Nearly 200 children sit shoulder-to-shoulder in neat rows on the floor of a refugee settlement classroom, their sunlit faces looking up and toward the front. It’s a familiar scene, a primary school in Kenya with too many students, too few resources, too uncertain a future.
But in a virtual-reality video, the moment is alive with energy and excitement, the children clapping in unison, singing in full voice, following along with their teachers dancing to the rhythm.
“The still photo I took of this moment reinforces a lot of the preconceptions people might have about a refugee camp. But when you look at the 360 video, it seems like a different space. It’s filled with joy, and every one of the students is working together,” says Professor Peter Decherney. “Viewers have the freedom to explore the scene and get a feeling for what it’s like to be there, not just my impression of being there.”
Capturing that scene with a 360-degree virtual reality camera was a lesson in the power of filmmaking and collaboration for Decherney and the students chosen to be part of the Penn-in-Kenya summer abroad program in Africa’s Kakuma Refugee Camp.
Funded by an inaugural “Making a Difference in Diverse Communities” grant from the School of Arts & Sciences, Decherney, director of the Cinema and Media Studies Program, designed the for-credit course in partnership with the nonprofit FilmAid International. Eight undergraduate students were accepted into the program, along with two teaching assistants.
The grant covered all expenses for the Penn team, including travel, housing, cameras, laptops, and other equipment. Students were responsible only for the course-credit tuition.
“The grant made it possible for me to make the idea a reality,” Decherney says. “I think that’s the kind of thing that Penn does well, support a program that is immersive and experimental in addition to being academic.”
The mission was to produce six short documentaries, filmed in the camp, to create an explanatory “welcome kit” video for new refugee arrivals. The Penn team shot the footage in partnership with a team of refugees, in their late teens and early 20s, who had completed a one-year FilmAid filmmaking training course. FilmAid, based in New York, trains refugees in visual storytelling to provide information to hundreds of thousands of people in displaced communities about their rights, safety, health, education, and future.
“I was happy that we had a real purpose and that we were creating something that was going to be used by thousands of people very soon,” Decherney says.
The team focused on the new Kalobeyei Settlement, adjacent to Kakuma, located near the border with South Sudan. Kalobeyei represents an innovative approach to relocation, a more permanent solution that allows refugees to live with local Kenyans, with the expectation that they might stay. Although most of the new arrivals are from South Sudan, others come from Somalia, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Keefe Murren, FilmAid executive director, says the documentaries will make a difference by providing “lifesaving” information to new arrivals, helping them access critical services in the camp, including food, water, shelter, and medical care.
“The Penn team didn’t come with an agenda; they came with an intention to roll up their sleeves,” Murren says. “Penn stands out because they were willing to collaborate. They recognized that value flows in both directions.”
Penn students worked in pairs, teamed with the Kakuma filmmakers, to produce the documentaries. “I was very pleased with not only the moral integrity the Penn students brought, but their willingness to engage on equal terms,” Murren says, “with the humility they carry everywhere they go.”
The Penn students each brought a different set of skills. Many had just completed their freshman year, and others were headed into their senior year. Their majors included Africana Studies and Cinema and Media Studies, but also English, Music, Communications, Fine Arts, and Women’s Studies. Some had lived outside the United States, while others had never traveled abroad.
The Penn-in-Kenya course started with a week-long “boot camp,” on campus in July, full days with presentations and speakers on African history, culture, customs, and language, as well as workshops on how to use the camera equipment.
During the boot camp, Murren spoke about the nonprofit’s mission and work at Kakuma and other refugee camps around the globe. Ben Rawlence, author of a required book, “City of Thorns,”described Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, speaking by Skype from England. Professors Karen Weitzberg and Sara Byala of the Africana Studies Department spoke about the culture of Kenya.
The students experimented with new cameras and 360 virtual-reality cameras, and edited photos and videos on laptops. On the last day, the students divided into teams to make two-minute films on deadline, one on how to check out a library book and another on how to take a trolley.
“Immersing ourselves in production, and going over technical aspects of the cameras and sound and editing, was really important, because once we were on the ground in Kakuma everyone was ready to shoot,” says sophomore Sonari Chidi, a Cinema and Media Studies and Africana Studies major from Los Angeles.
Senior Jesse Raines taught the students key phrases in Swahili, a language he is studying as part of his African Studies major through Penn’s Liberal and Professional Studies program. A 34-year-old Army veteran from Reno, Nev., he served three tours in the infantry in Afghanistan, and also previously lived and worked in western Africa.
“At first I didn’t know what my role would be in this project,” he says, since he didn’t have previous film experience. “My knowledge of Swahili was useful. And I’m good at time management and organizing things. I know how to get people where they need to be and manage equipment.”
At the end of that week, the students said that perhaps the most important aspect of the boot camp was the opportunity to get to know each other, as they would need to trust and rely on one another in the days to come.
“It was really important for all of us to learn how we work individually and how we were going to work as a whole. It’s kind of like forming an ensemble, to be able to move together,” says Melisande McLaughlin, a junior from Canada who has also lived in France and Thailand. “I think that paid off tremendously when we were in Kenya.”
Journey to Africa
At 7:30 a.m. on July 12 the team loaded their bags and equipment onto a Penn bus to the airport. Travel time to Kenya was more than 20 hours, through Qatar to Nairobi. Early the next morning they were on a charter flight to Kakuma.
Built 25 years ago, Kakuma is like a city, with a population close to 200,000. The densely packed expanse of white buildings surrounded by desert was starkly visible as they descended. Taking vans through the winding streets, the group settled into the protected area managed by the United Nations’ World Food Program where they would eat and sleep.
The first weekend, the Penn students taught workshops to the FilmAid students, first in the Kalobeyei settlement and the next day in the main Kakuma camp. “This was a great experience for the Penn students, who realized they had valuable skills that they could teach,” Decherney says.
Chidi, a professional actor and producer, taught a workshop on media representation and screenwriting as a tool for social change, with Michael Schwartz, a senior from Ossining, N.Y. McLaughlin, who has experience in making and editing films, gave a lesson on sound technique. Senior Madeline Overmoyer, a Communications major from New Oxford, Pa., explained best practices to use social media for storytelling.
Senior Nicholas Escobar, from Villanova, Pa., is an English major and Music minor who composes music for film and theater. The students laughed and clapped during his workshop on music when he showed an early Mickey Mouse cartoon scored with music he had composed. He taught them how to use GarageBand on a laptop, using a portable piano keyboard.
“You could tell that this was really opening doors for them,” says Escobar, adding that he discovered he loved teaching others. “It was wonderful to talk with the musicians and hear about their passion for music.”
During a workshop on virtual reality filming, one student said he didn’t understand, so Decherney handed him a cell phone as the movie played. With virtual reality, the viewer can move the device in any direction, 360 degrees, allowing them to view the entire scene as it was shot.
“Their faces lit up,” Decherney says. “There was an amazing moment when someone ran his hand behind the phone, like ‘wow’. You really feel like you’re there, even though you know you are not.”
Although the FilmAid students were unfamiliar with 360 cameras, they were quite adept in filming and editing as a result of their training, he says.
“Many of the FilmAid students had technical skills far beyond our students. For some of the Penn students it was their first experience with cameras,” Decherney says. “They were learning a lot from each other, both technically and culturally.”
Making the documentaries
Most of the refugees were born in the camp and have known no other life. Abdul Patient is a filmmaker and one of the FilmAid students living in Kakuma who worked on the documentaries.
“What I loved most about the Penn students was that they didn’t take us as refugees, but they took us as their colleagues,” Patient says. “They were so patient, supportive, and hardworking, no matter how hot the sun was, and they were always ready to learn from us and share ideas.”
Four teams made the six documentaries over 10 days. Each team consisted of two Penn students and at least four FilmAid student-alums, with Decherney, the teaching assistants, and the FilmAid staff providing guidance and support.
Each documentary explains an important aspect of life in the camp: education, health, livelihood, safety and protection, water and sanitation, food distribution, and firewood. The teams filmed multiple interviews with refugees, meeting with people in homes, schools, hospitals, offices, and distribution points. They also interviewed officials in the many non-governmental agencies working at the camp, including the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.
“The students were very thorough, making sure they got different perspectives,” explains Melissa Skolnick-Noguera, a teaching assistant on the trip. She is a doctoral student in the School of Policy & Practice and has worked with immigrants through her social work career as a result of her own second-generation upbringing.
Jean Lee, a 2009 Penn graduate, also served as a teaching assistant on the project. A filmmaker in Los Angeles, she advised the students to conduct interviews “in a way that is full of empathy, sensitivity, and thoughtfulness,” a lesson she has learned making documentaries about people who have been traumatized.
“We were all united in the vision of this project, which is the idea of filmmaking as a tool to actually create change,” Lee says. “Filmmaking can create a long and deep and immediate impact that is tangible.”
Arriving in the Kalobeyei settlement before dawn, Chidi, Escobar and their team met a young woman, Thothamoi, at her home to film her walking the 15 minutes to the secondary school where she is the only female in her class. A refugee from Ethiopia relocated from Dadaab, she spoke about empowering other girls to go to school, urging them to resist the pressure to quit and focus on marriage.
“It just felt incredibly important,” Escobar says. “The idea that young girls who will be arriving to Kalobeyei will see this film and see her speaking about how important it is for a woman to have an education, that really brought tears to my eyes while we were filming.”
Skolnick-Noguera provided support on the shoot as they filmed, just as the sun was coming up. “It was so powerful being there, hearing her story, and watching the group film the story,” she says.
Jennifer Chen, a sophomore from Saratoga, Calif., says she was saddened to see children playing in the mud when she and Raines arrived at a protection center with their team to conduct interviews. As she got closer, her emotions changed as she realized what they were doing.
“They were using mud to make houses on the ground,” says Chen, a Cinema and Media Studies major who has also lived in China. “Some were like places they used to live, and others places they would imagine. It was therapy. It was incredible to see them using their hands to make these.”
Unplanned moments were the most rewarding, says Laurel Jaffe, a sophomore from New Canaan, Conn., who has traveled and hiked mountains with her family on all seven continents.
Before dawn one morning she and Schwartz and their team were ready to film as people emerged from their homes to get water at a truck next to a tall metal water tower. “We just kind of climbed up with one of the guys. We got to the top and we were taping all around,” she says. “It was great and we got some amazing footage.”
When they climbed down, she says they joined in with a large group of children, the boys drumming on the water jugs, the girls turning cartwheels. “It was the shots that we stumbled upon that were some of the best,” Jaffe says.
Groups of children spontaneously gathered around the film crews, curious about the Westerners visiting their settlement. One day Escobar sang “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” with Chidi as more than 50 children gathered around them. McLaughlin and Overmoyer taught another group the dance the Macarena.
“They’ve never seen a white lady who was so tall before,” says Overmoyer, who is more than six feet tall, and who was on her first trip outside of the United States. “They loved to take selfies. It was really cute. The kids were my favorite part of the trip.”
Countering stereotypes, finding a balance between telling the stories of joy and hope versus the stories of pain and need in the refugee camp, was part of the project’s mission.
“When I was there I realized that it is important to have heavy emotions not only in a sad sense but in a very joyful sense,” McLaughlin says. “That’s definitely something that completely changed my view of filmmaking, and the importance of documentary filmmaking.”
A highlight for everyone was the day Decherney forced them to take an afternoon off and they hiked up the rocky Kalemchuch Hill at sunset. “We got beautiful shots and 360 video up there,” he says, “and just had a great time relaxing and unwinding with some of the FilmAid staff and students.”
Dancing to reggae music on the radio, they climbed up on the van to pose for photos, and stayed until the sun went down.
Leaving the Camp
They were still filming the morning the Penn team left the camp to fly back to Nairobi. The FilmAid team would finish editing the documentaries, combining them to create the 40-minute “welcome kit” video. Decherney gave the FilmAid office some of Penn’s computers and cameras, as promised through the grant.
Saying goodbye was emotional. All the Penn students had formed friendships with their Kakuma teammates. They connected with each other on Facebook and exchanged contact information, promising to keep in touch.
“These are really smart, talented, ambitious young people, very similar to our Penn students, but they had just been born into a different situation,” Decherney says. “I think it was actually the similarities that were harder for our students to process than the differences.”
Schwartz was particularly close with Okelo, who, at 23, is the same age. Born in Sudan, Okelo has lived in Kakuma since he was two years old, and has been on his own since he was 10. Now he is an aspiring journalist and filmmaker.
“As we were climbing into the cars I saw Okelo watching us leave and his face was genuinely, very sad and I thought, we are leaving them to go back to what is, for us, ‘real life,’” Schwartz says. “They still have hope, but it looks like they are never going to leave. What we saw is their life.”
Starting on the first day and continuing through to the last, the students took turns writing daily personal accounts on a public blog. They also each wrote a daily personal journal as part of the coursework.
“I was surprised how many of the students chose to use their blog posts to write about one person they met,” Decherney says. “I think it is that one-on-one interaction that was most valuable for the Penn students, and I hope for the people we met there as well.”
When the team arrived back in the city of Nairobi, they visited animal conservation centers to see elephants and giraffes, shopped in local markets, and even went to see a movie. Then they were on the plane back to Philadelphia, arriving on July 27.
In the last public blog post, Chen wrote: “For me, this trip did not simply fulfill my desire to see and share with the world the reality of a refugee camp. Instead it has prompted me to relate Kakuma to the ongoing global refugee crisis and think of solutions to help refugees achieve their personal goals.”
Each student says the experience has impacted their view of the future and what they might do with their careers. They say they are more aware and grateful for the opportunities and freedoms they have.
Chidi says he is planning to go to law school and wants to use film to effect policy changes. “The Penn-in-Kenya trip expanded my idea of film as a tool for social change,” Chidi says. “It isn’t just the audience that’s impacted by the final product but filmmakers themselves, by the experience of documentary filmmaking. I feel that for both Penn and refugee team members, the experience was transformative.”
Upon their return to campus to start the fall semester, the students formed a Penn FilmAid Club, with Chidi and Escobar as co-presidents, McLaughlin as vice president, Jaffe heading membership outreach, and Chen as treasurer. At the fall student activities fair on Locust Walk, more than 100 Penn students signed up.
The group plans to make films about refugee issues, host screenings of documentaries on humanitarian issues, and reach out to the refugee community in Philadelphia. They also plan to send camera equipment, books, and movies to the FilmAid students in Kenya.
The photographs, documentaries, and virtual-reality film from the Penn-in-Kenya program will be showcased at a public event Tuesday, Nov. 7, from 4:30 to 7 p.m., at Perry World House, organized by Decherney and the students. FilmAid’s Murren will be one of the featured speakers, as well as Anne Richard, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State.
“The greatest allies we can have are young people with a passion to make change in the world and the humility to understand their role in making that change,” says Murren. “We are overjoyed that the Penn students want to form a group in solidarity and in support of FilmAid and the communities we serve.”
Penn’s Cinema and Media Studies program is sponsoring a Penn student internship with FilmAid next summer.
“I knew the Penn students and I would get a tremendous amount out of this experience. We learned a lot,” Decherney says. “I hoped we would do something useful as well, and I think we did.”
In addition to Decherney, the Penn-in-Kenya project’s other faculty directors are Carolyn Cannuscio, assistant professor of family medicine and community health, and John Jackson, Jr., dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice and Richard Perry University Professor, who also has appointments in anthropology and the Annenberg School for Communication. The Vitale Digital Media Lab in the Penn Libraries provided camera equipment for the project.