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

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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)

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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 !

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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

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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).

UNDP, Women and Climate Change Adaptation in the Solomon Islands

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Towards the end of last year, I was fortunate to be able to produce a series of documentary films demonstrating the impact of the UNDP’s SWoCK Project in the Solomon Islands.  Climate change and rising sea levels are having visible effects on the low lying Solomon Islands which spans a large number of islands in Oceania lying to the east of Papua New Guine and northwest of Vanuatu and covers a land area of 28,400 square kilometres.

The UNDP’s SWoCK Project, SWoCK stands for Strongem Waka lo Community of Kaikai – or Developing Resilience in Agriculture and Food Security, aims to support communities to better manage and adapt to climate change pressures and increase food security through community based adaptation.

One of the areas of the project’s focus was on Women and Climate Change Adaptation. On our visit to Tirotonna village (best known around the world by international bird watchers who come here) which was a 2 hour uphill hike but totally worth it once we reached the top, we spoke to some women who have been involved in this project and who shared their stories on camera.

By involving women, and giving them an important and clear role in the project, SWoCK will be able to strengthen ability of communities in Solomon Islands to make informed decisions and manage likely climate change driven pressures on food production and management systems, particularly as women play such a major role in food production, preparation and resourcing for families.

The SWoCK Project team were an absolute pleasure to work with and I was impressed to see their dedication to the project, as they would often work (including extensive travel across various provinces of the Solomon Islands) far in excess of ordinary working hours.

It was great to be a part of, and see, the impact that a community based project like SWoCK has had. Photo: Freda Po’oti from Tirotonna Village and women’s advocate from Tirotonna Community.

How Drones can Help NGOs and Development Organisations

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In the middle of last year, I bought a drone – an incredible flying, manoeuvrable camera that can record exciting visual footage as well as provide historical records and visual data.  I used it in the Solomon Islands for an assignment I was working on for UNDP as well as in Malaysia and the Philippines for an independent documentary I’m currently developing with US photojournalist James Whitlow-Delano.

Aerial footage can not only provide exciting visual opportunities in documentary film-making but also a before and after record of the impacts of climate change, environment and location changes and much more.

The drone has become a must in all of my work for NGOs and Development/Humanitarian and Aid Organisations around the world and offers a very cost effective and lightweight option to record aerial footage that not only adds an exciting dimension to my filmmaking but also an essential visual record for organisations who measure their impact.

The drone I’ve flown and used to film with most recently has also provided a great point of connection with the local people, an exciting opportunity for people to see something new and unusual and I love showing the results of the footage as children and adults scramble around to catch a view on the monitor. It also provides them with a unique chance to see their homes and surrounds from a perspective they’ve not yet seen before.

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The above image was taken in Malaysia where James Whitlow-Delano and myself spent some time with the Indigenous Batek people who are now living on the fringes of the rainforest.

Film, MDGs and SDGs go hand in hand but it’s time to plan.

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With the UN member states pondering on the set of proposed 17 Sustainable Development Goals at the UN Summit in September, there’s never been a better time for organisations to consider the importance of using film to demonstrate the impact they plan to and will make in the future in reaching these goals. It’s even more important for organisations to begin planning how it can best be done.

Of course, film can also be used to effectively demonstrate the achievements of the Millenium Development Goals and can provide a lasting legacy to an organisations successes and impacts.

In the Rio+20 outcome document, member States agreed that sustainable development goals (SDGs) must be (amongst other goals) easy to communicate.

Using film to communicate how your organization has achieved MDGs or how it plans to achieve the new SDGs can be an incredibly powerful medium that allows you to reach wide audiences. There are many ways this can be done via social media, Video On Demand, film festivals, broadcast, community screenings and more.

With September fast approaching, it’s the perfect time now for organisations to start thinking about how they can best demonstrate their past achievement of MDG’s and how they can demonstrate the new SDGs incorporating documentary film production in this process. It’s also important to think about how to make this cost effective.

One of the most important components in filmmaking is the pre-production process. For organisations considering demonstrating their impact through film, early planning and development, particularly now as we end the MDG phase and begin a new phase with the proposed SDGs, is important both in the overall communications planning process and in the more micro-level filmmaking process.

Films (and other visual media such as photography) can work as stand alone components or as part of a larger platform (such as an interactive documentary) that builds upon demonstrating impacts and successes in a chronological (or other) format. So planning how this should look, where it can be seen and how it can best achieve your needs, is critical.

At Think Films, we’re committed to working with NGOs, Aid and Development Organisations helping them to demonstrate their impact through quality and cost effective film and photography and in exploring ways in which audiences can be reached.

I’ve learnt the most from those with the least

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In February 2007, I made my first trip to the Tibetan Refugee Centre in Dharamshala, Northern India. It was the first trip of four trips into India and Tibet  gathering footage for my documentary “Tibet’s Cry for Freedom” – which explories the contemporary history of Tibet and the internal political struggle for Independence versus Autonomy.

It was that trip where I met my first Tibetan refugees – a group of children, as young as two, who had only a few days earlier made the difficult and long journey, by foot, across the Himalayas from their home country seeking refuge in India.

I was struck by the incredible spirit and resilience of these red-cheeked children who were playing in front of the camera and teaching me some words in Tibetan. I discovered they’d made the journey with other family members and it had taken them 21 days. To walk for 21 days on foot to reach a destination is an incredulous imagining these days where we jump into our cars or catch a train or plane to easily and conveniently get to where we need to go.

These children, and their families, arrived with very little – in fact pretty much only the clothes on their backs. Yet they were full of energy and spirit. I spent hours that night quietly contemplating what these little lives had just been through. I thought about how incredibly resilient and happy they were, despite the little they have.

Since 1959 when he escaped the then 10 year Chinese occupation and rule of Tibet, the Dalai Lama has established a string of Tibetan schools across India. These schools are designed to teach Tibetan language and culture in an attempt to maintain Tibetan identity.

Today, those refugee children I met in 2007 would have finished their schooling and may even have continued on to TIPA – the Tibetan Institute for Performing Arts, where students master Tibetan singing, dance and/or instruments.

They have left an indelible imprint in my mind always reminding me that I can learn so much from those that have so little.

Photo:  Screen grab from footage taken on the rooftop of the Tibetan Refugee Centre in Dharamshala, India. 2007.

Who Will We Blame When All The “Endangered Peoples” Disappear ?

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I used to wear designer suits and gold jewellery almost on a daily basis. I’ve been in boardroom meetings and dinners where government Ministers and industry leaders were dancing on the table, obviously after a few too many drinks. It was a world a million miles away from what I do today.

Today, I choose a completely different and much sparser lifestyle and prefer to traverse expansive terrain to reach “endangered” communities to do the one thing I can – to help tell their stories with my camera.

In this world, the ‘doyens of industry’ and the ‘political leaders’ are not quite the same as we know them in our skewed western world views but rather often softly spoken wise elders with much to share and teach.

I’m fortunate to be able soon to work with acclaimed US photojournalist James Whitlow-Delano in Malaysia and the Philippines as we begin documenting two endangered groups of people – indigenous communities that are often overlooked by mainstream media but who are facing some of their greatest challenges. These are the challenges of how to maintain traditional systems as much as possible while maintaining a place in our fast moving modern world where climate change and other factors are creating havoc with systems of the past.

I think I’m extremely fortunate that I’m able to spend time with people whose lives can be lived at a much slower pace, where stories and people and families and community are the central point of daily life. I find it profoundly sad to think that there are “endangered” people all around us. People who ultimately don’t have the resources, the knowledge or the wider support to not be “endangered”.  I find it even more profoundly sad that as each day goes by, we, as a global community, might be slowly forgetting their importance.

We can learn a lot from indigenous communities that are now becoming or are currently endangered. In our desperate situation to curb the environmental degradation that is being inflicted on our planet, perhaps this, at least, can be one one thing they can help us with. If only we would let them. In the meantime, as “endangered” moves closer to “extinct” who will we blame when this happens ? Our industry leaders and politicians for not taking a stand, or ourselves, for sitting back and letting it happen.

Photo:  Angelina Luck from Ampilatwatja in central Australia, Alyawarr Country. I had the great pleasure of getting to know Angelina over 5 years. She showed me how to find water in the dessert and how to hunt goanna. Sadly, Angelina passed away last year but I will always remember her and am privileged to have known her.

Although worlds apart, film reminds us of our human connection

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Last night I was second photographer at a black tie gala opening night. This is not the kind of thing I normally do but I’m a big believer in doing things outside of my comfort zone. As I clicked away at guests which included the Premier of South Australia, the opposition leader, and numerous high profile media, fashion and entertainment celebrities, I couldn’t help but thinking how far away this world is from the world I normally work in.

My passion is using film (and photography) to assist organisations who work with the marginalised in our societies, as I believe media is a powerful tool to help influence perceptions and create social change.

I feel much more comfortable out in a remote tract of land somewhere around the world, where people live in huts on dirt floors than I do under the bright lights of a black tie gala event that some of us are lucky enough to experience.

I’m not taking anything away from photographers and filmmakers whose job it is to record glittery gala events, I just know that the people whose lives and stories I prefer to record live in a world so very, very far removed from this.

While some find bright lights, red carpets and entertainment gala events exciting and challenging, I find my excitement and challenge from working with those that are marginalised, the people that the “rest” of the world don’t really ever get to see or know. I find these stories powerful, full of hope, sometimes full of sadness, but always full of meaning. Often they are stories that provide incredible inspiration and reflection.

I’m always challenged by taking these stories of inspiration and turning them into film. I’m even more challenged by thinking up ways to make those of us whose lives are more consumed by red carpets and gala dinners take a moment to watch and really absorb those films and to stop and reflect on the messages they contain. If there is something most powerful about film, it’s about reminding us of our human connection – regardless of who we are or where we are.

Picture L to R: Banjo Morton (Banjo was involved in the first walk-off by Aboriginal stockmen in the Northern Territory in 1949; Lily Morton; me and Angelina Luck (dec.) out on Alyawarr country in remote central Australia.

A Filmmakers Take on The World of Impact Measurement

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About 14 months ago, I met my very first ‘social impact practitioner’. That person opened up a whole new world to me – a world that took me some time to get my head around, once I got past all the multi-syllabic words, keywords, concepts and phrases.

I soon came to learn, to my great amazement, that there is a myriad of organisations and individuals all working within the sphere of social impact and impact measurement. Organisations and people measuring outcomes for other organisations and people. I came to realise that in many cases, lots of trees are used in the production of heavy manuscript-like reports full of text, graphs, info graphics, images and information regarding impact measurement. Exactly how impact is measured, is still beyond me, for I’m just a humble documentary filmmaker.

It did however, captivate me, to think of this sphere of production where outcomes are made tangible or legible or easily understandable.

I like making outcomes understandable. I like giving outcomes a platform for being measured and I think film is a great way to do this.

I also particularly like the fact that documentary filmmaking is the platform that can capture the human side of impact measurement, through the personal stories of people whose lives are or have been affected by what it is being measured.

I’m not taking anything away from the great work of social impact practitioners around the world. I’ve been fortunate to witness some of what you do and it fascinates me.

But as a documentary filmmaker, it’s always these personal stories that demonstrate the greatest impact. Impact from the heart.

Documentary filmmaking is the ability to capture moments of truth and moments of sharing, the ability to allow us to connect on an intimate level regardless of who we are or where we live. I think this is how the greatest impact is often best understood.

Photo: Alice from Port Vila in Vanuatu. Alice is an amazing woman who lives in a small house with a dirt floor in Port Vila, works part time in the abattoir and part time as a dress-maker and is helping to bring up her grandchildren. Despite her difficult life, Alice is never without a smile.