Trees, Like Years

Trees, like years, whizz by...
Trees, like years, whizz by…

Sante’s dad, Dr Nyambo, is a natural storyteller. She gets that from him. We discovered this on our recent production trip to Tanzania with Sante, where her mom, dad and older brother shared their lives with us so generously. Taking us on a tour of places of significance to their family, the Nyambos drove co-producer Brook and me from Dar Es Salaam to Msolwa to Moshi and back over the two weeks we visited.

“I remember every tree in the village,” Sante’s dad, a professor at Muhimbili University College of Health Sciences in Dar Es Salaam, told us when we visited his hometown of Kirua Vunjo, located in the shadow of Africa’s tallest mountain, Kilimanjaro. My ears perked up at his statement. I was intrigued by this idea that his definition of home was tied to trees. He described them with awe, his eyes twinkling with memories. One tree in particular inspired respect and a sense of myth among the kids he grew up with, because it was rumored to be very old, and though it flowered often, it had no offspring and was the only tree of its kind in the village. This Science– and Cell-published scientist, whose life’s journey has spanned continents and settled him with his family in the city of Dar Es Salaam, calls a quaint little village home and takes comfort in the village’s familiar trees.

His stories led me to imagine my own dad in Accra, a world-traveled city dweller himself now, reminiscing wistfully about trees, rare ponds and other elements of his childhood landscape of arid rural northern Ghana.  How do I define home, Dr Nyambo’s stories made me wonder? How will Sante define home in two years when her time at MIT is done? In ten? One Day I Too Go Fly plans to be around for an answer to at least the second of these questions.

-Arthur Musah / Boston, USA / September 7, 2013

Who Needs Rollercoasters

Flag one down.

Get a price.

Bargain.

Hop on.

Hang on for dear life.

Against the advice of a cab driver in Lagos, I ride an okada in Kano. “If you must,” he had said, “then pick well. Don’t pick a Hausa boy. Make sure you ride with someone who has a wife and children.”

I hadn’t been able to decide if the prejudice in the “Hausa boy” reference was aimed at the tribe or at the recklessness of youth. So I had let that rest. What I had taken away from his warning was to pick a motorbike cab with a driver who looked like he has something to live for and would therefore take fewer risks on the road.

I have to admit I was skeptical of the safety bar on these motorbike taxis, but necessity is a mother. Running low on funds towards the Kano part of the production trip, I let Philip convince me there was nothing to it.

What a thrill. Forget rollercoasters Tip: wear glasses. By the second ride, I was emboldened to get some shots of Philip and his brother coursing through the post-rainfall mud of Kano streets on these rambling lithe means of transport.

-Arthur Musah / Kano, Nigeria / August 22, 2012

PS. In Ghana, a mounting demand for okadas caused the government to review the safety record of motorbike taxis. It was found to be apalling. Okadas are currently banned in Ghana, but are increasingly in use in the north and, in Accra, one can occasionally sight a rogue motorbike driver picking up a passenger.

Oldies Aren’t The Only Goodies

I’m embarrassed to admit I have never seen Citizen Kane (1941). Yes, I know for a filmmaker that’s sacrilege. I found my love of making movies late. Yes, I’m aware that’s just an excuse, but I’m using it anyway.

I’ve often felt inadequate among cinephiles, who’ve seen all the classics ten times over and wield encyclopedic knowledges of film. I respect the process of gathering knowledge and experience to become a master at something, which requires the passage of time. I’m working on catching up. What I don’t believe, however, is that the study of old films is the only way to learn the craft of cinema.

While filming Exposure Robotics League (XRL) recently, I was faced with the challenge of how to cinematically cover the main activity of the program– students testing their robots’ performance on navigating a course to complete a given task. Throughout the week leading up to the final robotic competition, as the students tested and retested their robots with different programs, I practiced filming the same scene. Closeups at the level of the robots made for interesting perspective – the small robots looked enlarged compared to their more distant and therefore smaller programmers. But that could only be interesting for a few moments. Wide shots ended up lacking purpose as the bodies of the students surrounding the task course would too often shift and obscure the small robots from the camera’s view completely. Medium shots just didn’t cut it, as required choosing between seeing the human’s face and the robot. Eventually, I decided there was no good way to cover the scene with one camera. I’d just go ahead and shoot what I could on D-day.

On the day of the challenge, there were so many media companies and sponsor cameras covering the event that it became difficult to see the team representatives facing off with their robotics at the game tables in the middle of the hall. The teammates required to stand in the sidelines craned their necks for a while, but then had to complain that they couldn’t see the play. Suddenly it clicked. The drama was in the faces of people watching! And that’s what I spent a chunk of time (though not all of the time) filming.

Today, I was thinking again about how that light bulb went off in my head. I realized that I saw this technique in Rudo Y Cursi (2008)! It’s a film about two brothers who are soccer stars on rival teams. There are no actual shots of Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, who star as the brothers, playing virtuoso soccer. All the matches are played entirely on the audiences’ reactions. And it worked! Now that’s a recent film I’ve seen, have liked and have clearly learned from. Someday (hopefully soon) I do plan to see Citizen Kane, and I know I will be all the wiser for it.

-Arthur Musah / Lagos, Nigeria / August 21, 2012

The Toughest Interview Yet

A year into making One Day I Too Go Fly, I’ve filmed enough interviews with students, parents, and mentors, and met with enough administrators and teachers that I expect nerves to be a thing of the past. I’m therefore surprised to find myself overcome with shyness when faced with the one thing I’ve come to Nigeria for – an interview with Mrs Adama, Philip’s mom.

It’s not that Mrs Adama is intimidating. She actually has a presence that makes one feel right at home within minutes of meeting her. But I find myself filled with admiration at how she has raised a family of 5 children in the decade since Philip’s dad passed away. The manner in which she interacts with her sons and daughters reminds me of how when my brother and I were little our parents always asked us what we thought about economic ventures they were considering undertaking. We were always involved in all family matters. I see how the strength of Philip’s family lies in their reliance on each other. I realize that I’m dreading the moment I turn my camera on her because I must do this woman’s character and her family’s story justice. It is perhaps my tallest order yet.

I confess my anxiety to Philip. “Don’t worry,” he says, “my mother is a very open person. You can ask her anything you want.” So I go for it.

Forty minutes later, I’ve filmed my most succinctly poignant interview yet. Also, something happened at the end of the interview that surprised Philip himself and caused him to laugh uncontrollably in the adjoining room.

-Arthur Musah / Kano, Nigeria / August 20, 2012

A Twist Of Fate

I could kiss the hand – God’s, my ancestors’ or the UK consular’s – that delayed my UK transit visa in June. That delay prevented me from flying out with Philip to Nigeria in July, and consequently fixed a flaw in my scheduling of the Nigeria production trip.

My original thinking was to fly out with Philip and document his reunion with his family after a year apart. I expected this to be an emotional scene, worth crossing oceans for. Philip’s plan was to visit his mother and four siblings for a few days in Kano, northern Nigeria, and then head to Lagos for the first week of the Exposure Robotics League (XRL). Therein lay my suboptimal planning.

The first week of XRL was to be an instructor-only affair, during which they would prep for the next 5 weeks of teaching robotics, computer programming and SAT prep to 35 secondary schoolers. Essentially I would never have met any of the students, and never have seen the premier run of this bold program in action, let alone been witness to its exciting final days.

When the transit visa I am required to have in order to switch airplanes in Heathrow failed to arrive before Philip’s departure, I was in a sour mood for days thanks to the hefty flight change fees I was slapped with. I rescheduled my trip for the end of XRL, planning to spend 10 days embedded with the program until it finished and then to fly out to Kano with Philip to see his family and home. This new plan turned out to be a superior one.

What a finale the culminating robotics challenge ended up being. The students worked for days and a night to refine their algorithms. Teams fell apart and came back together. In the middle of the week, unexpected drama unfolded from what started out as a snooze of a day. And then the final competition day itself. Rife with dramatic tension, tears and celebrations, the program’s finale will make a worthy end to a story. XRL’s story is about the curiosity and competitive spirit latent in African youth, and the initiative of a few MIT-trained Nigerians to activate these qualities. Enough happened in the 10 days I documented that I know I have a standalone documentary short on my hands.

Thank you Exposure Robotics League for letting me live and eat with you, and most of all for giving me access to your wonderful story. I can’t wait to share it with everyone.

August 18, 2012

– Arthur Musah

The Urge To Stop Filming

Being a one man crew has advantages on the ground. I am nimble on my feet. Using available light I shoot handheld with my trusty Canon XHA1. For sound I mount a Rode shotgun mic on the cam, or plant wireless lavs on film subjects or in vantage points within the location. Should I need more than two channels of sound, I bring out the mean little Zoom H4N recorder. I take little space. I have the film production program at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts to thank for teaching me the skills I need to be cinematographer, sound recordist, producer and director for this documentary. Though I’m wearing all these hats due to funding constraints (fundraising plans are in the works, will need your help!), I am also a very lean production as a result. There are times, however, when I wish my producing partner, Brook, or some other sagely confidant were next to me, so I could turn to them for advice.

I have learned on the production of One Day I Too Go Fly that I’m in the middle of capturing a really good moment if it becomes extremely difficult for me to keep the camera rolling. Mostly, it’s because what’s unfolding makes me uncomfortable. Often, the situation is one of moral ambiguity for a character I like. At other times, it’s because the scene goes against common notions of decorum.

I would love to illustrate with an example from the recent week of production in Lagos, but will have to save that for the short film about Exposure Robotics League (please stay tuned :-)). Instead, I’ll use another moment from the past semester at MIT. I was excited to learn that many of the first year students I’d been following were running for leadership positions in the African Students Association (ASA) at MIT. I turned up to film a lively election meeting. One of the students was particularly nervous about his pitch for the position and admitted that to me. I hooked him up with a wireless lav mic. One by one candidates made their speeches, charming the association’s members with humor and personality. Suddenly, in the left channel of my headphones I heard someone start taking a piss into a toilet. Then, over the trickle, a voice started practicing a speech. It was the student I’d laved up. He was nervous about speaking in public! He was rehearsing his impending speech! While taking a leak! And what did I do? I turned the left channel gain controls all the way down to null to give him privacy.

Later, I saw the scene I could’ve edited if I’d been bolder. We see the character, our nervous student, sitting in a couch with three others. We cut to another student currently speaking at the center of the gathering. We stay with her speech for a few moments, then hear the disorienting sound of our character taking a leak, then rehearsing. His speech and trickle are juxtaposed over the current speaker. We cross fade the two sounds until the rehearsal in the toilet is the sound in focus. We cut back to the couch, and notice the nervous student’s seat is empty. We cut to the men’s restroom door. It opens shortly after. Our nervous student walks out and quietly returns to his seat. His dread of public speaking is glaring at this point. And he never would’ve had to admit it. It could have all been painted richly with subtext. I wanted to kick myself for squandering the opportunity.

When I encounter myself on the verge of documenting scenes like this or scenes raising moral questions, I find myself compelled to push the Record Stop button. My head becomes flooded with questions. Should I really be documenting this? How do the people I’m filming feel about this? What will the audience think about them if this makes it into the film? Will the audience latch onto a hint of darkness and not see the gray in this moral dilemma? Or in the case of the pissing audio scene, will they just think I’m being crass?

The struggle is with myself in those moments. I have to wrestle with the non-confrontational part of me, the part that cares too much what other people think, and the part that doesn’t like to disturb the peace. I am learning to fight the urge to look away when the picture isn’t all clean, simple or pretty. It’s hard to keep filming in those times, but now I know it’s probably because the moment is worth filming.

August 17, 2012

-Arthur Musah

Lagos, Centre Of Excellence

Everything looks so familiar, but I don’t recognize any of the streets. The main signs reminding me that I’m not quite home yet, that I’m not in Accra, are the okadas and kekenapeps (motorcycle and rickshaw taxis) that are everywhere on the buzzing streets of Lagos. I wonder how recent a phenomenon these are, and if Accra will be just as full of these nifty means of locomotion. Last time I was home, the tiny Korean Ticos were still the most compact mode of public transportation in Ghana. I’m impressed with the agility, abundance and cheapness of the okadas. Surely they must be the fastest way to get around the congested city. Best of all I love the boastful bravado captured on the license plates, which all say, “Lagos, Centre of Excellence.” I must find the balls to ride an okada before I leave excellence’s very center.

August 16, 2012

-Arthur Musah

Mission. Impossible?

Monday. The start of the fifth and final week of Exposure Robotics League (XRL). The secondary schoolers just found out details of their final challenge. It will be a rescue mission.

A mine has collapsed and trapped some miners. The students will have to program their robots to perform three tasks to rescue the survivors. They will have to work in alliances of 3 teams of trios. This news produces loud groans. But even harder to absorb is the additional news that they won’t find out which teams will be working together until Friday, the day before the final challenge. Panic is written all over the faces of the students as it dawns on them that they have little control over their fates in the final competition.

Getting the students used to the idea of teamwork is clearly one of the goals of XRL. For a number of students this has been the hardest adjustment to make. The local educational system is set up to rank students constantly, thus reinforcing a culture of competition. For some of these students, who landed scholarships to XRL from sponsors by being the best in their schools, the idea of depending on someone else sounds like a recipe for doom. How can they ensure the high standards they are used to delivering if they have to collaborate with other people?

When I visit Philip’s class, his students barrage him with what-if scenarios. Amused and patient, he calms them down. Learning there is nothing they can do about the rules, they resign themselves to the task of over-preparing for all the tasks in the final challenge. It means doing extra work, writing and testing more code than will actually be used on competition day. But this way, they can maximize their chances of winning no matter who they get stuck with. No matter how impossible the mission, these robot programming gurus intend to win.

August 13, 2012
-Arthur Musah

First Time In Nigeria

“First time in Nigeria?” The question comes not from the seat next to me, nor from the one in front of me, but rather from the one behind me. My eagerness and anxiety are apparently clear in my craned neck as I peer out the airplane’s window while we land in Murtala Muhammad International Airport. The man and I have not spoken the entire flight, but moved by the thrill he himself must be feeling at arriving home he has broken the silence and is offering me, the visitor, a welcome of sorts.

“Yes,” I answer, “How can you tell?”

“I can tell,” he says simply, grinning ear to ear.

As a citizen of Ghana, Nigeria is one of very few countries in the world I can visit without a visa. I am not amused, therefore, when the immigration officer flips through my passport and asks, “Where is your visa?” For a moment, my great vision for filming a documentary in Naija hangs in the balance.

“I’m Ghanaian.” Citizen of the Economic Community Of West African States? ECOWAS? Hello?

Her business face breaks into laughter. “I was testing you.” She stamps my passport, and off I go to an eternal wait to reclaim my baggage. I swap some dollars for naira at a rate of 1 to 157. The lady at the forex bureau generously throws in a call to my welcome party from her cellphone. I step out of the airport into a mix of creeping traffic, police officers, porters, luggage, money changers, taxi drivers and travelers waiting for their rides. Before long two familiar faces from MIT– Obi and Faith– pull up in a car. Faith graduated from MIT this June and is here on vacation and to work on a recycling project. Obi is a current  MIT student. He is from Nigeria and is one of the founders of Exposure Robotics League (XRL), the program I have come to document.

XRL is a five week camp for secondary school students (high schoolers) in Nigeria where they will undertake robotics, computer programming and SAT prep. This is the premier run of the program. It is such a novel idea for secondary school education in West Africa that when I learned Philip, one of the Nigerian MIT students I am filming for One Day I Too Go Fly, was selected as an instructor, I dug into my savings and took all my vacation to embed with the program for its final 10 days.

Before long I am at the Grange School hostel in GRA Ikeja in Lagos. GRA means Government Reserved Area, I find out later. It is the place where government officials settled when Lagos was the capital of Nigeria. A wealthy community, it is walled off from the cacophony of Lagos proper. Ever-smiling Philip welcomes me. He catches me up on his summer so far.

He surprised his family in Northern Nigeria with a visit before XRL began. His mother was beside herself with joy at seeing him after his yearlong absence. Everything seems smaller now, even the house his family lives in. It’s strange, he muses. It’s been great to be back home, he tells me. XRL has been running for 4 weeks now since the students arrived. The most challenging part has been introducing programming to some of the kids who have never had computers before. The most surprising part is that in a month, they program and talk about programming like they’ve been doing it their entire 16-year old lives. I am ready to be impressed in the morning.

August 10, 2012

-Arthur Musah

Naija-Bound

It is my third trip to the clinic in a month. The third time is indeed a charm. A sharp prick is followed by an extended sting as the nurse pumps the inoculation into my arm. Then I’m required to wait 30 minutes under observation lest I develop a bad reaction to the live vaccine. In the three trips to the travel clinic, I’ve received malaria prevention pills and been vaccinated against measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, hepatitis B, and now, finally, yellow fever. Now that I’m armed against all the scary diseases of Africa, I’m ready for my trip to Nigeria and Ghana. I’m ready to go home. The battery of precautionary vaccinations are merely a practicality, I know, but the sheer number of precautions combines with a certain guilt I harbor about being cosy with my life in the US – so cosy as to have let 4 years go by since my last visit home – that I feel a bit embarrassed.

I have not been idle and completely negligent of my home, however. Part of the reason I have not returned recently is that I have been in training. After two degrees in engineering from MIT and four years of practice at a semiconductor company, it dawned on me that the storytelling I have loved as much as technology need not be relegated to a hobby. What if I went back to school for a couple of years to learn to make films? I could make films about Africans! The more I thought about it the more it seemed like a good idea. So off I went to the USC graduate film production program.

Two years later, I was putting the intense and exciting film training period on hold and stepping back out into the real world and an engineering job. I was also hungry for a “real” film project. Catching up with my host family from my MIT college days, they reminded me of the day we first met. They had picked me up from Boston’s Logan airport as I arrived from Ghana and had driven me to MIT. When I exited their car I had uttered in wonderment, “My first step at MIT.” I had sensed that that step would change my life, and indeed it has. Why not make a movie about that, my host family suggested.

So here I am. For a year now, I have been filming the lives of a number of students who arrived at MIT from Africa in August 2011 to pursue their thirst for knowledge. I reached out to them on the chance that they might open their hearts to a stranger across the oceans, and share their lives with me over four years as they grow from teenagers into adults while striving to become engineers in the world’s best technological university. They have been generous beyond my imaginings. I am deeply grateful for their generosity and courage. I am determined to do their story justice by telling it to the best of my ability. Which brings me back to the topic of vaccines and journeys back to West Africa.

I am headed to Nigeria to follow one of the students’ journeys this summer. After a year at MIT, he is back in his home country for the summer holiday teaching robotics to high schoolers. I knew I had to follow him there because I believe that is part of the story of African youth today. He is part of this citizenry of African globe-trotters that are catalyzing the continent’s renaissance. I’m headed out to capture this piece of the story. Wish me luck.

August 8, 2012

-Arthur Musah