Student Films for AFM in Benin
by Becky St. Clair
Alex Swensen, junior documentary film major at Andrews University, served as a student missionary with Adventist Frontier Missions (AFM) during the 2013–2014 school year. Based in Berrien Springs, Michigan, AFM recruits one University student each year to serve as a videographer and photographer for specific projects they maintain around the world.
“My role is to assist them with video production,” says Swensen. “I’m currently working on three films. I’ve filmed them all and am now sitting in a little room editing film 40 hours a week.”
AFM uses videos as promotional material to demonstrate to potential and current donors what they are doing with donor money. The missionaries on the ground write stories to keep donors updated, but Swensen points out that there’s something about a visual medium used to tell stories that allows one to see the story unfolding that is much more powerful.
On a recent AFM trip to Benin, Swensen filmed two projects focusing on the Dendi and Odamari people. These communities are animistic and ritualistic with a strong Muslim influence, so reaching them with Christianity is a challenge.
“Benin is thought to be the birthplace of Voodoo,” says Swensen. “They utilize strange ritualistic sacrifices, witch doctors, talisman, and other heathen practices. There is a basic Muslim dislike for Christians in general within these communities, and a lot of supernatural issues going on. It’s interesting and sometimes frightening.”
After months of scripting the film project and contact with the missionaries on-site, Alex traveled alone to Benin with four checked bags, each weighing 50 pounds, and several carry-ons. His trip was scheduled to last one month, during which time he was expected to gather enough footage to create three 30-minute productions.
“Any time I wasn’t sleeping or eating and it was light outside I was shooting,” he says. “There’s essentially no Internet there; although it does exist it rarely works, and when it does it’s extremely slow. It was an interesting change of pace for my life during that month.”
Lack of Internet was only one of several challenges Swensen faced while on this project. Weather, the language barrier, lack of showers, and hauling so much luggage on his own were also difficult. The dry season had just started and most days were around 90 degrees. Although there was water, it wasn’t heated, and “showers” were just buckets of cold water poured over one’s head.
“Also, I don’t speak French, which is the most commonly spoken language in Benin,” says Swensen. “I worked with translators and a few of the locals were able to speak a little English, but I essentially just learned enough French to tell people that I don’t speak French, and to greet people politely.”
The challenges were worth it, however, for the experience and the education.
“I love traveling,” says Swensen. “It’s a great experience to be able to learn about different cultures by immersing yourself in them: seeing the sights, getting to know the people, trying local foods. I thrive on new experiences. The opportunity to hear about life and the world from the perspective of the people of Benin was amazing.”
Now back in Berrien Springs, Swensen spends his weeks sifting through hundreds of hours of footage, pulling out clips and segments to tell a story in 30 minutes, three times over. The first of the three videos is completed and will appear on 3ABN on May 30 at 6 p.m. (ET), and will be released on DVD through AFM.
“I really enjoy the process of seeing something like this come together,” says Swensen. “Though it’s somewhat long and tedious at times, it’s a wonderful learning experience for both me and AFM.”
Though this was not his first time traveling for a film project, it was his first time traveling abroad for one. And while he does admit it’s not work for just anyone, he encourages those who are interested to seriously consider working overseas for a mission organization.
“Do it,” he says. “It will totally change your outlook and perspective on life and you will be a better person because of it. You will learn a lot about yourself, other people and God.”
Once he finishes his film degree, Swensen hopes to work for the Adventist Church, helping to enhance the way the Church uses media to reach young people.
“What would happen if the Adventist Church took advantage of the fact that so many young people are spending so much time in front of technology?” asks Swensen. “What if they added to the mix something engaging with underlying positive messages and morals? It would change the world. I want to be a part of that change. I feel God has called me to do that. And I’m happy to do any other bits of good I can in the meantime on my journey there.”
For more information on AFM and their work in Benin and around the world, visit afmonline.org. For updates on Swensen’s Benin and other film projects, visit his website at alexswensen.us.