Montana State University

Fact vs. fiction: African feature filmmakers learn documentary techniques at MSU

July 8, 2015 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service

Charles Udoekpo works with Theo Lipfert, MSU film professor,  as Eloho Okumo looks on during workshop on conducting interviews on the MSU campus Monday. Udoekpo and Okumo, both from Nigeria, are two of 15 African feature filmmakers learning documentary filmmaking as part of a month-long, Ford Foundation-funded workshop with MSU’s School of Film and Photography. MSU Photo by Sepp Jannotta. Jason Roehrig, a graduate student in Montana State University's School of Film and Photography, and Lydia Gachuhi, a visiting student from Kenya, work on a shooting a practice interview Monday on the MSU Campus. Gachuhi is visiting with a group of 15 African feature filmmakers learning documentary filmmaking as part of a month-long, Ford Foundation-funded workshop at MSU's School of Film and Photography. MSU Photo by Sepp Jannotta.

Charles Udoekpo works with Theo Lipfert, MSU film professor, as Eloho Okumo looks on during workshop on conducting interviews on the MSU campus Monday. Udoekpo and Okumo, both from Nigeria, are two of 15 African feature filmmakers learning documentary filmmaking as part of a month-long, Ford Foundation-funded workshop with MSU’s School of Film and Photography. MSU Photo by Sepp Jannotta.

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Fifteen African filmmakers are learning the fine points of documentary film production at a four-week summer workshop at Montana State University’s acclaimed School of Film and Photography.

The filmmakers from Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia are in Montana on a program made possible by a nearly $200,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, believed to be the first Ford Foundation grant awarded to MSU, according to MSU’s Office of Sponsored Programs.

“What I love about (filmmaking) is that I’ve learned there are no limits. You can create something from nothing but an idea,” said Lydia Gachuhi, a feature screenwriter from Nairobi, Kenya. Gachuhi is one of three East Africans – there is another Kenyan as well as an Ethiopian – who join 12 Nigerian filmmakers in the workshop. All participants were selected from applications submitted at the recent African International Film Festival.

The course is geared to help talented filmmakers create documentary film in their country that will positively impact their country’s society. Its origin was rooted in a conversation that Nancy Cornwell, MSU’s dean of the College of Arts and Architecture, had with a former colleague who is currently working with the Ford Foundation in Africa about teaching documentary journalism in Nigeria. Cornwell said that Nigeria has a thriving feature film community known as “Nollywood,” the third-largest cinema production country in the world, behind India and the U.S. Cornwell made the case for MSU to teach the techniques of documentary filmmaking to the gifted African filmmakers.

“The skills they are learning here will empower these filmmakers to document what is going on in their country and to celebrate and challenge their countries to address injustices or problems,” Cornwell said. “The societal impact could be huge. And, there is no one better to teach these skills than MSU’s program and our faculty.”

While at MSU the students are learning the various modes of documentary, cinematography, lighting, interview techniques and post-production strategies, among other topics.

Gachuhi said editing is an example of a skill she has learned at MSU from Kathy Kasic and Theo Lipfert, the MSU film professors who designed and are leading the course. While she has done nearly everything else in filmmaking in her work with Africa’s One Fine Day Films and Ginger Ink, she has never edited, a skill that takes practice and patience, she said. Gachuchi and the rest of the participants will use those skills to make a film about their experience that will be screened to the public near the end of the course on July 18.

Kelly Matheson, a civil rights attorney who graduated from MSU’s MFA program in science and natural history filmmaking and now heads up the Video as Evidence program for WITNESS, lectured to the class one day. WITNESS is an international program started by musician Peter Gabriel that trains and supports people using video in the fight for human rights. Other MSU faculty have also presented their expertise on documentary filmmaking, including Lucia Ricciardelli, Patricia Simpson and filmmaker Karl Swingle.

Kasic said that all of the African students are bright and engaging, absorbing a full semester’s worth of material in four weeks.

“They are an incredibly motivated group that I find so wonderful to teach,” Kasic said.

In addition to the intensive workshop, the Africans are also traveling throughout the region. Lipfert said a recent trip over the Beartooth Highway to Yellowstone National Park included many of the students’ first experience with snow. The group also visited the Ennis rodeo during July 4.

“It definitely was their first rodeo,” Lipfert said. “They all loved it and didn’t want to leave.”

It is such experiences that have been particularly resonant for Ekine Chukwuma Stronghold, a Nigerian filmmaker who comes from the town of Ogreta in the Imo State. A writer, maker of short films and public relations manager in his country, Stronghold said educationally one of his most interesting lessons has been learning of the beauty of simplicity in documentary filmmaking.

Another of his most impactful lessons was cultural.

“In my country, crossing the street is very different. Cars do not stop when you want to cross the street,” he said, explaining that Nigerian pedestrians have to dodge through oncoming traffic to cross a street.  “The other day, I was going to Safeway (in Bozeman) and crossed with the traffic light. Halfway across, I forgot where I was and started running. The (man) in the car waved at me.  I thought that was very, very thoughtful.”

American profesors are also much more accessible and informal than the students are used to, he said.

“We are all very glad to be here.”

Nancy Cornwell (406) 994-4933, nancy.cornwell@montana.edu