A friend introduced me to the Fulbright-National Geographic Fellowship a month before the submission deadline. I was visiting him and a couple other friends, and they all agreed: “This sounds tailor-made for you.” They were right. I was itching to start another project and loved the idea of partnering with National Geographic, my childhood dream job. The entire trip home, I brainstormed ideas and started writing the proposal as soon as I walked through the door.
Fast forward nine months later, and I’m two weeks out from boarding a Botswana-bound plane to begin my fellowship. In addition to keeping a blog, I’ll be making a documentary film about the San people living near the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. I’m a bit nervous and stressed as I cobble together the logistics, but, most of all, I’m excited to embark on a new journey, meet new people, discover fascinating stories and craft a compelling film.
The San are among the original inhabitants of southern Africa. Historically members of a hunter-gatherer society, the San lived off the land in what is now the Central Kalahari Game Reserve for several thousand years. In a series of controversial clearances starting in 1997, the Botswana government moved the San in the reserve to designated settlements, called New Xade, Kaudwane and Xere. My film will examine the impact of resettlement and sedentism on the San, with particular emphasis on how it affects their cultural identity.
But why focus my fellowship on the San? Why Botswana? In fact, why Africa at all?
I spent the first ten years of my life in Uganda, East Africa, and developed a genuine love for the country and its people. Part of that love stemmed from having led an ideal childhood there, but eventually my appreciation matured into an academic interest in sub-Saharan Africa. At Elon University, I coupled this interest with documentary filmmaking in order to explore stories of social significance on the continent.
This pairing led to my thesis film, The Tobacco King, which follows white Zimbabwean farmer George Botha’s efforts to cultivate a new life in Zambia after losing his home in Zimbabwe. The purpose of the film is to present and unravel multiple perspectives of a complex, racially-charged situation. Praised for its unflinching and nuanced portrait,” the film embraces shades of grey, acknowledging that there is almost never truth in oversimplification.
Oversimplification abounds in current media coverage of the San, especially in film (check out this scene from The Gods Must be Crazy or this commercial series called the Lost Bushmen). The San are often painted in romantic language as helpless victims, and the government is blasted for its policies. Such portrayals deny the San their agency and overlook the government’s desire for policies that support the overall economy for future generations. They lack the depth and intimacy that nine months of fieldwork and documentary filmmaking have to offer.
In focusing on San identity and membership in a modern state, my film will ask many important questions. What aspects of traditional life are readily adaptable to a more settled lifestyle? What are the main areas of intergenerational agreement in regard to who the San are and who they would like to become, and how do these issues play out in everyday life? How is San identity tied up in political mobilization, and how can government policy support that identity in an increasingly globalized world?
Questions like these will form the thematic core of the film, but I plan to rely on a character-driven approach to explore them.
Character study films examine the lives of specific individuals using interview and observational material, often to illuminate universal themes. They put human faces to challenges, hopes and fears in such a way that an audience becomes invested in personal stakes.
My film will humanize the struggles and successes of a few members of the San community as they work to preserve their cultural identity while securing a positive future for themselves as empowered citizens of Botswana. By personalizing abstract themes such as education, health, livelihoods and political engagement, I hope to facilitate questions about policy and encourage a healthy dialogue about threatened cultures around the world.
Join the Journey
The San are at an exciting crossroads in their personal history, and my film will capture this moment, with particular emphasis on cultural identity and membership in a modern state. I invite you to join me through this blog on my journey, and I welcome your feedback along the way. I’ll have a website up and running soon, along with a Facebook page for the film. Be sure to check back for those links in order to stay posted as the journey continues. I leave for Botswana at the end of October.
Daniel Koehler, of New York City, is one of five grantees selected from among 864 applicants for a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, which is the first of its kind. He will film a documentary on the San living near the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana, focusing on the loss and change of their culture.