School by Streetlight: Africa’s ‘Black Out’ Kids Seek the Power of Education

With no electricity in their homes, college-hopeful children of the African republic of Guinea study all night in the light of gas stations and airports.

Dedicated students in Guinea spend the night at their local airport, one of the few places in the country where there's enough light to read, in a scene from the documentary 'Black Out.' (Photo: Courtesy of Odd Girl Out Productions)

Jun 24, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Stephen Saito writes about movies for the L.A. Times, and his own site, The Moveable Fest.

Black Out movie maker Eva Weber will never forget one evening outside the G'bessia International Airport in Guinea. She spoke to a young girl who was using the sickly green airport light to study for a school exam during the dead of night. The girl was reading at the airport because her home had no electricity or other light source.

Weber was both impressed by the student's dedication and haunted by her sense of futility.

"I never imagined her saying, 'Why do we study? Even if we study, we might not get a job; so what is the point of it?' " recalls Weber. "At the same time, she's actually studying. She goes there every night, and she stays there until three o'clock in the morning."

The exchange hasn't left Weber's mind, much like the photograph she saw three years earlier in a newspaper of schoolchildren hunched over their books on street curbs in Guinea, huddled around the street lights in the rare areas that had power. While that single picture may be worth 1,000 words, no amount of editorial coverage can do justice to what the filmmaker has captured in Black Out, a documentary that debuted the week of June 13 at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

Shot during the thick of exam season, Weber's film shows the nightly congregations around gas stations and the G'bessia International Airport in the African republic. Extreme poverty has dictated mandatory power outages, but the country's emerging generation believes so much in a better future that it braves darkened streets in order to pursue an education.

"Guinea is one of these countries that has been forgotten," Weber tells TakePart. Unlike other parts of Africa, the country hasn't had a major civil war to bring it notoriety on the world stage, but there's also rarely been stability. Military coups and government unrest have long been a part of the republic's history, along with internal struggles for control of its wealth of natural resources such as water, gold and diamonds.

They can really study as hard as they want. But at the moment, if they don't have the connections, if they don't have the money to go abroad, study and then come back, they might never get a job, however hard they try.

Six months after the country's first democratic election in 2010, Weber and her crew headed to its capital city, Conakry, to survey the situation. The filmmaker found a general sense of hope among Guinea's people. She was particularly struck by the children who looked beyond the unfortunate present toward a brighter future for both themselves and the nation's infrastructure—if they could just make it to college.

"What really fascinated me was the situation of the children and their hope for a better future as a metaphor for the country, having this election and then finally hoping that the situation might improve," says Weber.

An attempted coup just after Weber finished shooting reminded her that progress would be slow, but she won't let that prevent her from doing her part. Teaming with UNICEF, the filmmaker returned to Guinea last Christmas to screen the film for local officials, hoping to spark discussion about ways to improve conditions for students, such as putting an end to the country's crippling power outages.

Weber hopes Black Out's film festival run will spark further interest from around the globe. Still, she realizes education may not be enough for these kids who are full of ambition but currently bereft of opportunity.

"They can really study as hard as they want," she says. "But at the moment, if they don't have the connections, if they don't have the money to go abroad, study and then come back, they might never get a job, however hard they try. [This film is] about drawing attention to education, but also what comes after the education."

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