Paulina Tervo on The Awra Amba Experience

Mandy Rose:

Can you describe your professional trajectory; the areas you’ve been involved in and interests you’ve been pursuing?

Paulina Tervo:

I studied documentary filmmaking at Royal Holloway in 2003 to 2004.  That was my introduction to  filmmaking and that’s when I really started to understand my passion. From then on I’ve been working partly in the UK TV industry, but also within NGOs [Non-Governmental Organisations] in media roles, and then five years ago I set up my own production company with my husband, who’s also a filmmaker.

So my journey’s not been a completely straight path. I’ve also studied international development and that kind of thinking brought me into what I’m doing now, because I want to combine my skills with doing something useful. For me it’s really important to make programmes and films that are meaningful and that can make a change. that’s really the focus of my work.

MR:                            

How did the Awra Amba project come about?

PT:     

That’s actually got a long history. I travelled to Ethiopia in 2004, just after I’d graduated from my Masters. I was travelling with an NGO and they told me about this village and I thought, this sounds really interesting, like something I haven’t seen before.  I’d been seeing a lot of poverty in the time I’d spent there. So I went with them and I was just stunned by this place.  And I had my camera with me so I took some footage and I just thought, “Oh my God, I have to come back and explore this further.”

That was the first introduction, but it took four years before I was able to go back. It was a bit of a journey between trying to find the possibility and the right people to go back with.

Then in 2008 I went back with a cinematographer friend of mine, and we spent a week just living there with the community, and filming and getting to know them.  After that I got some funding to make a short film, so that same year I went back with another person and spent two weeks filming in Awra Amba and we came up with the film that was released in March 2010.

MR:  

Can you tell me how the relationship to the village and the villagers worked in that stage of the production, while you were making that linear film?

PT:    

When we first went there we were really careful not to whip out the camera immediately, because we wanted to build trust with the community members. I was aware that I wasn’t the only media-maker who had come to the village. They had had quite a few TV crews and journalists there already and I wanted to build a trust as a documentary filmmaker, which I think is different from a journalist.
We stayed there for a week, we lived with them, and we talked to people. We made sure we told them about us, which is really important – a two-way conversation.  It’s not just us looking at them, they are also looking at us and asking us questions. So that was really important to me.  And I think, because I did that and we’ve continued to do that, I think they trust us and they want to work together with us, because they know that we are not there to say something bad about them, or to make up their values; that we are actually there to learn about their way of life and objectively tell their story, if that makes sense.

MR: 

This is a slight digression, but I’m wondering if there are particular films, filmmakers or projects that you’ve been influenced by, that lie behind the way you are thinking when you are on location.

PT: 

Yes, I think there are. My course was very much based on the independent documentary genre rather than TV formatted documentary. I was lucky to have great tutors.  One of them was Gideon Koppel, I don’t know if you know of him, but he is a very good filmmaker. He introduced me to films that had a different approach. It’s going in and not immediately whipping out the camera but really getting to know the people.

And, on a completely different note, I’ve been working with a group of young disabled people in London and using video to try to get them to tell their own stories. This is work I’ve been doing for years.  So that’s also inspired me to think differently about how I’m approaching somebody.

Of course there are lots of brilliant filmmakers who I’m inspired by, Kim Longinotto being one of them. She’s been a really great inspiration to my work.

MR:   

Interesting. Yes, I know Gideon Koppel’s work, not least because I live in Wales and Sleep Furiously was a very important film to be made about Wales in the last few years.

So, you’ve made the linear film.  What kind of reception did that get and how did the next stage of the project emerge?

PT:

The reception of that film was actually a little bit unexpected. I didn’t have a distributor or a broadcaster, so it was very much thinking outside the box, how can I distribute this film. I had tried all the obvious channels,so I then thought, well, if we release it globally, on a day that everybody’s thinking about women’s rights…So we released it on International Women’s Day. I phoned up YouTube and asked if they would be able to put it on their front page for that day, which they then did. So through that launch, which we publicised a lot, we got lots of hits and that generated quite a lot of discussion. And simultaneously we had another screening at the Frontline Club, in London which was packed actually – people were even standing. And after the film there was a long discussion, which wasn’t just a Q&A. It actually became a debate between the audience on different issues. It was very interesting. It went on for an hour and after that experience we realised that people really want to talk about these issues, that this film was like a…

MR:

Catalyst?

PT:

Yes, a catalyst for discussion on really big universal themes –  religion, democracy, education. What is a cult? What is a Utopia? Socialism? Huge themes came up. So I started thinking that there is something more to be done with Awra Amba, because it’s such a brilliant place. we have to extend it into something that’s easier for people to access… simultaneously I was really inspired by Kat Cizek who was also one of the tutors on a course I did.  So yes, that’s how it came about, and I started thinking about making it an interactive documentary. I started learning about interactive storytelling,  about three years ago, going on various workshops to learn, and to pitch.

MR:

Can you describe then the elements of the transmedia project that you are now producing?

PT: 

Using 360 panoramic photography  – we are creating an immersive online experience, like a virtual village.  So visitors who can’t physically go to Awra Amba can visit the community online  On an interactive landscape  there will be ten huts, or ten locations. Each of those huts will have a 360 view so you can scroll around and look at different things and different characters inside, almost a game-like interface where you find things, click on them and facts pop up, or you can meet characters, and find out more about them. Each hut also houses a short documentary.

These documentaries are short – three, four minutes. They are self-contained films and each one is a very personal story, about Awra Amba and one of the peoples’ lives there. Each story builds into a bigger narrative about what Awra Amba is about.  And those ten films then link to ten themes  we want to explore – education, entrepreneurship, elderly care, charity, faith and religion, democracy, gender equality, family planning, growth /sustainability, and health.

So the idea then is that these themes and the films and the whole project is about the moral fabric of Awra Amba.   My team and I  have  been discussing for a long time, that the moral fabric of our societies in the West is eroding. And here is an example of a small village in Africa that actually has tried to put these pieces together in a way that makes their fabric work, very tightly knit.

Also the idea of fabric is quite literal because Awra Amba is a weaving community – that’s how they make their living – and it’s their skill, so there’s a lot of visual referencing [in the design] with fabric and threads.

Now, once you’ve explored the space – what we are planning to do is set up a  discussion platform so that people, once they’ve watched one of the films, can share their views on the different topics with other viewers, and the Awra Amba community. We are building a prototype for this. In essence, it will be a page where viewers can add text,  photos, different media, which will be visualised simultaneously. This idea grew out of the fact that Awra Amba has created a new moral fabric, if you like , they’ve thought about all the social problems and they’ve found solutions to them. And we wanted to engage the audience in doing the same on a more macro level. In the end the discussions  create a scarf motif, which we decided to call the moral fabric. For a ten week period the moral fabric will be active. Each week we introduce a new film and a new theme, and that week the audience can discuss issues around that theme. It could be equality. It could be education. It could be democracy, or family planning. And all those contributions from the audience will be adding to the scarf. So after ten weeks there is going to be a pattern for a scarf, that the audience has created, and that scarf will become a product at the end, which can be bought online. We want the audience to be part of making it. And [an image of] the scarf stays online, because all of the conversations that took place over ten weeks can be used as an educational resource and explored in the future. We’ve also been talking about whether we could do a gallery piece with the scarf.

MR: 

How connected is Awra Amba in terms of the internet?

PT:

They’ve now got a dial-up connection,  so things are moving forward, and I think maybe in six or twelve months time when we launch the project they may be in a position to take part in the two way Q&A.They also have people there who are raring to take on the challenge, to be part of the project.

Another option we have is that there is a group of people in Addis Ababa who call themselves the Awra Amba friends. They are involved in the project now and they’ll be our contact in case the whole internet thing fails. They’ll be managing that for us.

MR:

Which brings me to the relationship with the village, and the kind of discussions you’ve had with them about this transmedia project. How does it work, your relationship to the village?

PT:

Well, the founder of the village, Zumra Nuru, is very much the person who you need to be liaising with.  Over the years we’ve built up a relationship with Zumra and his wife, Enanye who’s also a influential figure in the village.  So anything that we discuss will need to involve at least Zumra.

There are several committees in the village. There’s a committee specifically which deals with the outside world – a group of people, and their English is quite good so they are able to talk to foreigners when they come. So they are the people who we sit down and discuss things with.

There is another aspect of collaboration which we’ve also talked about with them, which is;  how can the village benefit? Raising awareness is one thing, but ultimately they are transforming the social fabric of their little society – not just the village but the area.  They have recently built a high school on their land, entirely with their own resources and savings. This and the primary school in the village combined serve around 100 students from the wider area.

They want to modernise their weaving factory, which is now quite manual. They need some investment for that. We are thinking that, if we can get people interested in them and if we can bring their products outside of Ethiopia, they can grow their business, and ultimately modernise their equipment and start to produce faster and more.The idea is to help provide a trade channel for them.

The community members are very much involved with the project. They helped us  produce the films that are going to be on the website. We sat down with them for an entire day and we discussed which ten themes are important to them. How do they tell the story of the village? How do they link in with their values? So we decided together on the ten themes and on the stories in the short films. It was a real collaborative process. we didn’t teach them the skills of filmmaking as such, but they did help editorially to produce [the content]. The reason we’ve selected these particular themes is because they are the pillars of the Awra Amba community and they are the ones that they want to tell the world about, the things that they do differently.  If you compare another village and Awra Amba, these are the things that differ.

Part of our research was to find out, what is the best story we could tell about education?  It’s a huge topic, but we wanted to tell one little 3-minute story which is powerful and which gets people thinking. To strengthen the impact we are adding background and context to the theme through other multimedia, that can be explored on the site. It is then up to the audience how much of that they wish to explore.

It’s not a participatory video project. We asked them if they wanted to do it, but they said they didn’t really have the resources to put people into that kind of  project right now.  They said there might be one or two people who are interested in learning about cameras and media who might come and assist, but they have their other duties.

For them really the priority is to run their community, which I totally understand. We didn’t want to impose a way for them to get involved, but we  wanted to see how they wished to get involved and facilitate that. Later on, we would like to teach them  about Twitter and Facebook so they’ll be able to take part in the online discussion.

MR:

How do you think about the issue of communicating with an African audience, and communicating with a European/North American or other global audience?  Have you had interest around the project in African contexts?

PT:

That’s a really good question. We think the audience is a global one. It’s people who have shared values and interests, rather than a geographic or age related audience.  We’ve been building our audience for over 2 years now. We know who they are and engage with them already. So that makes it easier for us to have a more targeted approach when we launch the project.   What we’re planning to do is reach out to new audiences through partner NGOs and organisations and some online newspapers and magazines, because we believe that’s how we can actually reach a much greater audience who would otherwise not hear about the project. So we are actually planning to share our content on various platforms. Another audience we’ve already identified and already have partners in is the educational sector.  We’ve got a couple of educational distributors  confirmed who are going to use the project in schools and do outreach screenings.

MR:

In Ethiopia or in Europe?

PT:

In Europe – in the UK and in Norway for now.  We are also working with a team in Ethiopia who will help us with all the distribution – with NGOs, screenings. Talks, events. Even the government wants to be involved in it.
We are also thinking  of making a book, a storybook about Awra Amba that could reach schools and communities in Ethiopia and be translated into Amharic

MR:

A very tangible way of sharing it, yes.

Maybe I’ll ask you this one final thing, because I think I saw it mentioned, something about a photography project?  Is that something that’s happening?

PT:

We have had ideas, because this project’s had a really long lifespan. But when I started, back in March 2010, to think about this I had a set of different ideas that had been developed through these various workshops, and at one point we were thinking that we could make it a participatory photography project, with people taking pictures of their own lives.  But that idea was kind of abandoned, because when we talked about it they weren’t so keen. So then we thought, well, let’s not do that.  Let’s do this, and then figure out how they want to be involved.

MR:

Something that really struck me in your presentation video is that fabulous maxim, “time is gold”, for the villagers. It wouldn’t exactly be a progressive, collaborative undertaking if one was trying to force people into doing filming or photography when it didn’t make sense to them.

PT:  

I know it’s very popular  in the West  especially to do participatory video and photography projects. I support it, and I’ve done that, but it doesn’t always work for everyone. I want people in Awra Amba to be involved in a way they choose to, and in a way they think that they have time for, on their terms.

MR:  

Is there an agreement that Zumra or someone in the village will see and approve content before it’s published?

PT:

Yes, they will want to approve the content, because they want us to represent  them truthfully, and that is actually what we want to do as well. We don’t want to create misconceptions about the community abroad. It has happened to them a lot; many journalists travel there, and they tell the story from their perspective , based on what they’ve understood in an hour’s visit. So there have been a lot of misunderstandings about what they are about, and they want to avoid that, and obviously we want to avoid that too, because we want to tell the story as truthfully as possible. So there is no formal written agreement, but there is very much a verbal agreement, that before we launch the project they will watch all of the films, and comment on them. And in fact when we were there recently we showed a couple of the short films that we have made. And they did have comments on one of them ,and they did ask us to make some changes. So we are already dealing with this issue. So for us it’s a fine balance between keeping our editorial integrity but also keeping our warm relationship with the village. But our main point with the project is not to do an expose in any way, it’s more to tell a good, positive story that opens up discussion. And the way we want to keep it transparent is facilitating this two-way exchange between the audience and the village. In that way audiences can ask the questions they might be wondering about directly to the village. And they are open to that.  They are happy to answer anything.

MR:

And in terms of the rights – is it a Creative Commons project?

PT:

The web project follows a regular rights framework. Write this Down [Tervo and Ferit’s company] owns the rights. We’ve invested so much time and money in the project. We might not recoup our investment…but for us, it’s the first big web project that we are doing. It’s a showcase, and we see it as an investment for the future.  We are also working with the community on other initiatives. The textile business initiative I mentioned earlier, that will be complete profit sharing between both parties and include investment in social projects both in Awra Amba and in their area.

MR:

Can you say something more about how the project has been resourced to date? You mentioned Screen South, have they been the major funder so far?  How did you pay for the linear film?

PT:

The linear film – the first part of it, the research and all that, was mainly self-funded. We had two small grants from One World Media Trust and the UNFPA office in Ethiopia. They helped us cover expenses for a 2-week shoot, but not post-production. Everyone worked for free on that. So it was a real labour of love.

For the web documentary, we had some small development grants – from Screen South and CBA, Commonwealth Broadcasting Association – to develop the story towards a web  project.  We’ve also had funding from Finland, from the Finnish Audio Visual Institute.  It’s basically an innovation fund.  And our major funder so far has been the Fledgling Fund, which is an American foundation that funds social issue documentaries and new media projects. We have received two grants from them and just found out that we are getting another grant this spring.

MR: 

So you didn’t get anything through Sheffield MeetMarket?

PT:

We pitched at the MeetMarket in 2011, which was really the first proper pitch. And through that we then had contact with CBA and with Fledgling Fund and as a result  funding came through, which was great.  And we’ve been in talks with some people since then, and we’ve applied for other funds, but for now that’s what we have in place.

So a lot of it has been production company investment as well in terms of time and resources. . We are looking for more funding now to be able to complete the project by the end of the year. [There is a crowd-funding campaign going on in Finland now which can be found here: http://www.mesenaatti.me/projects/awraamba/  Their target is to raise 17,500 euros in Finland, to help them finish all the films, content for the web documentary as well as the design of the site. It will be live until the 13th of March.]

MR:

I guess what that points to, for me, alongside the way the whole project has evolved, is the kind of complexity, and the need for an agility and a creativity in the business of production now. It’s not a straightforward business, is it, with one linear output and one set of commissioners?  It involves you in a much more iterative process, to make the most of what the project involves and to engage it with all the audiences that might be interested in engaging with those ideas.

PT:

Absolutely.  I think it’s so exciting to be part of it.  I’m very lucky that we’ve even had some funding for this, because it’s so exciting to be able to innovate, to think, okay, what can we do now? which direction can we take this?  And working with people from different disciplines – web designers, developers, game designers, even, we’ve had consultations with. It’s really interesting to come up with new concepts and new ways of telling stories.

That’s really my focus that I want to take much further. I want to push our company that way, so we can make more of these kind of projects. One more thing I want to say about the themes and the reason we’ve chosen ten very specific themes in the project, is because we think that there are different audiences that we can reach through those themes.

And we are really looking at tapping into whole new audiences, through organisations who might do work on education, who might do work on equality, or around faith. So that really excites me, we can take it quite wide.

MR:

That seems really smart, segmenting your audience like that, and thinking about addressing them kind of sequentially and in collaboration with interested groups.

Was there anything else you’d like to add about the approach you are taking?  Anything you feel we’ve missed out that’s key to what you are doing?

PT:

I guess one thing that I didn’t really mention is that, and it’s to do with the audience interaction again, is that we already have a big audience, because after the film was made it’s been screened at various festivals, but also we have a web presence with social networks and YouTube, and a website, by the way.  So through these networks  there is an audience that is already following us and interested in what we are doing, and some of those people have become ambassadors.

There’s a guy in America, an Ethiopian guy who just contacted me and said “I absolutely love Awra Amba and it’s been my life’s work”, and he writes under a pseudonym and he’s been writing articles in Amharic about it. There’s someone else in Germany who’s really pushing it forward there.

That really helps.  But also once we’ve got people involved, we are trying to pull them in to the discussion, and to share their own work.  So we are discussing how to do that. For instance, There are people who have done a PhD on Awra Amba, and research groups in the UK who have gone to do projects in Awra Amba.

So there are various groups of people who are already doing work around it, and we want to facilitate them to share their own views and their own work so that other people who are interested can connect with them.  It’s almost like allowing the audience to create their own info resource through a blog, and we are just looking at how we design it and how we can make it part of the moral fabric.

But I think it’s quite important, to allow user-generated content –  other people’s videos and photos and so on and so forth – to come alive on the site as well.

MR:

And at the moment how does that community manifest itself?  Have you got a Facebook group? are there any other social media spaces?

PT:

Yes.  We have a Facebook page, which is called the Awra Amba story (basically the old name of the project) https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Awra-Amba-Story/133243383400913?ref=hl.  then we have a Twitter account, which is @Awra_Amba.  Then there is the project website http://www.awraamba.com and then on our company website which is http://www.writethisdown.co.uk, where there’s a couple of clips of the film.  So there are various places where people can access the story from.

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