MEET Erin: documentary maker, music appreciator and global traveler
Most stories coming out of Africa show desperate people, extreme poverty and drought. The real Africa is much more than this. It is a place of extreme beauty, culture and history. Erin Levin is out to prove this more positive Africa exists through her upcoming documentary on the African Children’s Choir, a unique organization using the power of music and cultural heritage to uplift children in need. The choir spends much of its time touring the world showcasing the talents of its diverse young members, performing for such honored folks as the Queen of England. Erin is following hot on their trail, camera in hand, determined to show the world what these amazing youth have to offer.
Tell us a little about what you do:
I am producing a documentary feature film on the African Children’s Choir. That means that I research, write, plan, fundraise, interview, film, photograph, travel and repeat.
How did you get started with it?
The summer of 2007, I graduated from the University of Virginia and worked as the outreach coordinator for Dispatch:Zimbabwe, a three-day benefit concert hosted at Madison Square Garden to raise funds and awareness for the dire needs in Zimbabwe. We invited the African Children’s Choir to perform with the band, and I fell in love with the joyful children from Kenya and Uganda. The group was made up of orphans and extremely vulnerable children who would not have made it to second grade. Thanks to the Choir, these children were sponsored through university. I thought it was brilliant!
In the summer of 2009, I took a break from work and went to volunteer for a month in Uganda with my friend’s grassroots non-profit. It was there that I ran into the African Children’s Choir again. This time, I had a camera. I filmed the children telling their stories of transformation through the choir and brought it back to CNN. My mentors there encouraged me to follow the choir for a little while and see what I could put together. After a few months of filming the various choir projects throughout Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and South Africa, and the kids on tour in the U.K., U.S. and Canada, I wrote a 30-minute news documentary that aired on CNN International.
I wanted more people to know the story of the Choir and longed to film one group from start to finish so the audience could glean the incredible difference the Choir makes in these kids’ lives, as well as the lives of everyone they encounter. That’s why I’m here today…
What inspires you to do this work?
The kids! Each of the current and former African Children’s Choir members that I have spent time with have left significant impacts on my heart, mind and soul. The children come from materially nothing. No toys. No books. No electricity. No clean water. No shoes. No school. But they are by far and away the most joyful people on this planet. Their thankfulness and happiness is contagious and I cannot get enough of it. It is a huge challenge, honor and blessing to be given the opportunity to bring them and their story into as many living rooms across the world as this film can!
What challenges have you faced?
Filmmaking is not easy. In fact, most days it seems to make serving in the Peace Corps and covering a Presidential election for CNN look like a piece of cake (which of course they are not). One challenge is getting everything, everyone and everywhere to fall into place to pull off the production. Another big challenge is fundraising. I could not have picked a much worse time in recent economic history to base my (and my crew’s) livelihood on donations. But there has also been no greater time of financial and spiritual need so I am excited to take on the challenge.
Are you collaborating with anyone?
I have some of the most incredible partners, sponsors, mentors, friends and family – they are the only way this film is becoming a reality. Our fiscal agent is the Creative Visions Foundation. Creative Visions Foundation is a publicly supported 501(c)3, which supports Creative Activists who use the power of media and the arts to affect positive change in the world. This means that all donations to the film are tax deductible. My Director is the award-winning and illustrious Scott Thigpen. Scott, along with our Advising Producer Tom Capello, both work at Crazy Legs Productions – an Atlanta-based production company. They hold Producer/Director credits on films and shows such as A Powerful Noise about CARE and Hidden City on the Travel Channel.
I am fortunate to have many mentors from all aspects of the film, music, writing and non-profit industries. These include filmmakers such as Thomas Nybo who works with UNICEF and the New York Times and Danielle Bernstein who won awards for her very first film When Clouds Clear; entrepreneurs such as Josh Jackson who is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Paste Magazine; writers such as Betty Londergan who is a blogger for Heifer International; and young change-makers such as Haley Kilpatrick who founded Girl Talk when she was just 15 years old. I am thrilled about upcoming partnerships with bands around the country who will be playing benefit concerts to share the power of music and help raise funds and awareness for the Choir story to be told. If anyone reading this is interested in working together, I’d love to hear from you!
What impact are you hoping to have on our Atlanta community?
I hope to bring some of Africa’s beauty to Atlanta. Beauty in terms of the precious children who will come perform here next summer as a fundraiser for their sponsorship and also for the film. Beauty in terms of the passion, perspective and progress taking place in Africa right now. Beauty in terms of getting our community to rally behind good news. Beauty in terms of the power music and education have to uplift communities in Africa – which we can learn from and implement here at home as well.
Would you like to see the way you approach your work replicated?
That’s a tough question. I hope people are as passionate as I am in their work. I hope they exude joy within their team as I try to. But like I said earlier, this is hard work. It’s not a way to make a living. A financial living. But it is a way to make a life. My life is so full right now. I feel incredibly alive when I am interviewing the kids on camera and when I watch and write about them. I hope and pray that their stories make the readers and viewers feel alive too. We need a mix of people in our community to make a difference and to make our dreams come true. So I’d love for some people to replicate my spirit and energy in storytelling in whatever they do. I’d also like to see me replicate the way more business-minded people work and strategize. We all have a lot to learn from one another. That’s why I love programs in our city such as Plywood People where we can collaborate and grow together.
What kind of help do you need to keep this going?
I need so much help! Right now I am neck-deep in fundraising efforts. Every dollar counts. Please consider joining this story by donating. You can donate on our blog. All donations are tax-deductible and I am donating 100% of film profits back to the African Children’s Choir. I need help through connections. I’d love for more musicians, students, educators and storytellers to get behind the film. It’s all about the power of music and education to uplift entire communities through these little children. Please spread the word about this film – the more awareness that’s out there about the Choir and why we are trying to share their story, the better chance we have at succeeding.
What are some of the biggest issues you see facing Atlanta?
Personally, I feel like the two biggest challenges Atlanta is facing right now are in education and in human trafficking. We have some of the worst public schools in the country and that saddens me. We also have one of the most thriving human trafficking networks in the world. That terrifies me. I wish all Atlantans would be heart-broken and extremely angry about these two situations and hope to use any platform I can to share the stories of how we can be part of the solution. It actually took me going to Africa to discover the massive positive impact a good education can have on a community and I want to bring those lessons here too. I love what schools like KIPP and the Atlanta Youth Academy are doing and hope our city leaders begin to hear our children’s cry to learn instead of just be tested. It was also in Africa – while living in Madagascar – that I learned about the horrors of child sex trafficking. When I came home I learned that it’s a massive problem here too. It is unacceptable for people, for little girls, to be bought and sold and raped for profit. Organizations in our city such as Wellspring Living are making huge strides to stop this through policy and to help and heal the victims.
What are some of your favorite things and organizations around town?
I adore all of the groups I’ve mentioned throughout this interview and highly suggest learning more about and getting involved in any of them. Some other fun summer tips: Visit the Farmer’s Market at Saint Phillips on Peachtree any Saturday morning, get outside and go hiking and camping in the peaceful North Georgia Mountains, cool off with a cold beverage and hip acoustic tunes at Eddie’s Attic on the Decatur Square, volunteer with amazing at-risk kids through City of Refuge or the Fugees Family…
Where can interested readers find you?
Me and the ACC Film are super social! You can find us on Facebook (me or the film) on Twitter (me or the film) on Linkedin or Pinterest. There is also a Tumblr for the film and for me. You can also see some footage on Vimeo. If you want to find me around town I frequent our local San Francisco Coffee shops. You can also read my Huffington Post column.