A journey to discover the people who change our world.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Movies with a Mission

John and Louise Riber are seriously cool folk, and have welcomed me warmly into their home while I am staying to Dar es Salaam. They run an organisation called Media for Development, producing and making socially conscious films and radio shows. The material is produced for an African audience, dealing with African subject matter- and some of their productions have been among the most commercially successful films on the continent.

The thrust behind all their material is to encourage audiences to think more seriously about social issues, giving them scope to explore their own solutions to problems. Take ‘Yellow Card’ as an example. The film, made in Zimbabwe in 2000, tackles teenage sexual health issues; from unwanted pregnancy, HIV/ Aids to abortion and shifts the focus to the role teenage boys play. The tag line, ‘Boys have babies too’, is a comic means of encouraging boys to understand their responsibilities more fully. While the subject matter may seem heavy, the treatment of it is comic- with some hilarious scenes throughout. The music score is similarly vibrant and upbeat and there is some beautiful cinematography. Yellow card won the Jury Prize at the Zanzibar film festival in 2000 and the Los Angles Pan African Film Festival in the same year.

Over the last year in Tanzania, John and Louise have been working on a radio drama series which promotes family planning issues. John is also soon to work with the Ethiopian police force, developing a comic book to promote good governance and is currently working with a team of scriptwriters in Uganda who, through a radio drama series, are promoting rural development issues.

Alongside production, Media for Development also act as film distributors - no point making good films if nobody views them. Films are shown in urban cinema halls and distributed through commercial and grassroots video distribution channels. Dubbing also takes place into local languages. In Africa alone there are 100 million Swahili speakers, and by targeting this market Media for Development have greatly increased their audience.

Both John and Louise grew up in India, both to American parents. They met at the age of five (!), attended the same primary school, became friends, and by the age of 23 were married. University for both was in the States and following graduation they worked as freelance filmmakers in India and Bangladesh for 10 years. However, after an assignment in Zimbabwe, they decided to stay put in Africa, remaining in Zimbabwe for 18 years while raising their three kids. However, due to the political climate in Zimbabwe, and with inflation on a vertical trajectory, doing business became impossible. It was a tough decision but they decided to relocate to Tanzania- having to leave behind a state of the art recording studio. They talk with frustration and sadness about Zimbabwe now. It was home to them, but like one third of the population, they had little choice but to leave. One thing for sure is that the Tanzanian film industry will be all the better for it.


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