Documenting the African City When You Can’t Go to the African City

By Nicolas Lebrun | May 26, 2020

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An NYU Accra Film Class Goes Global By Going Remote

When precautions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic were implemented earlier this spring, students at many of NYU’s global locations had their time abroad unfortunately cut short. The ensuing period of adjustment presented many unique challenges to students and faculty alike.

Suddenly, professors who had perhaps never before taught an online class had to find a way to adapt their material to this new format while being sensitive to the needs of their students, many of whom now resided in vastly different time zones. For filmmaker and NYU Accra faculty member Yahaya Alpha Suberu it also meant that the students taking his class, Documenting the African City, were now thousands of miles away from the African city they were supposed to be documenting.

As the course’s title suggests, Documenting the African City is a filmmaking class where students are encouraged to venture out into Accra, the capital city of Ghana, and engage with the world they discover through the visual medium. Since NYU Accra was founded in 2004, Professor Suberu, an NYU MFA recipient himself, has seen projects that focus on a wide array of artistic and socio-economic topics, from local musicians to healthcare and transportation. “It’s very interactive,” explains Suberu. “You have a team, you go out, find a subject, and you do what you have to do.”

Mamadou Jallow discusses The Gambia

Mamadou Jallow discusses The Gambia in the documentary, “Bittersweet: Home Away from Home,” by Aisatou Diallo and Tabara Sy.

From There to Anywhere

During the transition between in-person and online instruction, students enrolled in the class were already mid-way through what would be one of their biggest projects that semester: a 10-minute interview piece. Even though applications such as Zoom could shorten the distance between Professor Suberu’s students and himself, there was still the question of how assignments should be remade given the separation between the students and their subjects.

To his delight, Professor Suberu found that his students were incredibly resourceful in navigating the situation. Many maintained contact with their subjects online, and some were able to send their subjects questions in order to have them record their answers. One of Suberu’s students even decided to turn her camera on the situation itself. Xiaoyan Kong, originally from Shanghai, contacted her classmate, Candy Yang, studying at the Washington Square Park campus and documented her return to China.

Candy Yang discusses returning to Shanghai

Candy Yang discusses returning to Shanghai from New York in Xiaoyan Kong’s “An Overseas Student’s Way Back Home.”

Projects like these are just one among many examples of why Professor Suberu has adopted an optimistic view of how his class can adapt to the situation moving forward. Although students are facing new challenges, Suberu believes “there are a lot more new things to learn and many different opportunities.”

Tech Challenges Become Tech Opportunities

NYU Accra averages around 35 students a semester, with a tech infrastructure that can pose challenges to the students enrolled in the filmmaking class. The on-site filmmaking facilities and equipment are limited, with only four editing stations, four Panasonic cameras, and four tripods available at any time. The students are also sometimes burdened by the physical formats they have to work with: at the end of each semester, their films are exported onto DVDs for a screening and are then archived onto a physical hard drive.

Professor Suberu has long seen these modes as outdated and is happy that the situation has forced him and his colleagues to embrace what he views as an inevitable change. “NYU has the capacity to store all our films online. This way, we don’t have to worry about drives and the inconveniences of DVDs. Students can use whatever resources are available to them.”

For the most part, this means inexpensive, easy-to-use editing software and services such as NYU Stream, a video hosting platform where students can store their films. One of the conveniences of NYU Stream is that it allows Suberu to make second-by-second comments on his students’ projects.

Students have even been able to get by without access to the school’s cameras. For the most recent assignment, Suberu encouraged his students to use their own mobile phones as recording devices, a medium which Suberu believes looks almost indistinguishable to other traditional filmmaking modes.

The move online also opens up a number of screening and distribution options that also weren’t available in past years. With the end-of-the-semester screening happening over Zoom, students will be able to invite their friends and family members from all over the world to tune in and watch their projects via a live Zoom event.

Hunter Major discusses what drew her to NYU Accra

In “NYU Accra: Then and Now,” Hunter Major discusses what drew her to NYU Accra and what it was like to have to evacuate the site.

Pushing Forward

As a whole, these innovations not only get around some of the limitations imposed by the pandemic, they make things easier for students who may not have much familiarity with filmmaking. One of Suberu’s goals with the class is to let his students know that everyone has the ability to tell visual stories at their fingertips. Typically, by the end of each semester, his students leave the class able to conceive of original stories, record sound, use a camera, and navigate editing software. This semester, they leave with the same skills, and the added knowledge that all of this can be accomplished on even a basic laptop or mobile device.

“Twenty to twenty-five years ago,” Suberu explains, “people would go to class to learn how to type. Today nobody does that. People are born and they learn how to type. I think that’s the direction of filmmaking: it is becoming part of us. It’s a skill everyone needs to have. Today nobody goes to a conference and presents a forty page paper, they publish five minutes of a clip.”

Seen through this lens, Documenting the African City isn’t only about trying to encounter a culture through the visual medium, it’s about enriching students’ storytelling toolkits and giving them skills that will be valuable across their lifetimes, regardless of where they end up in life. In this spirit, Suberu is looking towards a bright future.