Triggering change, one short film at a time

2009 Masaai Field School participants, from left to right: Kellen Prandini, Meegan Aldis, students; Salome John, field cook; Angela Mollel, Masaai collaborator; Michael Crimmond, student; and Leonard Kamerling, faculty/filmmaker. Photo courtesy of Leonard Kamerling.

By Jesse Hoff
Sun Star Contributor

Describing his most recent film project last Tuesday before a group of colleagues, UAF Professor Leonard Kamerling made it clear what his film was and what it was not.

“It’s not journalism, it’s not meant to be objective. In a sense, it’s advocacy,” Kamerling said.

Kamerling told the audience about his work in East Africa with Peter Biella of San Francisco State University. Kamerling spent two months interviewing and living with the Maasai people of Tanzania last summer. The Maasai are an indigenous African ethnic group with an estimated population of up to 900,000. Their semi-nomadic lifestyle combined with their distinctive customs and dress make them among the most well known of Africa’s native groups.

Kamerling’s team included Biella, three graduate students, a cook, and the group’s translator, Simeon Meigro. In addition to translating, Meigro often acted as a mediator, Kamerling said. “He would often tell us when we should begin or end filming and in this sense he had become a de-facto co-director of the film,” he said.

Kamerling said he hopes that the film will have a positive impact on the Maasai. The filmmakers’ goal is to produce a series of short films, all under five minutes long, that focus attention on social issues that affect the Maasai. “These films are interventions, what we call ‘trigger films,’ short situational pieces, followed by discussion, designed to influence and change attitudes and behaviors of those who are viewing them.” Some of the subjects addressed will include HIV, urban migration and disease prevention among cattle, which the Maasai depend on for food.

Trigger films represent a departure from Kammerling’s previous work. “Our interests have shifted over the years from making observational records of culture to making applied films that can be used by our subjects as tools for education and change,” he said.

Kamerling said that the Maasai are under increasing pressure to conform to a more modern way of life. Traditionally polygamous and largely uninformed about HIV, they face increasing risk of disease. Alcoholism is becoming more of a problem. But he is quick to point out that the film is not meant to focus only on the dark side of the group’s society. “One of our real struggles with this film is for it not to be a chamber of horrors but to show Maasai strengths,” he said. “They’re just an amazingly warm and strong people and in spite of all of their problems, the fact that they are still there is extraordinary.”

This summer, Kamerling hopes to return to Tanzania to show the films to the Maasai in their cities, schools, homesteads, clinics and wherever possible. Each showing will be followed by a discussion with a trained facilitator who speaks Maasai to encourage discussion about things that Kamerling said are rarely talked about. He will also be producing a longer film for a broader audience.

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