Friday, June 29, 2012

New Documentary Film to Premiere (Please share!)

I am someone who adamantly hates being a slave to my cell phone.  Yet, I've come to the realization that cell phones will revolutionize women's healthcare, particularly on the African continent.

With that said, I'm very excited to announce the World Premiere of a new film I've completed on the use of mobile phones in assisting women in Tanzania suffering from a childbearing injury called obstetric fistula to receive free treatment.

The film, entitled "Mobile Phones + Fistula:  What's Next?", co-produced with UNFPA and the Campaign to End Fistula, will debut at the historic Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF) - East Africa's largest film and music festival taking place July 7-15, 2012.  The film has also been accepted into the Women's Panorama program which takes select films and screens them in the villages in Zanzibar.

For more information about exact screening times and subsequent screenings, please subscribe to this blog or join our Facebook Film Page at

You can read the film synopsis below.


Around the world, nearly 350,000 women will die each year in childbirth.  Of those who survive, 50,000-100,000 will develop a horrific childbearing injury called obstetric fistula which leaves women incontinent and shunned from society.

Although in many countries free treatment for fistula repair is available, the majority of women living with fistula cannot afford the transportation to the hospitals providing the treatment.

In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, an innovative mobile phone program at the CCBRT Hospital is allowing funds to be transferred through the mobile banking service, M-PESA, to 'community ambassadors' who assist in identifying and facilitating transportation for women suffering from this condition.  Since the founding of the project in 2009, there has been a 65% increase in the number of surgeries performed at CCBRT.

"Mobile Phones + Fistula:  What's Next?" is a new documentary film by Emmy-winning filmmaker, Lisa Russell, with support by UNFPA and the Campaign to End Fistula.  Shot on location in Tanzania, the 15-minute film documents the life-changing program at CCBRT and includes testimonies from women living with fistula, community ambassadors, fistula repair surgeons, and fistula advocates.  The film, which will be distributed in both English and eventually Swahili, will be used to inspire replication of this good practice as well as develop new ideas about using mobile phones to reach women and girls living with fistula in the future."

"Mobile Phones + Fistula: What's Next?" will have its World Premiere at the historic Zanzibar International Film Festival and will be part of the Women's Panorama program.  It will then be available for screening events globally and hosted online.

For updates about the film, join our Facebook Film Page at http;// 

Genre:  Documentary Short
Technical Data:  HD, Color
Running Time:  15 minutes

Monday, June 25, 2012

How I Get Music for My Films

Those who know my work have come to appreciate the great lengths I go to to get good music for my films.  Most of the time I try to get music from artists who represent the country I am shooting in.  As music can become a pretty expensive line item in a film budget, I try to negotiate with the artists or labels something in exchange for their contribution.  Sometimes the content of my films alone (many are humanitarian based) will do,  Then others come up with some sort of bartering offer which I usually jump on - exchanging shooting for music. 

Case in point... I went out for my birthday a few weeks ago to a spot in Williamsburg called Zebulon and a great band was playing.  The vibe was high energy and the crowd was movin' and groovin'.  I knew the lead singer had to be from West Africa but didn't know where.  I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he was from  Sierra Leone where, in February, I shot a film on how solar power is saving women's lives and I still need music.

I contacted the manager who put me in touch with Luaka Bop, David Byrne's label.   I know this label well considering it was the label that my friend and creative partner, Zap Mama, was on at the time I was looking for music for my film,  LOVE, LABOR, LOSS on obstetric fistula in Niger.  Working with Zap Mama taught me the power of working with performing artists in the distribution phase of my films that I utilize to this day.  And the philosophy is one I share with my incredibly talented friend and comrade, Maya Azucena, that has culminated in some interesting collaborative projects.

So, Luaka Bop agreed to let me use the music from the band - Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang -  in exchange for shooting some interview and b-roll of the lead singer who has an incredible story of growing up in war-torn Sierra Leone and found his way to music as his salvation and his career now here in NYC.  I loved this!

Now, not every label will be as cool as Luaka Bop but my point is, it's worth looking into.  You have to realize that some artists will benefit from being aligned with your film because you're reaching an audience they may not otherwise reach.  I try to add other incentives - like linking to their site from my film site, offering to distribute their promotional materials at my screenings, inviting them to speak at the screenings and so on.  Think from the perspective of the artist or label - if they aren't getting money from you, how else can they benefit from aligning with you?

Here are some photos from the shoot.  I'll post the video when it's done.  For those of you who live in NYC, they are playing a free show at the Fort Greene Park on July 10th.  I highly suggest you check them out!


Friday, June 22, 2012

How to Shoot on a DSLR in Africa

My upcoming film "Mobile Phones + Fistula:  What Next?" that documents the use of mobile phone technology to help women living with obstetric fistula in Tanzania access free fistula repair treatment, was the first time I shot a film on HD using the DSLR camera.  I learned A LOT - made some mistakes - and wanted to share them here.

The camera I used was the Canon EOS Rebel T2i and I used a separate audio source.  I don't normally have a second person with me, but this trip I worked with an audio professional who assisted me with second camera and sound.  I ended up bringing my Panasonic HVX 100 and used the p2 cards with a Seinnheiser lavalier set and/or Rode shotgun mic to capture sound.  I had heard about the audio syncing software, PluralEyes, that would sync multicamera audio in post production so I could take the beautiful images from the DSLR and match them to the sound off the Panasonic.  So, I left for Tanzania, hoping for the best.

The first problem I encountered was adapting to using a still camera as a video camera.  I shoot in a very run and gun style, in sometimes very rugged and hot environments in the different African countries I primarily work in.  With the DSLR camera, I wasn't able to manuever the camera in all sorts of directions that I'm accustomed to because I couldn't SEE what I was shooting (the LCD screen is static on the back of the camera.)  I also had a hard time figuring out if I was in focus or not.

Another issue I had to get accustomed to is the fact that the camera will shut off if it gets too hot.  Although some resources state that this won't happen if you use fast memory cards and use a normal work flow, this wasn't the case for me.  If interviewing, I had to remember to turn the camera off and back on again regularly (and I tried to do this while I was asking a question so not to clip the interviewees voice.)  It was sort of a hassle bc of letting myself get immersed in the interview, I had to constantly keep my eye on the timecode. 

In addition to this, the batteries die relatively quickly.  I only had three spares (the same I bring with me when using the HVX) and I couldn't go a full day without having to recharge.   This was not easy considering I was working in hospitals and rural areas where access to an electrical outlet wasn't always convenient.

Then there is the data management aspect which is challenging enough to do with even two people, let alone myself.  When the cards were full, I had to dump them onto my computer and hard drive.  I tried to dump the p2 material at the same time so I could keep it organized.  I would label folders by the dates that I would shoot. Sometimes I would go through 3-4 cards in a day so had to remember to label them Feb 21a, Feb 21b, etc.  This took a considerable amount of time and organizational focus which often times would distract me and pull me out of the conversations and the content I was capturing with my subject matters.

And finally, the thing that is most stressful about shooting on these cameras - is the fact that you don't have a hard tape as a master.  Once you dump your footage, that's it.  You wipe the card clean and if your hard drive or something fails, you lose it.  So, every night at my hotel, I would have to remember to do a second save - as the back up.  Unfortunately, one of the worst of all things happened to me while shooting - I lost a 32gig card.  Thankfully, it didn't have much real content on it - mostly broll - but traveing in rugged areas, in a lot of different locations, and making sure that tiny card doesn't get misplaced was challenging to say the least.

When I got back to NYC, I wasn't as pleased with my material as I usually am.  Yes, the images were amazing bc of the chip in the DSLR.  But I had to really go through my footage to find non-shaky, in-focused broll (the interviews were fine bc I used my tripod but the handheld wasn't the best material I shot.)  And to top it all off, the PluralEyes software didn't work with DSLR material in Avid Media Composer (which is what I normally cut on) so I had to manually sync all my footage.  Talk about extremely time consuming and a downer.

So, for those of you planning to use these DSLR cameras for your shoots in Africa, I would suggest the following, knowing what I know now:

- Bring extra SD cards and Canon batteries (more than you think you will need.)
- Try out different lenses - the beauty of these DSLR cameras is your ability to change the glass.  I have a standard lens, a long lens and a fish eye.  
- Get a steadicam to get steadier shots (there are relatively cheap ones.)
- Use a rubber eyepiece eyecup.  They only cost $9 on Amazon and helps you see what your shooting better.  It also can help keep your checks or nose from oiling up the screen, Also good for those wearing glasses.
- Edit in FCP unless Avid fixes the inconvenience with Plural Eyes.
- Use an image stabilizing effect to smooth out shaky shots.

I ended up shooting a few more films since this film on the same camera and with a few tweaks, had much better results.  And the best part is this camera is affordable.  It has similar features as the Canon 5D that are more popular but its a lot more affordable (check the ad below for both camera and standard lens - not a bad price at all!)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

YOUTH ZONES Arabic Version

YOUTH ZONES Spanish Version


Really excited to announce that my film, YOUTH ZONES (about young people in Colombia, Liberia, Lebanon, Northern Uganda and New Orleans who are helping to rehabilitate their communities after conflict and natural disasters) has been translated in French, Spanish and Arabic.  Here is the French version.  Watch and share for World Refugee Day (which is TOMORROW!!!)

Monday, June 18, 2012

World Premiere at ZIFF

Hello friends and supporters,

I've been absent from blogging here for a while but that's going to change.  I have some new films about to be released and a few new shoots that I completed this year.  Please check back or subscribe to my blog for these updates.

As for now, big news is that the mobile phone and fistula film I shot in Tanzania will be having its world premiere at ZIFF - the Zanzibar International Film Festival.  It's East Africa's largest film, music and arts gathering.  I am not much of a film festival filmmaker, but this one is an important one for me considering the subject matters I cover and of course, the fact that many of my films are shot on the African continent.

Want to hear more about ZIFF?  Here's a short film: