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Production Journal

Filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White talk about getting involved with the lives of their subjects, the challenges and rewards of making such a musical film and staying safe during their travels in Sierra Leone.

POV: Were you at all concerned that your presence altered what the All Stars would have been doing in terms of traveling back to Sierra Leone and recording the album?

Banker White: We were put in situations around two things that were difficult to navigate as documentary filmmakers: the All Stars asking us whether they should go on this trip back to Sierra Leone for the "go and see visit," and also asking us whether we could help them record an album. Implicit in the question is whether we would help them finance the recording of an album. As documentary filmmakers we wondered: Are these things that are right to do?

Sierra Leone - In order to travel safely around Sierra Leone, the filmmakers and the production crew were sometimes accompanied by military escorts.

In order to travel safely around Sierra Leone, the filmmakers and the production crew were sometimes accompanied by military escorts.

During the making of the film, we got very wrapped up in the band's life. Once they trusted us, they really opened up. So when their life started changing, we were put in a situation where they asked us to advise them on whether or not to go back to Sierra Leone, to Freetown. We talked to as many people as we could about the situation, people from the UNHCR and other aid organizations who were based in Freetown, and we honestly thought not only that the All Stars should go on this go-and-see visit, but that they should go home and try to start a new life.

Instead of taking a really objective, distanced role with them as filmmakers, we did the total opposite. We talked to them really openly about what we thought would be best for them. We talked about what we were doing with this film. We wanted to help them record an album so that when they moved back to Sierra Leone, they would have something to support themselves with.

Zach Niles: We were Western filmmakers coming into a situation like a refugee camp, and you can't deny the fact that we were going to have an effect on these people's lives. The All Stars are our friends. And if we can help them, then we're going to help. Banker and I are just not capable of being completely objective; we couldn't not get ourselves involved in their story and in their lives. We have no regrets about that.

We won't deny that we had a role in what you see unfolding in the film. Reuben at one point says, "You know we're going back to Freetown because of you, because we trust you," and in that shot he's looking at me and Banker and our musical director, Chris. We kept that shot in there on purpose, because we didn't want to pretend that there isn't somebody behind the camera.

POV: Can you talk about the challenges and rewards of making a film that includes so much music?

Niles and White: From our earliest conversations about this project, we knew music would be the vehicle to carry this story. It was also clear when we met the band that they saw the production as an opportunity for their music to be heard. One of the challenges involved with making a film that uses so much music is being able to see beyond our musical taste and being clear, as storyteller, about what our intention is when including a song or performance. Of course another great challenge to overcome was how to get clean audio recordings in a refugee camp situation. Whether the music was the band practicing acoustically with children playing and dogs barking, or amplified through blown speakers, it was always a struggle. We owe a lot to our sound team who worked miracles on the raw tracks.

One of the wonderful things about this project is how much meaning is infused in the songs that they sing. Reuben chose to write many songs in English, with the intention that maybe one day these songs and these stories would get a chance to be heard by an international community. The medium of music also speaks in emotion and helps the audience feel what the band members have been through.

POV: What equipment did you use to record the music?

Niles and White: We had a very simple set up, and of course as first-time filmmakers, we were learning as we went. We used a Sony Stereo mic with a DAT as well as camera audio (Senheiser m64). We were impressed with the quality of the audio we got simply though the camera setup.

POV: How did you decide how much music to include?

Niles and White: We wanted to show the band as musicians in the variety of roles they played in the camps. They weren't just entertainers, they were real community leaders. It was important to show them in a concert with a large crowd, and also practicing and playing intimately as a tight band and family. There is always music being played when you are with the band. Whether we decided to include it or not had more to do with the significance of a particular song or performance. It was a balancing act, and we tried to only use music when it moved the story along. Since much of the band's music speaks directly to their experiences, we could often use the lyrical content of a song as narration. Other times a performance revealed a dimension of their role within the refugee-camp community.

POV: You had a musical director, Chris Velan. What is a musical director? How did you guys work with Chris and the All Stars to produce the album?

Niles and White: We first met the band as musicians. We played music with them and have continued to do so through the course of our collaboration and friendship. Chris is a very talented musician that the band really connected with as a person and as a musician. This bond created a space for the intimate feel the film has.

Also, as a professional musician with two albums under his belt, Chris understood what was needed to get the band and their songs ready for the studio. Since we were recording under huge time, money and equipment constraints, Chris' knowledge was instrumental in getting the recordings done.

POV: What measures did you take to ensure the safety of yourselves, your crew and the band while traveling in Sierra Leone?

Niles and White: We were lucky, because we operated in a gray area between being official UNHCR delegates and independent producers. This allowed us the freedom to spend the night in the camps when necessary (which foreign workers aren't normally allowed to do) but also afforded us certain protection such as the military escorts required in certain regions of Guinea close to the border of Liberia, which was still in the throes of their Civil War. What surprised us and most other people was that our production in Sierra Leone was really quite safe. We were definitely the guests of the band and on their home turf. We fell under their protection and had no problems filming everywhere we went.





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May they continue to use their 'pens,' their voices, their strings to bring happiness — no more war, no more guns..”


— jbmcd, Viewer

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