People of the Delta (Ethiopia | 2015, 29 min)
Directed by: Joseph Lawrence
For centuries, Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley has been a crossroads for many distinct tribes. During times of drought, natural resources become scarce, escalating clashes between groups. In an ever-changing landscape, young men and women come of age in an unfamiliar time.
The story is narrated from two unique perspectives. Uri- a young boy from the Hamar tribe who becomes a man during his rite of passage ceremony, and Segelgwo- an elder chief of the Daasanach, who reflects on his community’s uncertain future.
Interview:Joey L. is a NYCbased filmmaker and photographer. His short film “People of the Delta” is told from the perspectives of two competing tribes in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley. One of the narrators, Uri, is a young boy from the Hamar tribe who goes through a tribal rite of passage to become a man. Segelgwo, the other narrator, is an elder chief of the Daasanach tribe reflecting on his people’s uncertain future.
NYIFF: What’s up, Joey! Thanks so much for taking the time to answer a few of our questions. You have a really interesting background as a commercial still photographer. Maybe you could talk a little about what first got you interested in photography and what sparked your transition to film later on.
JL: I’m from a small town and photography was a way to escape and explore other cultures I had only seen in books or in films. Over time, it also became my career. I then began to share more insight into those trips with video documentaries, and those projects became a device to try and explore those regions more deeply than a passing traveler.
NYIFF: You first went to Ethiopia as a photographer, returned as a documentarian with your 2010 film Faces of a Vanishing World, and are now back as a narrative filmmaker. What new aspect of these tribes did you want to capture?
JL: I can’t count the times I have been to the Ethiopia it’s an inspiring place for a photographer. With over 80 languages spoken and the only African country never to be successfully colonized by Western powers, you can imagine the level of cultural depth preserved in such a place. 2008, I saw the environmental situation in the Omo Valley change dramatically. At the moment, severe drought threatens the tribes whose lives depend on grazing cattle and growing crops on limited fertile land. This drought made it’s way into “People of the Delta” as the antagonist of the film. Beyond the natural drought, there are also many other manmade pressures upon the indigenous people of the Omo Valley that will dramatically influence the region over the next few years. This includes the Ethiopian government’s leasing of tribal cattle grazing land to foreign companies, or the building of the controversial Gibe III dam. The livelihoods of over 200,000 people are at risk if the government of Ethiopia doesn’t share the wealth generated by this hydroelectric project with its minority citizens. Projects like this have the ability to boost the economy of the entire country, but it seems the dam only stands to benefit a select few. Research by Human Rights Watch and Survival International has shown that the dam will obstruct the natural flood cycle of the Omo River, intensifying the drought downriver, and could spark conflicts between ethnic groups who share the already scarce resources. visual project that helps audiences understand what kinds of conflict can be sparked in regions like this when there is drought. Obviously, I had to be careful with political overtones since local people are deeply involved in the film, but there is still a way to tell a general story about drought without contributing to tensions with the government. In harsh times, is the enemy the other feuding tribe, or is it the environment itself? How does the warrior culture found among young Hamar and Dassanach men adapt to such dire circumstances? What is an elder’s perspective who has lived through previous harsh times? These are themes “People of the Delta” explores.
NYIFF: Is this your first time as a writer? Can you talk a little about how writing a script differ from your process as a photographer?
JL: Yes, this is my first time writing for a narrative film, which was done alongside my cowriters Charity and Uri, who is our main character from the Hamar tribe. I think it would have been impossible to do this film without the years of working as a still photographer in the region before. The process began by collecting ideas or even direct soundbytes I have heard through the years, and then I began to develop characters based on real people. Then, Uri would help filter these into what is reality, and what is not reality in the region. So, I did the thing that made the most sense: collaborate with people from the Hamar and Dassanach tribes so that we could operate with a high level of integrity.
NYIFF: One of the things that will strike people first about the film is how comfortable these tribes seemed around you and your crew. This project was built on a preexisting relationship with the tribes but what techniques did you originally use to establish trust with them and at what point did everyone feel comfortable enough to take out the camera?
JL: There is no big secret, it is just all in being able to spend the right amount of time to allow those relationships to build. The key was Uri. I have worked with Uri since 2008. He first started as a translator for Hamar language and photography assistant. I used to make the joke with him “one day, I will attend your bulljumping ceremony as a guest. Don’t ever do it without telling me.” Eventually, he was ready to jump, and the best person to be a main subject of the film. He’s a charismatic guy in real life, and I knew he would be great on camera too. Rather than making a documentary about the process, I knew that Uri and I could make a film that challenged us more. We wanted to give a fresh perspective to a classic coming of age story. So, we worked on loosely shaping a story based around existing events. (Of course, this is essential when your subjects are not trained actors.) You can call it a hybrid between a narrative film and documentary, since there are some great local actors, but the themes are all real. For example, personally I know that I’m probably the world’s worst actor. However, if I was asked to play a photographer in a film I could probably do a passable job because I wouldn’t have to try to be someone else.
NYIFF: Of the crew involved how many did you fly over and how many were local?
JL: There was a foreign crew of seven and the rest were Ethiopians. In developing nations around the world, you can find networks of young filmmakers doing their own projects. This is especially true for Ethiopia, where we had the help of the local film community help us considerably with getting our gear into the country, film permits, arranging transportation, and smoothing over all things governmentrelated. Once we were free from the shackles of this frustrating, bureaucratic process, working with the tribes in the Omo Valley was actually the easier part, since they were eager and ready to begin.
NYIFF: It seems like we’re seeing more and more drone camerawork. One of the film’s most stunning shots follows Uri from above as he runs through his village with an assault rifle. Can you talk a little about how you and your incredible cinematographer Sean Stiegemeier decided on using drones for the project?
JL: The drone shots were actually shot by me on a second followup trip. My challenge was trying to match the sophistication of Sean’s cinematography work. Honestly, I think the pressure of trying to be as good as Sean forced me to get those shots.
NYIFF: Given how unjournalistic (if that’s a word) your still photography is, it seems like fictional, narrative filmmaking would be a natural progression from where you’re at now. Is that where you think you’re headed?
JL: I am a portrait photographer and have never really considered myself a traditional photojournalist. I think people make that connection because the subjects I photograph are typically confined to news, especially the portrait series I have on the war in Iraq and Syria. I prefer to use new visual techniques to draw eyes towards something that perhaps we may become fatigued by, and overlook. It is my hope that’s what “People of the Delta” becomes.