Production And The Pandemic - Buni Media’s Experience
Early in 2020, the world became aware of a new coronavirus that was sweeping across the globe, after having been identified in China at the end of 2019. The outbreak was quickly declared a pandemic, as it swept across Europe and the USA with devastating impact.
While Africa experienced a relatively slow start to the outbreak, covid-19 inevitably began to spread on the continent, prompting governments to impose restrictions on movement and association.
In March, Kenya confirmed the first case of covid-19. Several measures were put in place to curb the spread of the virus, including a nationwide curfew and an order for ‘cessation of movement in and out of The Nairobi Metropolitan Area, Mombasa and Mandera.’ Some aspects of the economy have been severely affected, with many Kenyans rendered jobless.
The arts community has been hit hard. With public gatherings banned and most social or cultural venues remaining shut, artists have no mainstream platforms to commercialize their work. In April, President Kenyatta announced that a fund had been established to cushion artists from the economic effects of the pandemic, but many have been left out of its disbursement.
At Buni Media
At the start of the year, Buni Media’s calendar was full. We had plans to conduct activities around our main programs, including production of The XYZ Show, workshops on Katiba, and training through internships and workshops/masterclasses.
The XYZ Show
The production of The XYZ Show typically brings a crew of up to 50 people together on set, in close quarters. It was immediately clear that our usual approach would not allow for social distancing, and the season was postponed. Despite the eagerness to begin production, our foremost commitment is to ensure the safety and health of our crew in the face of the covid-19 pandemic.
The producers of The Show have held lengthy deliberations and considered how other productions around the world have adjusted to the pandemic, and they are designing an approach that will fit our context. It has also been an opportunity for the producers to brainstorm on new ways in which The XYZ Show and its production processes can evolve even beyond the pandemic.
Working remotely is not new to the Katiba team, which is creating a comic book version of the Kenyan constitution. Even before the pandemic, much of this team’s collaborative work was done online.
A few physical meetings and workshops had been planned, however, and had to be cancelled due to the pandemic. These were done online, and the team was able to edit and refine their illustrations remotely.
Training: Internships & Workshops
Every year, Buni Media takes on up to ten interns, who join the production crew of The XYZ Show for hands-on training on set. Earlier in the year, we announced a call for applications, and shortlisted the top candidates out of more than 140 applications. However, just like the production itself, the internship program had to be put on hold.
We are considering ways in which we can provide value to trainees while still putting their safety first.
Similarly, Buni Media Workshops and Masterclasses, which provide content creators with access to experts from different fields, have been put on hold.
The pandemic has provided the opportunity for Buni Media to partner with our good friends, Project HAND UP, for the production of Ask Dr. Pamoja and Geedka Mooska/Hiddo & Hirsi (also including Poet Nation). These projects are teaching East African children about the covid-19 pandemic – from preventing the risk of infection, to staying calm and avoiding panic and fear.
These partnerships have compelled us to find new ways to produce content while maintaining social distancing:
Limiting the number of people on set, to allow adequate space for social distancing
With fewer people on set, each person takes on multiple roles.
Maintenance of mask wearing, social distancing and hygiene, with regular reminders.
The team was grateful to be able to work, while contributing to global efforts to flatten the curve of covid-19 infections.
How the Team is Coping
At Buni Media, we have been able to get some work done, but each one of us has been affected by the pandemic in different ways. All around us, people have lost jobs and businesses, as have we. We are all forced to make tough choices, in addition to facing the feelings of isolation and cabin fever that come with staying at home – and uncertainty about how long we will have to. The worry about financial survival through to the end of this situation is real. We are witnesses to a rise in police brutality and extrajudicial killings (many times, while ‘enforcing curfew’), and widening inequalities in our communities.
The potential long-term effect of this experience on our emotional and financial wellbeing cannot be disregarded, but we’re staying optimistic and looking for opportunities to grow and evolve, and to positively contribute to our communities.
Below, team members Fedelis, Zelly and Ross share their experience of the pandemic so far:
When Kenya recorded the first case of covid-19, I found myself cursing because I knew this was going to hit me hard. I had two upcoming work trips which I had planned for years; one to the US and one to Siberia. But now, the borders were closing down. Almost immediately, the cancellation letters started coming in. Our regular puppet performances at malls in Nairobi were cancelled.
Individually, I started creating content around covid-19 prevention and safety with my puppet Joseph, and posting it on my social media. And then came Ask Dr. Pamoja with Buni Media and Project HANDUP. I was glad to be doing something that could reach many people. Hiddo & Hirsi came next. For these projects, in addition to puppeteering work, I took on new roles as production manager and assistant director.
Working in production during the pandemic has been challenging. The number one obstacle was the shift in how we do things; with fewer numbers on set, we have all had to multi-task on several different roles, and to maintain very strict discipline around social distancing.
In general, I think the pandemic has forced me to rethink a lot of things. It has given me time to rearrange some aspects of my life, including my home – I now have a home office with a background, which is great for my independent work at home. It was difficult to make my 1 year old daughter understand that I’m now working from home – at some point, my puppets became her toys and puppeteering practice merged into playtime!
During this time, I’ve also checked in with many puppeteer friends from around the world, and one thing is obvious – no one wants to just sit at home doing nothing. We’re working remotely on collaborative projects. I can actually do a show with someone from Poland, from the comfort of my house, how cool is that – and without the visa and ticket hassle! This might be the future of puppetry…
For now, I’m hoping for the best, but sometimes I do feel disheartened because there is no clear projection of the future. We had many plans for this year and the near future, which are now hanging in the balance.
– Fedelis Kyalo, Puppeteer (Buni Media, Project HANDUP, Krystal Puppeteers)
When the social distancing guidelines were announced, I thought that it would only last for a few weeks, and I was quite optimistic; I figured it would all be over soon. As time went by, it became clear that it was not going away any time soon. I started to feel a little fearful for the future. I hadn’t worked for a couple of months, and things were not looking good.
When we began to work on Ask Dr. Pamoja, it gave me hope. The crew had to be very small so that we could keep social distancing, and this was a challenge; we all took up multiple roles.
I’m now feeling optimistic that things will soon open up, and artists will be able to get back to work. But I’m careful not to plan for the coming months because nothing is certain. I’m taking it a day at a time because as it is, I don’t have anything to plan with: money is limited, and opportunities for work are hard to come by.
Emotionally, I’m holding up but I’ve been better. I’m hoping that things will open up big-time; I hope we will have even more opportunities than before.
– Zelly Njoki, Buni Media Head of Wardrobe
At the start of the pandemic, I was worried that it could possibly create a serious problem in Kenya. We had seen the Western world struggling with the pandemic, with no fail safe solutions to either the medical or economic downturn. How were we then to cope in Kenya and Africa in general? But I’m an optimist; it is important to remain optimistic to the very end, in any situation, even while keeping a clear head to try foreseeing and addressing any possible issues.
I was very much engaged since the beginning of the pandemic, working on two covid-19 public awareness campaigns for children: Ask Dr. Pamoja and Geedka Mooska/Hiddo and Hirsi. The biggest challenge producing content in a pandemic is, How do you create the high quality needed without compromise?
We introduced strict measures on set, as the crew’s health is the first priority. Unfortunately there is and always will be a risk factor when bringing a number of people together to work in a studio space. As a producer I am very much aware of this, and regularly inform the crew of their personal responsibility to follow the safety guidelines as recommended by WHO. There is a heightened sense of responsibility with all of us.
The pandemic has presented the opportunity to revise, reorganise and rethink the way we create. For now, it’s smaller crews and multi-tasking crew members. Those who can do this will come up with different ideas for how to create productions. It is a time to use creative initiative not only in the area of content, but also production skills.
In the coming months, my plans are to concentrate on bringing work in to Buni Media, with the aim to employ as many people as the situation allows, including with partner organisations. The pandemic has caused not only a huge health challenge for the general population but also a devastating economic challenge for most people in our industry. Apart from staying healthy we still all need to stay economically stable. I would like to think that companies, producers, government, and support institutions of the industry (such as the Kenya Film Commission) will come together to find solutions and work on new opportunities together. This is a time when solidarity is called upon more than ever before.
– Ross Franks, Buni Media GM & Head Producer