Matt Nelson Ubuntu: The Street Child Story
Gripping and unrelenting in its quest for truth, Ubuntu: The Street Child Story, documents with palpable authenticity the plight of street children in urban Africa. Matt Nelson, the film’s young director, spent three months in southern Africa living with street children in 2007. The result is a compelling, iconic work that draws viewers into its subject much like City of God. Ubuntu pulls no punches in its honest, tragic revelation of children abandoned by a society and sometimes their own families.
Working with Eagles Wings, a small NGO based in Zambia, Nelson takes us into the towns and villages of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. He turns a camera on abandoned children as they speak matter of factly about their struggle for food, a night’s uninterrupted sleep, and survival on the mean streets they call home.
His bold narrative captures the frustrations of Government ministers and heads of major NGOs, including UNICEF and World Vision, as they try to grapple with this tragic problem.
Ubuntu was released by Light on a Hill Entertainment in 2008 with screenings in Brisbane and Sydney, Australia, and has also been screened in Lusaka, Zambia, with several worldwide screenings to follow. As with all successful filmmakers, I wanted to know what inspired Nelson to become a documentary filmmaker.
Q. What films drew you into filmmaking?
A. He didn’t plan on becoming a documentary filmmaker. Since I was eight years old, my goal was to work in the entertainment industry, specifically in feature film and television. I wanted to be the next Mel Gibson! I still want to work in features but I discovered the thrill of documentaries, the rawness of capturing something live as it happens. It fulfills the journalist in me. I was inspired by films like A City of God, Laurence of Arabia, Shawshank Redemption, and filmmakers like Gene Kelly, Busby Berkeley, Baz Luhrman, Peter Weir, Aaron Sorkin, JJ Abrams and of course, Mel Gibson.
Q. So what was your big break into the business?
A. He grew up in the theatre in Sydney, doing amateur musicals and plays. I went to acting school and started getting involved in short films. I was fortunate that my parents were very supportive of my goals. I’m not really sure if I’ve had a big break.
Q. Why make a documentary on Africa’s neglected street kids?
A. While on a church trip to Nairobi, Kenya in 2004, I was asked to shoot some documentary footage for a few aid organizations. And there were these kids in the street, sniffing glue and begging for money that we never really got to meet. When I got back to Australia, these images kept playing around in my head. I had to do something about it. There was a story here that needed telling and no one seemed to be telling it. The result was Ubuntu. Every filmmaker has that moment of discovery.
Q. What did you learn about these kids that you never knew before?
A. These are just kids, and like any child, regardless of culture or status, they need love and support to get through life. We’d spent a day, maybe a week with these kids and it amazed me how much that meant to them. I also learned that when you try to expose the truth about something, you WILL experience opposition. People didn’t like that we were spending time with these street kids. We were frequently abused for our efforts, which encouraged me to finish the film to raise an awareness of this issue.
Q. What affected you emotionally about these kids?
A. Quite often their own families and communities didn’t, or couldn’t look after them. That broke my heart. We met a gang of kids in Zambia, before we started filming them, and a group of boys, about seven or eight, came up to say hi. As they were introducing themselves, the smallest, about six years old, hadn’t taken his eyes off me since we arrived. He smiled, looked at me intently and said, “I love you”, and then gave me a big hug. A little dumbfounded, I was at a loss. My paternal instincts took over and I simply hugged back. There were many moments like this where children were starving, not just for food and water, but for love and care.
Q. The first 90 seconds of Ubuntu was very haunting, how did you decide on this?
A. I wanted to start and end the film with a street kid, sharing his story. And I wanted the audience to listen to the story; the way radio encourages you to use your imagination. I didn’t want a black screen, but I didn’t want to reveal who was speaking until the last frame, so I decided to do a very, very slow focus pull that I think adds, rather than detracts from my initial idea.
Q. What would you like viewers to take away from this film?
A. If viewers enjoy the journey, and if just one person is moved enough to get off their derriere and doing something about street children, I’ve fulfilled my purpose and I’ll be greatly humbled by the fact.
Q. Filmmaking has its share of financial, political and personal challenges. What did you face in filming this documentary?
A. There was constant verbal and sometimes physical abuse from the locals during filming. Then there were the language barriers. One day, I went through seven different languages from English and then back again!
Q. Would an Accolade award help in promoting your film and your career?
A. Winning a Best of Show Accolade Award has been amazing! It has helped open new doors for the film (and for myself as well). Not that you make a documentary to win awards, but winning helps to raise the film’s profile and, in turn, the profile of the issue of street kids, so it is a win-win in my book as the kids benefit as well.
Q. Any advice to newbie filmmakers?
A. Always listen and learn. You don’t know it all and there’s always someone better or more skilled than you that you can learn from. Also, don’t be afraid to experiment, but don’t try to reinvent the wheel on your first few projects. There is a reason the wheel exists.
Q. What about financing? Any problems in getting it? Obstacles?
A. I had no problems financing this film since my Dad and I funded it. But lately with the credit crisis, people have been less inclined to take risks on a project, which is hard, particularly when you’ve got a great idea. I always struggle getting the balance right between writing a good funding proposal and spending time developing the idea.
Q. Many filmmakers learn as much from their failures as they do from their successes. What failures have you had in the past and what have you learned?
A. I’ve noticed is that the success of a project begins with the idea, or the script. If that sucks, work at it until it’s right or put it aside for a bit. One major mistake I made was to stop recording while we were being chased down the street. I learned that this footage is gold when it comes to documentaries, so be bold!
Q. Can you talk about your next project?
A. I’m working on a few scripts for a first feature film and a documentary about my grandfather’s generation. They lived through so much, the depression, WWII, Vietnam, migration to Australia, that I thought it would be fascinating to see how two ordinary blokes lived and survived those times.