The educational structure in the MENA region has been the same for as long as I can remember. In Egypt, we have something called "Thanaweya Amma", or General Secondary, a term that strikes fear in the hearts of students and parents alike. These are a series of standardized tests during secondary school where the students need to study, memorize and cramp their brains to complete comprehensive exams, in order to get accepted into specific undergraduate programs depending on their final grades. It’s a point system, which leads to kids not always studying what they want, and not having another choice once they graduate with their secondary school diploma.
Only recently have I started noticing the problems with the public education system - there is barely any room for creativity. There is no room for questioning nor curiosity. Classes such as theater, filmmaking and design are taught for a couple of hours, if they are taught at all. The only way for massive change is for governments to create better educational modules for their private schools to encourage more classes like Art, Design, Theater, Filmmaking, Storytelling, etc. But governments have other "more pressing matters" to focus on, which leaves education in the dark. So, what's the solution? Luckily, there are some pretty cool individuals in the world that have dedicated their lives to giving public school kids a chance to express themselves.
Amal Bahloul (who strangely enough looks alot like the beautiful Mrs. Amal Clooney), is the president and founder of ‘Lights, Camera, Learn’, a non-profit organization founded in 2016.
What does ‘Lights, Camera, Learn’ do? They create edutainment content by kids, for kids. They do this through their International Internship Program, which provides interns with a wonderful opportunity to travel and learn about a new culture, firsthand from its locals. At the same time, local children have a wonderful opportunity to learn and practice their language skills, and tell stories through filmmaking, with the help of the interns. Two cultures understanding their respective differences and bonding over storytelling - we love the idea!
We met with Amal to understand more about the inspiration behind ‘Lights, Camera, Learn’, her entrepreneurship adventures, family, and the future of education.
Education through filmmaking?
Wrichitects: You have your actors, directors, directors of photography, video editors.. an entire movie production team, I would say! What made you start ‘Lights, Camera, Learn’?
Amal (A): I didn't really have a choice - It was a human obligation. I was very much inspired by my dad, who is a linguist that is passionate about understanding the education system. He wrote a book called ’Lights, Camera, Action: the use of filmmaking in the classroom’. He is a Linguistics professor at the American University of Sharjah.
I created my first ‘filmmaking’ session in Tunis) in 2013, . I decided to bring US friends with me to attend one of my sessions. That’s when I realized that many people, like my friends in the US, had never been to the Middle East. They have never met an Arab, yet had strong opinions about the Middle East.
Where were you in the US?
A: II was in California - Malibu, where I studied. Anyways, I invited my friends to Tunis and it was a huge hit! Everybody loved it. So we decided to do another filming session, and it just grew bigger from that point onwards. This is how we started. No other company does what we do, the way we do it.
Your family is originally from Tunis.. tell me more about your experience in Tunis.
A: I’ve never lived there. My parents live in the UAE but my grandma lives in Tunis. It’s the place where I knew kids needed a fun learning experience. The education system in Tunis kills dreams. Kids are told to only study something scientific, or else there is no point. There is no room or encouragement for creativity. They are not empowered to express themselves.
Is the education system in Tunis similar to Egypt 's "Thanaweya Amma"?
A: Precisely, it is about revolutionizing this ancient education system. Edutainment is about using the process of filmmaking to teach a topic while having fun. A lot goes into making a movie, and it takes collaboration, planning, communication, research, leadership, and most of all, a lot of creativity to pull off a good movie. So while these kids are having fun, they’re also learning a lot of life skills that they need to thrive in this global and competitive world. And for the first time, they get to see that a classroom can also look like a movie set, and that learning can look a lot like playing.
How do you approach the schools to get the kids to sign up? Are the schools happy with your program and what the kids are learning? Do they give you a hard time?
A: So far, our program is doing too well... we have many interested schools, but we can’t be everywhere! It’s not about quantity or doing something commercial. This is not a cookie cutter experience. I don’t want to compromise the quality.. I don’t want to have too many kids at one time, where one is the leading actress and the rest are supporting actors. Each kid gets a turn at being the star of their own movie.
What made you create a movie setting experience for the kids to learn, as opposed to any other type of learning experience?
A: Filming is one of the most realistic yet creative types of art. The kids are practicing the words and phrases like they would in real life; the grammar and punctuation. Best way to combine vocabulary, grammar, listening and speaking, but in a more natural and casual setting, unlike the typical education system.
Why not theater?
A: Theater is great but it's de-mode (old-fashioned). It’s not what the new generation is focusing on. They’re not going to theaters - they are watching movies on YouTube. We create a video that each kid can have forever. Also, when they make mistakes during filming, it’s not the same as making mistakes in front of a live audience. Plus, mistakes on film means more bloopers for us, which is fun!
How many kids have you had in your sessions so far? How many movie stars?
A: 50 movies, in 7 different countries. And 452 movie stars.
That’s really cool. You mentioned earlier that you don’t want to compromise the quality of these learning programs.. do you see your team/ company expanding? Balancing the demand for the program while maintaining the quality?
A: I definitely see that happening. How will we do that? We will have to build and maintain the solid foundation first. And it has to be done right. My startup is tech empowered, but it is not tech based. I’ve been told to turn ‘Lights, Camera, Learn’ into an app.. but I won’t. This isn’t a ‘Skype with a Local Kid’ type of program; it's 100% relying on human interactions.
Structuring a business and making it sustainable takes time. Although I want to build a bigger team, I don't want to bring them in just to disappoint them. I am grateful for the people that help out.. they believe in the vision and believe in what we do. And they believe in me.
I see myself creating the business structure for ‘Lights, Camera, Learn’, and then letting it blossom and bloom. I love and I’m proud of what I created, and want it to become a self-sustaining model that grow bigger than me, and can be the legacy of anyone that has invested in it.
As an entrepreneur, have you created any other businesses?
A: I accidentally started a second company this year, called ‘Sawarly’, with the same people that came from the US to help the kids for ‘Lights, Camera, Learn’. We organized a film retreat on a beach in Tunis with Tunisian filmmakers. Within one week, the filmmakers chose a topic to debate, like philosophy or religion.. then came up with a movie that portrayed their point of view. One group’s topic was Feminism.. one group explored the concept of Depression. Another group created a viral video. Another group explored the horror genre. This overall experience connected so many different people. The discussions with the older crowd was much different.. more deep.
A: I spoke my plan out loud.. the world heard me, and responded.
The world is so diverse.. filled with infinite cultures.
A: That’s another reason why I started ‘Lights, Camera, Learn’. Every traveling opportunity that I had as a student was eye-opening. I’ve travelled enough to point out and notice those who have never left the US, or those who are visiting Italy or China for the first time. They tend to stick to their group and never speak to the locals. They dine at American restaurants and visit all the touristy spots... and never even hear the local language! They go where they are comfortable, which is a shame in a world that has so much diversity and so much beauty.
‘Lights, Camera, Learn’ gives people a chance to open their mind while they’re still young.. and are open to change and accepting others. The older people get, the more comfortable they become.. and the lower the chances of them changing their minds, or learning new things.
By the end of our session at ‘Lights, Camera, Learn’, my job is to make sure each person in the program has at least one local friend that they can keep in contact with (like pen pals) and has learned something new during the program. If they have questions about Arabs, or Islam, or any other topic.. they have their new pen pal to talk to.
How do you get the participants to communicate/ interact with the locals? Was it on a trial-and-error base? What's your curriculum based on?
A: After some research, I discovered that I don't like local tour guides, especially their non-personal and cookie cutter experiences. Instead, I send the interns with groups of people their age (locals) to show them around. They play, explore the city, and ask questions.. You can't ask a tour guide any question you want, especially if it's for a ‘Taboo’ topic.
It’s all about ratio.. not too many people. One-on-one (intern to local) or smaller groups of ten.
Another way which is very effective is encouraging people to work together. What I don’t like about volunteering in refugee camps is that people visit for a short period of time, take photos, cry and then go home. This sucks for both the volunteers and the refugees. With ‘Lights, Camera, Learn’, the participants visit different countries with a purpose.. to spend time acting and writing movies with the locals. Everyone is working together towards a common goal. Try making a movie alone.. Impossible! When the interns need something (eg. a costume for a kid), they contact their local friend.
At the end of the sessions, there is a red carpet event. If three people aren’t crying at the event, then it’s not a ‘Lights, Camera, Learn’ red carpet event! Kids cry because they are going to miss us and want us to return the following year. The participants cry because they are proud of the kids and will miss them. And don’t get me started on the parents..
Do you have a way of keeping in touch with every kid?
A: Yes, typically the kids add their instructors/ interns on Facebook. I’m still in touch with the first group of kids from our very first session. They always message and say, “thank you so much for encouraging us to be more creative and to learn”. A couple of them even went to the US to study!
You aren’t feeding the kids information - you are asking them to tell you their story.
Traditional educational systems focus on ‘right vs. wrong’. The first question we get asked in our first exercise with the kids is.. “is this right or wrong?” There is no right or wrong in storytelling.. so instead.. i ask.. “How do you feel about it?”
This isn't only a “Middle Eastern/ African educational system” issue. We did this program in France and in Spain, and the kids had the same problem there too.
Kids are never asked, “Hey, have you experienced anything in your life that's worth sharing? What is your story?” at school. Especially with a lot of orphans. The best way to help a kid heal is to talk about that pain. They don't want to create movies about being orphans. We start with “what's your worst day of your life... what’s the best day of your life.” then they talk about their parents. These sessions happen in front of other kids.. The kids never listened to each other’s stories because they were never encouraged to talk about it.
What did you want to do when you were a kid?
A: At first, an interior designer then fashion designer. Then, I realized I only wanted to do this because it was “the industry to be in”. Eventually, I decided I wanted to become a psychologist and open up an orphanage. My parents told me to study something business related to make money, then I could pursue my psychology degree later.
I’m grateful my family and I grew up as Middle Class.. we were grounded. We didn’t have rich people problems nor poor people problems. It’s important for everyone to understand empathy... to know how privileged they really are.. and to make smart purchasing decisions every once in a while.
Words: Yosr El Sherbiny
Photos: Lights, Camera, Learn
Visit lightscameralearn.org to learn more about their cultural trips and movie making sessions across the world. All photo credits go to "Lights, Camera, Learn".