Meet the team at What Took You So Long, the nomadic NGO whose guerrilla filmmaking is transforming the way we look at developing countries.
Think about how third world aid is packaged to westerners, and your imagination is likely to conjure up images of misery. The established model for securing funding for development projects has, for a long time, relied on an element of guilt. The What Took You So Long? Foundation, a collective of on-the-ground documentary filmmakers, is overturning this exploitative approach by seeking out exciting, ground-breaking NGOs and telling their stories instead.
What Took You So Long comprises co-founders Alicia Sully and Sebastian Lindstrom, along with Philippa Young, Pedro Ramirez and Nate Mook. Alicia is the only one who went to film school, but every aspect of the shooting and editing process is owned jointly by the entire team. “We found early on,” says Alicia, “that everyone needed to be able to do everything, out of sheer necessity.” And while they’ve certainly come a long way in recent years, Alicia believes that the foundation’s origins as a “rag tag” band of filmmakers with wildly varying expertise actually fostered a degree of innovation which might not be found in more structured environments.
A long-term passion project and turning point for the crew was a documentary they made on the nutritional and social benefits of camel milk, filmed over one year and funded by Kickstarter (camel milk has since experienced a surge in popularity as “the next superfood”). Alicia recalls showing an unfinished version of the film at a camel conference in Ethiopia; “it was our ideal audience, full of camel lovers. They were so excited to see it, and it inspired us to do even better.” Since then, a thriving camel dairy has opened in the Jijiga region.
Although there is no such thing as a “standard” What Took You So Long project, their content has a consistently positive, proactive message. When I speak to Philippa Young, writer/producer and self-proclaimed advocate of “guerrilla education”, she is filming in Nairobi with Wash United, a non-profit specialising in after school health and sanitation workshops. “This is fairly typical of previous projects”, she says, referring to the experiential angle of the sessions; children learn how germs are spread through games and fun presentations, and this is what she is there to capture.
It is clear straight away that What Took You So Long is not interested in the usual practice of peddling poverty. One of their more recent ventures is ‘HaEATi’, a series of cooking features in association with non-profit World Central Kitchen, and it perfectly encapsulates the What Took You So Long approach; rather than portraying the difficulties of post-earthquake life in Haiti, the content is colourful, vibrant and engaging as it follows renowned chef Jose Andres’s exploration of the island’s cuisine.
This focus on highlighting the positive (while taking care to not whitewash reality) is detailed in aninstructional video created by the group for GlobalGiving. The video emphasises that it is possible to tell inspirational stories in a development context without falling back on clichéd and outdated tropes, and includes tips on how to produce engaging content through judicious editing, use of music, and even humour.
As an organisation, What Took You So Long is entirely nomadic. The team travels the globe from project to project, seeking “not to impose, but to listen, to work with the grassroots, and help what is already going on.” Their status as an undefined filmmaking operation has led to some interesting border-crossing experiences, but their unrestricted remit has also yielded unprecedented collaborations and opportunities. They have recently attained classification as a “benefit corporation”, which allows them to do social good without having to comply with the regulations of a typical NGO.
So, could this be a viable new direction for international aid? “The media industry is in crisis,” says Philippa. “As we watch journalists and filmmakers lose jobs, we’ve gone out and made our own jobs… The standard way of doing things in the media isn’t easy; you have to pitch and constantly reshape your product, especially for the BBC and Al Jazeera. We’re trying to diversify our reach and market by just putting videos out there, and telling stories in as many different ways as possible.”
One thing is for certain; whether they are giving TEDx talks or attending camel beauty pageants, the What Took You So Long gang will always have an interesting story to tell.