Video & Filmmaking

Picture Story: Love Radio Rwanda

November 5, 2014


Radio listeners from Rulindo, North tune in to hear an episode of Musekeweya, the long-running radio soap.

Over a 100-day period starting in April 1994, a media hate campaign instigated by Rwandan Hutus fomented genocide against Rwandan Tutsis. More than 800,000 people died, and the brutality shocked the world. Twenty years later, Rwanda projects a narrative of reconciliation and forgiveness. But tensions persist below the surface, and two Dutch journalists—writer Eefje Blankevoort and photographer Anoek Steketee—have explored them through an ambitious Web-based multimedia project that mixes fictional drama with documentary images.
Called Love Radio, the project was inspired by a popular Rwandan radio soap opera called Musekeweya. The soap tells the story of conflict and reconciliation between two rival villages. Love Radio, the derivative (but independently produced) Web project, includes an “On Air” channel that recreates an abridged version of Musekeweya. For a second “Off Air” channel, Love Radio’s creators explore contemporary life in Rwanda to assess the country’s actual progress toward reconciliation. The Love Radio project also includes essays by journalists and academics to provide additional context.
Working in collaboration with an interactive design team and with grants from a variety of arts organization and the Dutch government, Blankevoort and Steketee created the Web project, plus a pared-down version for smartphone users. They’ve also turned the project into an interactive exhibition, which was displayed at the Foam museum in Amsterdam. As one of five winners of the 2014 POPCAP competition for contemporary African photography, Love Radio will also be part of an international traveling exhibition over the next year.
The roots of the project go back to 2008, when Steketee and Blankevoort were working on a project about amusement parks around the world. On their way to Rwanda for that story, they met with George Weiss, founder of La Benevolencija, a Dutch NGO working to empower groups that are targets of hate speech. La Benevolencija launched the Musekeweya radio soap in 2004 as entertainment. But its scriptwriters draw from academic theories about the origins of genocide to help prevent future violence and foster Rwanda’s process of reconciliation.
The two journalists ended up reporting a magazine story about the soap opera and its dedicated fans in 2008. “When we talked to people on the street, almost everybody knew about [Musekeweya], and started to shine when they talked about it,” Steketee says. “We were intrigued by the connection between the radio soap and daily life in Rwanda.”
They were also interested in the universal themes of Rwanda’s recent history: ideas of guilt and innocence, good and evil, the power of media, mob violence, individual and collective resistance, and trauma. “One of our goals was to bring this story to a western audience. It can function as a mirror for people. At the same time, it’s a story about Rwanda, and a complex process of reconciliation there. It’s not that everybody is reconciled now, and it was of interest [to us] to tell that.”
Beginning around 2010, Blankevoort and Steketee started thinking about producing a more in-depth story using audio “because it’s about a radio show. Then we thought, if we’re going to do audio, we should do video, too. It became bigger and bigger, and we decided to do a Web documentary,” Steketee says.
The plan percolated over several years, a few visits to Rwanda, and meetings with Musekeweya’s creators and actors. The inspiration for the “Off Air” component of the project came from a Musekeweya fan who called the radio station to say life was imitating art in his own village. “They were friends with a neighboring village, then everything went wrong, and his village attacked the other village,” Steketee explains.
The man’s village eventually became one of the settings of the “Off Air” channel of the Love Radio project. “We went many times” to interview people and film scenes of daily life in the villages, Stekeete says. “To provide context for the [On Air] story about the radio soap, you have to show a little of the daily reality—a very personal story of this [radio caller] and his neighbors.”
Realizing a Web-based multimedia project would require interactive design expertise, they teamed up with Sara Kolster, a designer and producer specializing in digital storytelling, and with Kummer & Herrman, an interactive design agency. Together, they began applying to foundations and agencies for production grants. “We wrote an extended application with technical details about the interface that was a book of its own—about 60 pages,” Steketee says.
Most of the filming for the project was done over a period of three weeks last year. “We worked with storyboards because we didn’t have much time. I was in my last trimester of pregnancy,” says the photographer. “We knew what we wanted to shoot, and who we wanted to interview.”
For the “Off Air” segments, she and Blakenvoort made a list of shots of daily life that they wanted to film. Those included landscapes, street scenes, domestic scenes and people gathered around their radios, plus behind-the-scenes shots of the Musekeweya actors re-creating an abridged version of the story for the Love Radio project. Steketee and Blankevoort used that footage as b-roll over interviews with village residents, and with some of the Musekeweya actors.
The challenge of the “On Air” channel was re-creating a 20-minute summary of a soap opera that had been airing for ten years. “There have been 30 different characters, all with complicated names, and many things have happened. We needed to bring the whole story back, and make it interesting to a western audience,” Steketee explains.
The narrative about two villages in conflict is interwoven with a story about two characters torn by their love for each other and their loyalty to their respective villages. “We picked out key scenes and key lines, and asked the actors to [dramatize] the lines again,” Steketee says. (They paid the actors their usual rates for the performances.)
Post-production took several months. Blankevoort and Steketee transcribed all the interviews and logged all the video files, then sorted the material by topics, such as freedom of speech, radio culture, reconciliation, scapegoating and other themes.
Producer/designer Sara Kolster suggested organizing the fictional “On Air” layer as episodes to reflect the episodic structure of Musekeweya, and pair them with “Off Air” segments. “We had to bring in a cliffhanger in every episode, which is difficult because we’re not dramatists,” Steketee says. For help, they consulted a scriptwriter, who also advised them to use an English- speaking narrator to help move the story along and keep the attention of Western audiences.
Steketee and Blankevoort took pains to highlight universal themes to appeal to an international audience. They also worked to keep the project accessible. “It should be intelligent and layered, but not too arty-farty or complicated,” Steketee says. “You can lose the impact if you put [in] too much information.” Deciding what to include and exclude was a topic of constant discussion, she adds.
The Love Radio project debuted on April 7, 2014—the 20th anniversary of the outbreak of the Rwandan genocide. On a bi-weekly schedule over a period of 100 days, Love Radio creators posted the entire project in seven installments.
Since then, the challenge has been to build the audience, Steketee says. “Traffic to the website is OK, but it could have been more,” she says. She’s hoping exhibitions of the project will help drive more traffic. Besides the POPCAP exhibitions and the Foam exhibition (mounted after Blankevoort and Steketee showed the completed project to curators at Foam), Steketee says “We’re working on extending the list” of exhibition venues.