Meet Julie Ako, one of young filmmakers who deployed their talents to fight against COVID-19 misinformation through the Multichoice Talent Factory (West Africa), a film academy set up by MultiChoice Group that is collaborating with the UN’s Verified initiative to help people gain access to fact-based and credible information and stem the flow of fake news. She spoke to Africa Renewal’s Damilola Adewumi and Franck Kuwonu about her journey to filmmaking and why it was important for her to join the ‘Pause Before Sharing’ #PledgetoPause campaign: Excerpts:
Africa Renewal: How did a Computer Science graduate like you end up making movies?
Julie Ako: Before delving fully into screenwriting and film, I used to write short stories, spoken-word poetry, and thought essays for select platforms and magazines. In my final year at the university, I and some friends started a photography magazine and I was the editor-in-chief for a year. We were self-funded and proud of that period in our lives. It was also a very defining point for me, because here I was, finishing up a degree in computer science, yet writing full-time for a magazine and not getting paid for it. It didn’t feel at all like a hassle, not for a day.
After that period, I went on to write and produce some short films — very amateurish, but a worthy experience. This cemented my interest in filmmaking. I have not stopped learning and aspiring since then.
I am part of the board of creators for Mad Comics Ng, a thriving comic-book publisher in Nigeria. And in 2020, I co-founded a screenwriting community and agency, Albantsho, with my friend from Botswana. We saw that collaborating and sharing our original ideas about Africa helps emerging screenwriters like us better our craft of storytelling and encourages authentically nuanced African stories.
How did the idea of making a public-service announcement (PSA) about COVID-19 and fake news come about?
The Verified campaign organizers, in collaboration with the Multichoice Talent Factory academy, advertised a contest for writing concepts across its four film hubs in Africa [Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya and Zambia]. So, we were asked to write concepts for the #PledgetoPause campaign that showed a unique interpretation and sensitized the public about the dangers of COVID-19 misinformation. About seven concepts were selected from the total entries; mine was one of them.
Have you or people close to you experienced misinformation?
I think we all have experienced misinformation — whether firsthand or by proxy. We have either seen or shared messages that we didn’t care to verify. This is because fake news often sails with sensationalism and easily arouses our emotions, like anger, sadness, or even humor. So, people tend to feel they owe it to themselves to help others feel the same way the news has made them feel.
During the initial lockdowns, there was uncertainty, fear, and confusion. We had people who didn’t believe in it, others who spiritualized it.
So, yes, I do deal with that every day, trying to resist any compulsive need to respond to or share unverified content; even more so, after making the PSA. I make it a duty to practice what I am preaching.
How serious was it and what were the most frequent and harmful falsehoods you ever came across?
A very profound conspiracy about the COVID-19 vaccine and 5G being part of some devil-sponsored scheme to control the world. It sounds ridiculous when you first hear it, but it was quite a dangerous tale. Imagine being surrounded by people who didn’t think the disease was real, thereby exposing themselves and putting other people at risk. I tried to send family members voice notes to counter that narrative and share trusted sources of information.
Was that the main motivation behind producing the PSA?
I think of myself as part of a generation advocating for change and justice by first acting as an integral part of the solution we are proffering. So, my biggest motivation was the concern I truly had about the dangers of misinformation, and letting people know that it hurts and can even kill the people you love.
Obviously, the story in the PSA is about fake news. But you chose to tell it in a particular way. Can you sum it up for those who haven’t watched your film yet?
In the film, I used dirty water to represent misinformation, and simply showed the absurdity of young beautiful people sharing this dirty water from an “unknown source” with their friends. Yes, we know they just wouldn’t deliberately drink that, nor would they give it to their loved ones. Therefore, we were showing that sharing unverified information was just as absurd.
Why the choice of water, particularly? It could have been something else, could it not?
As the announcement was being made, the first thing that popped into my head was water. I just knew I wanted to do something with water, because misinformation is a global issue, and water is very much universal. I like to believe everyone drinks water. No matter the subject matter, be it misinformation about COVID-19 or Ebola, I wanted a story that would resonate globally and generically with all fake news.
Was it easy to find people to be in it? Were they paid, or did they agree that it was for a good cause?
It wasn’t difficult to find people for the film. To portray beauty, friendship and the communal spirit of Africa, I reached out to people who I trusted to effortlessly emanate these virtues. I also wanted people who were active on social media and likely to be at the giving or receiving end of the problem. Yes, there was a budget for production, but it was beyond the money for everyone on the project. Some people got on it because first they believed in the cause, and secondly, they, like me, were passionate about making films.
The scenery in the film is very beautiful. Where did you shoot it and how did you choose the location?
It was shot in Lagos. The commercial heart of Nigeria is known to be surrounded by water and beautiful resorts that I found useful for telling this story. The setting of the shoot was central to the story, and it took us a while to get what we really wanted.
What kind of impact do you hope the film will have on young people in your community?
I hope that people can truly see how ridiculous and quite “un-woke” it is for them to share information whose sources haven’t been verified. If you wouldn’t drink dirty water, you shouldn’t share fake news too. It is just as bad.
Besides the overall message about COVID-19, I want my audience to see that Africa is indeed a lovely place, blessed with natural resources and beautiful people. I hope that they would watch it and get inspired to preserve, love, and nurture Africa, while creating an environment that is safe and free of dangerous content.
Looking back, how do you feel about the film?
I first feel privileged and a sense of pride that I do not take for granted. It has surged a new energy and inspired me to keep on moving. I hope the film encourages people to make a little more effort to pause before sharing stuff on the Internet.