Erin Bernhardt is back on producing duties with new documentary film, Imba Means Sing, which sees her team up with filmmaker Danielle Bernstein.
The movie follows three children from the slums of Uganda as they change the course of their lives by joining the African Children's Choir.
We caught up with Erin to chat about the film, where the project started for her, and making the leap from journalism to feature film.
- Can you tell me a bit about Imba Means Sing?
Imba Means Sing is an independent documentary feature film about music, education and poverty-alleviation told through the eyes of young Ugandan members in the GRAMMY-nominated African Children's Choir.
- You are on producing duties for Imba Means Sing, where did this project start for you? What drew you to this story?
I met the African Children's Choir eight and a half years ago right after I graduated from the University of Virginia. I was spending the summer in NYC working as the Outreach Coordinator for Dispatch, the number one selling indie rock band.
They had a massive three-day benefit concert at Madison Square Garden and we had the Choir perform with them, since we were raising money and awareness for organizations in Africa. Meeting those children completely changed my life. They flipped my perspective upside down, in the best way. Ever since then, I've wanted to share their story.
- The film follows three children from Uganda who are selected to tour the world with the Grammy-nominated African Children's Choir. Where did you first hear about the stories of Angel, Moses, and Nina?
We met Angel, Moses and Nina when we went to Uganda right when they were selected. I went, without cameras, to scout the best way to tell the story of the Choir. I knew I wanted the film to be told through the perspective of the children, and to have as little Western and adult influence as possible. Moses and Angel were immediately the most outgoing of all twenty kids, so were obvious choices.
Nina became a main character as the story played out. Danielle, our Director/Editor/Photographer and Jason, our Director of Photography, were both always visually drawn to her presence. The chaperones were all the most worried about her returning home, and she also grew the most as a person while on tour, so we were very glad when she finally began to open up in interviews on camera.
- These three children live in the slums of Uganda and the chance to sing in the African Children's Choir was a huge opportunity. Just how much as it changed their lives? And what changes did you see in the children themselves during this time?
Being in the Choir has completely changed the trajectory of these children's lives. Without the Choir, they likely would never be able to attend school - and like the estimated 60 million other children around our world who have no access to a basic education - they would also lack all of the hope and opportunity that comes with schooling.
Every single Choir member grew in incredible ways while on tour. The most apparent changes we saw in the main characters in the film were these: Moses, as he shares in the film, learned to be humble. Nina really blossomed and became more self-confident. And Angel realized the importance in telling the truth - which we think is perfect as the future first female President of Uganda, and that many politicians should take her lead.
- Imba Means Sings follows these three children as they set out on this adventure that changes the course of their lives. How easy was it to get the children and the choir on board to make this film?
It was hard. We had to sell the Choir on us as filmmakers and on the idea of the film. They've turned down many other filmmakers throughout the years, so we felt very honoured and a great responsibility in their saying yes. The Choir's main priority, as it should be, is the children and making sure they are not exploited.
I think we all did a great job shining a light on the issues faced by these children, and on how the Choir dignifies and empowers them, while also allowing the viewer to make their own decisions on what they think and take away from the film.
- Danielle Bernstein is in the director's chair for the film, how did you get her on board?
Danielle and I were both born and raised in Atlanta and have many friends in common. When I left CNN to make this film independently, I had no idea how the indie film world worked. I loved and respected Danielle's films and thought she and her gifts would perfectly compliment me and mine. Luckily, I was right!
- From the start of filming through to the release of the movie, how long has it taken to make Imba Means Sing? You were on location in Africa for filming, what was your role during that time?
I scouted the story in April of 2011, and then we began shooting in May while the Choir was training in Uganda. Then we filmed their trip to the US and throughout their tour around the States, Canada and then the UK for 18 months, finally returning to Uganda with them in November of 2013. We finished filming in December 2013 and began the edit.
The final cut was ready just in time for our World Premiere at the Atlanta Film Festival on March 24, 2015. And now our worldwide release is happening on Friday, December 4, 2015! I was at every single shoot along the way and especially loved our time filming in Africa! It's been a long journey, but well worth it!
- You have hours and hours of footage, interviews with the children, their backstory, their families, working with the choir - just how difficult was it to cut all that together to make a movie that flowed
We had over 2,000 hours of footage; including tons of videos the Choir kids filmed themselves on GoPros and flipcams. It took us a year and a half to edit the film. We got everything we wanted to include in a good storyline down to three hours and then had to chop and finesse and take feedback from mentors and advisors from there to get it to the 73-minute final cut.
- Did any of the footage that you captured during filming change the direction of the film? Did you capture something that you weren't expecting?
Great question! Almost everyone I know has the same favourite scene in the film: when Moses is learning to fly an airplane. We never set-up any scenes for the film or filmed things twice, the whole film is in cinema verite style (except of course the closing credits which are more Wes Anderson style).
So the fact that we were able to capture Moses in such a precious way in such a small space being his authentically hilarious self, was pretty special. His personality shines through the whole film and audiences automatically love him as much as we do in real life. Imba would not be a film without that star!
- What do you hope people will take away from Imba Means Sing when they see it? And how have you been finding the response to the film so far?
The whole purpose in making Imba Means Sing was to make a difference. Our goal is for the film to inspire and activate viewers to get involved in one of the issues we address: education as a right, girls and children's rights, the importance of music and arts education, and changing people's perceptions of Africa.
We have a dynamic Discussion and Impact Guide to help schools, families and community groups more deeply engage with the Choir and our other non-profit partners. It's also very exciting that I have committed to donate 100% of my profits from the film to help build a secondary school in Uganda for Angel, Moses, Nina and their friends.
The best part of this experience has been the response from audiences. They cry at the right time and laugh at the right time and ask the best questions.
- You kicked off your career as a journalist, why and when did you make the leap into filmmaking? Do you think you could make the transition into the director's chair?
I still consider myself a journalist, rather, a creative activist. I'm dedicated to sharing stories through media and the arts to help make positive social change. Doing that through artistic film, instead of news, has been a great learning adventure. This specific story and these remarkable children are what prompted me to leave CNN and make this film.
- Finally, what's next for you as we are about to head into 2016.
Right now I'm still focused on helping Imba Means Sing make the biggest and best splash possible - the more people who download the film, the more money we will raise to build a secondary school for the Choir!
I do also have a few new projects in the works with two of my favourite organizations: the Creative Visions Foundation and the Art Farm at Serenbe. I'll be posting about them on social media early next year after the Imba Means Sing release, stay tuned @erinbernhardt4.
Imba Means Sing will be released globally via iTunes on Dec 4th.