Awra Amba: Utopia in Ethiopia

Interactivity, collaboration and activism

A guest post from one of this years speakers Paulina Tervo.

Background  – why did the story turn into an interactive project?

In 2004 I came across a small community called Awra Amba during my travels in the rural parts of Northern Ethiopia. Having seen a lot of poverty and hardship on my trip, I was really struck by this place.

In 1972, Zumra Nuru, the founder of the community, sat down with a like-minded group of people to analyse what they felt were the main problems in their society – and together, they started to change them. The problems they identified included gender inequality, racism, conflict, economic poverty and harmful traditions. What they had achieved, in extremely difficult circumstances, was truly remarkable. It wasn’t, however, without a great deal of struggle.

Zumra Nuru, the founder of the community.

Ever since this visit I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I felt as if I had come across such an extraordinary place and group of people, whose way of life and values made so much sense. I had been getting more and more disillusioned by our Government’s actions around the world, and the images our media feed to us from the developing world. Seeing this village gave me new hope, and inspired me to try to bring out positive stories from Africa.

In the years that followed I bored my friends and family to death with my excitement about Awra Amba. After all, it is very far away from what people around me knew and cared about. In early 2008, after knocking on many doors without any result, I started making an independent film about Awra Amba with a colleague.

Now, 4 years later I have visited Awra Amba six times and spent several months living with them. During this time, I have also gotten to know the community better and gained a deeper understanding of the challenges they face. They opened up their homes and hearts to me, because they believe we are all brothers and sisters, no matter where we come from. To them colour, race, gender and ethnicity makes no difference. Everyone is equal.

In March 2010, I premiered my 30-minute film Awra Amba – Utopia in Ethiopia at the Frontline Club in London. This sell-out event was organised to celebrate International Women’s Day and was attended by a diverse audience interested in global issues. There was a Q&A after the film with the cinematographer, the editor and myself present.

It was a Q&A like none I had ever been involved in before. At first many questions were asked to the three of us, some of which were a little contentious. But all of a sudden, it was no longer us answering but the audience discussing and debating among themselves. This discussion went on for over an hour – more than twice the duration of the actual film. And when the Frontline Club finally wrapped it up, it felt as if this was only the beginning. There was so much more to talk about.

 The interactive documentary

I believe that this was the seed for our new project, which after a long development phase has taken the shape of an interactive, 360 web experience. So let me explain what I mean by that.

We were confident that many people wanted to discuss the issues at the heart of Awra Amba’s way of life (i.e. gender equality, religion, democracy etc). We wanted to make it possible for global audiences to visit Awra Amba virtually through an immersive, cinematic experience by exploring the story through various media.

Within 360° environment created with photography and illustration, there are 10 short films that explore Awra Amba’s core values and philosophy. In the films, we meet characters from the village, whose personal stories, often around a specific event or issue, expose the macro theme, such as education, democracy or population control.

Screenshot from one of the interactive 360 demos


These 10 film themes tie in directly with how we plan to engage and involve our audience. For the first 10 weeks following our launch, we shall promote one film and theme every week on our site, and through our media partner sites and networks.

Audience participation – the moral fabric concept

Because Awra Amba’s main livelihood is weaving, and it is what they spend most of their days doing, we wanted to use it as a visual theme throughout the website. So we came up with the ‘moral fabric’ concept.

Effectively what Awra Amba is trying to do is create a new moral fabric – discarding harmful traditions and bringing in progressive practices and values. We want the audience to take part in helping shape this new moral fabric, by contributing their own ideas and also by sharing the Awra Amba experience through social networks.

By using Popcorn JS technology, developed by the brilliant Mozilla Foundation we have created an interactive video player making it possible for the audience to add their reactions, start discussion threads and post links to resources around the web. But we didn’t just want to create an ordinary discussion forum. We also wanted the audience to take part in creating something together while they contribute.

All audience contributions will be visualised in a digital scarf (the moral fabric) that grows on the site over 10 weeks. By adding a contribution onto the timeline of the film, the user adds a thread into the scarf, which grows the more users contribute. After 10 weeks the scarf will be complete, its emerging pattern a result of audience participation. The digital scarf will stay online both as a rich information resource, which can be categorised according to theme and subt-theme (such as equality / early marriage etc.), and of course as a visual artefact.

The pattern will be used as a model for a real scarf, which will be woven by the community. We aim to organise the Fair Trade sale of this scarf through our website and partner organisations. The aim of the project is not only to connect people with Awra Amba and Awra Amba with people globally, but also to connect people to each other through shared interests and beliefs.

Influences and activism

This experiment could perhaps be called Transmedia Activism. Lina Srivastava describes it as a “real and distinct opportunity for activists to raise awareness and influence action by distributing content through a multiplatform approach, particularly in which people participate in media creation. Transmedia activism is one of the best ways to have people connect to a cause, by exposing them to a variety of media properties over various distribution channels—which opens up avenues for dialogue and provides an audience an educational experience about workable solutions”.

My influences have also included all of Kat Cizek’s work from her early days of ‘Filmmaker in Residence’ to her brilliant Highrise project. Her work, especially Out My Window, succeeds in creating a ‘world’ that the user is able to inhabit in an intimate and immersive way, creating a feeling of ‘being there’. Her collaborative way of working has also inspired me, from the way she involves communities in the storytelling process to how audiences use and contribute to the story.

Through this project, our aim is to help the community in a sustainable manner. To make the process transparent, the community will establish a social security fund, which outlines their current development initiatives – including for instance a fair trade textile business to the construction of a public high school benefiting over 600 students from surrounding communities. Together with the community we will plan and launch fundraising campaigns and events, eventually training them to set up and manage their own campaigns in the future.


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