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There's little to do in a refugee camp. So these teens picked up an unexpected hobby.

Too many of the 185,000 souls here have given up hope of rebuilding their lives. But these kids are just getting started.

The young boy cradles his head, emitting a low moan as blood drips through his fingers and soaks the soil beneath him.

His friend uneasily makes his way through the shrubs to examine the injury he has caused. Upon seeing the blood, he gasps theatrically and stumbles backwards. Frightened, he tucks a slingshot into his trousers and runs away.

“Cut!”


Throwing his arms in the air in exasperation, a lanky 20-year-old yells out and everything stops.

Fidele is directing this film, and he isn’t happy. He wants more emotion from his cast, more feeling.

Regan, the boy with the bleeding head, gets up from the floor and wipes some of the sticky red liquid from his cheek, a smile spreading across his face. The kid in the yellow T-shirt, Pasyan, saunters back into the shade beneath the trees. They watch as Fidele re-enacts the scene, crouching down, holding his head, moaning dramatically, showing them how it’s done.

All photos courtesy of Rachel Reed, used with permission.

All of the kids in the film’s cast and crew live in a remote refugee camp in Northern Kenya.

They are waiting, along with 185,000 others, to be resettled in the U.S., Australia, Canada, or Europe, or for peace and security to return to their respective counties so that they can go home.

The camp, a sprawling collection of tents and crumbling mud and corrugated iron huts, is not an easy place to live. There is little to do. In the morning, most kids cram into airless classrooms with up to 200 other children. After school, some help their families by going to fetch water or firewood.

Mostly, children idle away their time, hanging out in the narrow alleyways between huts, finding creative ways to play with whatever they get their hands on. Some have never known life outside the camp; many will wait years or even decades to be resettled.

In 2011, a 19-year-old Congolese refugee named Batakane Jean-Michel returned to the camp after studying at the East African Media Institute in Nairobi.

Jean-Michel was determined to put his new skills to use and provide something for the kids living in the camp.

“I moved back after realizing that a multitude of people like myself were anxious to learn,” says Jean-Michel. Using his pocket money, a small camcorder, and a laptop he was given as a gift, Jean-Michel started Season of the Time Media Productions (STMP), running yearlong courses for children who wanted to learn about film production.

Tucked behind a small Congolese café inside the camp, STMP’s office is a tiny, unassuming room. A piece of paper hanging on the outside wall reads: “Notice! Notice! Notice! STMP Studio. Kick out boredom, idleness, and cluelessness. Get busy and know more on what’s popping in the outside world.”

Inside, kids take turns using a computer with a broken screen, teaching themselves how to use programs like Photoshop and Fruity Loops, a music production program. The power cuts out frequently, but when it does, they just wait, knowing that sooner or later it will start up again. Then they go out around the camp and make their own films and music videos.

As STMP’s assistant cameraman, 15-year-old Kito is no stranger to the stop-and-start pace of film production.

He has been with STMP since 2013, when a friend connected him to Jean-Michel. Kito arrived in Kakuma five years ago, after his family fled violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“When I first arrived, I used to stay at home from morning until evening,” recalls Kito. “I was so bored.” But then Kito heard about STMP and started developing his skills as a camera operator.

In addition to making movies and music videos, Kito and the other children earn a little money by filming weddings, birthday parties, and other celebrations for camp residents who have no other way to immortalize previous memories. They charge around $10 an hour, and shoots can go on for about six or seven hours.

50% of the proceeds are put aside to fund STMP’s productions, while the remaining half is shared among the crew members.

“At the end, the amount of money we get is very small for the work we do. It is just pocket money to buy basic things,” says Fidele. “But we do it to help the communities.”

In December, children sign up for the yearlong course led by Fidele.

Three times a week, under the shade of acacia trees, the older kids — Fidele, Kito, and 17-year-old cameraman Olivier — take turns teaching film and music skills to younger children. For them, it's a way of giving back what they were taught by Jean-Michel, who, after eight years in the camp, resettled in Australia last year and now raises money for STMP from afar.

“He showed me that I can do whatever I want in my life,” explains Olivier, who says he always wanted to be a filmmaker. “Now I try to help some other kids so they can be even better than me.”

Throughout the year, the kids learn to use a computer, shoot and edit short movies, and produce music. At the end of the course, children pair off and produce their own movies, and the older kids name one as the best of the year.

Most of the children have never held a camera in their hand or used a computer before joining STMP, but many now dream of becoming editors, scriptwriters, and producers.

Back on set, Fidele and Paluku, a 14-year-old scriptwriter, carry a bag full of  old shirts, hats, and frilly dresses to use as costumes.

10-year-old Angelina gets out her tools — a little mirror, a powder and eye shadow palette, a stick of lipstick, and an eye pencil — as her fellow makeup artist Leticia preps beside her. Olivier and Kito check that batteries are charged and the camcorder is working. It stops a few times, but a little knock brings it back to life.

Followed by several curious children, STMP’s cast and crew of 10 walk through the narrow, dusty alleyways between huts and into a small wooded area. They set up their tripod, the actors change into costume, and Fidele gives last-minute advice.

Linelle, a 5-year-old actress and the youngest STMP member, guards the area around set, stopping curious children from getting too close and shouting at them when they got too loud.

There is no time for playing around. STMP is at work.

Check out STMP in action:

Meet the Teenagers Who Started a Film Production Studio From T...

NEW: “The power cuts out frequently, but when it does they sit and wait, knowing that sooner or later it will start up again. Then, they go out around the camp and make their own films and music videos.” Read the full story: http://narr.ly/2zHRijE

Posted by Narratively on Wednesday, November 15, 2017

This story was originally published on Narratively, a digital publication focused on ordinary people with extraordinary stories, and is reprinted here with permission. Visit Narratively for more stories about Game Changers, Super Subcultures, and Hidden History.

All photos courtesy of Albertsons
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