‘Reel’ Stories: Film as a tool for social change

This post was originally published by ONE, as the second post in a series on the Accountability Lab’s innovative approach to fighting corruption through creativity. 

“We are going to help you make a short film about an accountability issue in your community” explains Divine Anderson to a group of 20 girls from low-income neighborhoods of Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia.

The girls are students in a four-week Accountability Film School set up last year by the Accountability Lab – an organization that designs creative tools to fight corruption and build integrity in the developing world.

“We don’t need to be politicians to push for the kind of country we want; our films can create change” adds Divine, the film school director.

Despite a strong women’s movement- and the first female President in Africa- Liberia is still a largely male-dominated society with access to power and resources skewed largely towards men.

The majority of women and girls live in absolute poverty and issues such as sexual exploitation are rampant. Almost half of the population is unable to read and write, but women are eager to challenge the status quo and develop solutions to the challenges they face. With the ubiquity of cheap technologies, visual tools are an increasingly useful way for these women to tell their stories.

Dorcas Pewee typifies the kind of impact that the film school is having on the lives of these girls. Dorcas lost her family in Liberia’s civil war and was hustling on the streets of Monrovia just six months ago.

Divine brought her into the first film school for men and women, and as part of the classes she made a film called “Say It” about sexual exploitation in schools. The film won the viewer’s choice award at the first film festival in Liberia last September.

Subsequently Dorcas has honed her skills, made another film about unfulfilled promises by Liberian politicians, and is now helping Divine lead the current film school class. Dorcas has been hugely empowered by her experiences: “I saw the light” she says.

Other students in the classes have made films about a range of critical issues that affect the daily lives of citizens, including the absence of justice for crimes committed during the war; the lack of clean drinking water in cities; and the inability of young people to find jobs.

The films are shown to policymakers, activists and civil society representatives at festivals; and are distributed on CDs to local “video clubs” around the country where they are shown during breaks in Nigerian movies and English soccer games. The films function as advocacy tools and the basis of discussion about real issues both within communities and with power-holders who have the ability to address the problems examined.

Over 50 students have now passed through the Film School, and Divine hopes to train another 150 this year. The team is thinking about sustainability- the graduates of the school have now formed the Liberia Film Institute through which they can continue to build their skills and earn money through taking contracts to make films for Liberian businesses and NGOs.

In February, the film school is partnering- with Kriterion Monrovia, a student-run cinema project and BSC-Monroviaan organization that supports entrepreneurs- on a much larger film festival that is set to celebrate Liberian movie-making over three days.

Accountability and transparency can be technical issues, and the best way to support their development is to engage young people around them in creative ways they understand and about which they can become enthusiastic.

This is exactly what the Accountability Lab is trying to do with Liberian girls through the film school. Perhaps it won’t be too long before we see some Liberian film-makers challenging for Oscar glory at this time of year.

Watch more of the Accountability Film School’s videos on the Lab’s YouTube page.

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About Accountability Lab

Making power-holders accountable in the developing world

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