Posted on 30th Oct 2021
I recently came across an article by Adrien Chen in The New Yorker. (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/01/22/using-comedy-to-strengthen-nigerias-democracy).
Chen writes about what happens when donor funds meet creativity. The article, titled “Mockery and Democracy: Can a satirical TV show strengthen civic life in Nigeria?” describes how Pilot Media Initiatives’ (PMI) and Nigerian news station Channels Television produce a show called “The Other News”, which is modelled on the news-parody format of the American “The Daily Show” popularised by Jon Stewart, and hosted, since 2015, by the hugely popular South African comedian, Trevor Noah.
At its inception, the Kenya-made Heart and Soul had similar problems to the Nigerian show. Promotional materials describing the show were heavy with the funder’s jargon: “good governance”, “behaviour change”, “empowerment”, “capacity-building”.
For the United Nations, Heart and Soul was mainly a “vehicle for communication”, as Tore Brevik, head of the United Nations Information Centre states in the promotional videos. The UN wanted to create behaviour change in six main areas: Care for the Environment, Health (mainly HIV and AIDS), Human Rights, Governance, Gender Issues, and Poverty Eradication.
We researched organisations that had a history of producing television for social change. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) were asked by Heart and Soul’s producers to release some of their top soap-opera producers and directors, and working extremely efficiently, these professionals provided sixteen Kenyan writers with the necessary tools to construct character bibles and storylines for Heart and Soul’s pilot episode.
These non-Kenyans may not have understood the local references; but people are people, and under their tutelage, relatable and realistic characters came magically to life. I don’t know how much experience our instructors had in working outside of their own culture, but the formulas they taught us worked, which is to say, the programme was a smash hit, and should have screened for years.
But it didn’t. The original six episodes were seen in 11 countries, but the dream of 26 and then 52 episodes that were to follow never came true.
Reading the Chen’s New Yorker article, what’s dawned on me is that “too many challenges prevented [us] from reaching [our] desired output.” The project, didn’t “yield the results as prescribed in the grant agreement”.
Before working on Heart and Soul, I spent 10 years working for the United Nations; for six of those ten years I ran a library that hardly anyone used. So I was familiar with the feeling of creating something that wasn’t intended to work. And I was never sure the UN was pulling together for the success of this soap opera project. I wasn’t sure that they really knew what they wanted outside of “results”. The many trees that sat on my library’s bookshelves were an example of this results-at-all-costs formula; report after report presented at countless blah-blah workshops and conferences were already evidence that that formula wasn’t working.
The UN’s aim was for Heart and Soul to teach all the people all the lessons within its first episode. And as producers, we were excited about finally having adequate funding to grow a really sustainable television industry.
And even though we only produced the six pilot episodes, and we didn’t produce the subsequent 13 and then 26 and then 52 episodes that we envisioned, the real success of this endeavour 19 years later is there for all to see…
As I look around me, I see scriptwriters and directors and camera people and actors who were able to make excellent television, and to pass on their skills to others. They have made a name for themselves in an environment that often stifles new ways of thinking for young people in general, and for artists in particular.
It was a long journey, and I’m happy to see so many people making a living with their craft.
The Research and Evaluation institution “Consumer Insight” concluded that the programmes would adequately compete with the foreign shows on local television stations.
The first pilot (which we made before we got some help from the BBC) was pretty rough. It was the beginning of a steep learning curve.
On watching that attempt at soap-opera making, Matthew Robinson of BBC Wales could hardly restrain himself. I’ve always wondered what he said in private, because it was clear he thought we were joking.
Our partnership with the BBC was followed by lots of unlearning and re-training… We were quick to acknowledge that we didn’t have a clue how to build a story for TV, but once we learned how, the script writers pulled out all the stops to create characters that many people fell in love with.
In the tradition of previously hugely popular television shows Tushauriane and Usiniharakishe, the actors became household names within a few weeks. One of the BBC trainers told an interviewer how overjoyed he was with the results, describing Kenyan artists as “sponges”; so ready to learn.
As Wambui Murima said so well in her interview: “We have just been doing acting on television kind of mechanically, particularly for the screen. [As actors] we did not know the reason why we were doing several “takes” and angles of each scene. Now we are getting to understand. And also we are getting to understand we don’t have to shout (project our voices) or throw our hands in the air like we do in stage acting. There’s a lot of body language which is unnecessary on the screen.”
Hope you enjoyed that trip down memory lane. It was a wonderful experience helping to develop this model of training and creation.
To paraphrase, Antonin Artaud, the artist, truly is an athlete of the heart.
Keep dreaming, keep creating.