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Sauti Gives Voice and Handycams to Refugee Women in Uganda

Friends in the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement: Julian and Sauti subject Napona.
Friends in the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement: Julian and Sauti subject Napona.
Courtesy of NeeNee Productions

When humanitarian, teacher and filmmaker Gayle Nosal first ventured into the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement in Uganda, she found herself drawn to the stories of young women in transition who had arrived there as children, looking for safety from conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and South Sudan. There they came of age in a shared community in stasis, in an impermanent in-between place that was anything but home. Nosal wanted not only to share their nascent stories with the world, without the interjection of her onlooker’s point of view, but she also strove to help them see beyond the barbed-wire fences keeping them inside the settlement.

That’s how Nosal became a filmmaker and producer in 2012, after long careers in advertising and with nonprofit organizations.

But rather than taking complete creative control of her first project, Nosal was sometimes a bystander when it came to the actual storytelling. The resulting film, Sauti, focuses on five remarkable young refugee women —Beatrice, Betty, Favourite, Napona and Peninah — who took charge of their own stories, both as filmmakers and as human beings. Their vérité film diaries are interspersed with drawings, animations and traditional interview sections. Sauti will screen this Friday, October 19, at Edge Gallery in Lakewood, where a concurrent exhibit of artworks by refugees is hanging.

Sauti subjects Beatrice and Betty.
Sauti subjects Beatrice and Betty.
Courtesy of NeeNee Productions

“The girls were given Handycams to do their own work for the film; their lives are seen through their eyes,” explains Emma Whitehead, a spokeswoman for Nosal’s NeeNee Productions. “The word 'sauti' means ‘voice’ in Swahili.”

After its extended production time, women of Sauti did eventually gather in Kampala for a screening of the finished film. “Being with them in Kampala and having them see the film was really powerful for them,” Whitehead says. “It’s powerful to be a young woman anywhere, but for them to see how, even in a community of maybe one hundred people, that their stories are valued was transformational for them.”

Sauti subject Favourite Regina with her likeness by artist Karen Fisher.
Sauti subject Favourite Regina with her likeness by artist Karen Fisher.
Courtesy of NeeNee Productions

The stories in Sauti do not end with the film, notes Whitehead: “One woman decided to become a journalist. She pursued training within the settlement, and just completed a thirty-minute documentary about her own life. Another one, Favourite Regina, finished her university degree at the U.S. International University in Nairobi, and then she traveled around the world speaking about the film.” 

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Refugees in Uganda learn to use a Handycam.
Refugees in Uganda learn to use a Handycam.
Courtesy of NeeNee Productions

Regina will join Nosal and three more panelists at Edge for a screening of Sauti and a discussion of the plight of refugees here and abroad, a shared experience for all forced nomads that she hopes will also ring true with refugees now making new lives for themselves in the metro area.

Sauti screens on Friday, October 19, at 7 p.m. at Edge Gallery, 7001 West Colfax Avenue in Lakewood, in conjunction with Voice: A Celebration of Refugee Stories, an art exhibition of experiential artworks by a wide spread of refugee and professional artists. The show includes the artwork of Coloradan Karen Fisher, whose images of the women of Sauti are used for the film’s promotional poster. The exhibition runs through October 28; 20 percent of all art sales will benefit programs for refugees. Learn more at the Sauti Facebook page and website.

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