Tips on making an overseas charity film on a shoestring budget

Nakaseke Town 7

Earlier this year, Jessica Faulkner travelled to Nakaseke in Uganda to make a film about a community library which Book Aid International has been supporting for some years. The film was included in an appeal, which was sent to around 4,000 warm supporters who had previously donated to the charity. Working on a budget of less than £1,000 (excluding travel costs), Jessica shares her top tips and lessons learned. 

I’d heard about Nakaseke Library from a colleague who had visited previously, and I knew that they were doing great things in their local area. Around 85 per cent of their book collection has been donated by us and we also helped them to set up a children’s corner in 2014.

Nakaseke Library

The idea of the importance of a library as the heart of the community was one that we were really keen to get across.

Our regular donors are part of our Reverse Book Club, which works on the idea that with a regular gift of £6 a month we can send three books to an African library. So it’s important for us to tell the story of where those books end up and how they are used. Nakaseke Library is used by people from all over the community – from kids using the brightly coloured and fully stocked children’s corner to farmers doing research on the latest techniques in agriculture.

Working on a shoestring budget in a foreign country brings up many challenges:

  • Multi-tasking: I travelled alone as we’re a small charity and we can’t justify the expense of two people travelling. This meant I was interviewer, camera woman, location scout, sound technician and representative of the charity all in one.
  • Location: Filming ‘in-country’ is both brilliant and taxing. The library in Nakaseke is quite darkly lit so this made for difficult filming. It also has a tin roof, and I travelled in rainy season, making audio fairly challenging at times!
  • Language barriers: English is a second language for most Ugandans so some interviews were quite difficult. I was conscious that I didn’t want to put pressure on people who were not confident to speak in English.
  • No defined script: Because the film was about the whole community there were lots of contributors, but I didn’t know who they would be until I got to Nakaseke and it’s not possible to do a ‘recce’ to Uganda on our budgets! So the story had to take shape while I was filming and this made it really hard to know what I needed or how the final film would end up.

Here are my lessons learned and top tips

  • Ask for help: Of course having a local film crew would be ideal, or even an additional colleague to take care of tech while you do the interviews. But the reality is that’s not always possible on a small budget. Next time, I would be more confident in asking for help from people in the library, many of whom had never seen a video camera before and would probably have enjoyed the experience. Even just asking someone to stand behind the camera and let you know if the subject moves out of shot is helpful – it means you can get on with focusing on the interview.
  • Celebrate your location: There’s not a lot you can do about a challenging environment, but be creative in where you film. Just because you’re making a film about a library doesn’t mean everything has to take place inside. In fact, context shots ‘in country’ are some of the most valuable as they help donors get a picture of where you’re working.
  • Work around language: Make sure everyone understands that they might not be in the final film even if you interview them. Use a translator if you need to, and don’t be afraid to subtitle heavily accented English – it’s better that someone’s voice is heard than they get left out because of language issues.
  • Be flexible: Of course you’d storyboard everything before you start in an ideal world. But it’s not always possible and you have to be flexible about changing the story if one of your interviews simply doesn’t work. Make sure you have enough time to go back to the location and do things differently – I had two full days in Nakaseke and I could easily have used more. And watch your clips back regularly so you know what you’ve got and what’s still missing from your story.

This was my first film for Book Aid International and there are definitely things I’d do differently next time. But with two days on location, and a camera crew of one, we still managed to tell the story of Nakaseke Library and its users, and give our supporters a glimpse of where they books they help us send end up.

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Jessica Faulkner is head of communications at Book Aid International. Aptly enough, she’s a book lover and is passionate about the future of Africa. She tweets @jay_faulks.