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Interview

Filmmakers Landon Van Soest and Jeremy Levine discuss why they felt compelled to make Good Fortune, how they chose their film's protagonists and what can be done to improve the effectiveness of development aid in Africa.

POV: How did you come to make Good Fortune?

Landon Van Soest: During college, I had the opportunity to travel quite a bit through the developing world. Like most Westerners, I was really shocked by the evidence of extreme poverty that I saw, and I was inspired to learn more about what I could do to be part of the solution. So I went back to Kenya on an academic program to learn about international development and public health, and I met a lot of people who were supposed to be benefiting from international aid. I was shocked to find out that one, they felt very disenfranchised and didn’t feel they were part of the conversation, and two, in many cases, they felt the international aid was making their lives worse: They were losing their homes and their livelihoods, and they weren’t able to pursue their lives in the way that they saw fit.

Jeremy Levine: I had done some volunteer work in Ethiopia, where I saw vast potential, and a lot of good ideas and intentions and resources being thrown in all sorts of directions. But the results didn’t seem to be lining up. So that made me think, and I felt that it was important to tell this story in Kenya. So Landon and I started working on the film together.

Van Soest: When I started shooting this film, events like the Live 8 concerts and celebrity endorsements were creating tremendous public awareness of aid to Africa. There was so much money rolling in, and the G8 pledged to double aid to Africa, but there was very little conversation about what was happening with that aid. We wanted to expand the conversation and talk about the impact that aid was having.

Good Fortune filmmakers shooting in Kibera jpg

Production of Good Fortune in Kibera with Landon on camera. From L to R: Production Assistant Godfrey Omondi, Translator/Sound Recorder Michael Wanjohi, Production Assistant Samson Namale. Photo courtesy of Sophia Nafula.


POV: There was and is money flowing into Africa to fix problems, yet there is a disconnect, too. People who are the recipients of aid, including the people in your film, remain marginalized. What’s the disconnect?

Van Soest: I think it’s important to mention that there are a lot of different types of aid. Both of the projects depicted in Good Fortune are large-scale, top-down projects, so they involve people coming into Kenya with tremendous resources and lots of ideas about what’s best for the community. Unfortunately, the communication between the local communities and the people who are coming in to develop these projects is largely nonexistent. I also think that there’s a huge sense of paternalism in the way that we Western citizens deal with people in the developing world; we feel we know what’s best for them. As a result, even our best intentions and our efforts to help end up having negative effects because we’re not really listening to the needs of local communities.

Levine: I think that the disconnect between the vast potential for change, and the reality of extreme poverty on the ground stems from the way these aid projects are carried out and how they are envisioned from the beginning. Do they begin as something that’s imposed on the communities, or as something that’s homegrown, that comes from the communities themselves? There are examples of positive and effective aid projects, and they are often projects that come up from the bottom. The two stories in the film are stories of aid that is imposed on communities, and I think that’s where the trouble comes in.

POV: How did you meet Jackson and Silva? And what makes them so compelling?

Good Fortune Landon shooting in the Yala Swamp jpg

Van Soest: When I first went to Kenya to start shooting the film, I met a guy at a local university who was working on a master’s thesis on development and aid issues. We traveled around the country together for about three months, visiting various development projects. I read a newspaper article about the struggle between Dominion Farms and the community at Yala Swamp, and we went there and met a few of the local people. Jackson was actually the first member of the community that I met. From our first conversation, it was clear that he was profound and articulate and had a lot of great ideas about what he wanted for his community.

Silva was a little bit harder to settle on. I had originally started working with another character in Kibera, but then I learned that the midwives in Kibera were very well-respected opinion leaders and pillars of the community. I met several different midwives, and Silva was the most outspoken of them. She didn’t pull any punches, and she knew a lot of the history of the Kibera community and was very direct in telling me what she thought and how she felt. She had been in Kibera for 15 years.

Both Jackson and Silva are really strong leaders in their communities, and I think that makes their stories emblematic of their communities.

POV: How did you decide to focus on these two particular stories?

Levine: At the beginning, we followed four different stories and waited to see how each of them panned out. It came down to these two, which were the strongest and had parallels that could play off of each other.

Van Soest: Our strategy when we started shooting the film was to look at these two very different approaches — the charitable model and the economic solution — and see their respective impact. One of the biggest surprises for us in making the film was that, ultimately, both projects had very similar outcomes. Both characters lost their homes, and they both ended up organizing their communities to fight back and stake a claim on what was theirs.

POV: What, then, is the solution?

Levine: All of these problems are incredibly complex, and the idea of having a single solution that’s going to change everything is misguided. That’s where we often go wrong. We can make small changes, and we can make real impact, but it needs to come from talking to local communities and figuring out exactly what they need. It takes somebody who lives in the community to know what to do. You look at Jackson and Silva and their communities, and you can just imagine what could happen if the right resources were going to them.

Van Soest: It’s wrong to think that we can impose one solution on two communities and get the same result in both cases. A fundamental problem with our aid policy is the assumption that we should be able to go in with a huge amount of resources and create systemic change in a very short period of time. In fact, social change is always very slow to happen and it only happens from within. Local communities need to come up with their own solutions. The role of Western citizens is to use our resources to empower the changes that are already happening within local communities and help them happen more quickly.

Good Fortune Landon Shooting in Yala Swamp jpg

POV: As Western citizens, we also bring our own perceptions and values to the lives of people in developing countries. Can you talk about the disconnect that may exist between our values, and the values of the people who live in those communities?

Levine: The Yala Swamp area, where Jackson lives, is labeled one of the poorest areas in Kenya. On paper, there’s not a lot of wealth there, but Jackson leads a very idyllic life. He’s a schoolteacher; he has a big herd of cattle; he doesn’t work for anybody else; and he leads a good life. So when we’re thinking about these communities, it’s important to look at quality of life, not just the wealth on paper. And if we actually talk to the members of the community, it’s important to find out what they’re looking for in terms of aid. Is monetary wealth what they actually want? Or are they looking for something else?

Van Soest: There’s a strong sense of paternalism that runs through all of our foreign policy, and the idea that foreign aid could be anything less than philanthropic is hard for most of us to believe. Good Fortune tries to challenge our perceptions of poverty — for example, someone like Jackson really feels that he’s doing very well, even though we may think he lives in extreme poverty. I hope the film can lead to us to making an effort to see people all over the world according to their own values.

POV: What do you want audiences to take away from this film?

Van Soest: The film is a cautionary tale that says despite all of our best intentions and despite our resources, if we’re not smart about the way we administer aid, we can negatively impact communities. But I would also be remiss if I made a film that had the effect of viewers walking away and throwing up their hands after watching it. There are tremendous solutions out there and there are a lot of great things we can do. It’s important that we, as Western citizens, do what we can to combat extreme poverty. I hope this film can be the beginning of a discussion, and I hope that the way we administer aid in the future can change as a result.

Levine: This film is about good intentions gone wrong. Good intentions are the first step, but we need to see what’s working, what’s not, how we can do better and how aid and development can have the impact that we want them to have. The answer is not to walk away — that would be a tragedy. What we want audiences to understand is that we need to work with the communities to implement small changes that will have profound impact. We need to do better.

POV: What are you working on now?

Van Soest: At the moment we're trying to complete a short film currently called The Captain about a polygamous family on Lake Victoria that I was following throughout the production of Good Fortune. Okech, the patriarch of the family, is a fisherman who uses illegal, environmentally destructive fishing nets to provide for the family while World Bank funded patrols strive to eradicate illegal fishing and protect the lake's ecology. We go a bit deeper into the family dynamics with this story, as Okech's wives Rose and Parez grapple with alcoholism, infidelity and HIV. The film is meant to be a holistic view of modern poverty that spans the environment, health and personal responsibility.

We are working hard to cover the rest of the production budget and would greatly appreciate support, no matter how small. You can learn more about the project and see a sample video on our Kickstarter page for the film.





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...[T]here’s a huge sense of paternalism in the way that we Western citizens deal with people in the developing world; we feel we know what’s best for them. As a result, even our best intentions and our efforts to help end up having negative effects because we’re not really listening to the needs of local communities.”

— Landon Van Soest, Filmmaker