Creative technologist preps trio of film and virtual reality documentaries on Barbuda
By Maria Smith
TORONTO — Filmmaker Ngardy Conteh George helps the silenced be heard and the invisible be seen. “For far too long, people in power have granted others permission to tell Black stories,” the director explains. “Our stories have not been told from our perspective. This leads to stereotypes and misconceptions.” She is diligently working to change this.
Born in Sierra Leone, Conteh George grew up in Toronto, Canada, where she and filmmaker Alison Duke formed OYA Media Group, a film, TV, and virtual reality production company. OYA is one of only a handful of Black-owned immersive companies in Canada. Some of the projects they have in development include Black Community Mixtapes, Bam Bam: The Story of Sister Nancy, which is in production, and Away with Words, which is in post-production and focuses on Staceyann Chin and her daughter.
This photo was taken by Nathanial Anderson
Conteh George spoke to us about OYA Media’s upcoming project, Wa’Omoni Rising, which details the chipping away of communal land rights on the Caribbean island of Barbuda, following a devastating hurricane in 2017. She is developing three related nonfiction projects: A traditional TV documentary; a 360-degree, virtual reality documentary; a 360VR wellness app. Conteh George was one of only six makers invited to pitch at the 2022 PitchBLACK Forum: Immersive. The $75K competition, which Black Public Media hosted, drew filmmakers and creative technologists from Brazil, Canada, South Africa, and the United States. Watch her pitch video on Black Public Media’s Vimeo channel.
Conteh George lived on the 65-square-mile island with her husband, whose family is Barbudan, part time for three years before they moved back to Toronto. She grew to love the people and culture.
“To go back now—and not as a family member but as a filmmaker—has sparked creativity in Barbudans.” She continues, “Barbudans are natural storytellers. At this time, many feel that their voices aren’t being heard, and to have someone amplify their voices gives them a sense of hope and agency.”
Conteh George focused her trio of nonfiction projects around the development debates in Barbuda because the multifaceted conflict spoke to her and was relevant to similar gentrification and land rights struggles happening around the world. “Barbuda is not a widely known place,” says Conteh George. “Most people have never been there and may never go, so using VR is a way to bring Barbuda to the world.”
“This project has been in the works for almost four years. It just naturally evolved,” she says. “I really had a lot of time to think about the whole art form of documentary and how it started and the power dynamic in it. It is an art form that comes from a colonizer kind of perspective. You are dropping in and observing something. One thing I have tried to do is make it more participatory and have a co-creation experience. I am working with Barbudans and giving them agency in their stories.”
Both the Wa’Omoni Rising TV documentary, which is in production and looking for funding, and the 30-minute, 360VR documentary, which is in post-production and requires finishing funds, zoom in on the debates around foreign development in Barbuda and the Caribbean, as a whole. The films take great care to center Barbudan voices and perspectives. The TV documentary focuses on activists and politicians, while the 360VR film explores everyday people, including the split between progressives and conservatives and the young and old. In both films, the tension between increasing economic opportunities and maintaining traditional values is palpable.
“I love listening to and reading people and trying to understand them,” Conteh George says. “Documentary filmmaking is really about making connections and being a vessel to let the stories be told.”
A 2021 MIT & Black Public Media Visiting Artist, Conteh George was recently invited to join the board of Hot Docs, the largest documentary film festival in North America. For 20 years, she has prioritized telling the stories of people who have been systematically excluded from traditional media. She is the winner of two Canadian Screen Awards and a Sundance Documentary Film Program Fellow. She plans to continue using justice as her compass.
This article was paid for by Black Public Media. For more information about BPM’s emerging-tech programs and events, see blackpublicmedia.org/bpmplus.