone by Sierra Leoneans.
And also time for Westerners to turn on their TVs and view stories about Sierra Leone and West Africa that are about something besides civil war and corruption. Their proposal, Meet Sweet Salone: Celebrating and Documenting Sierra Leone’s 50 Years of Independence, is an ambitious year-long project to produce a 12-episode documentary short-form series, documenting the Sierra Leone of 2010 by introducing the rich culture and character of the nation.
The goal is to air the series via the only television station currently available in the country, SLBS (Sierra Leone Broadcast Service) to an international audience via both traditional broadcasters and the WeOwnTV website.
JE: Is there a way for people to help out with the WeOwnTV project?
BW: Yes! We are looking for support of all kinds. Tax-deductible donations can be made at WeOwnTV donate.
We are also seeking donations of production equipment and Mac computers and laptops. WeOwnTV is also about connecting people, so please come visit the site, watch some videos, leave a comment, post a link, or send one to a friend.
JE: Thanks Banker, and keep us posted!
Jason Engelund, Program Manager, Design & Marketing
Center for Art and Public Life at California College of the Arts