Barney Douglas has made his feature film directorial debut with Warriors, a movie that follows a group of Maasai warriors who had formed a cricket team. However, this is not just a sports film, as it explores issues of gender inequality within their community - an issue that the warriors are trying to raise and change.
We caught up with the filmmaker to chat about the new documentary, spending time with the Maasai warriors, and how the film has been received so far.
- Warriors has been released on DVD this week, so can you tell me a bit about the film for anyone who may not have seen it yet?
The movie follows this group of Maasai warriors who have formed a cricket team in a region of Kenya, which is pretty strange. They go on this amazing journey to England to play in a tournament. It is great fun and exciting.
On top of that, they use the journey to try and change their community, which is suffering from some harmful practices such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). They are using the sport to raise their status and speak to the elders at the end of the film. So, it does have an uplifting message as well. Go and watch it (laughs).
- Warriors sees you in the director's chair but where did this project start for you? And what was it about this story that sparked your interest?
I saw a photograph of one of these Maasai warriors in all of their beads and their robes and they were playing a cricket shot. This image really fascinated me and so I dug into what the photo was about and who they were. I pretty much took the decision to jump on a plane, go and meet these guys, learn more about their culture, why they were playing cricket, and what their hopes were for the game.
We agreed and started making this documentary (laughs). It was quite organic and not particularly planned out. But then the story grew and grew and I learnt much more about the issues that were going on there. I realised that it had emotional depth and I just followed it to its end really.
- Activist and cricketer Sonyanga is the central person in the film, so how keen was he and the rest of the Maasai warriors to be the subject of the documentary?
They had already started getting a bit of attention around the region and they were trying to raise awareness of the messages that they were trying to get across; they wanted gender equality, they wanted girls to stay in education, they wanted equal rights for them. As young warriors, it wasn't the done thing to speak up in their community about these issues. They realised that the more that they played cricket, the more people took an interest in them and the more status they started to gain.
Therefore, they were very happy when I came along, they felt that there was a story to be told, they wanted their messages out there, and to reach further afield than their own village. They were really receptive to it. Without that positive reception from them, this is a movie that would never have been made.
- How did the elder members of their community respond to the idea of the documentary?
One of the positive and good things about it - and I hope this comes across in the film - the elders... as much as Westerners are shocked by what goes on, the elders are not evil guys, this has just always been a part of their community, a part of their culture, and their tradition.
Once they understood that I wasn't trying to misrepresent people and we just wanted them to tell their story; same with the warriors and same with the girls, they were happy to agree to be filming. This was quite a big step as it has never really been done before. There were discussions within the community and between themselves about whether they thought that this was a positive thing for their community. Ultimately, they thought that it was and agreed to be part of the documentary.
- When you set out to make this documentary, what was the story that you wanted to tell. FGM and the spread of AIDs is a central topic of the film and I wondered how intentional that was or what is something that developed as you started filming?
It was definitely something that developed as I started filming. I was initially attracted by the crickets aspect as I worked in cricket at the time and I was very keen on this image and instinctively felt that there was a story to tell. I was aware that they were doing HIV & Aids awareness, so I felt that there was perhaps an emotional story linked to one of the families that I would discover and that would bring more depth to the film. It wasn't until I started spending time with the guys, in their community, and with their families, that I understood that the problem and the real core of a lot of things was this lack of equality.
Girls are not in education because they were having to undergo the cut and be married off at such an early age. The team started to say that this was one of their strong messages and I was like 'ok, this is an important part of the narrative' and it really started to drive the film. It was something that grew organically because I was pretty ignorant of FGM when I went out there; I will freely admit that I didn't know much about it at all.
I always had that in mind when it came to the of the film and the edit of the film. I wanted to make sure that those who didn't know much or anything about FGM would be introduced to the top and the damage that it can do to young girls. It was an organic process but it was the right on in the end.
- Can you talk a bit about the editing process? How tricky was the process with all the material that you had?
It was definitely a difficult process that took a long time. There was a lot of footage and you are always trying to make sure that you are staying true to the narrative, not misrepresenting people, but also not making it too heavy. You want to take people on this fun journey and I always felt that if you made this strict film about FGM, that would be a difficult film for audiences to engage with over the course of ninety minutes.
I wanted to make sure that the cricket aspect still remained part of it. I was very lucky to have a great editor called Julian Rod, who really helped to layer the film really well in the edit. It was not an easy process but I was happy with the balance that we struck; there is something for everyone in the film.
- The movie features a lot of women and girls telling their stories what were the challenges of getting them to come forward and speak out?
It was very difficult. Sonyanga's mother is in the film and she is a very strong character - she was great. We filmed at a girls shelter and they were girls who had either suffered from FGM or run away from early marriage; they had all had really really appalling things happen to them. We were very sensitive to the difficulties of filming that kind of thing - it was definitely the hardest part of making this film.
Helen, who runs the shelter, was instrumental in making sure we were doing the right thing, signing the right documents, and making sure it was the right thing for the girls to talk about. We only spoke to girls who had come to terms with it and were able to talk about it freely and Helen was always present when we were filming. We always made we did everything the right way, as best as we could, and as easy as respectful as we could to the bravery of the girls. It was undoubtedly the most difficult process.
Helen realised and the girls all realised that this is something that more people need to hear about to prevent it from happening from other young girls. That was certainly where we were all coming from and while it was difficult, it was something that needs to be told. It was not easy by any stretch of the imagination but it was vital to the film.
- You strike a great balance between tackling some hard hitting subjects with much lighter moments - how tricky was it finding that balance?
It was hard and the edit was important for that. Instinctively you something know 'ok, we have had a pretty heavy period here, we need to lighten the mood a bit.' I look back now and think that maybe we got it a little bit wrong in places. Across the whole film, I think that you are left feeling hopeful and inspired.
We didn't want to take people on this journey and leave them feeling miserable, we wanted to say 'young people can affect change, gender equality is not something that's unobtainable, these issues need to be talked about and there are positive ways of achieving it.' That was always the message that we wanted to get across at the end. Balancing was not easy, but I think that we got it about right (laughs).
- Warriors marks your feature film directorial debut, so how have you found the whole experience?
Tiring. It has been amazing. Certainly the last year, I was hitting brick walls and was pretty knackered by the whole thing (laughs). Then you get re-energised when an audience gets to see it, they react to it, and you see that it is doing some good. The reaction of women has been the best thing and has been really amazing.
Maasai women from this country have been to see it, women from Sierra Leone, and young girls from schools and that kind of stuff. That is what has been most pleasing, the fact that people who work in gender equality and FGM see it as being such a valuable and inspiring film. Also, the fact that we are trying to help the community back in Kenya, with 45% of the profits going there; we always want to make sure that we do the right thing.
That was one of the biggest challenges, bringing together these different personalities, cultures, not have that much money to make it and that pushed me hard. I have had a few weeks to take a breath and I am ready to get back into another one - so, it hasn't put me off (laughs).
- The film has been received so well by a range of different audiences, you must be thrilled?
I am absolutely delighted. When you live and breathe this thing for three years, you get to the end and you don't even know what you got. You do need - not audience validation as such - but you need to see it with fresh eyes and to be able to do that with such receptive audiences and positive audiences has been really wonderful.
It really does affirm the stress and struggles you went through to get it finished. Going further forward, it is a film that I want to get into schools and in Kenyan schools as well; the team are also taking it to villages in Kenya. It has got a long life to it and I think that it is something that will resonate with people wherever you live. It has been great to finally get it out there really.
- What did you take away from this whole experience - did you learn anything while you were out there spending time with the Massai tribe?
I learnt that young men in communities can make really positive differences when they come together in a positive way. The power of sport is big in this film; I am a sports fan and I think that you can really make a big difference at a community level. I also learnt that young men can be brave, articulate, and positive about their community and their heritage and yet still influence it in a good way.
That was something that was really good to see because it is not something that is often reported and young people quite often get a bad rap. Just the connection of nature, the beauty of where they live, and the strength community were some of the positive things I took from the experience. I also learnt about this culture and things about myself as well.
Also, I have changed in three and half years and so have my views on gender equality. I never subscribed to not having gender equality, but I had never really considered it too much and just lived in my own little world. Making this film has opened my eyes to the importance of it and how much inequality there is around us that we are quite blasé about; I am trying my best not to be like that anymore (laughs). I learnt a lot from the whole process.
- How did Sonyanga and the rest of the Maasai tribe respond to the movie?
They loved it. We had Sonyanga over for some of the premieres and he spoke really well at those screenings. He and the other guys have now formed a ladies team in their community, so that will be pretty good fun going forward. We got all the elders, the girls and the warriors on a coach and took them down to Nairobi to watch the film at a festival, and that response was brilliant.
It has been really well received, which I am really relieved about (laughs). Now we are going to try and screen it in the village itself as I think that it's important that more people from the village can see it.
- Finally, what's next for you going forward?
I am just starting development on a new documentary to do with elephants. I am saying that the film is about psychedelic elephants and everyone is going 'what?'
It is an elephant project but there is a little bit more to it than that. It is a big story and I am pretty excited about it. However, I know that I am at the beginning of a very long journey. We will see how it goes.
Warriors is available on DVD and iTunes now.