History and Context of The Bridge Project
The Bridge emerged out of a collaborative research project undertaken by an anthropologist based at Bard College (New York) and six interpreters in Kenya that explored the everyday work life of interpreters in Kakuma refugee camp. All of the interpreters are also refugees. Kakuma refugee camp is one of the largest and oldest refugee camps, established in 1992 following the war in Sudan as well as conflict in Somalia, Ethiopia, and other countries in the Great Lakes region. It is located in the northwest corner of Kenya, in the economically-deprived Turkana region of Kenya that has a history of fighting the British during the colonial period and as well as the Kenya government after independence.
Working under Covid restrictions, the research collective met twice a week on Zoom to discuss their own experiences at work, interviews with other interpreters, focus group notes, and view short role-play films about interpretation in the camp. After four months of meetings, the Kakuma-based members proposed that we pivot from more conventional research outcomes to making a film of their own. None of the members of the research collective had any experience with filmmaking. After securing funding from Open Society University Network (OSUN) Hubs for Connected Learning, the interpreters attended film classes with a refugee-led organization in the camp (Youth Voices of Kakuma), created a fictional script based on their research, and produced a film for which they hired actors, performed themselves, and cast the anthropologist as a humanitarian officer.
The Bridge is the resulting 30-minute film centers on everyday episodes in the lives of two refugees who work as interpreters in a camp for an imagined humanitarian agency called ‘Action for Refugees’. Interpreters in Kakuma are employed as ‘incentive workers’ - a unique category of labor in the camp that is one of the only ways to find paid work. Legally, in Kenya, refugees are not allowed to work in salaried positions, since they are given housing, food, water, and shelter for free from UNHCR and, as is often repeated, refugees "don’t pay taxes". The creation of a category of 'incentive workers' enables refugees to effectively become the 'civil servants' of the humanitarian aid regime. Incentive workers are sometimes referred to as ‘volunteers’ because they receive a small stipend, often called a “motivation”. As depicted in The Bridge, incentive work may inspire something quite different than simply motivation for the work.
The Bridge depicts the multilingual nature of the camp - five languages are represented in the film: Kiswahili, Kirundi, Somali, French, English – and is subtitled in English. It focuses on issues specific to interpreters in the field (lack of training, rejection by other refugee clients due to their ethnicity, the experience of nightmares and other consequences of the trauma associated with interpreting difficult cases and at times re-experiencing their own pasts). It also addresses topics that affect refugee workers more generally: the dual-status of being both "refugee" and "worker", the problems with “incentive” pay (amount, delay in payments etc.), inadequate transportation, obstacles to organizing to effect change. Most poignantly, the film depicts a lack of respect for interpreting work along with its hidden centrality to the operations of international organizations in the field.
Following the production of The Bridge, several members of the research collective went on to established their own Community-Based Organization (CBO) in Kakuma that aims to produce more films to advocate for change (https://photofilm4change.org). The collective is now engaged in producing a second film that centers more broadly on the different kinds of incentive labor in the camp.