Vic Costello enjoys 'gratifying' experience teaching film production in Ethiopia
The associate professor of communications participated in a 10-day filmmaking workshop in the horn of Africa, providing much-needed instruction for members of Ethiopia’s fledgling film industry.
About a week after Elon University bid farewell to its 2017 graduation class, Associate Professor Vic Costello returned to the classroom – this one 7,500 miles due east of campus.
On May 26, Costello embarked on what he called his “most challenging international experience I’ve had in my life,” serving as one of three instructors in a 10-day intensive film production workshop in Ethiopia. Three U.S.-based educators shared their cinematic expertise with more than 30 Ethiopians, all college aged and older, possessing a variety of skillsets and experiences. Several students had little to no formal film production training, while others had already worked as film directors or taken university courses or workshops in film.
The transnational endeavor was organized by two U.S.-based organizations, the Sandscribe Foundation and Sharing International, in cooperation with the Oromia Regional Government Culture and Tourism Bureau and the Oromo Cultural Center.
For the past eight years, the Sandscribe Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., has trained aspiring filmmakers in Ethiopia through short-term trips and ongoing work in the country’s capital, Addis Ababa. The nonprofit’s objective is to nurture the Ethiopian film industry, encouraging emerging artists to create work reflective of the nation’s stories, values and ideas.
During the workshop, the instructors divided the 30-plus students into three crews and set out to each produce an 8- to 10-minute narrative film. The films were based on three student-written scripts selected during a March competition.
The educational workshop commenced with four days of classroom instruction, followed by two days of on-location filming and field instruction, two days of editing and a public screening of the student projects on the last day. The screening attracted nearly 250 attendees, including some of the region’s government officials, dignitaries and members of the press.
“There is not an established film industry in Ethiopia and these students have little access to formal instruction by industry professionals or media educators. As such, filmmaking is still very much in its infancy and it’s struggling,” said Costello, who toted nearly 50 pounds of camera equipment on loan from the school's Gear Room to the workshop. Fortunately, most of the students could edit content on their own PCs.
Costello’s cast and crew tackled an emotional script detailing a father’s struggle to find medical assistance for his injured son in an unfamiliar city. In the script, a friendly passerby assists the two travelers, but ultimately the Good Samaritan turns out to be a thief.
The already tight production schedule was also compacted by afternoon rain – the country’s rainy season was just beginning – language issues and crowd control. According to Costello, one morning shoot attracted several hundred spectators. Although the crowd was largely quiet, it was also immovable.
While independent filmmakers in Ethiopia are required to obtain location permits, there are few laws or policies in place regulating the methods and practices film crews employ when shooting on location. This tends to encourage a free-wheeling, anything-goes style of indie filmmaking – one that is more commonly practiced in the developing world than in countries where a professionalized industry exists, said the professor.
Many of the scenes included passersby who just happened to be in the camera’s field of view. In fact, students would occasionally cast on the fly, recruiting spectators to fill in as extras, sometimes offering them a minor speaking role, with no compensation or release-form necessary.
“Nothing was shut down,” Costello added. “We were shooting in live locations and often working around large crowds surrounding the crew and actors – and people weren’t the only interruption. The sets were invaded by cows, donkeys, ox, goats, loud buses with squeaky brakes, the occasional drunken bystander, you name it.”
Costello’s presence also drew the attention of many, for several reasons. First, because it wasn’t tourist season, the fair-skinned American stood out in a crowd. Secondly, on the first day of production, two government officials delayed the crew for nearly an hour because they were suspicious of Costello’s mere presence on the set.
“Following a long exchange with my student director and a careful inspection of their permits, the encounter ended on a positive note with a parting handshake and a smile,” Costello said. “Still, it served as a humbling reminder to me that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.”
Despite the hang-ups and the general absence of location security and control, all three crews managed to complete production of their films on schedule. Costello was ultimately impressed with the finished products his students created given such limited resources, experience and time.
“When you look at what they accomplished, and how they did it, it was amazing the level of quality considering the very condensed schedule,” he said. “The students were incredibly smart, highly motivated and collaborative, and amazingly resourceful.”
Their ingenuity stuck out during a scene when the script called for the thief to suffer a head injury. The student makeup artist rigged a borrowed IV bag, filled it with wine to resemble blood, and then squeezed the liquid through a tube from an off-camera position. The trickling red wine protruding from beneath the character’s injured head looked so real a passerby witnessing the scene started weeping, Costello recalled.
“They cared deeply about the craft of filmmaking and they really wanted to produce a high-quality, realistic film,” he said. “Their level of passion was off the charts.”
Costello said the students’ willingness to receive instruction and put it into practice would stay with him long after the trip.
“It was probably the hardest, most challenging international experience I’ve had in my life, but one of the most rewarding professionally,” he said. “I’ve never done anything like this before in the states or abroad. But this was incredibly gratifying for me. There was such an open-armed invitation from the students. They wanted us to come, they were eager to learn, and they encouraged us to come back.”
Costello views film “as a potentially powerful medium for marginalized members of Ethiopia’s diverse population, such as the Oromo people, to help preserve their culture and to tell the stories they want to tell.”
In Ethiopia, there are roughly 80 ethnic groups and languages, and as one might expect, a checkered past marked by civil wars, economic and ethnic divides, oppression, and bigotry. He recalls the words of Kumsa Tamana, his student director, who during a video interview said, “we have so many problems … We are living in Ethiopia, especially in Oromia where there is lack of materials, lack of unity, and there is lack of love, so we must unite and give a message to our people because it’s difficult to live here. So that is why I write stories. [And even though we have] so many problems, a writer will see light rather than the darkness.”
On July 29, Sandscribe will host its first-ever film festival in the United States to celebrate Ethiopian filmmakers. The one-day festival will take place at the University of Maryland.
Costello looks forward to participating in the festival and teaching a session on pre-production and directing during the afternoon workshops. He is hopeful that the narrative films created during his time in Ethiopia will be screened at the July festival. Costello is also in the process of producing a documentary on Ethiopia’s emerging film culture that he hopes to complete in fall 2017.
Costello’s connection to the Ethiopian educational trip actually traces back nearly three decades to his graduate school days at Regent University. While at the Virginia college, Costello met a fellow student named Chuck Pollak, and the duo eventually worked together on a documentary in Haiti in the late 1980s. In the years since, both have become media educators, with Pollak most recently teaching at Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina.
Additionally, for most of the past 30 years, Pollak has led Sharing International, a Christian nonprofit that provides training and mentorship programs in developing countries. At his former classmate’s invitation, Costello joined Pollak and Pollak’s daughter, Sarah Pollak-Hoffman, a broadcast journalist and producer, to teach the principles of narrative filmmaking.
The Sandscribe Foundation
The Sandscribe Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., equips aspiring filmmakers in Ethiopia through short-term trips and ongoing work at its Addis Ababa base. Local and international professionals donate their time to students – many of whom have no financial means, only their passion to learn. The foundation’s goal is to foster a vibrant film community and promote positive values and collaboration that go hand in hand with artistic endeavor.
Dhaba Wayessa, an international broadcaster and editor at Voice of America founded the foundation. Originally from Ethiopia, Wayessa is an award-winning filmmaker, novelist, playwright and journalist with a BA and MFA in film from Howard University.