Our First Program in Europe!

As America celebrated its independence on July 4th, our team flew to France. 

Over our first weekend in France, we met our local team, watched the World Cup (our Brazilian intern is still grieving over her country’s devastating defeat), and visited Paris to soak up the sights. Our new home, a renovated chateau in the countryside outside of Paris that now functions as a boarding school, is like something out of an 18th Century novel: rolling green hills lush with vineyards surround the estate for kilometers; the Marne River runs alongside the train tracks in a nearby village; the sun shines from 6 o’clock in the morning until 11 o’clock at night, every day an endless European summer. 

We kicked off our program Sunday morning with the biggest international team we’ve ever had. Fourteen filmmakers, educators, and travelers from America, India, Brazil, and Tunisia join us this week as we host our Paris session for the very first time. During this week, we will do something we have never done before: we’ll be conducting two different programs at the very same time. And we’ll be teaching not only English, but French as well. 

It begs the question, to whom are we teaching French–in France?

This time around, we’re working not only with local students but also students from around the world, including Ireland, Russia, Turkey, and Spain. Half of our team will teach the locals English while the other half challenges the internationals in French. 

The exciting developments of this program demonstrate how much our organization is growing. We’re expanding our work into new countries, teaching new languages and growing our repertoire in film and education. This will be the first time Lights, Camera, Learn sets up production in France, but we already believe it won’t be the last. 

The World in a Cup

And that’s a wrap on our third edition of Lights, Camera, Learn Tunis!

View the wonderful films we created over the last two weeks below and on our website here. There, you can also find some behind-the-scenes footage from our program as well as a little goodbye message our directors made (in Tunisian Arabic) as we departed from Tunisia. 

These videos are unique for the diversity of cultures within. This program coincided with the 2018 World Cup and as such, we decided to give the program a theme: the World in a Cup. We sought to educate our kids not only about the English language, but about the diversity of cultures we had brought to their country. Between the 15 members of our team, we were fluent in a total of six languages, including Cantonese, Spanish, and Portuguese. Some of our films even include these languages! Our endeavor to use our many languages, cultures and perspectives all relates back to our mission of connecting cultures. 

We hope you enjoy our stars' films!

This Is Why We Are Here

After the celebrations of the Eid weekend, we returned to Tunis to begin our third session of the summer. Lights, Camera, Learn Tunis brought our biggest team yet (15 interns!) together with thirty kids from around the city. We created four films, bringing our total number of productions to 38. Our week was filled with laughter, learning, and life lessons–and of course, challenges to overcome.

We had many advantages going into the week: we worked with one-third the amount of students as our last program, and had twice as many directors on our team. Our class sizes shrank down to about three kids per counselor, locals from the Sawarly program joined us to help with translation, transportation, and camera operation, and we had one extra day to finish up our films. Yet this program contained its own unique difficulties. 

Ten of the students who joined us this week are orphans. Upon meeting all of our stars at the start of the program, we learned that these ten face complex challenges.  Nearly all of these students came to us with a low level of English proficiency, as they have not yet taken formal languages classes in school. Further, these kids came into the program mistrusting of our team and our motives, unsure of themselves, and hesitant to join in our activities. Where the other twenty kids took only a couple of hours (or minutes) to open up and begin speaking in English, the ten took much longer. For some, it took them until the end of the first day to speak at all.  

Throughout the week we contended with shyness and self-consciousness. We knew that in order to give these kids a transformative experience, we’d have to work harder, put in more time and more energy and prove to them that everything we were doing was for their benefit.  

So we kept pushing. Little by little, through confidence-building exercises and patient instruction, we chipped away at their apathetic demeanor. We worked every day to help them feel included, to listen to their opinions and ideas, to make them feel valid, heard, and understood. And we watched them evolve, integrate, make friends, get out of their comfort zones, smile. Kousay became enraptured by a camera and throughout his film took on the role of sound operator, production assistant, and even director. Loue, through the script-writing process, found the confidence to sing in front of her team, and then on camera. On the first day working with our kids, we could see an obvious split between the orphans and the others. When we began to shoot, the differences began to blur. By the time we had wrapped, we saw no divisions, only four teams of excited kids who had had a life-changing experience together.

The challenges we faced with this group magnified the importance of our job as role models. This experience was similar to that of working with refugees, as we did last December. Much like our program in Sharjah, this week led us to realize the weight of our impact in the lives of these kids. 

This program might have been the first time that these kids had ever had the opportunity to speak in a new language. These six days might have contained for them the most personalized attention and energy that any teacher has ever given them. This week with Lights, Camera, Learn might have been the first time anyone has ever asked them about their ideas and searched for their talents. It might have been the first time anyone believed in them.

Because of these kids, we were reminded of why we are here. We travel the world to help kids to discover their passions, to dream of becoming something they never before thought possible. We work to give them the confidence to open up and to find their true passions, whether or not they lie in film and art. The effort and energy that these kids put into their films and their experience motivate us to continue our work. 

This is why we are. This is why we do what we do. This is what makes all of the hard work and long hours worthwhile. Though our travels are unforgettable, we are not here for ourselves. We are here for these people. We are here because the experiences we provide to kids have the potential to change the world and the impact we leave on their lives is immeasurable. 

Sawarly Film Retreat 2018

This week, Lights, Camera, Learn did something we’ve never done before.

On June 8th, our team brought together filmmakers from across Tunisia and the world to participate in a one-week cross-cultural film retreat. We challenged twenty-seven participants to team up and write, direct, and shoot four original short films in six days. For one weekall us lived and worked together in the coastal city of Bizerte, and through the challenges and triumphs of the filmmaking process, shared our ideas, languages, and cultures. We called this project Sawarly. In Arabic, “Film For Me.”

The 2018 Sawarly Film Retreat was the first of its kind, for the country of Tunisia and for Lights, Camera, Learn. Our organization has founded and facilitated film and cultural projects for three years, but only revolving around kids. Sawarly was a kind of experiment, a let’s-see-what-happens when we bring an international group of young adults together under one roof, for one week, to try to create good art. Truthfully, we didn’t know what would happen. Would anyone like each other? Would anyone speak the same language? Would all of these cultures cooperate–or clash? 

Sawarly looked like this: two days of brainstorming and script-writing, two days of shooting, and two days to edit a rough cut before 6pm on Day Six. Our schedule was pretty tight, but we thought our team was up for the challenge. 

We began our program by facilitating conversation regarding identity and values across our different cultures. The openness and trust we achieved at the very start of the program allowed our shared ideas to inspire our conversations, scripts, and films.

After first greetings and orientation, four teams were assembled and tasked with pitching a film by 11am the following morning. But the challenges didn’t end at ice breakers and deadlines. All of our participants’ films had to meet certain requirements: run no longer than five minutes, include ten seconds of a Tunisian song, and a shot of the Tunisian flag. And all the films had to revolve around the theme of “Day and Night.” The constraints and tight schedule forced our teams to get creative and work together. 

Production of Days Three and Four introduced everyone to our setting: Bizerte, the northernmost city in Africa, and a colorful hub of Tunisian culture. During their shoots, our teams hit the ground running, exploring every alley and thoroughfare of Bizerte in search of the perfect location to best display their vision. Every member played a vital role in their film, no player more important than another. Our most experienced participants offered guidance and new filmmakers rose to the challenge of the program.  

Our beach house was alive with conversation and coffeemakers as our teams compiled their footage and captured their last few shots on Days Five and Six. On the last day of the program, as the clock struck 6, our teams finalized their rough cuts and exported their films, and we shared a last Iftar dinner together. We reflected on our week; on everything we had learned and faced; on everything we were grateful for; on everyone who had contributed to the unforgettable experience of Sawarly. Unwilling to waste a minute of our final hours together, we made our way to the sea to watch the sun rise across the Mediterranean for one last moment as a team. 

The first ever Sawarly Film Retreat brought together twenty-seven participants, seven languages, and seven nationalities to create four original films under one unifying theme. Working together, our teams navigated the challenges of language barriers, creative constraints, and differences in vision, opinion andculture. Because of our shared love for film and art, and the commitment and openness of our participants, all gaps were bridged and challenges overcome.

This week we sought out to create a space for young people to collaborate, exchange, and learn from one another. Our doubts at the start of the week had evaporated by the end of Day One, and by Day Six we could not imagine life without our newfound friends. At the end of the program, we felt that we had not only achieved our goals, but had created something truly unique. We produced four inspiring works. We created a community of filmmakers that extends beyond borders. And most importantly, we enabled twenty-seven individuals to see beyond differences and find that we are far more alike than we are different. 

Now that we have proven the potential of this program, we can bring Sawarly around the world. Anywhere there is passion for culture, filmmaking, and friendship, there is a place for Sawarly. 

Where should we shoot next?

Tunis at Ramadan

Last week, our team flew across the Mediterranean to get prepped for the second program of the year in Tunisia. In our first week on the African continent, we explored from the capital city of Tunis to the clean shores of Bizerte, all the way down to the economic hub of Sfax. Throughout the week, we’ve had the chance to experience the vibrance of Ramadan. 

Ramadan is not only a religious holiday but one of the most culturally rich times in the Arab world. As we witnessed in the Middle East, during the month of Ramadan the true character of the people is on full display. 

From the moment the sun rises, the people fast. Morning is a hectic rush to complete all errands before businesses close by early afternoon. Heat is an obstacle to overcome as the people patiently wait for sundown. At 3, the roads are a mess with traffic. The late afternoon is a time for napping and cooking. The roads are empty by 7. 

But as the call to prayer echoes over the city and the sun dips below the horizon, the city breaks its fast. Families enjoy the Iftar dinner at home, celebrating their first drink of water since dawn. Food and laughter is shared as the people regain their energy. The streets are quiet through the dinner hour, but slowly, neon lights illuminate and the city comes alive. By 10, Tunis’ bustling streets are overflowing, its citizens returning to errands, business, and recreation. Long past midnight, people squeeze into the narrow alleys of the old city, relaxing, drinking sweet tea and smoking shisha at outdoor coffeeshops, and bartering with merchants for clothes and spices. Music echoes around the city from musicians wandering the streets, bringing people to their feet for a dance. The city stays up late through Ramadan, taking every opportunity to enjoy the gifts of food, water, family, and health. 

In Tunis and across the world, Ramadan is a time for appreciation and giving, celebration and shared times with loved ones. Although to get into the flow of Tunis at Ramadan is an adjustment, especially for those who have never experienced such a shift in schedule, for Lights, Camera, Learn travelers, it is a wonderful privilege to learn about the culture of Tunisia at such a fascinating and enjoyable time

Connections and Departures

Riding the afterglow of our Red Carpet event, our team embarked on a four-day excursion across the Kingdom of Jordan for one last adventure together. After spending a night in the capital of Amman, we traveled down the border, where we spent the morning and midday floating in the salty waters of the Dead Sea. After a rejuvenating mud bath, our team headed to the village of Wadi Mousa, just outside the ancient city of Petra. Thursday found us journeying through the wonder of the modern world, between vaulting sandstone canyons and into miraculously-crafted tombs carved into the rock. To end our adventure, we traveled out into the desert of Wadi Rum, the Valley of Sand, where we spent the night sleeping under the stars and sharing a final memory as a team. We reflected on the adventures of the previous month, and what it was we had all learned.

All of us had grown in ways we could not have expected. We had learned from our students as much as they had learned from us. We had had our expectations exceeded, and our eyes opened. We had formed strong bonds with new friends and found ourselves with many new places to call home. Perhaps most importantly, through our shared experiences with the people of Nazareth, Baqa Al-Gharbiyye, Ar’ara, and Jordan, we had all had our misconceptions about this part of the world, its people, and its culture, eliminated. 

What we hear and see of the Israel/Palestine region, in news, in pop culture, in politics, even in academia, is overwhelmingly negative. Conflict, violence, division are the images that become associated with the Middle East, far beyond Israel and Palestine. And yet what we experienced through the last month could not be farther from that image. 

Every day, we saw connection. We saw sharing, community, and happiness. We were offered kindness and hospitality almost everywhere we went, and witnessed first-hand the people’s desire for peace, on both sides of the regions many conflicts. We reflected on why it was so important for us to have done our work in this region: despite the division, in this part of the world, there is so much potential for connection. And we were able to be apart of that connection. 

We wished our team a fond farewell once we returned to Amman. Though most of our team will return to our lives and routines back home, we will certainly never forget the wisdom we learned here. We will continue to seek out connection wherever it can be found.  

"Life is like a camera"

On Monday night, we hosted our first Red Carpet event of the summer. We were joined by all 111 of our students, their families, our new friends, sponsors, and even the mayors of Ar’ara and Baqa. Our biggest event yet, the first Red Carpet of the summer hosted over 400 people.

And what a night it was.

Our team brought it all together—even if we were a bit last-minute. Jamming subtitles, credits, and a blooper reel into all ten films had us exporting footage up until the final moment. But miraculously, we showcased all of our students’ hard work and progress for their families, schools and communities to see. Once the final film had ran and the lights came up, our team breathed a deep, collective sigh of relief, having finally reached the end of our first program of 2018. In that moment, all the stress of the past two weeks melted away like ice cream in the desert. 

Our work is challenging. Most of the time it is exhausting. Every program brings new obstacles to overcome, and a fresh batch of kids to figure out. We’re never without setbacks, frustrations are imminent, and the nature of our work makes improvisation part of the plan. At the end of the program, even after we’ve completed all the lessons and activities designed to force kids out of their comfort zone and get them speaking English, we wonder what kind of difference we have actually made in their lives, if our work has made any difference at all. Because we can’t experience the impact we are leaving on these kids, their communities, and their futures. All we see when our work is finished on Day 5 of the program is a group of tired kids who had no idea making a movie was so difficult. 

But our Red Carpet events give us the incredible opportunity to see the impact of our work. We get to see our films played on the big screen for hundreds of people, but far more importantly, we get to witness our students seeing themselves on the big screen for the first time in their lives. We get to hear their laughter when their friends say their first line of dialogue, when they watch the blooper reels and see just how long it took them to nail their lines, or when they realize why we made them rehearse a single scene over and over and over. We get to see their parents’ faces light up when they hear their children speak English for the first time, and their teachers celebrate when they see how much their students have improved in just one week. At our Red Carpet, we realize just how much of a difference we had made in the lives of our students.

As the night ended, our 400 guests swirled around us, snapping photos and exchanging phone numbers. Students begged us to return next year; their parents offered to host us in their homes. We no longer saw groups of kids who were exhausted at the end of a long week; we saw students who had realized their own growth. And that made all of our work worth it. 

At the end of our ceremony, as we took the stage for our final send-off, a parent asked to speak to us for the audience to hear. After thanking us for our dedication to their children and openness to their culture, she said this quote to us: 

“Life is like a camera. Focus on what's important. Capture the good times. Develop the negatives. And if things don't work out, just take another shot.”

Her words are something none of us will soon forget. 

“You are welcome here”

On Thursday, the Lights, Camera, Learn team finished the first of our six summer programs. Exhausted but inspired, our team spent the weekend backing up footage and behind-the-scenes photographs, and exploring the cities of Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. We recapped the week on our rides across the region.

Our team of nine, supported by local friends and educators, found a way to navigate the triple-threat challenge of filmmaking, working with kids, and overcoming a language barrier. This session will be the biggest of our entire summer: a program of over 60 kids from ages 8 to 12, across all levels of English proficiency. And yet despite the challenges, we wrote, directed, and produced six different films — in five days.

 Kids and educators alike shared laughs, cries, setbacks, and celebrations, and by the end of the session, had grown in ways they couldn’t have foreseen. For some of our kids, this was their first chance to speak with native English speakers. For many more, it was their first chance to get in front of a camera and have their ideas explored. For both our team of interns and our groups of kids, it was a week of discovery. 

We watched as the kids who stayed shy and quiet on Day 1 broke out of their shell and shined on camera by Day 5. The kids who already had a handle on the language played the role of Assistant Director and sound Operator, aiding our directors and educators in communicating with their classmates, dropping the slate, and even holding the boom pole while our directors of photography captured the action.

As we looked through the footage from our first program, our team was reminded of our own childhoods: when it was that we all found our passion for film. For most of us it was when we were 11 — the same age of the kids we are now working with. If we thought we were cool when we were 11, then these kids are the coolest on the planet. Not only are these kids facing their fears, working with foreigners, and sharing their creativity, they are doing all of this in a new language.

On Sunday we get started on our second five-day session with an entirely new group of bright kids. We’ll bring four more scripts to life, and on May 21st, we host the first Red Carpet Event of the summer.

Every day we are learning new things: what life is like here, the differences between our many cultures, but also what we have in common. Perhaps the most common realization that our team has had is that in all the places we’ve traveled around the world (and ours is a well-traveled group), we’ve never met a more welcoming culture. So many people, from our sponsors, to our new friends, to the random people we meet on the street, have said to us and on more than one occasion, “You are welcome here.”

Our friends and hosts demonstrate it to us every day: they bring us food while we are working, they invite us to into their homes to meet their families, they teach us their dances, language, and customs. And they expect no thanks, only that we share with them these experiences.

As our Nazareth Program hits the halfway point, we’re looking forward to what adventures and realizations we’re sure to have in the coming weeks.