Seniors Film Sierra Leone Documentary

The movie-making business isn’t all glitz and glamour, as seen by three Boston College seniors stepping into their first experience in the documentary-making field.  Marisa Bellantonio, Kristy Davis, and Armen Abagyan, all A&S ’14, travelled to Sierra Leone this past summer to film a documentary about the current condition of the health care crisis and its effects on its people.

This idea has been a long time coming for the students. “We first thought up the idea in a Perspectives class we took together freshman year,” Bellantonio said of herself and Davis.

The girls talked to a professor about the idea of making a film with respect to a global social issue, but had not yet settled on a concrete idea.

“Junior year, I went abroad and my dad came to visit me, and one of the first conversations we had was about a contact he met through his business who works for ACF [African Christian Fellowship],” Davis said.

Her father explained that ACF was attempting to build a permanent health center in Sierra Leone. “My first reaction was to apply for the grant under this idea,” she said.

The Jacques Salmanowitz Program for Moral Courage in Film, which serves as a resource for independent filmmakers, university students, and faculty who wish to create documentaries that will inspire future generations, had been on the students’ minds since the idea came to them in their Perspectives class.

The proposal for the grant forced the group to think about and plan exactly whom they would talk to when they got to Sierra Leone.

“The proposal included information on the health care crisis in Sierra Leone, the specific town we were going to film in, our exact budget, and the specific dates we were going to go,” Bellantonio said.

Once the students were finally approved for the grant, they rented film equipment from the BC film department and were ready to begin their project that had been in the works for over three years. The entire group consisted of Bellantonio, Abagyan, Davis, Davis’ father, and a contact from ACF.

“We didn’t have a set plan really until a few days before we left when our contact emailed us with an hour-by-hour itinerary,” Belantonio said.

The group arrived in Freetown, the capital city, and stayed at a hotel there for 10 days, but worked mainly in Samuel Town where the health center was being built. “When we arrived, there were school children on these steps waiting to sing us a song,” Davis said.

The students explained that their schedules were jam-packed for the entirety of the 10 days as they had meetings planned to talk with everyone from university students to the vice president.

“My favorite day was probably talking to the university students because they had the most perspective,” Davis said. “The country has recently gotten out of a civil war, so it was cool to hear what the students had to say about it.”

Bellantonio described her favorite interviewee as an American midwife who moved to Sierra Leone to teach women in rural areas the skills they need to reduce the birth rates.

The students admit that it was not always easy to film the people in Sierra Leone, especially in the provinces. “Some people would accuse us of filming their suffering,” Bellantonio said.

“I think also the fact that there were dozens of journalists around during their time of civil war might have made them feel exploited by the cameras.”

“It was also hard to have such a busy schedule because you really want to build a relationship with the person before you sit down and film them and ask them a bunch of questions on the spot,” Davis said.

Other struggles that the team had to overcome included technological breakdowns and equipment issues.

“First our memory card broke, and from there it seemed like every other piece of equipment slowly stopped working,” Bellantonio said.

Finally, there was a slight language barrier between the students and the interviewees, as many natives speak a variety of tribal languages.

“In the urban areas everyone pretty much spoke English, but when you got out to the provinces we had to go through a translator,” Davis said.

When the group arrived back in the U.S., the girls jumped right into the stresses and excitement of senior year, and the project was put on hold for a few months.

“It was a lot of 4 a.m. editing, doing it in your spare time,” Davis said.

The students admit that none of them had any professional filmmaking experience, but Abagyan has worked behind the camera directing and producing for many years as a hobby, and Davis took a film class while she was studying in Nepal.

First, the students began making the promotional video for ACF, which consisted of scenes from the health care center in addition to many interviews with locals.

“We got a wide variety of interviews while we were there, so we had to look at them through a lens-what would be most useful for ACF?” Davis said.

The health care center sponsored by ACF will be finished in May, so the students wanted to make sure that the organization had their promotional video well before in order to raise awareness for the project and possibly accrue more funding for construction.

“We set a deadline for the day before Spring Break,” Bellantonio said.

“It’s definitely not perfect,” Davis said. “We are meeting next week to make some changes to it-edit it and make some updates with new pictures of the hospital since it has come a long way since last August.”

The next step for the students is to take the short video and make it into their own film in order to fulfill the requirements for the grant.

“I think we want to make it less about ACF and more about Sierra Leone in general,” Davis said.

Davis and her father, along with a representative from ACF, have planned a trip back to Sierra Leone in June. In addition, the students have been invited to speak at ACF’s national conference. “I am so excited to see the progress of the hospital and revisit the people I met,” she said.


March 23, 2014

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