On Thursday, Feb. 17 the African Film Festival will host Portland-based director Cambria Matlow for a screening and Q &A of her documentary "Burning in the Sun" at 7:30 p.m. at the Moriarty Arts and Humanities Building at PCC Cascade. Like all films for PCC's African Film Festival, the screening is free.
"Burning in the Sun" is a documentary that tells the story of 26-year-old Daniel Dembele (pictured at left), who decides to return to his homeland of Mali in order to start a business building and selling solar panels. In a country where 99 percent of rural communities live without electricity, Daniel's idea could revolutionize the impoverished, sun-drenched country. With the help of Dr. Richard Komp, he struggles to get his ideas off the ground in order to provide affordable electricity to people who still rely on wood-burning stoves to survive.
Matlow spoke with The Skanner News about her film, the struggles of filmmaker and businessman and the perils of filming in Mali.
The Skanner News: What motivated you to pursue this story? If you really step back and look at this story, it looks like any story that happens all the time – someone creates a small business, innovates something, it happens all the time. Why this?
Cambria Matlow: I sort of got lucky, in that I was invited to Mali to be the filmmaker and film the events that were to transpire. I was in my first semester of film school when it happens. A friend of mine knew two of the main characters. She was a friend of Daniel Dembele who is the young man in the film and also knew Dr. Richard Komp who they brought to Mali and who trained Daniel in solar panel construction and all things solar. This person also knew me. She brought Daniel and Richard together. Daniel had expressed an interest in going back to Mali in doing something sort of not only business oriented, but service oriented, in the line of his mother's work. Richard Komp has traveled all over the word helping people start solar businesses. Everyone had a desire to meet. Knowing I was a filmmaker, my friend said, "Hey this guy is building solar panels in his driveway in Mali, do you want to come film?" She'd been telling me of what she thought might happen. What had happened in projects like this before that Richard had taken on. Knowing the possibilities, solar energy is pretty revolutionary in the United States, let along West Africa, where you don't hear a lot about technological innovations. I just was like, this sounds really, really fascinating and interesting and exciting, something that will never happen ever again. I should really jump on it, basically. It inspired me enough to decide to do the project.
TSN: What were some of the challenges that Daniel faced in trying to get his solar business off the ground?
CM: Definitely financial challenges, which he continues to face. At this point, there's a huge demand of panels that people build themselves. At the beginning of the project, having enough initial capital to get all the parts he needed and pay for the labor and costs. He had a lot support that was critical to (get the project going) Dr. Komp continues to travel back to Mali to check in and make sure everything is functioning properly and relaying new things to do things and seeing what new things Daniel is doing. Things can go wrong very easily and also especially in the beginning there was a lot of trial and error, getting things to work exactly as they should. It was a matter of experience and practice. Daniel would say -- we don't really talk about this a lot in the film -- Daniel was worried about people abusing the notion of something that could be really good for people, and trying to make money for themselves without doing anything for anyone else -- sort of stealing the idea of selling solar panels and taking advantage of poor people.
TSN: Has this fear come to fruition?
CM: It hasn't happened to him, but he feels it is something that happens frequently in the nonprofit world in Mali. I don't see any direct notion of it, but I was only there for so long. His mom worked in the nonprofit world for 30-some years and shared his sentiments -- that you really had to protect ideas from people abusing them.
TSN: Does the film paint a positive picture of Mali being able to build a solar infrastructure?
CM: The film itself is very inspiring and hopeful. There's not a lot of editorial on the filmmakers' part. There's no outside narrator. What you get from it, is literally the story that is told, the events that transpire and the things that they have to say. While you'll see challenges that Daniel faces, things that people generally face, you'll also see the successes and achievements and things that change in a positive direction. It's really an inspiriting, positive film.
TSN: Did the film's positive subject matter affect how you marketed the film? Many of the films coming out of Africa deal with the continent's long-running wars or other problems, so did this film have a hard time finding an audience?
CM: The responses I've gotten from African and African Americans film communities, I'll say, and generally, the communities, is really strong and very immediately and easily identifying with the characters and situations, and they enjoy the film. I think it's a really important story and very large, globally relevant subject matter, but it's a very small story, in that we focus on a very contained story and specific characters. The reason we did that is that first and foremost we wanted to tell a good story. Not something depressing, in particular because you do see so many films about Africa that are negative and depressing and we didn't want to fit into that mold. In marketing, I think sometimes people don't know how to respond to it because it doesn't fit into that mold and they don't know what to do with it.
It's also pretty nerdy. It's pretty geeky. And that's because of the subject matter and my co-director (Morgan Robinson) wanted to make sure people understand all the different steps involved to eventually produce solar energy. That's a hard world for people to step into sometimes. It's not something preachy, pro-environmental, anti-climate change, because people are used to that.
TSN: But he's not doing this to be "green" or "pro-enivornment" is he? Unlike what many people might associate with someone installing solar panels in Portland. He's doing it because it's practical?
CM: The current energy situation in Mali is not really tenable. It's very spotty in the city. It's expensive. It's completely unavailable for people living outside of major cities. I think he's just thinking, helping people who are ready to have energy to have it. What's the easiest, most financially sound and non-environmentally degrading way to provide that? And this just very simply makes sense.
TSN: Was it nice to make a film about solar energy without having to get into the political muck like you'd encounter in this country?
CM: There's not any resistance. The one thing that amazes me, in a place like Mali, you're dealing with a completely ineffectual power grid. They don't have the political resistance to something like solar.
They just get down to what makes sense and what works. People there, the main way to acquire fuel for cooking is to cut down trees. This is in a country that is covered mostly by the Sahara Desert. They realize that this is not good for the place they live. No one is telling them to cut down trees. There is no tree cutting industry.
TSN: It's just a matter of survival.
Yeah. I guess that's it, there is no tree cutting industry. Well I guess there is, people do sell blocks of wood …
TSN: What kind of challenges did you face filming?
CM: One challenge was knowing when to turn off the camera. We shot about 140 hours of film in three months. The amount is average for a documentary, but in 3 months, it's a lot. The reason is, everyone we were filming, there was a lot going on, a lot of characters, we didn't necessarily have the story in mind from the beginning. We were filming everyone and everything. That was challenging and exhausting. There were two cameras, a three person crew. We were shooting all day nonstop. Definitely language was a challenge. The film is in English, French and Bambara (Mali's native language) with Italian and Spanish going on for various reasons. … Sometimes when we were filming and not knowing what we were filming…
Frankly, it was really, really, really hot, especially in the village. We were boiling our own water and letting it cool. There were many days that were physically demanding.