Music. Art. Culture. Writing.
Interviewed by Rafael Otto
Zach Niles is a director, producer, and writer who has worked on production and promotion teams for some of the largest rock and roll tours including: The Rolling Stones, Simon and Garfunkel, Paul McCartney, and Madonna. In 2001 he was the associate producer for the eight-part television series “Live at the Fillmore,” documenting a day-in-the-life of a rock band as they prepared for a concert at the legendary Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco.
Niles has lived and worked in South Africa and Cameroon and has had a longstanding personal and professional interest in the music and culture of Africa. His first documentary film, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, won critical acclaim. While filming a story that captured the power of music during a brutal civil war, Niles forged deep relationships with the musicians he met.
Niles recently served as acting director for Ciné Institute, a film school in Jacmel, Haiti and continues to manage the Refugee All Stars who recently released their second album, Rise and Shine, and completed an international tour. Niles’ latest project, WeOwn TV, delivers media and journalism education to young people in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Rafael: Can you start by talking about the process of making the documentary film, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars? How did you become connected with Sierra Leonean refugees?
Zach: My friend, Banker White, and I formulated the idea without knowing where it would take us. We were interested in telling the story of refugees through music, from a musician’s point of view. We had both spent time in Africa and felt like it would be an amazing way to get a more human take on what was happening in West Africa, to explore the story of refugees affected by war. Then we began to think about the role of music in culture, and its integral role in many African cultures, and what happens when cultures are uprooted. We wondered about what would get reordered and how refugees were keeping their culture alive. Eventually, I made contact with someone at UNHCR who was also excited about the idea. He met us in Guinea, which was hosting refugees from Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, and Liberia. Our UNHCR contact really helped motivate us because he believed we were on to something. Even though we had never made a film before, we decided to go for it. For about six weeks, we traveled refugee camps and met with people from throughout West Africa. We played music with people in the camps and quickly realized that most people didn’t have guitars or reliable instruments. We had an idea about how the music would need to translate to a western audience. As much as we love traditional drumming, we didn’t think it was the right way to tell the story we wanted to tell.
Rafael: What kind of music did you find in the refugee camps?
Zach: We found two types of music in the camps. The first was music from culturally oriented groups that involved children learning from older people who were passing along songs, dances, rhythms, and drumming styles. Then we found kids writing songs influenced by American hip-hop, derivative of western songs. Not too many people had a guitar, the primary instrument for much African music – Afro highlife, palm wine music, reggae – it all uses the guitar. I think when you’re running for your life, the guitar is not the first priority. It’s also not something that aid organizations think to provide. People are receiving lots of other assistance but not much relating to art and music. The All Stars were the first group that had applied to an aid organization to get guitars. They also had a small mixer and made a drum kit with a homemade snare drum. Making drums was common wherever we went.
Rafael: The image of people making drums with blue UN tarps is unforgettable.
Zach: Definitely. People would stretch the tarps over almost anything to make hand drums. And music was very much alive in this way, by making rhythm with minimum resources. But it wasn’t until we pulled in to the last camp on our schedule that we met the All Stars. When we arrived, we asked someone passing by on a bicycle if he knew any musicians. Then we followed him in our truck to a mud hut. At the moment we arrived, they started singing “Living Like A Refugee.” I remember that moment very clearly. They called a young boy to go get gasoline so they could start the generator to power the speakers. Then they plugged in and did an impromptu concert for us. We introduced ourselves as musicians interested in their music. But when we drove away from the camp, we were thinking, “These are our guys.” We just knew it.
Rafael: How did you start the process of filming?
Zach: We returned the next day and asked to meet with the band. We were sitting across the table from each other and told them that we wanted to make a film about the group. Reuben took a few minutes to meet with the band privately, speaking in Krio, which I didn’t understand at the time. When they were finished, Reuben told us, “Yes, but we need time to prepare the dramas.” They thought we were talking about making a movie, and that they would be acting. This made sense because Reuben was a drama instructor in the camp. We explained the idea of a documentary and the group discussed it again. When they came back they said, yes, but they had one request. The request was to have one copy of the film when it was finished. We shook hands on it and spent a month with the group. Once we felt we had a compelling story, we began fundraising and returned a year later with the idea of recording an album. We didn’t have a grand scheme, we just thought it would give them a chance to sell their own music, and that they might be able to earn some money. Once we started selling the record online, orders started coming in. From there we helped them with the album while finishing the film.
Rafael: Based on what you saw in the refugee camps, could you describe the connection between African and American music, where the lines get drawn and how they dissolve?
Zach: I don’t think people realize how connected the rest of the world is to American culture. In the film, when Black Nature says I want to rap like Busta Rhymes, it surprises people. Especially coming from a remote refugee camp in Africa. There was one guy in the camp who called himself Threepac, after Tupac, and we found that Tupac had become the new Bob Marley. He was a huge influence and is very present in the developing world. Hip-hop has absolutely become the new reggae, especially for people looking for music to inspire and explore politics. But the camps were behind the times regarding their home country. People traveling between camps would share news and information, but current events or music always took extra time to catch on. During the war, music stopped being produced, or the music that was produced was extremely derivative of western music. When we met Black Nature, he was rapping and singing in Krio and French, using his own voice and writing original lyrics. That originality and awareness impressed me right from the beginning. In Freetown, music development stopped entirely. There was no money, no instruments, and the studios were closed. That’s still a problem in Freetown. The music that the All Stars play isn’t being passed down or built upon. It’s difficult to get strings or replacement heads, or get anything repaired. Things are beginning to improve very slowly. And people are still working with traditional music and rhythms, bringing those rhythms into songs that are based on hip-hop.
Rafael: It seems like that’s how things evolve – artistic forms are often derivative for a stretch of time before morphing into something more original.
Zach: It’s interesting that you say that. I’m currently developing a project that would travel to Haiti and explore some of the older musical forms that are still surviving. In my research, I’ve found that early Haitian music absolutely derived from Cuba and the Dominican Republic – the son music of Cuba, merengue. And the singing is in Creole with no Haitian inflection. So I do think that is part of the natural evolution of music and other artistic forms. I love the concept of circular musical travels between the Caribbean and West Africa. There’s a specific connection between Freetown and Jamaica, a story that Reuben likes to tell when people ask him why he has been so strongly influenced by reggae. He likes to ask people, “Where do you think reggae came from?” He’s talking about a traditional style of music that has a one-drop kind of beat, and it was a style of music that people used to criticize, and air grievances about, chiefs. If people gave the message to the village musician and turned them into songs, no one could be specifically punished for bringing a message forward. When you take that history and think about the root of reggae music – its political nature, its way of expressing societal problems and concerns through music – then the connection to Jamaican music and culture is very clear.
Rafael: That’s one of the reasons the documentary is so powerful, because the music and the cultural story are intricately linked.
Zach: I absolutely came out of it feeling emboldened, feeling that music is truly a universal language that is an effective way to communicate and cross cultures. The story of the All Stars continues to resonate with many people because the story is told through the prism of music. It allows the message to get through that might otherwise be ignored or glossed over.
Rafael: When filming, how did you choose to balance the graphic, personal traumas you encountered with the story of music and sense of hope, and still get the story across?
Zach: We wanted to tell the story of a group of people, not necessarily the story of the war in Sierra Leone. You can’t get to know these people without knowing what they’ve gone through, or at least having some context about where and how they are living. We also wanted to find a way help people in America develop a connection with those living in refugee camps in Africa. So we decided to focus on them as people, and to explore their decision-making as artists, as talented people, and also as people who were displaced from their home. Our hope was to show enough of the war to reflect the intensity of what they experienced. It was important to give some kind of context to what they went through, how so many people in Sierra Leone became amputees, and the severe brutality that so many experienced. But we only showed about two minutes of archival, graphic footage about the war. It needed to be present but also minimal, and it comes in after you get to know them through the film. Once that happens, I think you end up with a better appreciation of who they are, the things they say and the choices they make. Some criticize the film for not going into greater detail about the war. I take great joy in being able to take that as a compliment. I think it’s great that seeing the film raises those kinds of questions for people. Go research it, get more information. You might not have done so without getting to know these people.
Rafael: That’s one of the truly effective aspects about the film.
Zach: It was very much on our mind during the editing process. We took great pains to do it that way, particularly because war is always messy. In Sierra Leone, it was particularly difficult to draw clear lines about guilt, blame, right and wrong, and we didn’t feel comfortable trying to make specific judgments, overtly or subtly. At the time, I read everything related to the war and still had a difficult time keeping everything straight. Even the band will say that, in the end, it was the greatest tragedy they could imagine. And yet they can’t imagine that their country is progressing at the rate it is today.
Rafael: What are things like now in Sierra Leone? How often do you return to Freetown?
Zach: I spent about three months in Freetown last year, but haven’t been back this year (2010). Banker and I have started a media education center there called WeOwn TV, and he just returned after spending five weeks there. We are very much in touch with what is happening in Sierra Leone, and things are improving but very slowly. It’s been a struggle trying to recover from that war. Immediately after, there was a large influx of money and hope. Things have been squandered a bit. Sierra Leone was the flavor of the month and now things have died down. People who wanted to invest in the infrastructure found it harder than originally imagined. But, there have been two successful elections. Progress is slow, and the biggest success story is that they have electricity in most of the capital city. One of the biggest problems is that people struggle with how to earn a living and make money – and that can be scary. The conditions that set up the discontent leading up to the war have not been totally resolved, and yet there is a sense of hope and peace.
Rafael: Tell me about WeOwn TV.
Zach: It grew out of the experience of the All Stars and making the film with no external narrator. The band members were the narrators, the storytellers, and that allowed them to have some control over how their story was represented. It created some complexities. For example, Reuben would make statements that weren’t backed up by fact, but that’s what things felt like to him on the ground and that was more important. We had the idea of people being empowered to tell their own stories and created the goal of opening a media center in Freetown. It recently opened with a few computers and cameras. We run three workshops with the same group of young people who we selected through an interview process. It’s an amazing, talented group who we are training so that they can begin to teach and train others locally. It’s really exciting. So many people are communicating with technology, and people are ready for it, but the challenge is creating access. Whether it be television or Internet access, its extremely important to have, and Sierra Leone is severely under equipped. We are hoping to expand the program to include music education, where young people can learn to play instruments and incorporate that learning with modern technology.
Rafael: How would you describe this initial group of teacher/trainers?
Zach: Most, but not all, have finished high school. Many have come through programs designed to help teen prostitutes and child soldiers, to give them alternatives to getting involved in drugs or theft. Some were living on the street and were involved in a theater group in Freetown, but for the most part they are young people with difficult backgrounds in need of a second chance. It’s empowering for someone who is illiterate to still be able to tell their story by using a camera and film. It’s a place to start, and we hope it will lead to other training, education and opportunity.
Rafael: What kinds of stories do you see developing?
Zach: It’s great to see how many different ideas there are about what kind of stories are important. Using cameras, some students made short documentary films about their village, or about some specific issues important to the village. Some have developed scripts for overblown action movies, the next Rambo. Nollywood, the Nigerian film scene, definitely influences some of these ideas, and it cranks out tons of movies that are huge hits in English-speaking West Africa. Many of them are soap opera style films that aren’t great film-making but make money. So that kind of result is a draw. The person we have running the project in Freetown is a film buff, and he’s working on translating Shakespeare into Krio. He really tries to expose the students to different kinds of movies and how they are made. You are so affected by what is in your immediate radar, and if you don’t have other types of movies to look at it’s difficult to expand on the craft. In general, the most common kinds of projects are things that deal with corruption, or some aspect of the war in a funny way.
Rafael: A combination of personal storytelling and journalism.
Zach: Yes, we start with story development, how the stages of a story progress, and the differences between a journalistic story, a documentary, and a work of fiction. No matter what, it’s important to get the attention of the listener or viewer. No matter what comes out of it, the project is important for these students and for Sierra Leone. Can you imagine living in a place where nothing on television is produced locally? Nothing airing in Sierra Leone is made in Sierra Leone. What if all the media you and I consumed was produced by another country?
Rafael: I can’t imagine getting news only from Canada or Mexico.
Zach: It changes your sense of self and influences the culture.
Rafael: Let’s consider this idea of perception and perspective. There are so many layers involved that affect the development of a story – the order of the footage, the editing process, the perspective of the editor and producer, each individual’s sense of story and how that affects decisions. How did your relationship to the band and the refugee camps change when working behind the camera?
Zach: We were filming almost nonstop after the first meeting with the band. In the refugee camps, it is very easy to encounter shocking, heartbreaking circumstances and stories. But you see them so often and you know that you can’t truly process every single thing. At a certain point, you don’t get as emotionally involved because you can’t, you would become ineffective. Humanitarian work is the same way. If you get too emotionally involved you will become ineffective. I feel that for us, the camera could provide cover or protection in certain situations. If someone is yelling at you, it can be a kind of shield. You can keep your eyes on the camera, pretend they aren’t there. But we did something you’re not supposed to do – we became involved in the lives of the All Stars. At one point in the movie, Reuben says, “We’re only going there (Sierra Leone) because of you.” Let’s be honest here, refugees didn’t fly on an airplane back to Freetown. Normally, they would have a long, uncomfortable truck ride. Clearly, there was involvement on our side for the story. The All Stars couldn’t have funded an album, for example, but does that make the story worse? It didn’t matter to us. It was more important to do that for them while considering their story and situation, and we have no regrets. I think our personal involvement meant that the camera didn’t function as a shield or barrier because we developed a relationship based on trust. Reuben was always very savvy and he often seemed to know what we were doing before we knew what we were doing. People would tell him not to trust us, that we would steal his story, that he shouldn’t even talk with us. And he would tell them they were wrong, that they didn’t really know us. When we showed the film to people who worked in the camps, they would tell us that it meant a lot to them because they don’t allow themselves to get involved on a personal level with anyone. They have to make sure that 30,000 people get food, which is more important than taking the time to listen to every single terrible story. So the film provided a chance for workers to get to know people in a different way, and the response we’ve gotten is that it reconnected them and re-energized them, and helped them remember why they started the work in the first place.
Rafael: The film created a safe atmosphere for them to enter that personal, deeply moving place.
Zach: Exactly. I’ve only made one film, but I really feel that the concept of vérité film-making, unbiased realism, just doesn’t exist. The camera changes the dynamics all the time – your presence and the presence of the cameraman, especially in a refugee camp in the middle of Africa. People ask about what was going on in the camp. We were going on. If we were there we were the most exciting thing by a long shot. I take issue with those who talk about being able to film and somehow not affect the story. Your presence affects the process, the reality that you are viewing, the way you will edit the story. I think it’s important to try and embrace that and tell the most honest story that you can.
Rafael: How would you say the story has changed you?
Zach: It has absolutely been my life for eight years. I have no idea where things would be if it hadn’t started. I continue to live and breathe the All Stars and am currently the full-time manager. The only thing I regret is that I wish I had more time to work on other stories, and I probably will eventually. I know we’ve given a lot to them but they’ve given a lot back to us. I think we’ll all be entwined in some way, whether they are still a band or not.
Rafael: Zach, it’s been a great conversation. I wish you luck with all your endeavors.
Zach: Great to talk with you.