Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship: Diana Szanto
We’re excited and proud to share the trailer and blog post from Diana Szanto who received a Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship to aid filming Manish.
Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship
From 2008 to 2016 I studied development in Sierra Leone, from a particular angle: that of disability. Originally focusing on the role of NGOs, my attention progressively shifted toward local civil society. I got interested in self-organized disabled communities. My encounters in this world led me to a group of disabled musicians to whom I became attached by long lasting ties of friendship. As I was drafting my thesis, I thought it best to keep my personal life out of my ethnography. Retrospectively, it was a bad idea, but nervous doctoral students do not always make judicious decisions. Luckily, I also realized that my time spent in the company of my friends was probably the most precious part of my learning process. Silencing this experience seemed to be too much of a loss and so I came to the idea of transforming it into something more accessible than an anthropology book. I started to use two complementary methodologies: collecting field notes for a book, supposedly for an academic audience and footages destined to become a film for a larger audience. At the end, I abandoned the assumption of artificial boundaries separating imaginary audiences, but the two types of material yielded indeed two different results: a book and a film. The book (Politicising Polio in Sierra Leone) came out at the end of 2019. The film became a collective project, but for years, it stubbornly refused to materialize.
As I am not trained in visual anthropology, I needed help in filming. I asked a friend, an accomplished French documentarist, to join me in the field. He recruited a small but heteroclite crew, which came to visit me in Sierra Leone in 2009, 2010 and 2011. We collected more than 30 hours of footages. Shootings took place almost exclusively following the haphazard daily movements of our protagonists. Plans, if they existed at all, had to be frequently changed. For long, it remained a mystery even for us what kind of film this material can make, if only because our protagonists also frequently changed their minds about what they wanted to see represented. Several crises – of hermeneutical and personal nature – discouraged us from getting the job done.
By 2017, we had definitely gave up ever finishing the film. Then suddenly we changed our minds. That year our main protagonist died. His death put an end to a long hesitation and gave us a new impetus to leave a visual trace of his life. In agreement with the rest of the group in Sierra Leone, we decided to dedicate the film to the homage of our lost friend. What was a strong but materially baseless intention, became a realistic possibility thanks to the Wenner-Gren Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship.
We started to work in the beginning of 2019. Based on a first selection accomplished collectively, I wrote the scenario. I wanted to create a multilayered film that speaks at the same time about Manish, our hero, his micro universe with its broader global entanglements, as well as about the emotional vulnerabilities of doing fieldwork in violent terrains. We worked on realizing this plan for a year. Our team is not only diverse, but also geographically dispersed. I am based in Hungary, the first cameraman, director and editor, Denis Ramos, and his assistant, second cameraman, Ferdinando Formisano, live in France and our most important consultants, the film’s surviving main characters are in Sierra Leone. We had to find a way to overcome the distance. I travelled to France three times, the rest of the time we exchanged draft versions, ideas and opinions online. Final postproduction was done in a studio in Hungary in the summer of 2020.
The film, Manish, is a 75 minute-length documentary. It tells the story of a polio-disabled boy, who escapes the war, finds refuge, friends and hope in Freetown, remakes his life several times but does not live long enough to see his dreams realized. The film does more than rehearsing the events. It excavates and makes visible the social roots of suffering. In a counter-movement, it also attempts to understand the nature of collective happiness and the political potential inherent in hope.
We intended to embed a singular story in its local and global historical context, in order to show its universal implications. We strived for a delicate balance between allowing Manish to inhabit the front of the stage while showing enough of the back stage to produce a nuanced and multilayered contextualization. The multiplicity of the layers complicated the story telling. We understood that it was impossible to follow the chronology without some additional information. After some hesitation, I assumed finally the position of the narrator. In this way, my own fieldwork, the process of navigating complicated human relations, has implicitly become part of the film.
When we finished the postproduction, we thought that the biggest part of the work was behind us. We slowly realized that what was in front us was equally huge: we have to make the film live. Our two most obvious options are festivals for recognition and VOD for wide coverage. We started to work on the first option. For a while we were hoping that festivals would start open offline but in December 2020 we gave up waiting and started to register for online screenings. For most of them, we are still waiting for the response. VOD marketing can start only after the festival season. In the meanwhile, we are communicating about the film on its webpage (manish-movie.org). With the site, I wanted to pay a tribute to ethnographic filmmaking. Therefore, I imagined a double function for it. On the one hand, it presents the film, on the other, it gives more information on the ethnography that grounded it with the intention to render it “teachable”. Under the menu item “Teaching tools” the internaute will find four short edited video sequences. They illustrate 4 important themes discussed by the film and developed more in details in the book: 1, Being disabled in the South, 2, Contemporary forms of violence, 3, Expulsions, 4, Resistances. Instead of referring directly to the film’s story, the sequences introduce the viewer into the deeper intricacies of its social, political and historic background. These snapshots, although localized, are meant to nourish an analysis of current global processes, affecting in one way or another, beyond the disabled communities of Freetown, probably all of us.
This section is dedicated to teachers, activists or amateurs of self-education who want to know more about the topic. Each video is accompanied by a short text, explaining the scenes and proposing a theoretical frame for their interpretation. The texts are completed by a list of suggested questions for class discussions, a glossary explaining the concepts, as well as by a short bibliography. The four texts together provide a good enough summary of the book’s arguments and make these available for those who do not necessarily have time to read hundreds of pages.
The webpage is also a place for fundraising. A Donation button invites the visitors to contribute to a Fund established in Freetown to financially help the disabled communities to which Manish belonged. It is managed by a local NGO, One Family People, created by the protagonists of the film. 10% of all income realized by the documentary will go to the people who participated in its realization.
We had to postpone the public premiere in Sierra Leone because the crew refused to travel in the heights of the pandemic. According to a cautious new plan, maybe we can visit “Salone” in June. In Sierra Leone, disability activists will not have to wait until the film is released officially. One Family People has access to it and can screen it on demand.