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The Man Who Stopped The Desert

Tony Rollinson |
Thursday, 19th July 2012

Permaculture magazine's exclusive interview with Mark Dodd the writer, producer and director of The Man Who Stopped The Desert, the "unmissable" film about Yacouba Sawadogo, an African farmer who proves that just one person can have a hugely positive impact on their environment.

The Man Who Stopped The Desert - Filming Exodus

The Man Who Stopped The Desert - Filming Exodus

Permaculture: Mark, tell our readers who you are, what have you done before and how did you hear about the extraordinary story of Yacouba Sawadogo?

I am an independent filmmaker based in England. For over 20 years I worked as a staff cameraman for the BBC working on documentaries in the UK and abroad.

In 2007 I visited a friend, Ashley Norton, who was living in the north of Burkina Faso. He suggested that we visit 'an interesting farmer' who lived in a village nearby.

I had no idea what to expect. I certainly was not going with any filmmaking intentions: it was just a day out in the country. After a short car journey out of town, we turned off the rough dirt road and followed a small track through the fields. Ashley's friend Naaba, a respected elder in the city, accompanied us as our guide and translator. Goats and chickens scattered as we pulled up outside a mud-brick wall which marked the edge of a small habitation. The now familiar blast of heat hit us as we stepped out of the air-conditioned Toyota. But our would-be host was nowhere to be seen. We were advised us to sit and wait under the shade of a tree. It was 'wintoogo', the time when the sun is at its fiercest. Then, through the screeching of the crickets, we heard the sound of a motorbike approaching. Dressed in a long brown smock with a pick-axe balanced over his shoulder, Yacouba Sawadogo brought his motorbike to a halt. I didn't really know what I was expecting, but this sixty-something year old peasant farmer certainly confounded any preconceptions I may have had. He showed me around his farm and forest, then back under the shade of the tree we sat down and he told me his story.

Permaculture: What made you want to film the story and how hard was it to find support?

Meeting Yacouba Sawadogo was a turning point in my life. At the time I was a successful cameraman working for the BBC. I had filmed documentaries all over the world, but here in front of me the most incredible story was waiting to be told.

On return to England I secured a small bursary from the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association (CBA) and spent every penny on hiring high definition filming kit and a return flight to Ouagadougou to make a short 'taster film' or trailer. This was the beginning of a successful operation involving many emails to Ashley who became my location manager. I took the story and taster film back to the BBC but the idea was turned down by every channel. So in October 2008 I decided to make the film myself and quit the BBC to form '1080 Film and Television'.

By this time I was in regular contact with Dr.Chris Reij, a Dutch expert on soil and water conservation. He knew Yacouba from the early '80s and was involved in farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR) projects in the Sahel. He put me in touch with his financial backers and I fixed a meeting to tell them what I was up to. The meeting was at the HQ of a successful currency management company. They had set up a charity which supported environmental projects. They had seen the trailer film and asked many questions about my plans. It was a more pleasant version of "Dragons' Den"! When I told them I had quit my job in order to make the film, the atmosphere seemed to get that bit more serious...by the end of the meeting I had full production funding. They were perfect partners from a filmmaker's point of view: they had no personal or business agenda and had no editorial involvement from beginning to end.

Permaculture: What kind of film making and directors inspired you in your approach to telling this story?

When I first heard Yacouba's story I though it would make a great screenplay, and still do. But realistically, if I wanted this story to get made I would need to go down the documentary route. So I combined dramatic reconstruction techniques to tell the back story, and documentary filming for the present day. I wanted to give the audience a cinematic experience, albeit on a doc' budget. With that in mind, the music was a crucial element. I had heard the music of David Poore on some big budget mega-docs and asked him to do his magic on my film. I was delighted with what he produced.

As far as inspiration from other directors goes, I did not have anyone in mind. Except to say I read somewhere that Spielberg's top tip was to keep the camera moving. We tried to do this as much as possible in the reconstruction sections. Ashley managed to find the only cinema crane and track in Burkina Faso, which we had use of for just 12 hours.

Permaculture: Where did you find the actors? How willing were the scientists and campaigners to be involved?

The man who played Yacouba as a young man is in fact Yacouba's eldest son. The Koranic school boys and the boy Yacouba were all Koranic school pupils in real life.

The police were played by the city police dept. We had great support from Ashley's local contact, a respected community elder who was another key person in getting the filming set-up. I dubbed him Mr 'No problem' as that was his stock answer to all of my requests!

The scientists and campaigners were very happy to get on board. From their point of view this was very much an untold story, both in the narrow sense of Yacouba's life and in the wider sense of the issues involved.

Permaculture: Do you travel in Africa much? How remarkable is the achievement when you see it with your own eyes?

I had filmed in other parts of West Africa prior to this. Filming in this part of the world is always difficult due to the heat. But if you avoid working between 12 and 3 you can survive! It means early morning starts but this is when the light is best.

I still find it hard to fully comprehend what Yacouba has achieved, and continues to achieve. When you see him addressing politicians at international conferences it is hard to believe that this illiterate, unschooled farmer sleeps on a concrete floor in a seed store. It is all the more impressive when you consider the battles he has gone through to get to this point.

Permaculture: The film is winning a lot of awards, how are people within the film industry treating you? Is it a big success, or is it more that there is lots of work to do and consciousness to raise?

Obviously it is great that the film has received so much acclaim on the film festival circuit. I have attended the 'big two' of the wildlife festivals as a finalist; Jackson Hole, and UK Wildscreen. Nearly all of the finalists represent films which have been commissioned by TV channels and have multiple co-producers, so as a non-commissioned indi filmmaker, I'm a bit of an anomaly. I'm also not a wildlife filmmaker. It just so happens that the story has environmental issues.

For me, the success is that Yacouba is now recognised at high levels internationally. At the UN Convention to Combat Desertification conference last year, Ban Ki Moon himself referred to Yacouba as 'the man who stopped the desert'. There is always more work to be done in raising consciousness, especially in the wider media. Forward-thinking organizations like Permaculture are ahead of the game in this respect. But it is a real struggle to get this type of film into the mainstream. There is certainly an audience demand for it; the film sold out on a limited cinema run in 2010. The barrier is TV executives who will only commission what they consider to be safe formats. In the wildlife world this means, sharks and big cats, preferably presented by a 'celeb'. But don't get me started..my next film might be 'Stephen Fry's Big Fat Celebrity Shark Adventure'! (on ice?)

Permaculture: How many people/farms have been helped? What is the latest news from at the area?

It is hard to give specific numbers of individual farms here. Yacouba's version of Zai has been developed over the last 20 years or so. But it is safe to say that thousands of people have benefited from Zai.

To give just one example, in 1989 a group of farmers from Niger visited Yacouba's farm. Chris Reij takes up the story in the film: "What they saw impressed them so much that upon return they began trying out the Zai on four hectares. That was in 1989. 1990 was a drought year and farmers observed that on the area treated with Zai, that was the only area where a crop was produced. So that triggered a complete reaction..it began snowballing! ...The whole process of spreading land rehabilitation in Niger using Zai has become more important then here in Yatenga region".

We visited Yacouba in June this year. I'm pleased to report that despite increased building work next to the forest, Yacouba remains in good spirits. A new farmer-training initiative is progressing well and Yacouba has extra support from a familiar face. For full details check out the new video update film (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wezxNnkcsW8)

Permaculture: How do people get hold of the film and where can they see it? How do people support the project?

You can buy the film from our website http://www.1080films.co.uk/Yacoubamovie/

The film is available in English or French. This is where you will also find news updates about Yacouba, plus information on how you can help with the new farmer-training workshops. This initiative was started by Ashley Norton, the location manager. Donors can fund directly Yacouba and a small team to spread the Zai technique to many more villages. The scheme has only been running a few months and already 16 villages have been visited. 

Permaculture would like to thank Mark for his time with this interview, the images from the film and for alerting us to the work and life of Yacouba Sawadogo. You can read our review of this "unmissable film" in Permaculture 73 (published July 2012). Do watch, buy and share viewings of the film (it is available for just £12.00 inc p&p for a limited period). The story told is truly inspiring in an age of cynicism. It is a very high quality production, narrated by the actor Hugh Quarshie (Othello, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and Holby City). 

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