Q&A with Thatcher Bean director of Madein Ilima | ADFF Athens

On the occasion of the upcoming Architecture & Design Film Festival  first appearance in Athens, we talked to Thatcher Bean director of Made in Ilima which will be screening on April 28th at the Benaki Museum (Piraeus Building).

In the center of Equator Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Ilima community remains one of the most isolated in the world. They have coexisted with endangered wildlife in their surrounding forest for generations, but as the pace of development has increased, this fragile ecosystem has suffered. 

They partnered with the African Wildlife Foundation and our architecture firm, MASS Design Group, in 2012 to create a new conservation focused primary school and community center. This film documents our collective building process – one aimed at leveraging local craft and ecological knowledge towards education, preservation, and beauty.

How did it all started? When did you join MASS Design Group and why did you decide to document the work of MASS in Rwanda and Congo?
I joined MASS in 2013 to help document the effects of the Butaro District Hospital the firm built in Rwanda, to create several short videos that could accompany our co-founder Alan Ricks’ TED Talk. The initial shoot was meant to capture perspectives from those that are not always included in architectural narratives, primarily artisans, builders, and end-users. After working on these initial short pieces and receiving positive feedback, we decided to launch an in-house film production studio to begin capturing an even more diverse set of narratives from our projects.
We decided to document the work using film specifically. This was done as film is one of the only mediums that can capture space through time. Rather than representing a building through a single iconic image, as a static object, we wanted to try to capture and represent the entire process of design – showing the full scope of the inherently political, economic, and social impacts of the built environment. In order to do this with greater fidelity than an image, we wanted to capture voices of those involved along the whole spectrum, as well as many stages of design and building over a long period of time.
Ilima, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, presented a very unique opportunity. We were able to embed a filmmaker, Rachel Brose, on-site during construction. Rachel was born in the Congo and did an incredible job of capturing the building process at a very granular level. Over the course of more than a year she produced a beautiful and immense visual record of what it took to finish the project alongside the Ilima community.
How much time did you need to record and to get all the footage for the film?
Rachel spent over a year on-site. I visited for only about three weeks shortly after the building opened. We originally cut an entirely different version of the film that included music, voice-over, narration, etc., but decided after watching it that the footage alone without heavy editing could tell the story better than something highly produced.
Ilima is one of the most remote places in the world and Rachel had captured the journey and construction in very unique and creative ways. Some shots were over half an hour long. Many of the clips in the film are several minutes in length. This was done to try to give the viewer a sense of the amount of time and labor that went into every stage of the process – things like how long it took to just get to the site, or what it takes to cut down and parcel a single log.
We felt that there is a disconnect between the materials and labor that are required to create the built environment around us generally. After watching over 500 hours of footage we all had a new appreciation of what often happens out of site. The film was edited in a way that tries to really convey this, rather than just entertain or show as much information or content in as short of an amount of time as possible.
What was your greatest challenge in making Made in Ilima?
The greatest challenge was also the greatest opportunity, as cliche as that might sound. To start, filming in Ilima was extremely difficult as you are largely cut-off from everyday supplies and power. Beyond that, the project team at times struggled to find a sufficient amount of food, just as the community would at times. The benefit was that the footage is very genuine in the way it represents the place and there was so much of it. This made it difficult to choose what went into the film, but also gave us a lot of coverage and allowed us to show a very visually rich and comprehensive narrative of the building process.

Can the design of a school  and a community center serve as a example for improving education and society?
We hope it can. The fact that the vast majority of the materials that went into the school came from within 50KM of the site and that most of workers came from the Ilima community, meant that there was a huge economic and training stimulus in the area. While this may seem like a tangent in the context of a primary school’s mission, the ecenomic stimulus meant that families had more access to things like healthcare and transportation. On the opening day of the new school enrollment had almost doubled compared to the old school. We think this is a product of many things, including the way it was built, its design, and how it integrated the community in the process as much as possible.

Have your own personal views of architecture changed after documenting the work of MASS Design Group?  
My father was an architect growing up and always tried to use it as a tool to better our community. As his son I naturally was attracted to most other things that weren’t architecture, but did have an idea growing up of what power it could have through several of his projects.
 When I first joined MASS though I saw something different than I had seen anywhere in the world – buildings that were of a quality and beauty that surpassed many I had grown up around, but in contexts that would not usually have access to design.
While I did have a bit of a behind the scenes to the architectural process growing up, the depth of MASS’s community engagement and the scale of the impact that they achieving through a more holistic process was and remains truly amazing to me.
 I’m very lucky to get to visit most of our projects throughout their design, construction, and occupancy. I get to see first-hand the changes that are taking place in the communities we have been privileged to serve alongside some amazing partner organizations.
I think one of the things this film illustrates best is what can be possible through architecture in very remote and logistically challenging contexts.

What do you hope viewers of Made in Ilima will take away from it?   
I’ve already gotten to hear many take aways from viewers of the film, some that were intended and others that came as complete surprises. I would hope that viewers would question common conceptions of what architecture entails and what it can accomplish. The film is largely about making and materials, which for me has changed the way I look at the buildings I inhabit. Getting to see a direct connection between where a material comes from, the actual hands of real people that touch it along its journey, and what effects that process can have on those people and the end product has deepened my appreciation for things that I often take for granted or no longer consider as being important.
I would also hope that the film complicates common narratives around development, particularly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I think one of the things this film illustrates best is what can be possible through architecture in very remote and logistically challenging contexts.
It’s likely that few people will ever get to visit Ilima, so I hope the film does the beautiful work of the Ilima community justice.
Title  Made in Ilima

Duration  65 min
Country  USA
Director Thatcher Bean
Watch the  Trailer

The first appearance of the Architecture and Design Film Festival in Europe, will take place on Greek territory, and more specifically in Athens at the Benaki Museum (Piraeus Building), and is the result of the collaboration between Archisearch.gr and Demand, two significant agents that have developed over the past few years, a continuous dialogue with the world of Architecture and Design.

ADFF: ATHENS 2018 will take place from the 27 th of April to the 29 th of April, 2018, and will complement the screenings of the films with several events. The Greek audience will have the opportunity to watch films that reflect the most contemporary and innovative instances of global architecture and design, to attend interesting discussions and to engage with distinguished guests, who are involved in the two fields at an international level.

Book your tickets here!