South Sudan – A Magical Place

Date: 29.04.2016
Category: Making Of, Travel, Video

by Raj Yagnik, Producer / Director

In October 2015 UNICEF South Sudan approached us about making a film about their work. I was already involved in shoots in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, so adding another country devastated by an ongoing conflict to the list of Wired shoot locations for 2015/16 didn’t seem that crazy.

Even before the civil war, South Sudan had a terrible education system. The conflict made all aspects of life worse. The world’s newest country now has the highest proportion of children out-of-school in the world. Nearly one in every three schools in conflict affected areas has been destroyed, damaged, occupied or closed. Only 36 percent of functioning schools have access to water and only 47 percent have latrines.

As this film was intended for as wide an audience as possible, we wanted to do something attention-grabbing that would appeal to people that might not watch another depressing documentary. We were inspired by the short camera trick ‘vines’ of Zach King (see below) and wondered if these kind of tricks could form the basis of a fun film that could involve a lot of children, that could also present the shocking facts about education in an engaging way.

We submitted a proposal, won the bid, and developed our concept into the following  animatic, which is a blueprint for the final film (see below)

We did many tests of each camera trick to make sure that we could replicate it easily and quickly and had model maker and animator Tine Kluth make a great replica of the school from photos.

A Friday in early February 2016 I arrived in Juba with camera operator and co-writer Shona Hamilton. We had scheduled a fairly relaxed 9 day shoot, with a couple of days to work with the children on acting before choosing our heroes. Sadly, the security situation meant that we were unable to spend weekends in the field and we were obliged to cut the number of shoot days to 4. We spent our weekend confined to the hotel in Juba refining the script and cutting the more difficult to realise, time-consuming scenes.

There is only one good road in South Sudan – the one from Juba to the Ugandan border. Our shoot location was Ayii village in  Magwi county near Uganda. We picked up our drivers, and UNICEF staff had negotiated our press passes, and we were booked into the accommodation at Obama village in  Magwi county it was already 3pm. Luckily, the hotel was just minutes away from Ayii village and our school where children were already getting ready to go home. We had an hour to choose our main actors. We gathered a bunch of children from the playground who expressed an interest in acting. All of them had had some exposure to films – either Nigerian movies or Kung Fu flicks.

We did screen-tests with 12 children and got each one to to portray different emotions to get an idea of whether they would be able to perform for camera. All the children were understandably a little shy. We were communicating with them in their second language, and it was difficult for them to imagine what it was we were trying to achieve. Still we could see those that had the best potential, and those who looked best on camera, and who had the best command of English.

Eventually we chose Nelson and Eunice, who stood out as the best performers (scroll down for their biographies) as our heroes and the other children would play supporting roles.

The shoot took place over the next 4 days and was very intensive and took up all the daylight hours. In the evenings we would back-up and check the footage during the 4 hours of electricity at the hotel, eat dinner with the crew and then sleep very soundly. In the morning we would watch the children running to school as we wolfed down breakfast. I cut this short ad for UNICEF from this early morning footage.

One thing that was immediately obvious was that the children were hungry. We shared the food we had with our performers, but there were another 500 children and teachers surviving on very little.

The most difficult scene to realise was the one with the cows. Although South Sudan has a lot of cattle farming, in the south, where we were, there were few cows. We managed to find someone with 5 cows, but it was extremely difficult to get any cooperation from the beasts, who were frightened of us and the green screen. Tim Drage, our visual effects expert, ended up spending a large amount of the post-production time on this one shot. Duplicating and Rotoscoping cows.

The post-production took place in London with voice-over recorded by Ajjaz Awad and Shimin ???, with music by Roma Yagnik and visual effects by Tim Drage.

I’m very happy with the final film, and hope that it gets a widespread audience and helps to raise awareness of the lack of opportunities for so many in South Sudan and is a useful tool for fund-raisers.

Otii Nelson Ochola is 15 years-old.

Nelson’s favourite subject is English as he wants to be a pilot and fly to America and Britain to see what they are like. He was keen to act in a film because he had seen kung fu movies before.

Until this, his eighth year of education, Nelson had only ever known school under the tree. If it rained the teachers didn’t turn up. There was no uniform, no lunches and, more importantly, no football field.

The new school building hasn’t solved all their problems. Things are better with the new building so that means there are a lot more children coming to school. Even though there are more teachers, this means that class sizes are still big. He feels lucky that unlike a lot of his classmates, he only has to walk half an hour to school, and has some books, shoes and a school-bag.

Because of local food shortages, like most of his classmates, he goes most days without any lunch. It makes it difficult to concentrate on the classes in the afternoon, and not just for the pupils. Nelson notices that the teachers have the same problem.

Also the football field is still not finished.

Eunice Aber Betty, 15.

Eunice’s favourite subject is English, her father used to live in Australia, and she has a brother still living there. She wants to become a teacher: “I want to be a teacher because you get more knowledge when you are teaching”.

It takes Eunice an hour to walk to school every morning, she didn’t go to school under the tree as she used to go to a closer school, but it had a thatched roof that used to leak. She moved to this school because there is a good building and everything is there. There is shelter and a toilet – the building is really good.

There are still problems at the new school. Some teachers are good, but others aren’t trained. She can see that they make spelling mistakes when they are writing on the board. There is a real shortage of food in the area. There is often no food for the children – a lot don’t have breakfast or lunch. Girls have other problems too. Like most girls, when she has her period Eunice has to miss school, because she doesn’t have any sanitary ware and the school doesn’t provide any. On the way to school she often gets teased by men saying ‘you are my wife’. So she runs all the way to school, and tries to join other girls, because it’s safer.

Eunice loves learning above everything else: “Acting in this film was a good experience because it gave me knowledge of acting”. She’s also a fan of the Nigerian “Beyoncé” films.

(All photos by Shona Hamilton)