Leah Llewellyn (B.A.Hons/M.PHIL)
SOCIAL ANTHROPOLOGY (SOAS) AND AFRICAN STUDIES (LEIDEN UNIVERSITY)
My name is Leah Olwen Llewellyn, my research focuses on performance and cultural heritage in East Africa, with specific reference to Circus in Ethiopia.
I am a freelance video journalist with a professional background in mainstream media. I currently work internationally with the Reach Another Foundation, a USA/UK/Dutch based medical charity that work in Ethiopia. I document their work and produce fund raising and training films to highlight their pioneering work with children with hydrocephalus, spina-bifida and autism.
Whilst in Ethiopia I also documented the First African Circus Festival in Addis Ababa and have recently been requested to represent Circus in Ethiopia at the palace in Amsterdam for the Prince Claus Award Ceremony to celebrate creativity for social change.
In the UK, I run my own company, Memorabeleah, which supports individuals to preserve their family histories and on occasion assists families to build bridges with elderly relatives suffering from memory loss. I previously produced a series of oral histories by the Congolese Diaspora in Manchester for the national archives and a documentary film: Lisapo: A Living Archive.
If there is a moment in my life that created a road map to my work, it began as a three-year-old child. It was 1984 and Michael Buerk was reporting on the horrific famine in Ethiopia on the BBC. The images I saw that day haunted my imagination and defined my career. By the age of twenty I was working for Sky News, full of youthful idealism, I was intent on changing perceptions by capturing the important stories that were happening in the world.
As time went by, I realised we were more in the business of creating perceptions rather than changing them. It was in fact extremely difficult to challenge the status quo and to really capture the world from the perspective of another. I had a strong instinct to alter my direction and learn more. I applied to the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) to study social anthropology and development studies. I combined work with sky news and my studies and lived a very busy and stimulating life.
During my time in London my sister had 'run away' with Giffords Circus and was working as a composer and musical director. I often visited and worked along-side Sarah, recording her music and filming with the circus artists. I was fascinated by the unique society I discovered, every week moving their tent and wagons from place to place entertaining big crowds which flocked to various southern England village greens. There was such an eclectic mix of nationalities from Ukrainian acrobats to Ethiopian Jugglers. In fact, that was my initial introduction to circus performers from Ethiopia, which would be the inspiration for my research master's thesis and for many future professional projects.
Following eight vital years working and studying in London it was time to explore further afield and I was awarded one of just twelve places on the highly competitive research masters program at the African Studies Centre at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Leiden had to be the most beautiful town in which to study. I had the opportunity to work with professor Jan Abbink whose writings on Ethiopia had been instrumental during my undergraduate degree and was honoured that he became my supervisor.
When I started my research proposal there were 25 native circus troupes performing across Ethiopia, which acted as a vehicle for promoting health and social awareness, by using performance to inform large audiences. I gained a scholarship for my proposal to explore and study circus performance in Ethiopia. It is hard to put in words the extraordinary six months I spent on fieldwork, documenting the daily life of circus performers from the rural north to the tropical south. It was a country full of contrasts; beauty, poverty, wealth, darkness and happiness. I published my research master's thesis and also produced my first short film inspired by Circus Debre Berhan.
Having finally arrived back in the UK it was time to focus on family. My Nan's health was waning and she needed all her surviving family close at hand. Caring for her with dementia became the inspiration for my company 'Memorabeleah'. I settled in Manchester and started digitalising and editing family footage and creating online promotional films for families, artists and organisations. I continued to work closely with my sister's company Tonal and we created a successful kickstarter campaign film which crowd funded their new album 'Tonal 10' - feel free to take a sneaky peak 'behind the scenes' of the making of Tonal 10.
I got involved with Community Arts North West which works with 'people that are excluded from or on the fringes of the mainstream' to 'facilitate cultural expression and visibility with the many diverse communities that make up Greater Manchester'. I was brought on board for their project Lisapo: The Congolese Tales which gave me the opportunity to keep my African research alive. I interacted with, interviewed and recorded the life histories of Congolese migrants who have settled in Greater Manchester. These records now reside in the Manchester Central Library Archives.
These oral histories were the narratives that would inform, inspire and integrate into a great live performance incorporating live music, visuals and drama at Band on the Wall. I was fortunate to work with documentary filmmaker Gary Stewart in order to build a spectacular live video wall of images for live event. I learnt new film techniques that interact with the performance through live video mixing. I ran media workshops with a team of volunteers and filmed in the local community. The rich material we collected became the basis for my first full-length documentary Lisapo: A Living Archive.
The ReachAnother Foundation got in touch after reading my masters thesis and I have been working with them since early 2015. This not only gave me the opportunity to return to Ethiopia on a regular basis, reconnect with old and discover new friends, but opened my eyes to the efforts of medical charities and the extraordinary work they do.
I hope you have chance to explore some of my films. Thanks for reading and feel free to get in touch.