Stage and television actor and writer Esther Chae is not afraid of adventure, having climbed the Indian Himalayas, Mt Kilimanjaro and Machu Picchu, among other epic journeys. Here, she shares with the Fellows blog an unusual teaching experience that took her into an altogether different context for her craft, and changed her perspective on the importance of film, acting, and art. Chae recently closed a performance of Extraordinary Chambers, in which she portrayed a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, in San Diego, and is currently developing her one-woman show, So the Arrow Flies – about an alleged North Korean spy interrogated by the FBI – as a feature film.
A few years ago, TED Fellow Kyra Gaunt asked me to write about my experience teaching in Abuja, Nigera, to include in her e-book, “The Audacity of Humanity.” I’d like to share it here on the TED Fellows Blog since it is one of the rare moments my limits both as an explorer and actor (acting teacher in this case) were tested at the same time. There is a strong correlation between the two: both require one to stay vigilantly present in the moment, to be open to unexpected challenges and to persist through that uncomfortable place of extreme vulnerability. That compound effect was intense.
How on earth did I end up here in Africa…?
That’s what I was thinking as a howling sandstorm ravaged Abuja, Nigeria. With bandanas covering our faces and sunglasses protecting our eyes, we stepped outside the classrooms. We looked like a group of bandits about to rob a bank, not fancy artists sent to teach filmmaking. As my students were rehearsing their assigned scenes, I suddenly felt like Coolio, singing in my head how kids in the hood had been spending most their lives living in the Gang-sta’s Paradise. I felt like I was in some intense music video and I needed to rap my way through it.
In the spring of 2010, I was part of a group of American teachers who were “planed over” to help build Nigeria’s first official film academy. I was hired to teach Acting for Film. Somehow I missed the memo that I was going to be playing Michelle Pfeiffer’s tough character in the Nollywood (Nigeria’s version of Hollywood) edition of Dangerous Minds, teaching “gangster rebels.” Craft service and make up were certainly not on this set, though.
The makeshift film school was located in an abandoned governmental structure, and the water stopped and electricity went out every day (but not at the same time). This was a stress factor for this gal who was trained (and tortured) under her über-fastidious Korean mom. I could see Mom tsk-tsking, shaking her head at me. “Now look at where your horse traveling spirit has brought you to. And this place, so dirty!”
In the first few days following our arrival, one of the African-American teachers, who was overwhelmed to be “back” in Africa for the first time, broke down in class. He was so excited about and focused on teaching his students, he did not even notice those sandstorms. He lost his voice and then got a sinus infection from the dust. I had to take over his class on top of my already five-class load that first week.
The production assistants were not doing so well, either. Not only were they younger and less experienced working in developing countries, but they did not have the benefit or gratification of working with the students. They didn’t get to see the students’ lightbulbs turn on and creativity flow, like we teachers did. Instead, the PAs had the harsh task of managing the expensive film equipment, which started fraying in the heat and dust, to over 200 confused students who were completely new to film production and constantly fought over time slots and camera equipment. Their duties were stressful, and it started to take a toll. I would see mounds and mounds of hard liquor bottles and cigarette packs outside their hotel room doors.
I knew Nigeria was one of the most recently volatile regions in Africa. Before going there, I had spoken with friends familiar with the area who thought tough Esther could handle it. Okay. I’ve trekked the Himalayan mountains in India, bamboo rafted across Thailand’s rivers, and even survived tiptoeing across the frozen Neva River in Russia in the dead of winter. I could do it. I’m going to Nigeria! But when I first arrived there, I felt I’d made a huge mistake.
When our group of fifteen-some teachers from Los Angeles and New York landed, we were greeted by an equal number of uniformed guards all armed with AK-47s. They shuffled us into the vans that were waiting to take us to the the crumbling “five-star” hotel. This was not customary, but the US-affiliated film academy insisted that we – and the expensive equipment – be guarded for safety. I think I would have felt safer without the guns. The guns stayed with us the entire time we were there.
But later, I understood why. Ten days after our team of U.S. instructors had arrived, more than 500 civilians, mostly children and women, were killed at a church in the nearby city of Jos. It was surreal to watch the CNN news in the hotel lounge, knowing the brutal massacre had happened only 160 miles away from where I was standing. It was the latest in a sickening cycle of retaliation due to differing political and religious beliefs and ethnic backgrounds, all which were too complex for me, the foreign teacher, to decipher…
One of the screenwriting students mentioned that the Nigerian press reported that the US Film Academy teachers were there to rehabilitate the rebels of the Niger Delta region. The Niger Delta region is the southeastern area between Lagos and Cameroon, home to nine Nigerian tribes whose land contains vast reserves of oil. The area had become a scene of horrific bloodshed and violence as the conflict between disenfranchised populations, oil conglomerates, and the government played out. Apparently, many of our students, who were former rebels from that region, were fully funded by the Niger Delta government to come to this Film Academy for “rehabilitation.”
Well, that was helpful information. No wonder some of the students looked so completely lost and confused! The students all had stories of how they’d found themselves at the film academy: cousins who’d applied on their behalf, church pastors who’d reached out, radio advertisements they’d heard while driving. Those students wanted to learn filmmaking. But the other students from the Niger Delta region had been granted scholarships to go to Abuja and had no idea what they were doing or what they were in for. These students were “rebels” indeed. I would like to imagine they were the ones who had the opportunity to actually defy violence and conflict in their region, the ones who’d traveled from far and further afar to Abuja to learn filmmaking, acting, editing and animation. They were eager 20-somethings desperate for a creative outlet to spread their war-weary wings and fly. Hopefully we teachers could help them arm themselves with art and the power of storytelling. Their pens had to be mightier than the sword. They were now rebels without machetes or guns but with pens, scripts and acting in hand. I had to show up for them, however fatigued, uncomfortable and confused I was.
The sandstorm eventually subsided. The AC started working again, and we picked up where we’d left off. As I walked around the classroom checking in with my students, I heard the song beats of “Gangsta’s Paradise” in my head again. I smiled as my “rebel students” rehearsed their scenes, hoping to fulfill my role as the inspirational teacher that they’d never forget. I hoped many of them would become the Nouvelle Vague of Nigerian cinema, if not civic leaders who questioned their current political and social circumstances through the arts and storytelling. It was in that moment that I figured out the how and why I ended up in Africa. I was there as both a teacher in front of the class and a student of this particular life experience.