‘Unearthing The Pen’ dir. Carol Salter (2010)

A boy’s struggle to reconcile tradition with his desire to learn. 

Year: 2010
Country: Uganda
Director: Carol Salter
Writer: Carol Salter
Producer: Carol Salter
Key Cast: Locheng

Winner, Best Documentary, 2010

Presented in association with Rushes Soho Shorts Film Festival 2012

5 Questions for Carol Salter


C8: Unearthing the Pen is a fascinating documentary – where did you come across the subject matter?

CS: I was filming in Northern Uganda for Oxfam when I met a young boy (not the one featured in this film) who told me about his passion to go to school but that he didn’t have the means to pay school fees nor for a school uniform he would need. I decided to sponsor him to go to school, and through this came across many other children and their stories, one of them being the boy, Locheng, whose story I follow in the film. I was moved by these children’s determination to go to school, especially as I always hated school and tried to avoid going. It is this passion and hunger for knowledge which I tried to capture in the film, Unearthing the Pen.

While in Uganda I also learnt how the elders of the Karamajong tribe, had put a curse on the written word over 40 years ago – they buried a pen to symbolically show their fear of education. The source of this curse is not very well known even in Uganda. However, the fear of education still affects families today in that part of the country.

C8: How did you work out who you wanted to follow during filming? Did you do a research trip?

CS: I made an initial research trip to meet and talk to children who dream of going to school.  As soon as I met Locheng I knew he was the boy I wanted to follow. He had a wonderful mixture of wisdom and innocence. It is his amazing passion and hunger for knowledge I wanted to capture.
Filming with Locheng, a young boy, and not being from the culture myself, nor speaking the language, I really had to rely on the local contacts to guide me and make sure that the film was sensitive to the boy’s situation and local traditions. This was particularly important as the story is about the elders preventing a boy learning to read.  I felt I had a moral obligation not to raise this boy’s expectations in ways that I could not meet. That was really important to me. By pointing the camera at him, I put him in the spotlight and it’s quite a responsibility.  My local contacts guided me in this respect.

C8: Have the people who feature in the film had a chance to see it? If so, what was their reaction?

CS: Yes. I went back to Uganda to show the film to Locheng and my translator.  The village bar was the only place that had a working generator so I screened it there on my laptop, it was a very special moment. Locheng really liked seeing himself as it’s something he rarely does (even seeing his reflection in a mirror is unusual). With making the film I knew that unless Locheng found a sponsor, he would never have the opportunity to go to school, so I decided to support him financially myself.

C8The Scottish Documentary Institute has a great track record for engaging with new talent, had you worked with them before this?

CS:I got onto The Scottish Documentary Institute’s ‘Bridging the Gap’ scheme to develop the idea, the film itself was not selected for production funding. That’s why I decided to fund the film myself and get the story told. They also supported the film with a colour grade and help with festival distribution. 

C8: What’s next on the horizon for you as a filmmaker?

CS: I have just written my first fiction film which I plan to shoot in the autumn.