Case study: Chick

A professor by day, Wesley Shrum also makes films. Chick is about an American woman initiating self-help groups for disabled people in Kenya.

Working as an academic the filmmaker Wesley Shrum, who runs the filmfestival Ethnografilm in Paris every April, has a clear vision of how to make interesting and relevant films. In Chick he follows his hero’s struggle of doing development aid in Kenya.

“As an academic, we’re used to writing. Editing is just writing by another name.”


Development aid in Kenya

“I’ve been travelling in Kenya every summer since 1994. For many years, I had been thinking about aid, and expats, and development—the kinds of activities usually associated with NGOs. An Indian friend in Nairobi told me about an interesting American woman who was initiating self-help groups for the disabled. When I met Haley, about five years ago, I knew in less than five minutes she was the perfect example of the “new” approach to development aid. And she was doing it by herself, after bailing from the Peace Corps!”

The story in ethnographic filmmaking

“No scripts. Ever. We are opposed to scripting non-fiction films. Our approach to ethnographic filmmaking is that the story emerges in editing. Well, having said that, I’ll admit to a bit of scripting. After the sequences are laid down and merged to create the whole timeline, a couple of the lines were just unusable. I don’t mind asking a key character to repeat a couple of lines. I guess that was our script!”

Shooting the scenes

“With this production, we started by spending some good time with our main character, specifically seeking to understand her approach to helping Kenyans. She struggles, as we all do, with many contradictions in her work. She was quite self-conscious about the ways her perspective differs from early missionary work—you could call it the “giving” model, in exchange for religious teachings! Several possibilities for scenes came immediately to mind, but the most obvious one needed to be a multi-camera shoot with Haley and one of her groups.”

Meeting production challenges in Kenya

“We have a team of three to five people, most of whom are experienced in Kenya, and local collaborators. Usually we shoot with a group of three or four, and we share logistics. We started working on Chick in 2012 and shot each summer from 2013 to 2016, editing on the way. Funding for us is tricky, but we are all professors, so we have our day jobs. At that time I had a grant to go to Kenya to study social networks and communications technology—so we used this for travel costs and equipment. Other than that, it’s a no budget film!”

“The difficulties of working in Kenya are nicely (if tritely) summarized by the old phrase “this is Kenya,” followed by the knowing smile. Our approach to Chick evolved as we narrowed our focus. Of all the activities surrounding our central character—we shot her pharmacy, her college course on HIV-AIDS and some other women “entrepreneurs”—we ditched them all. That was tough—but “kill your darlings.” The toughest decision I made was not to mention the fact that she was dating—then married—a Kenyan. But in the end, it was not relevant. I decided the movie had to stay short and focus specifically on the struggles of one group. This happened at the same time I got my title, Chick! I realized what the group had actually done at the time was to produce one small chicken.”

The magic o editing and writing, colours and sound

“I did the editing. You edit as you go, as you get the footage. As an academic, we’re used to writing. Editing is just writing by another name. (Ok, there are multiple tracks rather than the single track of your typical doc file!) An academic would never do the research and give it to someone else to write their book! Once you learn to edit, it’s addictive, anyway. You never really know your story until you sit down and start editing. Actually, it’s the same with writing a book…”

“Most of the music comes from a fabulous Ghana-based shop called Akwaaba Music run by Benjamin Lebrave. So it’s not mostly Kenyan, but it’s all African.”

“Color corrected by a Digital FX in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where I live and work.”


Film Festivals

“We’re doing well on the festival circuit. Of course, you’d always like to get into more of them, but I love this particular one you have in Heerlen—and especially this idea of the Case Study! I run a festival myself—the Ethnografilm festival based in Paris each April.”

Less is more

“My main tip is make it shorter. I know nothing about scripted films. I’m a sociologist, but what I’ve learned is mainly from watching the hundreds of films submitted to my own festival. I don’t give a damn how much you love your material. I can’t tell you how many times (as director of Ethnografilm) submitting directors have said to me “oh, I wanted to emphasize the duration of the action or the reality of the situation.” That’s ridiculous. It may be non-fiction, but you’re making a movie!”

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