International internet research spawns film about conflict, peace

Back in 2000, academics from universities in Ghana, India, Kenya and the United States came together and embarked on research under the auspices of the World Science Project, seeking to establish how the internet was impacting on the productivity of researchers in different parts of the world.

In Kenya, one of the countries targeted by the research, the internet was still fairly new but researchers at universities and agricultural institutions were finding it a useful work tool.

Professor Paul Mbatia, of the University of Nairobi’s sociology department, was coordinating the research project in Kenya. It involved collecting data from some 400 respondents at universities and the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute, which has centres across the country.

Professor Wesley Shrum, from the department of sociology at Louisiana State University, was the overall project coordinator.

The research was proceeding according to plan when violence rocked Kenya in the aftermath of a disputed presidential poll held on 27 December 2007. The election was hotly contested by the country’s two main political parties, pulling in the ethnic communities from which they drew support.

Hundreds of people were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced in the turmoil, as neighbours turned against one another during two months of madness, the likes of which had not been experienced in the country before.

Needless to say, all aspects of life were disrupted, including for the 400 respondents, before calm and normality was restored .

When Mbatia and his colleagues resumed their work in the field, interviewing the scientists, they found the respondents keener to talk about their experiences during the post-election violence, than about their scientific endeavours.

“We decided not to ignore this disruption to their normal work by the violence and thus changed the methodology to video ethnography, and we recorded the interviews,” he said.

“At this point the long journey towards making the now famous film, Brother Time, started. We decided to harness the experiences and visualise them in the form of a movie.”

Research crews traversed violence hotspots across Kenya, documenting the experiences of the research respondents, before it was decided that the material gathered could be turned into a film aimed at promoting peace and co-existence in Kenya.

Making the film

Luckily for the academics, the National Science Foundation in the United States – financer of the original internet and science project – agreed to provide a further US$95,000 for the film. Everything began falling into place.

Professional video editors were recruited and other aspects of the science project took a temporary backseat. Shrum travelled to Kenya, as did the project’s national coordinators in Ghana and India, to help gather material for the documentary. Shrum directed the film.

“We recorded interviews from a cross-section of Kenyans including ordinary citizens, besides our respondents, capturing views on why, how and the effects and causes of the violence,” recalled Mbatia.

Some 200 hours of interviews were recorded, reflecting the realities of and differences between Kenya’s ethnic groups and the dynamics of the 2007 election, as well as views on issues such as land ownership, the effects of violence and – mostly importantly – the need for reconciliation, co-existence and peace.

The film focuses on the real-life experiences of two neighbours, Wainaina and Mutai, who lived side by side until all hell broke loose in late December 2007.

One evening soon after the presidential election results were announced, Wainaina (a Kikuyu) was called by Muitai to enquire why there were screams from his house. The answer was that Wainaina’s daughters were celebrating the victory of Mwai Kibaki, also a Kikuyu, whom Mutai’s community did not support.

On hearing the cause of the jubilation, Muitai promptly disconnected the phone and what followed was an ugly outbreak of violence that forced Wainaina and his family to flee their home in fear for their lives.

The film shows both men as having suffered greatly. Wainaina’s home was torched while Mutai lost a market for his milk, which Wainaina used to buy from him.

The 54-minute Brother Time: A Kenyan tale of violence and humanity was launched at a function in the Kenyan capital Nairobi on 27 June, and attended by guests from government agencies, academia and civil society.

The key message, Mbatia told University World News, “is that reconciliation is most important and we have captured that in the film, which we hope will be used by civil society groups and others to help promote peace in upcoming polls in 2013.

“We, being non-professional filmmakers, invited different people to help us review the film before we released it, to ensure that it serves the cause of peace and reconciliation and does not in any way inflame tribal passions,” he added.

With the documentary freely available on the internet, said Mbatia, “anyone can access it and use it to promote ethnic harmony not only in Kenya but all over Africa”.

In producing the film, the academics communicated with wider society as opposed to the usual practice of scholars “merely talking among themselves” after publishing materials gathered from the public in academic journals.

“We feel we have met the three goals critical to knowledge. We have harnessed knowledge, stored it and also disseminated it to the public for the good of all,” Mbatia said.

Important lesson were learned in the course of making the documentary, including that when violence subsides and the target of the initial mayhem is no more, perpetrators may turn their attention to the more privileged in society, turning it into a class conflict.

Another lesson, said Mbatai, was that information and communication technologies have made it possible for academics to communicate with the public through a language that the ordinary person understands – something that does not often happen.

The film has been named as a finalist in this year’s Africa World Documentary film festival, and has been entered into the official selection for the prestigious MACON film festival 2012 and the Winnipeg Real to Reel film festival.