Corps to Career: It takes a village to make a movie

Years after finishing Peace Corps, Travis returned to Ghana to create "Nakom"
By Peace Corps
Sept. 18, 2014

A year into service in Ghana, Travis Pittman scrawled “HOW DOES IT FEEL?,” a line from Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” onto a bedroom wall. 

It was a reflection on being the outsider, spending time living away from a privileged life and learning how others live. Travis was totally and completely immersed in another culture – working along Ghanaians, learning their language and eating their food. That level of immersion left a lasting impression.

Feeling an outsider, Travis also observed that Ghanaians felt like outsiders themselves in the rapidly modernizing world. Years after finishing Peace Corps, Travis returned to Ghana to create "Nakom," a film that Travis hopes will honestly reflect the struggle between Ghanaian traditions and the desire to modernize. Travis says it is an opportunity to give audiences “a different lens to see the world,” which is what Peace Corps gave Travis.

Even going into Peace Corps, Travis wasn’t necessarily looking to make an enormous impact in the world. Travis simply wanted to lend an extra pair of hands and gain a wider understanding of the world and focused on building relationships and making small differences in the lives of the people in the community. Pittman devised small-scale projects that helped local families generate income by raising and selling rabbits and also arranged for a village-wide tree-planting that still excited the community when Travis went back to film.

Spending more time in the community, Travis learned more about the contrasts between Ghanaian and western culture. “More than anything it hit me how deeply the people I interacted with felt an inferiority to the West, despite having no real context of what [the Western] experience is like. Travis began making nudging attempts to explain that the U.S. has its share of problems too.  The deepest irony was the fact that many of Ghanaians’ cultural values – such as community, hard work and connection to the land – are all increasingly sought after in Western culture, as exemplified by movements like local farming.  Travis felt inspired to change the conversation and allow each culture to learn from one another.

Travis returned to the U.S. and to his roots by becoming a writer and producer for Rasquaché Films, a company dedicated to the realization of personally and socially relevant narrative films since its founding in 2008. Prior to joining Peace Corps, Pittman earned a degree from Columbia in Political Science and Film. This put Travis in the perfect position to return to the community and portray them through film.

It was important to Travis to keep the community involved. All but six people working on the film were Ghanaian. Actors, producers and just about everyone else were from the area, including Isaac Awinimi, the producer who translated the script, organized and coached the actors, and tackled all of the logistical challenges that arose. The crew had to struggle against the constant threat of illness, a lack of batteries, poor transportation and no electricity in order to film directly in Nakom. Yet facing these difficulties allowed them to accurately portray the contrast between the modern and traditional world, as well as how both worlds collide.

The story opens with a young Ghanaian medical student in his dorm room finding out about his father’s death. As the eldest son, he is forced to return home as the new head-of-household and halt his studies in order to take over the family farm and repay his father’s debts. The film follows his family over the course of a year and highlights the struggles of adjusting to a new life while leaving behind the future he thought he had. As Travis puts it, the film is centered on the challenge facing Nakom and, one could argue, Ghana itself. The challenge “is how the next generation reconciles older traditions and lifestyles within a rapidly globalizing world,” Travis says.

Travis hopes the film about an unfamiliar place and culture will have mainstream appeal. To Travis, it is a small attempt to “hit upon something more universal – the capriciousness of human contentment.” So far, that message seems to be getting across as the film was just received the Austin Film Society Grant for post-production. 

At the heart of the film, the lesson “that one life is as good as another” stands.

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