Author Archive

An Unexpected Family: Full Documentary

An Unexpected Family: Stories from a Slum – Trailer 1

Watch our film in the American Online Film Festival!

American On Line Film Awards


Our film is now screening at the American Online Film Festival! You can check it out here!

This has been a long journey so it’s great to finally see an end result. It would be great if you could spread the word via email, facebook, twitter, carrier pigeon or whatever way possible!

If you’re tweeting please use the #anunexpectedfamily and the twitter handles @riyad_director and @onlinefilmawards.

Thanks for your help as always!!

We’ve been accepted into our first film festival!!

Hello all,

Well it’s been a very long time since I’ve updated this website for which I apologise profusely for! But I’ve still been working on getting the documentary into festivals and I’ve been hoping for some good news, which for the past 2 years there has been absolutely none.  So our good news first…we’ve been accepted into the American Online Film Awards as part of their spring showcase! This is amazing news! I can’t believe it really. Anyway as I said, it’s been a long time since I wrote so probably best to give you a recap on the project.

We finished the final cut about 2 years ago now (2 years!!) and the primary focus has been to get the film into film festivals. Getting the film into a film festival will give it some credibility and increases exposure for the film. So over the past 2 years I’ve submitted the film into about 20 festivals, spent a lot of money but unfortunately no luck. We’ve been on some short lists and had some nice feedback from the festivals but no acceptances. Often the feedback is that they see many films like this about Africa so it’s about ensuring they have diversity in their festivals. It’s been hard and I’ve spent quite a bit of cash on festival entry fees but I thought it was worth the time and expense. But the lack of acceptance has definitely made me question the documentary. As I’ve said before we wanted to make a film that had a somewhat unconventional narrative and forced viewers to engage with the film. But maybe I wasn’t very successful at this and maybe it comes across as confusing. I’ve watched it again recently and though I still really enjoy it I could see where it could be improved. But it has been a long, long time and recently I decided the best thing at this point was just to get it out there, put it online and let people see it and decide for themselves.

Weirdly as soon as I made this decision I received an email from a festival director in London encouraging me to enter the film into his festival. This was a surprise and not something that’s happened to me before. It’s funny how things work out sometime. I decided it’s worth one more shot and I was going to wait until this festival made it’s decision before I put it up online. But even more strange and amazing was that we were preselected for the American Online Film Awards to be part of their spring showcase. So, as I said, we’re in our first festival! Which after four years is beyond amazing!

But I’m going to use the opportunity to make small small changes to simplify the story a bit and make the narrative a bit more accessible. I really want it to be as good as it can be. At some point I will upload the film to YouTube so everyone can watch it.  So that’s where we are on this film! It has truly been an epic journey and one in which I’ve learned a lot. As always your support has been invaluable and very appreciated.

Riyad Barmania


The first interview in a series of short interviews with the creative team behind An Unexpected Family.

What inspired you to tell Hanne Howard’s story?

Like most things, it wasn’t one thing; rather it was a combination of a few different factors. First of all, my family is South African so I have always been aware of the challenges of Africa and like many people connected to Africa I have grown weary of the prevalent negatives images of the continent. It’s war, famine, AIDS or corruption. I know from personal experience that Africa is much more than that and I wanted to shoot something that would show a different side of Africa.

Also, I think that I have always had a “social conscious” and am aware of the sometimes harsh realities of the world. In a previous “life” I did a bit of volunteer work for organizations like Amnesty International and Save the Children. I considered working in the NGO world but for various reasons my life took me down another path. Ultimately it was the best thing that could have happened to me because I found the world of filmmaking.

Now that I am a filmmaker I try to seek out projects that combine my craft, my background and my interests. So all these different things set me up for that moment when I received an email from a friend telling me about his mother’s project in the Lenana Slum in Nairobi.

What has the impact of this project been on you as a filmmaker? Personally?

 As a filmmaker my experience and abilities grew in leaps and bounds. You need to have clarity and patience foremost but you also need the ability to recognize new storylines. It’s about having the people skills to interject yourself, your crew and your camera into someone’s lives. It also forces you to evaluate your moral and ethical boundaries. There were times when we could have pushed the boundaries to get an obvious emotional response. It would have made for a dramatic moment but it would have resulted in causing genuine emotional hurt in someone. It is something other documentary filmmakers are willing to do but something I was not comfortable with. I think with our approach we achieved these same dramatic moments but in a more honest and natural way and we were still able to hold on to our integrity in the end.

Personally it’s something that has shaped me as well as my perceptions of the world. A camera gives you such access and insight into people’s lives. It takes you places that I could not normally access. I would have to have a heart made of stone not to be impacted by some of the stories I heard. But it does no one any good to feel sorry for them. Nothing will change. So when I arrived back from Kenya I was in a funny place as I attempted to reconcile all these different emotions and experiences in some sort of positive fashion.


The second interview in a series of short interviews with the creative team behind An Unexpected Family.


What were some of the challenges in shooting this documentary?

Shooting documentaries is a different world than conventional drama or commercial shooting. Whether we were operating the camera, recording sound or watching the monitor we had to be aware of everything around us. Riyad, the director, trusted me and gave me the freedom to move the camera. If we saw something compelling we stopped whatever we were doing and ran there.

The majority of the shoot took place at the HHF centre in the Lenana slum, which consists of a fenced off yard with a few classrooms made out of corrugated iron. The centre receives direct sunlight throughout the day so I relied heavily on this. This was a challenge and working with just natural light made me search for every bit of light. In every camera position I worked hard to compose the best picture while looking at the highlights and the shadows. The most unexpected thing was the clothes worn by everyone in the slum. Their outfits were bright and colorful and it made for an amazing combination with their dark skin.

When I first arrived I really had to study the way the light behaved at 1800m altitude and just under the equator. The beauty of this light is that even though it can be very harsh, it contrasted well with the beautiful black skin tones. I was particularly impressed by the natural light bouncing off the ground and travelling through the small windows into the classrooms was amazing. It is something that I only have ever seen using big lights thought big diffusion boards. It made me stop a few times and appreciate the beauty of the Mother Nature’s light.


The third interview in a series of short interviews with the creative team behind An Unexpected Family.


Where did you find inspiration for the music for the film and what were some of the challenges you faced?

Riyad originally approached me with the idea of using African style blues for the score for the documentary. His thinking was that it reflected both the harsh realities as well as the joy in the slum. We listened to quite a bit of Ali Farka Toure, the seminal guitarist in this style, who I had previously listened to quite often. Solo or sparsely accompanied guitar seemed to reflect the harsh realities but also the warmth and heart of the story. After some research I found the I, IV, V (a common chord progression) extremely prevalent in a lot of traditional African music. I used this to reflect the more positive/celebratory aspects of the documentary.

The music itself was fairly straightforward to write because guitar is my first instrument. The challenging part was how to reinforce the story without it becoming too imposing or steering the audience. One of Riyad’s goals was to make the documentary as honest as possible without hammering the audience with a message. This may seem like an oxymoron but often there are documentaries that are “overhyped” or very obvious in their message.