POV: What is Rain in a Dry Land about?
Anne Makepeace: Rain in a Dry Land is a documentary that follows two families from Somalia through their first year and a half in America. These families are members of an oppressed minority population in Somalia. They are Bantu people whose ancestors were brought to Somalia as slaves. When war broke out in 1991, they were attacked and driven from their homes; they escaped to Kenya, where they were in refugee camps for almost thirteen years before coming here to America.
POV: How did you come upon the subject of Somali Bantu refugees?
Makepeace: I read a front-page article in the New York Times on March 10, 2003 and I thought, "I have to do this film!" Every once in a while a story will just come and take you away, and you just have to do it: This was one of those stories.
The article was about the fact that 12,000 Somali Bantu refugees were coming to America in 2004. These were people who had never seen indoor plumbing, never seen a staircase, never seen a building taller than one story. Now they were going to be resettled in urban areas in fifty cities across the country. How were they going to do it? I just thought this was going to be an amazing story.
POV: What happened once you decided to make the film? Can you take us through the process of making the film and talk about how you made it happen?
Makepeace: After I read that article, I became completely obsessed. I began contacting everybody connected to the story, and from there it just fanned out. The article was about Somali Bantus who were in their cultural orientation class in refugee camps in Kenya, preparing to come to the U.S., and I found out that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) was organizing those cultural orientation classes, so I contacted people there. From there I went on to contact the United Nations and different bureaucracies and resettlement agencies in the United States, trying to find out who was organizing all this and how to get permission to film the classes in Kenya and the resettlement process here in the States.
There were two paths I had to follow: One was "How do I make this happen?" and the other, which is related, was "How do I get funding to make this happen?" [Laughs.] At first it seemed that the funding was coming together really easily. A couple of weeks after reading the article, I went to the Full Frame Film Festival with my previous documentary, which was about Robert Capa. While there I met people who said they were going to fund the film. I then went through all the process of getting everything organized and making production possible, thinking that I had the money, but then the money just fell away a couple months before we were supposed to go to Kenya.
I actually ended up getting the first amounts of money for the film through my shiatsu massage therapist. [Laughs.] This is a very California story! I was living in Santa Barbara at the time, and when I was very stressed out I would go see my shiatsu massage therapist and tell her all my woes. My woe, at that particular time, was "How am I going to do this, how am I going to get the money to go to Kenya with a crew?" It just happened that my massage therapist also worked on someone who owns a foundation. So the next time she had that person on her table, she pitched my idea for the film to her, and this woman agreed to look at a proposal! So I sent her a proposal, I sent her a couple of my previous films. She gave me just enough for that first shoot in Kenya. That was amazing. To me, that's one of these stories where if all your energy is focused on doing one thing that you know you have to do, somehow it becomes possible.
POV: How did you decide on the two families that you wound up following?
Makepeace: I was fortunate to find two amazing families in the cultural orientation class in Kenya. There was only one family going to Springfield, and so it was great that they were fantastic people. That family has a very strong very emotional, very volatile father named Aden. His wife, Madina, was deeply wounded in the war and was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, but still, she's incredibly poetic. Their eldest son, Ali, who was seventeen and full of luminous hope for a new life in America, is also a very compelling character.
In Atlanta we had a family that was very much a contrast to Aden and Madina's family. I thought Arbai was terrific because she's a single mother in a culture where that's a very difficult thing. She also has two beautiful teenage daughters, and I thought their family would contrast nicely with the very male-dominated family that was going to Springfield.
POV: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
Makepeace: There were so many challenges in making this film. Funding was a huge challenge. It was really hard to get funding, partly, I think, because there'd been a lot of films about refugees and there was a little bit of a refugee-film fatigue. It was very hard to convince people that this is a different story, a story of families, a story about Muslims coming to post-9/11 America. As I said, it was just very, very difficult to get funding, and I went into my own savings by thousands of dollars. Finally, I was about to drop Arbai and the whole Atlanta story because I couldn't afford to go down there. Springfield, Massachusetts, is an hour and a half from where I live, so that wasn't so hard, but flying to Atlanta was another story.
Just in the nick of time, the Sundance Documentary Fund came through, so that enabled me to keep going. Six months after that, I finally got funding from ITVS, and POV came through with some support, and then, when I couldn't pay my post-production bills, the Ford Foundation came in, which was great.
There were other things that were really hard too. There are scenes that are among the strongest scenes in the film, but it was excruciating to keep the camera going at the time. For example, when Madina's really upset because she's being told she's going to have to leave her little kids behind with a stranger and go to school or work, and she's afraid to leave her kids with strangers, she won't do it. Aden is saying, "Well, what are we going to have to do, steal?" At the time we didn't have a translator and I didn't know what was being said. But I knew the moment was intense and intimate and hard. And so those decisions about keeping the camera going are hard, especially because I became very attached to both families.
POV: What did the families think of the finished film?
Anne Makepeace: The best moment in the whole story of making "Rain in a Dry Land" was the day that I showed the film to the family in Springfield. It was a moment that I dreaded. I was afraid because the film doesn't sugarcoat their story; it shows them in their amazing beauty and poetry and resilience, but it also shows them in really down times. So I was fearful about how they'd feel. I also had just seen the movie Capote, which is about a journalist exploiting people's misery to make art. That film made me think about what I was doing. I really believed that I made the film for good purposes, but on the other hand, you're taking people's lives and you're editing them into a story. So I was really worried when I brought the film to show Aden, Madina and their kids.
I showed the film to them with their caseworkers at Jewish Family Service, their sponsoring organization. The family had a great time watching a lot of it. They loved seeing their friends in Atlanta and they just were laughing and happy and mesmerized by the story of Sahara and Arbai's problems with her. They also got very quiet during the more serious times. When the lights came up, Madina said a few words to Mohammed; the caseworker translated her words as "well done." I felt as though that was the best review I've ever gotten. It was so great and a big relief, because I'd been worrying about this for months and months. In the editing room, when we were choosing whether or not to put certain things in, I would worry about what they would think. It didn't make me not put things in the film, but it made me worry. After the family saw the film, Aden also stood up and gave a long speech, which was translated as "Thank you for telling the story of my family." As an oppressed minority, the Somali Bantus have not been honored, they have not been seen, their stories have not been told. I think this family in particular felt that their story had been told through "Rain in a Dry Land," so that was a very moving moment.
POV: What do you want people to take away from this film?
Makepeace: When people see those among us who are often invisible — immigrants, refugees, those that are cleaning bathrooms, doing janitorial work, doing menial jobs — we often don't even see that they're there. One thing I really hope that audiences will take away from this film is that those people will become visible to them. That happens for me now: If I see someone cleaning a bathroom, I think about Arbai and about what she went through. Every one of those people — who are often invisible to us — has an incredible story. They're here in America to try to do what Arbai did, which was to bring her family to safety and create a new life. I hope that's what people take away from this film, and that's also how I was changed by the film. I don't think I was completely oblivious before, but I definitely see people differently now.
POV: Tell us about the title of the film. Where did that come from?
Makepeace: There was an expression that the families kept using, especially Madina, when she was happy. When she said it, her face would break out in this luminous expression. The expression is bish-bish; literally it means "splash, splash," but the metaphorical meaning might take up a whole page. Metaphorically, it refers to the time after a drought, when everything is dried up and dying from lack of rain or water; suddenly the rains come and everything turns green, food is abundant, people's faces break out in smiles and the world is new again. So bish-bish was an expression that the families used to express happiness. Whenever something quite wonderful happened they would say bish-bish.
To me the film is about what's meant by that expression: It's about rebirth and resurrection, it's about leaving behind the desiccated land of the refugee camps where they lived for thirteen years, where their lives stopped, and finding a new life. Not that America's paradise, but it's a place where they have the ability to flourish again, to become human again, to live again. loved that idea for the title, and I thought about calling it bish-bish, maybe having a translation underneath. I was struggling a lot with the title, and I tried to figure out what the image that bish-bish conjured up was and how I could say it simply. Finally, the image of "rain in a dry land" came to me. I didn't think it was a very good title, but I started running it by people. Some people really loved it, and I began to like it, and then a filmmaker friend of mine said: If you don't use that title, I'm going to use it." So then I had to use it [laughs] and I've gotten to like it.
POV: If you had one piece of advice for a first time filmmaker, what would it be?
Makepeace: [Laughs.] Well, if I had one piece of advice for a first-time filmmaker I would probably say what one of my film professors said to me long ago, which made me really mad at the time: "If there's anything else that you can think of in your life that you'd be happy doing, do that something else instead." Because being a filmmaker is a very hard life, it's a very insecure life. On the other hand, if you are like me, and you have to make films, there's nothing like the euphoria when it works. There's nothing like the feeling when things come together and you're telling a story that will move people and make a difference. So I guess my advice, if you have to become a filmmaker, is to find a story that takes you away, and tell that story. Don't think about whether it's going to sell, or whether it's going to make money, or whether it's going to appeal to distributors. Do something from the heart that really matters, and then you'll do something good.