Creating Mamie's Dream: our virtual reality film
In the eight years I was a producer/director of Plan International’s global video unit, I’ve done some strange things. But this one is up there as one of the most weird, yet wonderful moments. I am recording a voice over in a makeshift sound-booth in a sweltering bedroom in Sierra Leone. In order to absorb all the sound, we have put blankets over the windows, no fans, no air-conditioning. So here I stand in what feels like a sauna, with Mamie, a 22-year-old teaching assistant, part of a local training programme funded by Plan International.
Beads of sweat drip from our foreheads but I don’t care. I am totally gripped as Mamie is reading her script, looking directly into my eyes. “I refused!” she says with such determination, I feel I’m listening to something truly special. Recording the script, we are nearing the end of our week here in Sierra Leone where we are making Plan International’s first virtual reality (VR) film.
VR is a revolutionary new medium that creates a unique empathy between the viewer and the characters in a film – for just a few minutes we can step into Mamie’s world and walk in her shoes. It’s my first time directing a VR film, so we have an amazing team of producers from VR specialists Surround Vision to help make the shoot successful. It’s still quite unusual to have a female director of VR – the rest of the crew are men. It feels strange to be breaking the mould, as it just feels like my job. But I guess it’s also apt that I’m filming among a group of women who are doing the same thing in Sierra Leone.
There is a shortage of female teachers in Sierra Leone, so Plan International is funding a teachers training programme for young women like Mamie. When we first meet Mamie, I am sitting in a room with seven other girls listening to their struggles to stay in education. Mamie and her story stood out to us: an extraordinary story of someone who refused FGM, which led to a life of rejection and isolation.
Mamie was absolutely clear that education was the only path that would lead to a better life. Both her sisters were cut at 8 and 10, during exam time, as is often traditional in Sierra Leone. Mamie knew that if she was to progress in school, she had to sit her exams and therefore refused to be cut.
Rejected by her family and ostracised by the wider community, Mamie continued her struggle to be a teacher, a childhood dream. Watching her teach is an extraordinary sight. She is full of energy and a kindness that is infectious. One moment captured by the VR film is of Mamie with a young girl whose family took her out of school to be married. Mamie visited the family and managed to persuade them to delay her marriage and allow the girl to stay in school. We asked Mamie to sit and talk to the girl as if she was counselling her. Ever the teacher, Mamie took the opportunity to actually reassure the girl, “You will be something in your life, I know it,” she says (you can hear this in the film).
A combination of Mamie’s personality and the fact that VR is like the ultimate fly-on-the-wall film meant that this moment demonstrated a fundamental goal of the programme here in Sierra Leone – that these young women act as role models for young girls.
Throughout our week with her, it became obvious that making the film also gave Mamie a huge boost. You can hear her growing confidence as she tells us her story, and this is the unique gift that VR gives us. For a few minutes, we can see and feel what it is like to be Mamie and the power of Plan International’s programming to transform a girl’s life. I’m a firm believer that if we just remove the obstacles, girls will take control of their lives and make the most of any opportunity they are given.
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