Working with Relief International on their Sundarbans Mangrove Ecotourism Project

November 22, 2016 Lara Damiani Blog, News, Projects

Earlier this year I was in Bangladesh working with Relief International to make a short video about their Sundarbans Mangrove Ecotourism Project.

I got to experience the incredible Sundarbans which is a massive stretch across southern Bangladesh of the largest saltwater mangrove forest in the world. It’s also home to the Bengali tiger. I also got to see first hand the incredible impact that RI’s Sundarbans Mangrove Ecotourism Project is having.

The project was designed to provide local communities with an alternative economy so that they could reduce their dependence on the natural resources of the Sundarbans. To do this, RI established pilot ecotourism sites that bring tourists to the area and provide community members with various employment roles and incomes.

It was a challenging mission. An unscripted video that involved extensive travel to remote locations over a short period of time but the aim was to show, as authentically as possible, how the project has positively impacted. It was also an opportunity, for me, to meet some of the most warm hearted and wonderful people of Bangaldesh and to work with the dedicated team of RI Bangladesh.

Congratulations Relief International Bangladesh ! It’s a brilliant project with real outcomes providing benefits on many levels.

Languages and documentaries – celebrating diversity and telling stories.

September 17, 2016 Lara Damiani Blog, News

I was raised in Australia by Italian migrants. The first language I spoke, until I went to school at the age of 5, wasn’t the native language of Australia but the native language of my parents. My parents gave me a lifelong appreciation for languages, their intricacies and nuances and a love of the sound of different languages.

A lot of the work I do in my documentary production is working with people for whom English is either a second language or who don’t speak English at all. I interview them, with a translator, in their native language and then translate and subtitle their words. Of course, it’s always a tricky process making sure that the integrity of someone’s words in their language is not lost in the translation and it’s a time consuming process to get this right but it’s also very rewarding.

I’ve worked with languages from the Pacific, Asia, China, Tibet and across Australia. In Australia, prior to colonisation, there were around 250 different languages spoken by the many Aboriginal tribes across the land. At the beginning of the 21st century, those numbers have declined to around 150 and around 13 of them are highly endangered.

An independent documentary I’ve been working on tells the story of Alyawarr elder Banjo Morton from central Australia. Banjo and a small handful of other Aboriginal stockmen who walked off from their place of employment in 1949 demanding wages instead of rations. My research uncovered it was the first time in the Northern Territory that Aboriginal stockmen did this. It’s a piece of history that few in Australia know about. As part of this project, I’ve been fortunate to spend time in Banjo’s remote community of Ampilatwatja – about 350 km North East of Alice Springs in Australia’s centre. Here, I’ve been working with Banjo’s language – Alyawarr (pronounced “alyawarra”) which is a language spoken every day by 1500 people in Central Australia. Most speakers live North East of Alice Springs, spreading over the Queensland border.

I’m lucky that I get to experience the richness of diverse languages and the people who speak them, in my work. As the world moves faster and faster and with this comes the challenges of modern life, I think languages need to be celebrated and cherished. Documentaries that incorporate languages other than English are a great way to not only tell those particular stories but also a great way to record those languages forever.

Why simple things are the best things. (Development documentaries can show the power of simplicity…and that’s why I love making them)

September 16, 2016 Lara Damiani Blog

I think simple things are the best. It’s cliche, I know but in this chaotic world of ours, it’s a thought that often gets lost.

Last year I worked with the UNDP Solomon Islands SWoCK Project team to produce a series of videos demonstrating the impact of their SWoCK Project.

In Pidgin, SWoCK stands for Strongem Waka lo Community for Kaikai which translates roughly into Developing Resilience in Agriculture and Food Security. It was a project with simple objectives – and great impact. The Solomon Islands, like many Pacific Island nations, is highly susceptible to the effects of climate change and in particular rising sea levels. It’s a serious concern for the many communities scattered along the coastlines and elsewhere.

As part of our travels, we interviewed John Thomas from the small community of Rade Aekoa. John and his family are dependent on the range of vegetables that John grows for their food. The SWoCK Project helped John expand his range of vegetables as well as provide infrastructure for his chickens whose manure fertilises his garden.

Across the Solomon Islands, the dedicated team of the SWoCK Project worked closely with a number of communities providing support (ranging from growing workshops to food banking, seed planting and more) and simple infrastructure (such as chicken coops and water tanks) to assist communities develop resilience to climate change by maintaining their own food supplies.

While the SWoCK Project had a number of simple aims, they were aims that produced great results that will have great impact. It’s projects, and people, like SWoCK and farmer John Thomas who remind us that the simple things can be the most important.

Especially as we all struggle with the demands and challenges of our daily lives in this often crazy world.

It doesn’t end with the film – how I add value to my filmmaking.

August 31, 2016 Lara Damiani Uncategorised

Ever since I started my new career as a documentary filmmaker in 2007 making my first ever film which was a feature documentary that ended up on television and in international film festivals, I’ve always had a strong sense of commitment to whatever project I work on that doesn’t end with just the film or films I produce.

I’m passionate about raising awareness and sharing my experiences that can extend beyond the films I make.

Earlier this year I was in Bangladesh working for Relief International making a short documentary about a really great project they’re running called the Sundarbans Mangrove Ecotourism Project. The project is all about creating sustainability in an area that is the largest saltwater mangrove ecosystem on earth but also about providing sustainable alternative livelihoods for local communities who have traditionally depended on the surrounding natural resources.

I was also in Vietnam working on a short documentary for the Australian based charity Sight For All who are filling a void in specialised eye health care in developing countries. For both of these projects, I posted a series of Instagram photos and stories about the projects and the making of the documentaries, a series of blog articles that spanned my website, LinkedIn, Twitter,  Facebook and other places.

Telling the stories about the organisations and projects I work for are just as important to me as making their documentaries. It means I get to share my own unique personal experiences but also help to further demonstrate the impact they’re making. That’s why, for me, it never just ends with the films I make.

A Walk Off before Wave Hill – a new documentary in the making

August 31, 2016 Lara Damiani Blog, News

In August, 1966 Aboriginal stockman Vincent Lingiari led about 200 Gurindji, Mudburra and Warlpiri workers in their strike and walk-off from remote Wave Hill cattle station. They demanded rights to their own land.

It was and remains a significant part of Australia’s history.

But few people know that 17 years before this, a small group of Aboriginal stockmen in central Australia also walked off but this time from the Lake Nash Cattle Station located on the NT/Qld border over 1000 km from Alice Springs.

The small handful of men included Alywarr elder Banjo Morton who’s now around 83 years old. The event was documented in February, 1949 by Constable Jack Mahony in the Lake Nash Police Journal.

I first met Banjo out at his home at Honeymoon Bore in remote central Australia in 2010. I was so intrigued with Banjo’s story that I decided to turn it into a documentary.

In 2011, I received some development funding from the SA Film Corporation which meant I could travel to the Archives in Darwin and Alice Springs and find the Police Journal record, and other information.

The project then stalled because well as most people know, trying to find funding for a documentary isn’t easy.

But now in 2016, my documentary project is back up and running. Banjo’s story will be told by Karen Downs – the daughter of Banjo’s nephew Richard. It’s a story not only about history but about family and connections. It’s a story about the past and the present and a story about the contribution of Banjo and the other Aboriginal stockmen so that their contribution to history won’t ever be forgotten.

The next stage of production will involve trips to Alice Springs, Ampilatwatja and Lake Nash filming Karen on her journey to uncover Banjo’s story. I’m currently on a mission to raise funds for this stage of the project.

In Australia, donations to the project are 100% tax deductible and can be made via the Documentary Australia Foundation

The Day I Made an Accountant Cry

August 16, 2016 Lara Damiani Blog, News

Last weekend, I was invited to lunch. On Saturday I sat at a table in a room of 300 people at a fundraising event. Next to me was an accountant. We’d never met before but we were connected that day by one thing – our support for the work of Sight For All, a charity founded by Adelaide Ophthalmologist Dr James Muecke.

I first read about James and his work with Sight For All a few years ago in the national Australian newspaper “The Australian”. Being inspired by what I’d read, I emailed James to offer my help should the opportunity arise, to work for Sight For All using the skills I know best – documentary filmmaking. Earlier this year, I had that opportunity and travelled to Vietnam and Bangladesh documenting James and his work with Sight For All.

During the lunch, the accountant sitting next to me was asking me questions about my work. We both laughed at how our lives and our work were at polar opposites.  He was curious to know about where I’d been and what I’d done and he asked me the question: “what’s something that has made you cry?”. I thought about it for a while and then I told him:

“When I was in Hanoi working with James and filming his work with small children in the operating theatre at the Vietnam National Institute of Ophthalmology, on my first day there I was filming parents with children who’d come in to have examinations under anaesthesia. This is a common screening process that’s undertaken. After the examinations were complete, and the children had recuperated in the small and crowded recovery room, a grandfather came in to talk with James and two other doctors there, Dr Chau and Dr Trang (who do amazing work). The grandfather was holding his small granddaughter. She was about two years old. There was an emotion so intense in that room as I stood behind the camera filming the doctors telling the grandfather that this small child would have to have her eye removed in order to survive. The grandfather looked down at the small child he was cradling in his arms and began crying. It wasn’t so much the sadness of the news he’d just learned that then made me cry, although that’s horrendous news to have to receive, but it was the immense love the grandfather had for his granddaughter which I could literally feel. That love and his reaction to the news made me turn away from my camera and cry silently.”

As I was talking I watched the tears welling in the accountants eyes.

It’s emotionally and physically draining work that the doctors of Sight For All do on a daily basis. Doctors Chau and Trang in Hanoi are two of the most compassionate and dedicated women I have ever met and Doctor Muecke continues the important work of Sight For All in a number of developing countries in his quest to ensure that all children receive the best ophthalmology services possible.

For more information on Sight For All visit www.sightforall.org

To find out more about me and my work visit www.thinkfilms.org

Photo:  a screen grab taken from some of my footage. The grandfather holds his small baby granddaughter in the waiting room pre surgery in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Keeping Migrant Workers Safe. Tearing Down the Human Trafficking Industry.

May 5, 2016 Lara Damiani Blog, News, Projects

Each year, around or more than 400,000 Bangladeshi’s migrate overseas for work. They fill employment demands in countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Lebanon, Malaysia and Liberia.

Imagine being a villager from Bangladesh, going away to a foreign country to work. It’s your first overseas trip, first time on a plane, first time in a totally foreign country, first time with a completely foreign language. If you were unfortunate to fall into the clutches of an unscrupulous migration agency or an unscrupulous employer because you were unable to distinguish between those that are safe and legal and those that aren’t, or even worse, into the clutches of the global human trafficking industry because you weren’t aware of how such a thing could be possible, where would you turn for support ? Then imagine having your passport taken from you. What could you do ?

Cases like this, I found out afterwards, are not unusual and unfortunately human trafficking (the trade of humans, most commonly for sexual exploitation or forced labour) is a concern in a country like Bangladesh where so many men and women migrate for work each year. Human trafficking is thought to be one of the fastest growing activities of trans-national criminal organisations. The UN estimates the total market value of illicit human trafficking in 2005 was around 32 billion US dollars per annum. The International Labor Organisation (ILO) estimates here are 2.4 million people globally who are lured into forced labour.

When I was in southern Bangladesh recently, on assignment for Relief International Bangladesh, I experienced first hand the story of what can happen to Bangladeshi migrant workers. A woman from a village I visited told us about her husband who had gone to work somewhere in either Liberia or Libya four years ago. She didn’t know exactly where he was, only that it had been four years since he had left and she felt she had absolutely no way of helping him to come home.

Relief International Bangladesh has implemented programs to promote safe migration – where migrant workers are educated about their rights, are assisted through the migration process, have an avenue for redress and communication, are not taken advantage of by unscrupulous migration agents and more.

Ri Bangladesh has collaborated with Bangladesh-Korea Technical Training Center  to set up a Migration Resource Centre. It’s also working with other training centres in Dhaka to educate migrant workers and promote safe migration.

Promoting safe migration, especially in a country like Bangladesh where so many men and women migrate for work each year, is critical. It’s a big task when you think about the numbers of Bangladeshi people migrating annually to work overseas but programs like those that are being implemented by Relief International certainly go a long way to making migration safer.

Photo: women at the Sheikh Fazilatunnesa Mujib Women’s Technical Training Centre in Dhaka in their daily Arabic language lesson. They are just a small group of Bangladeshi women who will work overseas.

How one NGO is shaping a new economy for local communities in Bangladesh (and creating an experience of a lifetime)

May 5, 2016 Lara Damiani Blog, News, Projects

Two weeks ago, I arrived home after an intense 24 days in Vietnam and Bangladesh shooting for 3 different projects for 2 NGO’s. One of these was Relief International Bangladesh’s Mangrove Ecotourism Project in the Sundarbans.

The Sundarbans is the larges saltwater mangrove forest on earth. It’s home to the Bengali tiger and a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s also home to many diverse local communities who have relied heavily on the natural resources of the surrounding forest and river for their livelihoods.

The Sundarban Mangrove Ecotourism Project has found a way to reduce the human impact on the forest and waterways – hence maintaining the biodiversity  of the unique Sundarbans environment- and at the same time, provide villagers and communities with a new and sustainable economy.

This new economy – ecotourism – offers visitors from Bangladesh and around the world an incredibly unique opportunity to experience the magnificence of the Sundarbans while developing real connections with local people. I sailed down the river with Paritosh, the boat man who was lucky enough to survive a tiger attack in 2010. I enjoyed the first ever Sundarbans barbecue cooked by the enigmatic eco-entrepreneur and cottage owner Shripathi at his house one night. I drank fresh honey collected from the Sundarbans by the famous honey collectors. I watched women cooking in their family homes with fresh, organic food creating smells that made my mouth water and nose tingle. I stood mesmerised one dark night as I watched trees laden with fireflies twinkling like christmas decorations. And this is only just a small taste of what I experienced.

I developed friendships that were authentic and wholehearted. I saw a part of the world that is magnificent. I met people who opened up their homes and their hearts to me and I walked away with an experience that I’ll never forget.

This was one of the most memorable assignments I’ve had. Thank you Relief International Bangladesh. If you’re in Bangladesh, and you’re into unique lifetime experiences, do yourself a favour and spend some time at one, or more, of the ecotourism sites. You’ll not regret it !

You can find out more about the Sundarbans Mangrove Ecotourism project here: http://sundarbans-ecotourism.org

Follow my stories on instagram at: https://www.instagram.com/laradamiani/

or on facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/THINK-FILMS-295379814509/

Image:  I wanted a photo with the women and children who were around on this day  when we were filming at one of the ecotourism sites in the Sundarbans. Just after our group pic was taken, this older lady looked at me and I at her and we couldn’t resist the urge to hug each other. This is the heartfelt experience you get when you live with the locals in the ecotourism sites scattered along the amazing Sundarbans in Bangladesh. Photo by Reema Islam.

Girls Fly Drones Too

February 7, 2016 Lara Damiani Blog

There’s a bit of discussion about drone cameras. Some people love them. Some people don’t.

But like most things, the results of using a drone camera can be good or bad — depending on the intention of the operator.

I bought a DJI Phantom 3 some months ago. I’ve since used it in the Solomon Islands, Malaysia and the Philippines. Each time, it was used to capture visual evidence for a documentary story. In the Solomon Islands, for example, I was able to capture what rising sea levels look like and the immediate impact they can have on people. In Malaysia, I was able to capture what 30km of oil palm plantation looks like in 3 seconds.

I find the drone camera to be an invaluable tool in my documentary filmmaking. It can make a statement in the most impactful way in a few short seconds. A visual memory is quite often the most long lasting. I think drones are also an incredible tool that can demonstrate the impact of humanitarian, development and aid work.

Drones can also show us what’s really going on in places most of us would never get to. Footage of the extensive devastation of Homs in Syria taken from a drone camera if making it’s way around social media platforms. This footage provides an instant understanding, to the viewer on the other side of the world, of just how much destruction has been caused in that city alone.

So yes, I like drones. I like them for what they can do for my visual storytelling. I also like the fact that they are an immense point of interest and fun for the villages and communities I can use them in. Many of those villages and communities have never seen a drone before and to watch the faces of children light up as the drone takes video of where they live, is precious.

And yes. Girls fly drones too.

(Images: recording video in Malaysia with the Batek people who have been forced to live on a tiny sliver of land on the edge of the rainforest and with the Agta people in northern Philippines who have also experienced destruction of traditional lifestyle due to deforestation).

Lessons of the black t-shirt

February 6, 2016 Lara Damiani Uncategorised

It’s interesting just how much one simple, black, cotton t-shirt can teach you.

In 2008, I released my first ever feature documentary. It was a project that came with a number of challenges. The most significant challenge was that I had never made a film before. Ever. Another challenge was that I had to find the funding myself. And, as a first time filmmaker, I shot, produced, directed and distributed the film and travelled to India, China and Tibet for my footage. There were a number of other challenges too, but these sound the most exciting.

The project was a complete immersion of passion, determination and, some might say, an insane commitment. But one thing I was certain about was I wanted to make a film that could shine a spotlight on something that for me, was significant – the contemporary history of Tibet since the Chinese occupation.

The film was screened at 14 international film festivals, in organised screenings across Australia and in places like Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Finland, France, the USA, New Zealand and more. I managed to sell it to two international broadcasters and screened for 4 and 3 years consecutively. I produced and distributed my own DVDs that I tried to get into school and educational institutions as well as private homes, created an online presence (back in 2008 social media was still a relatively new phenomena and really only just beginning) and I even managed to give a final copy to the Dalai Lama (who, on one of my previous trips to India, was kind enough to spend an hour with me for an exclusive interview which somehow I managed to organise).

In short, it was a mammoth journey and the start of my new journey as a documentary filmmaker.

That mammoth journey resulted in an incredible de-cluttering in my life – of possessions like furniture, clothing, jewellery, but also of thoughts and attitude. I think a lot of that was the result of dabbling a little with the wonderful insights of buddhist philosophy. It’s true I reached a point where I had to sell furniture, clothing and jewellery to continue the project but that was also the most sensational part of that entire journey. Being made to get rid of things. And realising just how many things I had. It was around that time that I began wearing jeans and black t-shirts – something simple and easy. The black t-shirt became my symbol of simplicity. And that simplicity became the fundamental underlying principle of my life.

It’s amazing what a black t-shirt can teach you.