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Jumping Out of the Water
Episode 328th April 2021 • Voices of Exchange • U.S. State Department ECA Alumni Affairs
00:00:00 00:12:28

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What happens when you’re an artist living in a tyrannical state: do you risk your life to fight tyranny, or do you escape your country because your gifts are valuable to the entire world? 

Join us as we meet Gail Prensky, a U.S. Arts Envoy exchange alumna and documentary filmmaker, who is working to shed light on the plight of artists living under oppression. This is the story of “Bullets to Books,” and Gail’s journey as a storyteller and envoy.


Gail Prensky

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Bullets to Books came about when I met Jok at the Mandela Washington fellowship, young Afric- let's say young African leader summit in DC. And he told me that his mission is changing minds from Bullets to Books, what a great tagline, right? And so I called up my - one of my colleagues, Andy Truschinski, who is an actor and producer and filmmaker in New York. And I told him about this angel I just met, Jok from South Sudan. And Andy said, Oh my God, we have to do a film documentary and help him with his mission, but also his school he built from hand using bamboo, mud and concrete classrooms.

Four of us traveled over to South Sudan and we spent about 12 days there working with various partners also from, who were Mandela Washington Fellows the year before Jok. And together through their planning and organization, the Bullets to Books team were able to film interviews and, and also, uh, some B-roll to produce a short documentary. To produ- to write and produce a music video and theme song, and to lead workshops with the, the entertainment community, the artists in Juba, as well as students from a few different schools. So we impacted over a 100 people while we were there in a very short amount of time.

It was a life changing experience, I think for me and everyone. Um, and since then, our bond with those that we are connected to in South Sudan has grown even stronger than when we were there for 12 days. And we have a number of programs, projects that we continue to do and have plans that I think will expand the Bullets to Books initiative, not just in Juba, but across South Sudan and hopefully across East Africa and in the United States to start.

ort, it was back in the early:

when I, when:

So the frog in the boiling water – you put a frog in nice water. It's very tepid. It's comfortable and slowly turn the flame up a little bit at a time. It gets a little warmer, it's okay. It gets a little hotter, it's getting uncomfortable. It gets boiling and what does the frog decide to do? Does it stay or does it jump out of the water? 

So when people are targeted and persecuted, they have to decide, do they wanna stay, or do they wanna leave their country? And that's a hard question. If they leave, they could survive and, and protect their culture, but if they stay, maybe they can be with their families and, and do more to raise the issues through their art, to connect with other communities who may be able to join them. You know, there's a collective force in a group. Um, so I think artists today can find ways to empower communities, to stand up and have courage and not allow those who want to forbid minorities from living a free life in their chosen country.

Having a personal story is the most impactful way to connect with human beings I think.

You, the best way I can describe it is, you have to start out with a big picture of the story you wanna tell. You have to develop interview questions that hit, hit the different parts of the story you wanna tell. And it's similar to when you come up with, let's say, you wanna remodel your kitchen. So you come up with an idea of the kitchen and then you break apart all the elements in the kitchen, you've got the appliances, you've got the cabinets, it's, you got the floor, you got the ceiling, you got the color paint. So you work out all the details and you make each of those details and then you put it all together and you got a beautiful kitchen. And that's what storytelling is. You break it up into pieces, you build each of the piece, knowing what the whole picture is and you build it. And then you've got a cohesive story.

So the Bullets to Books process of how to tell a story where I begin, uh, always begins with an interview because hearing someone's personal account is the best way to connect with people. So I started with Jok to hear his sort of life trajectory, who he was as a child, where he grew up, how he ended up in a refugee camp, how he decided his mission, how he got to Promised Land and what he wants to do moving forward. And learning all of that is then who else do we need to bring in to get a kaleidoscope, different perspectives? And in that case, I connected with the ambassador of South Sudan to the United States and to the US embassy to hear about the need for their countries to connect and how Bullets to Books might help facilitate that.

growing up, I, looking back, I loved research, I loved storytelling. I love coming up with ideas and somehow they just happened and I got into content and, and, um, art. And I started out, um, after graduating with an art history and fine arts, uh, focus and design history and exhibit design. I, I sort of transcended out of book publishing and exhibits into multimedia and film. For me, it's all the same because it's about storytelling and I feel great that I can move from one platform to another using different techniques, but it's all production and it's so collaborative and I think it's the best profession in the world.