None of the roles in a powerful recent film about South Pacific islanders reacting to a cyclone is played by a professional actor, says Oxfam’s Ernest Ta’asi. Instead, the actors and script writers all came from the island community – in what could be a game-changer for NGO storytelling
Who is telling whose story remains a rightly contested question in the aid sector – one that Oxfam actively engages with – including in our Ethical Content Guidelines, which spell out our commitment to uphold communities’ rights to participate, to be heard, and to be protected from risk and harm in our communications.
A recent film, released by Oxfam Australia, is we believe a step forward in community leadership of NGO storytelling about natural disasters, which has in the past too often neglected the voices and participation of communities. In this blog, I set out how it came about.
A story of disaster – and preparedness
The film, Cyclone Season, tells the story of the Oibola community in the Solomon Islands grappling with an incoming cyclone. Word spreads quickly over the radio to the community, who respond with their well-rehearsed disaster plan. But, as in most rapid onset emergencies, not everything goes to plan.
What sets Cyclone Season apart from traditional NGO comms is who tells this story of a natural disaster and disaster preparedness: every member of the cast is drawn from the local community that would be affected by a real cyclone. Indeed, Solomon Islanders led on most key aspects of the film — from the script, to the cast, to the final edit. They were supported on the technical and production side by Oxfam and our partner Solomon Islands film maker Mannar Levo, who embodies the new wave of local artists using film and photography for positive social change. The film also highlights the role of other local partners in such emergencies, from weather experts to the local media.
‘The actors improvised in their own language and the production team just had to roll with it. Translations later revealed their words were spot on!’
How the idea was inspired by a community play
In 2019, I was in Malaita Province to cover a disaster simulation exercise by the Analolo Community, one of our Australian Humanitarian Partnership (AHP) communities in the Central Kwara’ae region. The community put on an incredible dramatisation of their evacuation drill with mass community participation. This was clearly a community grasping the preparedness message, and drawing on their own lived experiences to ensure that, should a disaster strike again, they would be as prepared as possible – ensuring no one was left behind. That dramatisation focused on a little boy’s perspective of a cyclone hitting his village and his role in the community’s evacuation. You can read the original article here.
The article, published widely in Solomon Islands, sparked the idea of a film. An opportunity came two years later with support from Oxfam Australia and the AHP to produce a film that could spread the preparedness messages.
Shooting the film – in just two days
Our team identified the Oibola Community, in the Langa Langa region of Malaita Province. This is one of 15 communities across three provinces in the Solomon Islands engaged in the AHP’s Disaster READY programme in partnership with the National Disaster Management Office (NDMO).
With only two days to do the entire shoot, time was tight. The disaster drill would take place on the second day of our stay, so we had the first day to prepare with the community. The community were just as excited as we were.
Our initial challenge was that we couldn’t make detailed storyboards until we arrived and consulted with the community on our initial story suggestions. The Oibola community was responsible for developing the drill exercise and we spent our first morning going through our suggested storylines, what the community had planned, and finalising the story with them. Casting was done by the community from these story notes. Fortunately for us, the community was not new to dramatised skits and already had their own drama group that performed at church events and local festivals. Two boys were identified to lead the cast while their community-based disaster village committee would take the supporting roles. By mid-afternoon on our first day, we and the community had come up with a solid story to work with and later that day we began filming.
A big last-minute change…
Early in the production stage, scripts were in pidgin – the country’s common language. However we decided to change this as many of the actors were not fluent in pidgin. We switched to their native language, Langa Langa, for more authenticity in the acting, but this also presented another challenge for the production team as we could not understand their language. The actors themselves improvised with the scripts and we just had to roll with it. Translations later revealed their words were spot on!
Partners in disaster preparedness
Oxfam’s partnership model is key to both our disaster preparedness work and the film, so it was only right to give partners their place in this simulation.
The Malaita Provincial Disaster Office attended the drill and consulted on the story. The Solomon Islands Meteorological Services (SIMS) played a crucial contribution in the making of the film. SIMS executives were supportive of the film and made their Honiara forecast centre available to complete the filming a week after the Oibola shoot. Two SIMS staff from the forecast office were used in the cast (see still, above), including the chief officer of the forecast department. While the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation (SIBC) – the national broadcaster – was also keen to take part in the film to demonstrate their role in distributing SIMS messages via radio. SIBC radio journalists are well known around the country, including Grace Palapu, who is featured in the film’s radio broadcast segment.
Spreading the message of how to prepare
The film also highlights a new Cyclone Tracking Map developed by SIMS that is designed to be easier for communities to understand, with colour-coded weather warnings. SIMS staff refer to colour-coded weather warnings in the film – with the aim that this will help all communities watching it to understand how these tools would operate in an emergency.
We think all of these small, local touches boost the accuracy of the story and its credibility with anyone who lives at risk from cyclones in this region. We hope the final result plays its part in preparing communities for future disasters – with its message made all the more powerful by the fact that every word is written and spoken by the communities themselves.
The film was supported by Oxfam Australia and the Australian Humanitarian Partnership, a five-year (2017-2022) partnership between the Australian government and NGOs, focusing on disaster response and preparedness.