Showing posts with label africa. Show all posts
Showing posts with label africa. Show all posts

Sunday, August 5, 2012

How I work as a Brooklyn-based filmmaker for UN and NGO agencies

I get a lot of filmmakers and development colleagues who ask me questions about how I was able to build a career as a filmmaker working for the United Nations and other NGOs. And also, at the same time as keeping my foot planted in the artistic and sociopolitical movements in Brooklyn.

Today I'll be speaking and will address some of these questions on a panel entitled, "Female Documentary Filmmakers" at the Art of Brooklyn Film Festival from 4-5:30pm.

Never heard of the festival?  Either have I but its been labeled as Brooklyn's Tribeca.

The festival runs from Aug 4-12 and you can find more info at

Hope to see you (and feel free to forward!)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Contest for Best Photography in the (One Life) World

Hi all,

I have some personal thoughts about my role documenting Africa, the Motherland.  Click the link below to read my personal perspective and while you're there, vote for my photos.  The One Life Photography Competition will give winners a New York City photo exhibition and a $25,000 cash grant!

Click "Collect Me" HERE...or

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!)

Friday, December 18, 2009

Happy Holidays!


As 2009 comes to a close, I want to take this time to thank those of you who have supported me and my work on behalf of women and young people. Whether as a colleague, a friend, an audience member, or a supporter, I couldn't have asked for a better year in being able to do the work I care so deeply about. As a colleague of mine said last night, "2009 was your year" and it was! It would not have been possible without the support I receive from so many of you.

As Maya Angleou wrote, "If one is lucky, a solitary fantasy can totally transform one million realities."

Thank you for helping me realize the power of a dream.

Many thanks and happy holidays!



Highlights of 2009
- April 2009: Premiered "Not Yet Rain", a short film on unsafe abortion, produced in association with Ipas
- May 2009: Traveled to the Cannes Film Festival with the pitch reel for my new film, "The Parliament of One" on US-UN relations.
- May 2009: Received the Emmy® Award in the "Outstanding Advanced Media Interactivity" category for "Bi-Racial Hair" starring Zora Howard and produced as part of the WGBH Lab with the National Black Programming Consortium.
- June/July 2009: Keynote at nine National Youth Leadership Forum conferences in Boston, Philadelphia, DC, Atlanta with "Love, Labor, Loss", on obstetric fistula in Niger.
- August 2009: Filmmed in Northern Uganda for "YOUTH ZONES", a film and poetry initiative with UNFPA and Women's Refugee Commission.
- September 2009: Filmmed exclusive interview footage with Pete O'Neal in Tanzania in preparation for a book/script on his life story.
- September/October 2009: Filmmed at the UN General Assembly and completed second round of interviews for "The Parliament of One."
- November 2009: Invited to join the Editorial Committee for the Maternal Health Task Force.

2010 Projections
- Develop and launch - a film and new media initiative to increase civic engagement to meet MDG Five on maternal health.
- Premiere "YOUTH ZONES", a film and poetry initiative with UNFPA and Women's Refugee Commission profiling young people in conflict and natural disasters in Liberia, Lebanon, Colombia, New Orleans and Northern Uganda.
- Research and development with award-winning choreographer, Tamilla Woodard and activist Joao Brando, on a live theater piece focused on sexual violence in the DR Congo and the Conflict Mineral Trade Act introduced by Representative Jim McDermott.
- Continue fundraising for production funds for "The Parliament of One" and "Myth of the Motherland."

Show your support of independent artists: Make a tax-free donation.
As independent filmmakers, we spend more of time raising funds than actually working on the projects we care about. Governess Films can definitely use your support to keep our projects moving.

If you are interested in making a tax-free donation to Lisa Russell's independent documentary projects, please visit the following sites:

And choose either,

"The Parliament of One"
"Myth of the Motherland"

Thank you!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Reflections for this Holiday Season

As the holiday celebrations and gift-giving ceremonies ensue, I wanted to send some personal reflections. While I don't have much time to write about and share personal experiences I have behind the camera lens, I wrote this piece last year originally for and felt it was appropriate to share for the holidays as we reflect and appreciate what 2008 had to offer.

I also wanted to send a special thank you to the many colleagues, friends, collaborators, and supporters - you know who you are - for your continued investment and faith in the power of film and the belief that a better world is possible.

Happy Holidays.


Behind the Scenes of LOVE, LABOR, LOSS
By Lisa Russell

"The baby is not breathing." It was one of the most disturbing statements I heard while shooting my documentary film Love, Labor, Loss in Niger just a few years ago. I had traveled to this West African country to shoot a film on obstetric fistula, a childbearing injury caused by a prolonged, obstructed labor that leaves women childless, incontinent and often ostracized from their communities. It was our second day of shooting and my intention was to film a successful Cesarean section, illustrating one way to prevent obstetric fistula. Unfortunately, the woman we had filmed had waited too long for the surgery. We were left filming her newborn baby as he was dying on camera.

That day, we were visiting the Central Maternity Hospital in the capital, Niamey, intending to shoot interviews and b-roll of the country's most prestigious hospital that focuses primarily on women in difficult labor. When the OB/GYN first introduced us to this patient, she was lying on her side with the back of her hospital gown soaked in blood. Like many other women in Niger who encounter troubles with their pregnancy, she had spent several days traveling by foot, donkey cart and taxi to get to the hospital. "She has been here since 6 am," the doctor explained. I looked at my watch, realizing she had been waiting for over six hours. I asked why she has been waiting so long for her surgery. The doctor explained to me that women must come to the hospital with their "supplies" - meaning all the bandages, syringes, and other items needed for their surgery. This woman's family had been roaming the streets of Niamey since dawn begging for the last $20 needed so that they could trade it for another woman's supplies so the surgery could begin.

Within the next hour, the $60 worth of supplies arrived and the patient was immediately prepped for her c-section. It's obvious this poor, rural woman has never had surgery before (the c-section rate in Niamey is only 2%) and fear covered her face with every move the doctors made. The anesthesiologist waited for the surgeon's go-ahead so that he could sedate her right before the first cut is made. The surgery was quick and the baby was pulled from her abdomen in a manner of minutes. My cameraman and I were both surprised by the seemingly simplicity of the operation.

It wasn't until the child was wheeled into the post-delivery room where the nurse began CPR that I realized how critical the situation had become. The nurse began by putting a suction hose up the infant's nostrils to drain mucous while doing compressions on the baby's chest. I thought this was normal procedure until five minutes passed. I asked what was wrong. "The baby is not breathing," she said as she looked at me, keeping her confidence that all would be all right.

Finally, after about eleven or twelve long minutes after we had arrived in the room, the baby choked for air and began to cry. The nurse pulled out a mouthful of mucous and placed an oxygen mask over the baby as she began to clean up the blood. "He is going to be okay," she confidently told the camera.

When I screen and discuss my film, I don't usually tell this story. The stories people want and expect to hear about obstetric fistula are those about the large numbers of women whose lives have been destroyed by this relatively unknown condition and the numerous programs that are repairing women's fistulas and giving them a new life. They expect to hear about how fistula is perpetuated by early marriages and women's voicelessness when it comes to decision making about their health care. These are all important aspects of the challenge of obstetric fistula.

But in this story, a woman, in labor, is at the country's most adequate facility and is not served because she is poor and her family lacks the resources and know-how to advocate for her life. A woman is at risk of delivering a stillborn baby because a mere $20 cannot be materialized. A doctor, capable and passionate enough to save this woman's life, waits helplessly for the supplies to arrive as he watches her wait in pain and misery. And a camera crew, ready to share a positive story about progress being made in fistula prevention and treatment in Niger, filming a near-death experience with camera equipment whose cost could cover over 100 c-sections.

This story demonstrates that obstetric fistula is not just a woman's issue, nor is it just about the developing world. It is about the economic disparity between the haves and the have-nots. It is about our inability to prioritize people's lives and about legislation that restricts funding based on political battles. And it reflects a sense of complacency towards striving for social equality and progress. The gap between rich and poor countries and between rural and urban areas continues to create conditions that make women at risk for obstetric fistula - lack of education, lack of employment, scarcity of safe motherhood services and indeed, early marriage, which is often justified by the economic security it gives the family.

Because I came to filmmaking with a public health background, I look at obstetric fistula through a human rights lens. Whenever I screen my films, therefore, I try to balance pointing out the effects that local cultural practices - such as early marriages and unattended births - can have on maternal health and mortality, with drawing attention to the legislation and policy that can hamper efforts to improve global women's health. This includes U.S. policies such as the Global Gag Rule, the $34 million withdrawal from the United Nations Population Fund, certain restrictions in PEPFAR funding, as well as our country's refusal to ratify CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) which is considered the international bill of rights for women. If we could adhere to the ideals and promises made in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to the promises made at the Cairo and Beijing conferences, and could strive towards the goals outlined in the Millennium Development Goals, than maybe we can realize a future where women are not dying in pregnancy or childbirth and their newborns have a chance at a hopeful and productive life.

I believe it is critically important for people, particularly youth, to get a comprehensive introduction to the numerous factors that contribute to inequalities in global health. As Americans we have been programmed to believe that writing a check or organizing a fundraiser alone is enough of a contribution. And while fundraising is definitely an important element in advocating for social change, I believe we need to be watchdogs of the promises made by our leaders and act as global citizens who work in solidarity with women who lack the resources and voice to make change at the global level.

It is partly for this reason that I seek out screenings with young people and engage them in conversations that range from the personal to the global. I do this through integrating different art genres such as film and music and spoken word poetry. I believe we need to empower a more critically thinking, self-expressive generation that can simultaneously focus on personal growth as well as strive for a change in global consciousness. At the National Youth Leadership Forum three times each summer, we transform a 450-person auditorium filled with high achieving high school students interested in medicine anticipating a 90-minute keynote speech into a down-to-earth, honest discussion. We talk not only about obstetric fistula, but the social injustices between the privileged and the poor, about personal ambitions like living your life for a greater purpose and staying true to yourself despite the pressures of becoming someone you're not. The response proves usually very positive as young people feel engaged in the bigger picture and feel they genuinely have a role to play.

When I go back and listen to the footage of that moment in the post-delivery room years ago, I can hear my voice whispering to my cameraman, "Are we really going to film a baby dying?" as the nurse's determination to save the newborn perseveres. By now, I've learned its the personal experiences that give us the strength and perserverence to fight the long fight.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

"We Will Not Die Like Dogs"

"We Will Not Die Like Dogs" will have its UK Premiere at the We the Peoples 2008 Film Festival, on November 25th at 6pm. Visit for more details.

About the Festival
The We The Peoples Film Festival takes its title from the opening words of the United Nations Charter.

The festival, which is now in its third year, strives to raise the profile of the United Nations by promoting its aims and work in development, security and human rights to new and existing audiences by inspiring and educating them through film.

The festival also endeavours to raise awareness and support in the United Kingdom and the global film industry for the development work of the UN, its agencies and NGOs.

As well as showing high quality films, the festival provides a forum for discussion about the issues portrayed, with experts from across the field.