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South Sudan, 4 May 2016: School is a magical place

By Marianna Zaichykova

Even before the current crisis, the education system South Sudan was weak with more than one million children out-of-school. The conflict made all aspects of life worse. The world’s newest country now has the highest proportion of children out-of-school in the world. Nearly one in every three schools in conflict-affected areas has been destroyed, damaged, occupied or closed. Across the country, only 36 per cent of functioning schools have access to water and only 49 per cent have latrines.

In 2015, with the support from donors and partners UNICEF in South Sudan has successfully launched and implemented a ‘Back to Learning’ initiative reaching over 300,000 children. This year we have launched BTL 2 with and the goal to reach 600,000 children.

The lack of school infrastructure is one of the greatest barriers to school enrolment in the country. The Global Partnership for Education, managed by UNICEF, aims at addressing this as well as other issues preventing children in South Sudan from attending school. The partnership is supporting the construction of 25 model primary schools across the country, five of which were opened in 2015, with the remaining 20 to be opened in 2016. The move from the school under the trees to the newly constructed school in Ayii village was the main inspiration for the video. Realizing the need to tell the education story in South Sudan in a new and creative way, UNICEF’s communication team solicited ideas for a short video from several production companies.

The team from Wired Video came back to us with an idea to do something that would appeal to people through a positive story using attention-grabbing effects. The inspiration came from short camera trick ‘vines’ of Zach King and was adapted to form the basis of a upbeat film that could involve a lot of children, and that could also present the shocking facts about education in an engaging way.

The Wired team then developed their concept into the following animatic, which is a blueprint for the final film (see below).

The team did many tests of each camera trick to make sure that they could be replicated easily and quickly and had model maker and animator Tine Kluth make a great replica of the school from photos.

In early February 2016 producer Raj Yagnik and camera operator/ co-writer Shona Hamilton arrived in Juba for a nine day shoot. Due to the security restrictions, the team had only four days in the school to select the children, shoot the video, stills and do the interviews.

Here is how Raj remembers the shoot: “There is only one good road in South Sudan – the one from Juba to the Ugandan border. The shoot location was Ayii village in Magwi County near Uganda. We picked up our drivers, and UNICEF staff member and started our journey at around 9 am on Monday morning. By the time we reached our accommodation in Obama village it was already 3pm. Luckily, the hotel was just minutes away from Ayii village and the school where children were already getting ready to go home. We had an hour to choose our main actors. We gathered a bunch of children from the playground who expressed an interest in acting. All of them had had some exposure to films – either Nigerian movies or Kung Fu flicks.

“We did screen-tests with 12 children and got each one to portray different emotions to get an idea of whether they would be able to perform for camera. All the children were understandably a little shy. We were communicating with them in their second language, and it was difficult for them to imagine what it was we were trying to achieve. Still we could see those that had the best potential, and those who looked best on camera, and who had the best command of English.

‘Eventually we chose Nelson and Eunice, who stood out as the best performers as our heroes and the other children would play supporting roles.

‘The shoot took place over the next four days and was very intense and took up all the daylight hours. In the evenings we would back-up and check the footage during the four hours of electricity at the hotel, eat dinner with the crew and then sleep very soundly. In the morning we would watch the children running to school as we wolfed down breakfast.

“One thing that was immediately obvious was that the children were hungry. We shared the food we had with our performers, but there were another 500 children and teachers surviving on very little.

“The most difficult scene to realize was the one with the cows. Although South Sudan has a lot of cattle farming, in the south, where we were, there were few cows. We managed to find someone with five cows, but it was extremely difficult to get any cooperation from the beasts, who were frightened of us and the green screen. Tim Drage, our visual effects expert, ended up spending a large amount of the post-production time on this one shot. Duplicating and Rotoscoping cows.

“It was very important to get the scene with the cows right. The cows in South Sudan are used to pay the dowry to family of the girl who is getting married. This is also one of the biggest obstacles to girls to finishing their education. The families are rushing to get their daughter married off to get the cows and become wealthier or to use these cows to pay the dowry when their sons are getting married.

“The video couldn’t capture everything, but it managed to highlight the major issues and obstacles surrounding education sector in South Sudan. We all hope that the film is seen by a large audience and that it helps to raise awareness of the lack of opportunities for so many in South Sudan and is a useful tool for fund-raisers.

Short bios of the children

Otii Nelson Ochola, 15 years old

© UNICEF/2016/Shona Hamilton

Nelson’s favourite subject is English as he wants to be a pilot and fly to the United States and Britain to see what they are like. He was keen to act in a film because he had seen Kung Fu movies before.

Until this, his eighth year of education, Nelson had only ever known school under the tree. If it rained the teachers didn’t turn up. There was no uniform, no lunches and, more importantly, no football field.

The new school building hasn’t solved all their problems. Things are better with the new building so that means there are a lot more children coming to school. Even though there are more teachers, this means that class sizes are still big. He feels lucky that unlike a lot of his classmates, he only has to walk half an hour to school, and has some books, shoes and a school bag.

Because of local food shortages, like most of his classmates, he goes most days without any lunch. It makes it difficult to concentrate on the classes in the afternoon, and not just for the pupils. Nelson notices that the teachers have the same problem. Also the football field is still not finished.

Eunice Aber Betty, 15 year old

© UNICEF/2016/Shona Hamilton

Eunice’s favourite subject is English, her father used to live in Australia, and she has a brother still living there. She wants to become a teacher: “I want to be a teacher because you get more knowledge when you are teaching”.

It takes Eunice an hour to walk to school every morning. She didn’t go to school under the tree as she used to go to a closer school, but it had a thatched roof that used to leak. She moved to this, newly constructed, Ayii model school because there is a good building and everything is there. There is shelter and a toilet – the building is really good.

There are still problems at the new school. Some teachers are good, but others aren’t trained. She can see that they make spelling mistakes when they are writing on the board. There is a real shortage of food in the area. There is often no food for the children – a lot don’t have breakfast or lunch. Girls have other problems too. Like many girls, when she has her period Eunice has to miss school, because she doesn’t have any sanitary ware and the school doesn’t provide any. On the way to school she often gets teased by men saying ‘you are my wife’. So she runs all the way to school, and tries to join other girls, because it’s safer.

Eunice loves learning above everything else: “Acting in this film was a good experience because it gave me knowledge of acting”. She’s also a fan of the Nigerian “Beyoncé” films.

Marianna Zaichykova is a Communication Specialist at UNICEF South Sudan



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