Operationalising Empathy: Learning, aligning and earning.
How do you support an international organisation to do a documentary about a touchy subject in your country? This question was at the heart of a discussion between Yusuf (my colleague) and myself after we got an email from Off The Fence South Africa. They were looking to do a documentary on Boko-Haram, and part of the story involved travelling to Maiduguri to do a series of interviews. Among them, an ex-Boko-Haram militant and his wife.
OTF wanted to do a film. To humanize the experiences of Nigeria’s raging insurgency beyond mere numbers and statistics. Part of the film would include the daily life of Nigerian activist and lead campaign member of the Bring Back Our Girls movement, Bukky Shonibare.
Over a span of two months we planned logistics, arranged security, and scheduled interviews of all the people who were supposed to be in the film. In two weeks, we planned to connect with, and interview individuals such as former political office holders Oby Ezekwesili and ordinary citizens like the local Imam of the mosque my dad attended. We were in possession of over $70million worth of equipment, and the entire filming duration, and filming was going to happen in Abuja and Lagos.
To answer the question. I had to go back to the values that led me to start a small media support organisation in the first place – empathy. We can support others more, when we are able to subconsciously simulate their experiences through empathy. Nigeria is an intense country, it almost seems like everyone is trying to peck at the dollars in your pockets and on and on obstacles continue to hinder you from even the most basic successes. Things are in a different color for non-Nigerians, and more often than not, move at a different speed. Also, most things have different meanings. You can get a YES for the same thing you got a NO for, by speaking in pidgin.
So how did we work?
Supporting change actors to do more is at the core of the work we do at W45. OTF had an objective that was deeply aligned with our core values. Also, they wanted to tell our story. This was our story, through the eyes of another. So we owned the process. This was no longer just a movie by some clients from a faraway country trying to make a movie about a dark side to our country.
This was also our chance to add our voice. Our moment to announce to the darkness that we will not be overwhelmed by the brevity of our lives. Beyond the logistical challenge, we were both meeting our clients (or friends as it turned out) for the first time.
The rudiments were simple: become as Nigerian as you can be, and if you’re not feeling successful, its fine. I taught pidgin as best as I could, we had beers in public places to showcase daily Nigerian behaviour. We played as often as we could work. We remained as flexible as possible – being available at the most uncomfortable hours. We took it beyond just work.
Process wise we had to be early each day to film. And sometimes for the most banal yet seemingly amazing detail: to watch Bukky carry out her daily routine of taking her little girls to school before heading over to the university for her second degree in law, or just watch the sunrise over the capital city. We had an amazing time. The film: Nigeria’s Lost Generation is scheduled to be screened soon and competing in film festivals in South Africa.
In the end, we bade farewell. We shared great images of all the special moments. We took sometime to iterate on all the things that went well together.
In summary, how do you support an international organisation to do a documentary about a touchy subject in your country? You check your value compass, and if the pin is in the right, you put all your heart to it.