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"They fall, and falling they are given wings."

April 27, 2007

The Sufi poet Rumi has a wonderful poem about learning to fly by falling. You grow wings because you have to.

This week, I threw my 4th year journalism and communications class over a cliff.

“Your final assignment,” I told them, “is to produce a television documentary.” I held up a newspaper headline that talked about how they, the students at the National University of Rwanda, live under “appalling” conditions. It was more tabloid than truth, but I thought it was a good subject matter to get the students airborne.

If they failed, no matter. If they succeeded, they would brush against glory.

Eleven pairs of eyes looked at me expectantly. “We have three days to complete this,” I told them. “You will do all the work yourselves. Videotaping. Interviewing. Writing. Producing. Editing. Your deadline is Friday. Okay, how long should our documentary be?”

“Twenty minutes,” said Bernard. He’s fearless.

Whoa! Flying is one thing. But 20 minutes is supersonic. “Why don’t we go for eight minutes?” I said. “Even that’s an awful long time on television, where you measure in seconds.”

I looked out at them. Maybe three students had ever handled a digital camera. Four of them had some limited TV news experience. One had reasonable editing skills. Was I asking too much? Of course I was. That’s one of the sadistic privileges of teaching.

I said the project needed a producer and asked for volunteers. After a full minute, Jean-Pierre tentatively raised his hand. He wasn’t sure what a producer did, but it sounded like an interesting challenge. Jean-Pierre edits the student newspaper. He had delegation skills. He’ll do fine.

I divided them up into five teams of two. Team 1 would look at the bland student cafeteria food. Team 2 would investigate the scarcity of student housing. Team 3 would look at student bursaries (chronically late). Team 4 would pursue the Science student who had organized the survey that produced the story. And Team 5 would go after the university administration.

Over the next few hours, a half-dozen other students wandered into class, in that infuriatingly careless, casual way that many Rwandan students adopt. It’s a disregard for the clock that won’t serve them well as journalists later in life, but I’ve learned to roll with it. I told them to check in with their fellow students, and assign themselves to one or another of the teams.

We came up with a title: “Ibibazo: Inside Campus.” Ibibazo is Kinyarwanda for “problems.” We discussed whom they would interview. We drew up lists of questions. I gave them a 10-minute crash course on the use of the digital camera. Automatic and manual focus. Framing. Don’t shoot into light. Proper use of microphones. How to shoot sequences—wide, medium and tight shots. Cutaways. The importance of natural sound. “And listen, don’t talk while you are recording, because the camera will pick up your voices and it will ruin the ambient sound.”

They were anxious to get going. “Three more things. And these are REALLY important! Whoever is using the camera MUST wear headphones, so you know you’re getting sound. Second, use a tripod. We don’t want any shaky-cam. And third, and this is really really important, bring back lots of close-ups.”

Two hours later, they began straggling back. I slipped their tapes into the player. The first tape had absolutely no sound. I glared at Jean-Bosco, the cameraman, and he gave me a sheepish grin. “Wrong audio channel,” he said. In fact, he’d disobeyed the mandatory headphone rule. The next tape was a study in cinematographic epilepsy—constant undirected movement. (The crew forgot the tripod.) The third tape was a dizzying sequence of pans, zooms and tilts, the kind of thing you expect in Uncle Fred’s home movie, but not on television There was also a lot of their own chatter on the audio track.

Things were getting ugly. But I counted to 10 and followed the Golden Rule of Pedagogy: Don’t break their hearts before they’ve had a chance to learn something. I looked for something positive in their work, and found it: On all the tapes, the novice filmmakers showed enthusiasm (and some skill) in the “standup,” in which the reporter looks into the camera and says something profound. I complimented them on their camera presence, and sent them back out to re-shoot everything they’d done. And I put a little steel into the spine of the producer, Jean-Pierre. “Headphones, tripod, close-ups. And no talking while the cameras are rolling” I told him. “Make sure they remember.”

Over the next 24 hours, things began to happen. Emmanuel and Bernard came back with some inspired videotape illustrating cramped student housing—four men to a room, leaky bathroom plumbing. Other teams came back with some quite vivid student interviews, mostly in English, full of passion. The camerawork was steadier, the sound was good, even the framing began to show real imagination. And there was one extraordinary tape, shot in the campus cafeteria kitchen, with scenes that might have been lifted from Dante’s Purgatorio. I’m exaggerating, of course, but after their first efforts, this was like gold. Jean-Pierre was clearly putting on some pressure.

Neville, a particularly quiet student, showed a natural talent in front of the camera. He had no nerves, and he hit his standup on the first “take.” As for scriptwriting, I found a fluent writer: Ritah. She produced crisp, short sentences in a hurry, and wasn’t intimidated by deadlines. And Jean-Emmanuel showed a lot of promise in his interviews: he kept repeating his questions until he got the answer he wanted.

They shot a total of 10 hours of tape, and I said enough. The story was edited by a committee of three. In charge of editing was the unflappable Emmanuel Mungwarakarama who, over 13 hours, overcame computer crashes, power failures, audio problems, and a blizzard of technical glitches that would have driven most North American editors mad. He was a resolute titan who carried the project on his shoulders. I fought back the urge for editorial intervention. This had to be their work, their voices. No time for muzungu (white man) management.

“Ibibazo: Inside Campus,” a story of student life in Rwanda, will never make Cannes or Sundance. It’s choppy, there are too many different voices, there is no original music. It was produced with unreliable equipment, and has no post-production glitz.

But I think it’s fine. Remembering Rumi, I look closely at the students on camera, and I think I can see something. They’re not flying yet, but with at least three or four of them, I can see the first telltale signs of avian evolution. They’re growing wings.

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