The documentary about Matipwili, Tanzania and Devergy

I’ve been talking about how I want to make documentaries for over five years. Or more. In fact, the reason I moved to Amsterdam back in 2008 was to do just that: I wanted to start over in my career, to work on projects I cared about, to get involved with a different type of work community that I didn’t really feel around me in NYC. Then I accidentally ended up working in advertising (oops). Which was/is great, don’t get me wrong. Advertising was what allowed me to live and work legally in Amsterdam, it paid the bills, and I learned a lot. Stumbling into freelancing was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

But now, finally, finally I can say I started and finished a project that I fully believe in. 100000%. I went to Matipwili, Tanzania and followed Devergy around for 3 weeks as they started their first pilot village, and hooked up a poor, rural community to a solar energy grid. You can see it on youtube and there’s more content on their site.

Phone charging in Matipwili (before Devergy)

Before Devergy built their grid, In order for the residents to keep their phones charged they would bring them to a small store than had solar electricity. There they paid a fee to charge their phones to a full battery.

It’s a 13 minute video. It will never going to be up on the big screen in a movie theater, but I know they’re going to project it on a wall in Matipwili, Tanzania, and that is an outstanding feeling.

I loved being on facebook and twitter and youtube and email yesterday. I love seeing people share the video and liking it and hearing the reactions. I love that Devergy is finally getting some attention for all the good stuff they’ve done over the past couple years. I love that the sound is in sync. Actually, I just love that the sound works. You know what’s kinda hard? Using a DSLR for filmmaking and a separate audio recorder/mic and being only one person. I literally did not have enough hands to focus, hold the camera, check sound levels, etc. So I trained everyone in Matipwili on how to be a sound person (if someone around me spoke a small amount of english, I promise you they held that shotgun mic), which was ridiculous as I barely had any idea how to work the equipment myself. However, it worked. I am still stunned about that.

Filmmaking in Matipwili

The kids were very eager to “help” and see all the camera and sound equipment

It feels amazing that some of the people in Matipwili have managed to see the video as well, and they like it, and they’re super proud. I had wondered about that back when I was there – there I was all up in these people’s lives, asking them some pretty personal questions sometimes pertaining to, you know, how poor they are. I wondered if I’d be able to make a movie that shows them with dignity. I wanted to do that because that’s what I saw. Yes, they are poor, no question about that. They eat the same thing every day, there’s no running water, many people live in shack-like houses, there are no good roads connecting the village to the city, etc. But they’re also just normal people. Some really liked to fix themselves up before I filmed them, some didn’t really care. They work, the kids go to school, and they live a rural-village kind of life. There’s gossip, politics, babies, weddings, all of it.

Matipwili residents

Matipwili residents

The way I felt after spending time there was that poverty is simply no longer a reason for people to not have access to electricity, when the electricity can come from the sun. I mean, if being poor is no longer a reason to not have a phone or access to the internet (via mobile apps), why not electricity? Of course, these are not the poorest of the poor people in the world. The truly destitute are those who don’t have enough to eat at night, who have no shelter. But in Matipwili, even with $1-2 a day, that is sufficient income to have shelter, food, clothes, a phone, and enough money to buy batteries/kerosene. Some people in the village already had TVs and radios and appliances, just sitting there not being used, because they were so ready to have electricity.

I think I portrayed the village as accurately as possible. it’s nowhere near the whole story, but for someone who was there for 3 weeks, the documentary is what I saw. I did not include all the boredom that comes with being in a small village all day, which I also think is a very real part of poverty as well – boredom, monotony.

I would be proud to show it to anyone from Matipwili or anywhere in Tanzania, because it’s real. The people aren’t portrayed any more or less than exactly the way they are.

Playing checkers with bottle caps

Playing checkers with bottle caps

It’s finally done. The pre-production happened in Amsterdam, it was shot in Tanzania, and the post-production all took place in Mexico. I do really, really like my life.

Hello Tanzania!

One week from now, I will be en route to Matipwili, a small village in Tanzania, about 3 hours (approx) from Dar Es Salaam, the capital city. I leave Amsterdam on the 5th of May at 7am and arrive at 8pm – such a strange concept for me to take such a long flight, but only go through a one hour time difference (it’s one hour ahead of Amsterdam). When I arrive, I’ll spend one night by myself in a hostel in Dar. On Sunday the 6th I’ll make my way by bus and then some other form of transportation I haven’t figured out yet to Matipwili. If you look up Matipwili in google maps you won’t find it – or at least I haven’t been able to – but it’s not too far from Bagamoyo. I’m not sure what “not too far” means, but I’m guessing 1-2 hours. It’s also quite close to the Kisampa camp, which is a supposedly beautiful area with a super nice eco-lodge thing set up that tourists/volunteers/workers usually stay at if they’re looking for a “village experience” not too far from Dar, or if they’re doing volunteer work in Matipwili.

I’m going to document something. I hesitate to say I’m going to make a documentary, but I’m going with a camera, sound equipment, etc., for the purposes of using them to document what Devergy is doing, and what they’re doing is setting up a solar electrical system in this very poor, rural village that will provide people with very inexpensive solar energy. The folks in Matipwili live on about $1-2 per day and currently spend a little money every day for candles, batteries, or kerosene for lighting. Devergy¬† will be able to offer solar energy to the villagers for the same amount of money they currently spend on other forms of lighting, and it’s hopefully going to transform their lives. I helped put together a short video to explain the concept, and now they’re finally ready to go off and really do the first village (they will have three pilot villages this year, and hopefully start real operations next year). Devergy has been at work for about 2 years so far, so this is really exciting. Seeing what happens in the first village and capturing that footage and turning it into videos that can show people what they’re up to is my job. While I’m a pretty good agency producer, and a decent enough line producer, it’s been a long time since I’ve considered myself any kind of real filmmaker. This is a huge leap out of my comfort zone, but it’s the leap I’ve been hoping to make for five years or so, and I’m super excited/nervous to be able to do it.

Professional goals aside, I can’t believe I’m going to Africa for the first time, and I’m making the journey by myself, and I’m going to spend 19 nights sleeping in a very poor, very rural village with no running water or electricity or toilets or anything of that nature. It’s going to be warm (low-to-high 80’s during the day, low 70’s at night) and very humid – supposedly it’s rainy season, but it hasn’t been raining yet, even though it’s predicted every day. It’s practically a guarantee that I’ll have “stomach issues,” though they probably won’t be serious, but I’ve never had prolonged days of stomach issues without access to a toilet. The only memorable time that happened was in Romania, and the journey from Sibiu to Budapest (by bus and overnight train) was, well, I still remember that overnight train bathroom clearly, and that was five-six years ago. And still, that was only one night, maybe 12-16 hours that I wasn’t able to use a “normal” bathroom.

We’re going to be living on a daylight kind of schedule, which means up at sunrise and sleep when it’s dark. We can’t depend on internet access, and while we will probably be able to get a connection strong enough to send email, I certainly won’t be able to skype with E. using video.

It’s so hard to figure out what this is going to be like, I have no frame of reference for how all this might feel. After my trip through Mexico I can now remember what hot weather and mosquitoes feel like, and I did get used to going to bed very early and waking up around 7am (while I was in Mazunte, which is the most beautiful place I’ve ever stayed). But there I could wear a bathing suit all day and swim, whereas Matipwili isn’t on a beach. The things I’m most nervous about are A) lack of showers in a hot & humid climate and B) lack of toilets. I know I’m just going to have to deal with both of those things, but man, both of those things are going to be a big deal.

I bought some new clothes, including both a white and a purple shirt. I’m trying, really, to not bring black shirts (my pants are so far all black), but it’s hard without buying a new wardrobe. To keep my backpack as light as possible I’m only bringing about 6 shirts anyway. I need to buy a hat, and DEET, and a flashlight… but most importantly, now I have to go do ten thousand camera tests in the next week. I just spent thousands of dollars (while in NYC) on camera equipment and there’s still so much I don’t know how to use.

Inspiration in Philadelphia: originally published 12 Dec 2007

(This post was written while I lived in NYC in 2007, during the “I think I want to move back to Europe” phase)

This past Saturday I was running (well, biking) all over Philadelphia from one event to another. I started off at Molly’s Bookstore in the Italian Market, where Big Tea Party was having their 10th-anniversary celebration and fundraiser. They had a great crowd come out, and the small bookstore was packed with activists, artists, filmmakers, musicians, etc.

I was happy to see someone I knew from back in the day, Ellen, come in to the room. As we started talking I caught her up on what I’m up to (living in Brooklyn and working in TV post-production) and what I’m planning in the near future. Part of me remains a little scared that that no one will take me or my plans seriously, but I shouldn’t have been worried about something like that while I was at a fundraiser for an anarchist cooking/crafts/activist show. So I began talking in more detail about why I want to live in Amsterdam and the documentary that I want to make – and Ellen’s response is “I did that exact same thing!”

I’m going to guess Ellen is about 40 years old. When she was younger, she decided to move to Paris with her boyfriend for no real specific reason (hey, me too!). Then she took a 3-day trip to Amsterdam, fell in love with that city, and relocated. She stayed for about five years, had her son there, and had a great story about living on a houseboat. She’s currently a video production instructor in Philadelphia and also makes her own documentaries. Both of us shared pretty much the exact same views on why Paris is great but we don’t want to live there and why Amsterdam is such an appealing city.¬† So now I’m in this amazing conversation with an American documentary filmmaker who has lived in Paris and Amsterdam, and this guy who has experience shooting throughout Sarajevo joined in on the talk, and they’re both telling me that I should absolutely move back to Europe and make documentaries. “How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?” the guy (whose name I forget, dammit) said.

“28,” I replied.

“Oh, you’re still a baby! Of course you have to do this,” was his response.

In my head, I silently thanked him for thinking of me as someone who is still a kid. Every so often I get an irrational fear in my head that I have waited too long, that I should have been out there when I was 18 years old. I should know more languages and I should have traveled to more places by now, and maybe it’s too late and I should just stay in New York City and work myself into the ground trying to become a bigshot in TV production. But then I attend events like the Big Tea Party fundraiser, and I’m surrounded by people like Elizabeth, who will be celebrating her 50th birthday this year and is still just as passionate and daring as any 18-year-old. These people are still traveling, still protesting, still activists, and still have time to encourage me to do the same. I feel very grateful to have such amazing role models in my life.

It’s always been hard for me to be patient, but I really want to do it right this time around. This is the good part about being 28, and not 22 – I simply know a little more now. I know that my first priority in Amsterdam must be figuring out a way to live there legally with a proper residence permit. I know that is going to be very, very difficult. The first few months I’m there – well, I have no idea what it will be like, but it won’t all be sunshine and roses and bike rides and apple strudels. There will be mountains of paperwork, bureaucracy rules that I’m not used to, and the very real fact that I don’t have a lot of friends living there right now that I can lean on for support. But when I do have all my paperwork in order and I’ve obtained the residence permit and gotten myself a place to live (and I don’t doubt that I will be able to do all of that), I’m sure I will have made a few more friends along the way, and I’ll toast to the next phase in my life.