Interview with Jillian Arnold, director of Badala

Interview by Alexandra Hidalgo

Jillian Arnold

Jillian Arnold

Your documentary, Badala, deals with an organization by the same name founded by Joelle McNamara. Can you tell us about Badala and why you think it is important to make a film about it?

The film, at its core, is about a group of ambitious and determined women who overcome great odds in an impossible environment.  Monica, Lillian, Beaty, and Helen are four senior members of the Badala Nairobi office.  The film focuses on where these women came from, what lead to their life in the slums, and how they came together to turn their lives around.

The Badala non-profit is the setting for their emotional and financial recovery. Not only are women gainfully employed, but they are required to have a savings account for a future investment of their choice. Each woman upon acceptance into the program must create financial and business goals.  The organization creates workshops to educate the women on how to run a small business.  When they have reached their savings goal, they can graduate from the program, and start their future ventures.  Badala is about empowering women to create a sustainable future.

More so, the organization is actually a trauma support group for the women. Since there is no avenue for traditional therapy in Kibera, Badala is a means of group therapy.  Women can share their past and current issues and work collectively to solve them.

How did you become involved with the project and what aspects of your experience prepare you to tell this story? 

I grew interested in Badala through Joelle McNamara, Badala’s founder.  Joelle married my uncle, Corey McNamara in 2012. We casually talked at family parties and weddings (including both of our own).  We really got to know each other when Joelle came to Los Angeles, last fall, for the launch of the Tom’s Shoes Marketplace.  Tom’s Shoes is currently selling Badala products online through its international online marketplace, which helps organizations employ those in need. Joelle asked me to be her date to the launch party, and after two hours of sitting in traffic on the way home, I was instantly hooked on the stories she told me of her travels to Eastern Africa.  I knew I had the filmmaking experience and skill set capable of telling these stories. I am a trained cinematographer with over ten years of professional experience.  The Badala Documentary will be my directorial debut.  My husband, Dan Ackerman is co-directing, and editing our documentary.

Two months later, I left for Kenya to research the story idea, and pin down logistics.  I spent 8 days living with our documentary’s main heroine, Monica and her family.  It was the most unique experience one could ask for, especially when researching for a story.  I grew very close to the family, and they opened up in a way that I could never have imagined one would in such a short time. When Monica finally walked me through her journey, it was painful to imagine the children I grew to love, almost died of starvation. Her success was a family success.

I worked in the Badala office each day, and grew to know each of the Badala women.  Each day, their trust in me strengthened. When I told them what I wanted to accomplish with the documentary, I had their full support, and cooperation.

Lillian (second to left), Beaty (third), and Monica (fourth) pose for a photo with a friend.

Lillian (second to left), Beaty (third), and Monica (fourth) pose for a photo with a friend.

Besides Joelle, the film focuses on four of the women whose lives have been transformed through Badala. How did you select the women whose stories you tell and what role have they played in deciding how they will be portrayed?

I know two stories well, and several others I think are as important.

Lillian’s journey was the first story Joelle told me.  I was taken aback by the social and gender injustice that she went through before she was freed from her abusive second husband.

From there, Joelle told me about Monica, who I chose to be our central heroine.  She also knows the other women’s stories better than anyone.  As she tells her story, you cannot fathom the misfortunes she overcomes: teenage pregnancy, starvation, poverty, husband tragically killed in a car accident, attempt at familial suicide, and a work accident which burned her leg.  Throughout our four-hour conversation together, I continued down her tragic past, hoping for relief at every act break.  When she talks about her decision to commit familial suicide because her children were starving, you can’t help but ask yourself, what circumstances would I have to be in, to choose kill my family? Her story is uncomfortable to hear, but that lends itself to how powerful, and what an impact it will have on our audience. You can hear a snippet of her story here.

Monica’s efforts to help others are heart warming.  We know her as Mamma Kibera because of the maternal qualities she brings to the community.  More so, her journey  weaves Lillian, Helen, Beaty, and Joelle’s story together.  She is the thread in the Badala quilt. As we listen to each story, we not only hear how they came together, but how they saved each other from their circumstances.

In addition to the senior Badala women, there is one more member we plan to profile, but we have yet to be determine who it will be.  We’ll meet her in the documentary, and journey with her during her trial period.  That new person will or will not be accepted into the organization based on qualifications, and how well she integrates with its existing members.

Projects in which a group of white people represent the struggles of a group of people of color can fall into problematic pitfalls in terms of stereotyping and portraying white people as saviors. Having a primarily white crew dealing with impoverished Eastern African women, how do you plan to avoid representational issues in your documentary?

I never saw this story as a skin tone issue, rather a class or gender issue. It is a fact that Joelle is a white woman helping a group of African women, but the love and support these women share is colorless.  Family, love, and being a good human does not have a race or color.  The Badala office fosters an environment of acceptance, and good will towards all.  That’s the ideology we will deliver in this film.

Although I have not had to endure the same difficult circumstances that these women have, we did discuss the rolls that the men in our lives play, both good and unfortunate.  Each lady, has had to make the decision to stand up for her rights to a man who was physically, emotionally, or verbally abusive.  No matter what the circumstance is, the decision to get out of a negative environment or harmful relationship is still the same.

Joelle and Monica walking on the train tracks in the Kibera slums

Joelle and Monica walking on the train tracks in the Kibera slums

After talking with the women for days about their journeys, they began to ask me questions about my own life and marriage.  I had explained to them a very hard decision I had to make around the time of my engagement.  There was a relationship in my life that was detrimental to my well-being, and I made the decision to let go and be happy.  Productivity stopped for a brief moment as I told them this life story.  At the conclusion, Lillian slapped her hand on the table, and said, “You are like us. You are a Badala Woman.” That is when I realized what the true meaning of Badala was all about—a means to heal and forgive yourself for the past, while focusing on the future.

The issues that we’re concentrating on are not of skin tone.  Their stories are universal at its core.  These story lines can be set in any country, with any nationality, but we’re concentrating on Monica, Lillian, Beaty, and Helen because the odds of survival and success are far less in the slums, than in a place like the US.  I believe that’s what makes this such a compelling story.

In regards to my male crew, I feel I have brought together three of the most sensitive, strong, and pro-women men, who also happen to be brilliant at their craft. Their dedication to the cause is commendable and should be celebrated.  I would also like to note that my co-producer is a woman from the Philippines.  Her background, along with her American film education has been a great resource for our documentary.

One of the goals of the documentary is to challenge viewers’ notions of poverty and the sorts of steps that can be taken to resolve the issue no matter where one lives. Can you tell us how you plan to achieve that goal?

I don’t claim to be an expert on economic issues, and I’m not proposing solutions on a macro economic scale.  We will go into some detail about the lack of public works, sanitation, security, and education, in Kibera, but we’re not proposing solutions to public works or civil engineering problems.  We’re presenting them in the documentary to put these women’s struggles in context and draw comparisons between these women and someone in the same crisis here in the US. There is a big difference between being poor in a first-world country, and a place like Kibera.

Helen waits for her two children as she walks a main pathway through the Kibera slums.

Helen waits for her two children as she walks a main pathway through the Kibera slums.

We do believe on a micro scale that the power of change comes from within.  If real change is going to happen, it’s not going to be solely because the government or an organization comes in and makes changes. While that helps, real change happens when one makes the decision to fight for a better way of life.  As Joelle once told me, “My friends aren’t looking for a handout. They’re looking for a leg up.” We have seen that with the help of an organization like Badala, these women were empowered with education, training, and the tools to make their change a reality.

The stories of single mothers play a central role in Badala. Do you think that your experiences as a woman help you better deal with these issues as a filmmaker?

I absolutely believe my experiences as a woman will help me direct and shoot this film.  Monica, Lillian, Beaty, and Helen are all single mothers.  My parents divorced at a very young age, and I remember as a child watching my mother grow from a young twenty-something to a successful business woman with several degrees in various subjects.   She stressed the importance of education, work ethic, strength, and presentation.  She encouraged me to go to college and pursue my Master’s degree.  She has never held me back from taking chances to learn and grow, yet she is always there for advice and counsel.  My mom is my hero. The more I learned about her journey, the more I respected and appreciated what she did for herself and for me, her daughter.  In my heart, I know I am dedicating this film to her. Perhaps this is why I have been so attracted to women’s stories.

Monica’s son, Oscar, whom we are also profiling, said the same thing about his mother.  Oscar is one of the most inspiring young men I have ever met.

More so, I think that my career being in a male-dominated field helps me understand the barriers that these women are overcoming.  I found Kibera to still be very male-dominated and I think it’s remarkable that these four women will go on to open their own small businesses in the community.

For this project you have already filmed and will continue to film abroad. Do you have any advice for filmmakers working in countries that are not their own?

We have not started principal photography. We plan to do so in July. I did take a trip to Kenya in January for research and logistics. This response may change, but here is my advice at the moment:

•Get yourself a fixer: A fixer is local producer who knows the lay of the land, and can speak the native language.  We have one in mind for July and his participation in my scheduling, budgeting, and permitting has been helpful.

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Jillian Arnold poses for a picture with Lillian’s daughter, Baby Joelle. Baby Joelle is named after Joelle McNamara, Badala’s founder.

•You have to be fearless:  I had a series of moments when I arrived in Kenya 28 hours after leaving Los Angeles: My luggage was missing and so all I had was my camera gear and backpack. We drove by a group of men with machine guns on the way from the airport.  I realized I didn’t have a bottle of water to brush my teeth with. I sat on my bed and thought “What the hell did I just get myself into?” There are moments you want to be weak, but you can’t.

•Your mind never rests: I was there for 8 days, which I felt was extremely important to the development of the project. Here is what I had to deal with simultaneously, while walking to and from the Badala office:

Your mind is taking in the new the sights, sounds, and smells of a environment.

You try not to trip over the unpaved street, and make a fool of yourself.

You’re being mindful of people around you.

You realize you’re carrying about ten thousand dollars worth of gear on your back around people who have nothing.

You’re filing away information for production and writing.  Oh, that would be a great location to shoot b-roll in. I wonder how much it will cost and do I need liability insurance.

It took me about two or three weeks to recover from the trip.

As part of your fundraising efforts, you have a Kickstarter campaign and you will also use community support and apply for grants. Can you tell us how you selected your funding strategy and what your plans are for obtaining community support?

I felt it was important that we involve the community with our fundraising.  I wanted to make a film by a community that supports that cause.  I determined that I would raise about 25% – 30% of the budget from crowd-source funding.

After we return from Kenya, and cut twenty minutes of the film, we know we are eligible for more grants. There are few development grants, but more production grant opportunities.  Most grants want to see a product vision before they give money.   We are confident our content will help us win grants to help finish the films.

Joelle founded Badala at the age of 17.

Joelle founded Badala at the age of 17.

Badala has a strong online presence through its website, blog, Facebook page, and Twitter feed. What role do you see these platforms playing in the film’s funding and distribution and have you designed a strategy for managing them?

I see social media playing an important roll in campaign funding.  Aside from the 2200 postcards, information, and stickers that went out to volunteers across the country, we’ve had an average of 300+ reposts a week with our Facebook and Twitter numbers growing by the day. Most of the Badala Doc presence is managed by myself with the help of my husband.  Badala Org is managed by Joelle. I have done a lot of research into how to grow numbers fast. I read articles, blogs, and met with marketing experts on how to use social media effectively.  I feel we’re achieving the impact we set out for.

Any advice for filmmakers hoping to tell complex, daring stories like Badala?

Be prepared for the emotional roller coaster you’re getting on.  We have so much enthusiasm around this project. Emails, messages, phone calls are still coming in about how excited people are about what we’re doing. However, that is no guarantee of people donating money.  No matter how much you read about the struggles of fundraising, its only a reality when you’re waist-deep in it.  You will feel like the light at the end of the tunnel brightens and dims within the same hour.  You just have to be a fighter. If you really want it, you will find a way to do it.  It just might not be on your timeline.

To donate to Badala’s Kickstarter campaign, click here. You can also visit the film’s website and blog.

You can visit Alexandra’s profile here.

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