“Thangata” isn’t likely to appear at local theaters, but the documentary is getting a fairshowing in venues ranging from UCI’s Human Rights Film Festival to a Bay Area public health conference to Orange County classrooms. This is precisely the intent of its creator, anthropology doctoral candidate Marty Otanez.
The video project grew out of Otanez’s study of the southeast African tobacco industry. Depicting the lives of tobacco farmers serving as bonded labor for transnational companies in Malawi – “the world’s most tobacco-dependent economy,” according to Otanez – the documentary looks beyond victimization of the African workers to examine the workers’ role, and society’s role, in public health and corporate accountability.
“‘Thangata’ is not really part of my dissertation,” Otanez says. “It’s more of a companion piece to make the work more public.” The first-time video maker created his 15- minute DVD and interactive study guide with help from his graphic-artist wife, Michelle; his advisor, Victoria Bernal, associate professor of anthropology in the School of Social Sciences; and UCI’s instructional resources staff.
“Marty learned new skills to create his video, which expanded his work to another venue,” Bernal says. “The really exciting part is how he combines his own interests with anthropology field work and relates those interests to larger issues.”
With a hand-held camera and no filmmaking experience, Otanez endured rugged and sometimes dangerous conditions including dodging bullets at a human rights demonstration in Malawi – to make his documentary.
“I had incredible access,” he says, crediting his fluency in the ChiNyanja language and previous studies in Africa for a master’s degree from the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. In filmed interviews he encouraged the Malawi farmers to tell their own stories.
Hitting the Mark Otanez is targeting his video to young adults, hoping to raise their awareness of the connection between such cultural icons as Oreo cookies and Marlboro Lites (both Philip Morris Cos. subsidiary products), between bonded labor in Malawi and the price of cigarettes in Costa Mesa, between the treatment for malaria in Malawi (aspirin) and U.S. health resources devoted to lung cancer. The video has been shown in local education settings, but Otanez hopes for a wider viewing: “There’s a chance my film may be presented at an upcoming assembly meeting of the World Health Organization,” he says.