Filmmaker Cynthia Moses effects change in Congolese Communities

Cynthia Moses with two colleagues in the Nouabale-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo

Filmmaker Cynthia Moses grew up in Central Massachusetts, where she thought life would bring a husband, kids, and a white picket fence. Then, she joined the Peace Corps in the early 1970s and left that life behind. After stints at ABC and 60 Minutes, Cynthia took a job with National Geographic’s wildlife documentary unit, and became fascinated with chimpanzees, gorillas. Several years filming in their native habitats in Central Africa led Cynthia to start INCEF, which makes films by and for local people to communicate ideas at the intersections of education, public health, and conservation. Cynthia and her team have reached over a million people over the past ten years, and today, Cynthia is focused on creating foundations for INCEF’s work to continue long into the future.

Cynthia as a girl in the 1950s.


Where she’s from: Springfield, Massachusetts
Grew up with: mom and dad and sister
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English, Master's of Education, Master's of Journalism
Where she lives now: Washington, D.C. and Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo
Growing up she wanted to be: a journalist
Now she: runs a non-profit that makes short, message-focused educational films in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Tell us about yourself growing up!

I was pretty quiet and very dreamy. I was involved in politics in high school. I had this dream that I would be a journalist one day. I grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, which is a blue collar, industrial city. My parents were blue collar and didn't expect me to wander very far. I've always written poetry, and I'm a reader. My mother introduced books into the house when we were really, really young. When you're a daydreamer, books are escape.

I graduated from high school in 1967. I went to a community college first and then to a local college. I commuted to college from home. I majored in English and minored in Education. I ended up getting a job at a local junior high school. I was very active in our media club, and we would shoot a little new show at the beginning of the day. I helped run the photo club. I got very interested in media and also the fact that libraries were becoming as much media centers as libraries.

At one point I was engaged to somebody who was in law school. I called the whole thing off about two months before the wedding. I started thinking, “I'm not going to stay here, because if I stay in Springfield, teaching school, I'll probably get married and have a lot of children and become a soccer mom, and that's not really what I want to do with my life. The only way I'm going to change that is to get out of town.”

if I stay in Springfield, teaching school, I'll probably get married and have a lot of children and become a soccer mom, and that's not really what I want to do with my life. The only way I'm going to change that is to get out of town.

Cynthia, right, at her high school graduation in 1967

How did you make that change?

I saw an ad on television for the Peace Corps and said, “Oh, that's perfect.” I put in an application. I said I wanted to go to Africa. I taught English as a second language for two years in the Ivory Coast. In the Peace Corps, you often learn a lot more about yourself than you do about the place you are, and the longer you're there, the less you realize you know, and I still think that that is true. The first year, I was in a little town. I was the only American. Second year, I moved to a larger town, so I spent a lot of time alone.

As it started to get time to come home, what I needed to do was apply to grad schools. I got accepted at Columbia Teachers College.

Did have a specific focus at Teachers College?

My degree at teachers college was in media and working in a media center. At Teachers College, for part of the year I was a teaching assistant, and I worked a lot teaching people how to do video. I did an internship at WNET and ended up getting a job out of it, but my job was really a lot of secretarial typing work. I decided that if I really wanted to be a journalist, I needed a degree in journalism. I applied to journalism schools, and I got a fellowship to go out to Stanford, and so I went. I ended up moving back to New York because I made a decision that if I was going to get sent overseas, which I wanted to do, I would need to get a job out of New York with the networks.

How did you find yourself an overseas position?

After a year and a half of temping as a secretary, I got hired at one of the temp positions. I got a job for a satellite news channel that ABC News had started, SNC. I did that for about eight months. I talk to this guy at ABC, and he says. “What are you reading there?” because I had a book, and I said, “I'm reading The Africans.” I handed it to him, and he said, “What's your interest in Africa?” I said, “I was a Peace Corps volunteer. Obviously you haven't read my resume.” He said. “No, I haven't. This tells me a lot more about you than a resume would.” A couple days later, I get a phone call: “We have a position on the news desk in London. London handles Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, and we want people who have an American perspective. Would you be interested?” So off I went to London in July of 1980.

At that time, the news operations had bureaus all over Europe in the capitals, and also in Cyprus, in Israel, in Cairo. There was nobody in Africa, and we did very little African news until the famine in Ethiopia happened. I went to my boss and said, “Look, you can't let this go. This is a huge story.” We never went, and one night we're sitting there, watching the satellite feed and out of Ethiopia comes this British reporter, Michael Buerk, with this story on the famine for the NBC News. Next thing you know, I'm being asked to put people on a charter airplane with a pallet full of equipment to cover this famine in Ethiopia.

How long did you stay at ABC News?

I did that for 3 and a half years, and then I resigned. The same day I resigned, this very good friend of mine called me and she said, “I just got fired, go apply for my job,” as an associate producer at the London office of 60 Minutes. I worked for two producers, one out of London and one out of Paris. My job was the best job I've ever had. The correspondents were terrific. I learned to travel a lot by myself. I was going someplace to find people who could tell me about something, and making those contacts automatically kept me busy and also gave me a different view of every place I went. I went from Thailand and Burma to Africa for these guys.

I became fascinated by not only the idea of wildlife and nature, but how wildlife films are made, which is very different than people films.

Cynthia in the 1980s with the French Foreign Legion, the subject of one of her first films.

How did you get into documentary films?

What I'd wanted to do all along was make documentaries to make the kind of documentaries I was seeing on PBS. I came back to the States one summer and I came to see a friend of mine in Washington, and she gave me the name of somebody at National Geographic. I went to talk to the person, and a couple months later I got a call that they were looking for an associate producer. One of the first films I made was on the French Foreign Legion, and that was great because that was always a film I wanted to do.

They wanted to do real wildlife documentaries, so they hired this guy away from the BBC. When Keenan Smart started the natural history unit at National Geographic television, they decided to hire me, freelance, as his associate producer. I got this huge raise in salary and to this day, I could take a reel of film that's just raw footage of wildlife, and I'm in heaven.

I came up with ideas that Keenan loved. He sent me to this conference on chimpanzees. I had become interested in doing a film on chimpanzee cultures. I learned about how amazing all these groups were, and I met all these amazing scientists. We knew there were different subspecies, but we also knew that they did different things. In Gombe, we know that chimps fish for termites. There was a place in Ivory Coast where chimpanzees actually use a stone and they put the nut on what would be considered an anvil, and crack nuts. I wrote a proposal for a film, and Geographic decided they would make a special on chimpanzees. I would field produce.

I became fascinated by not only the idea of wildlife and nature, but how wildlife films are made, which is very different than people films. You're using hidden cameras; you're habituating animals. I hired a hell of a crew, Neil Rettig, and his sound person, Kim, who were just amazing. We spent weeks and months in the forest together, filming all this chimpanzee footage, and I learned so much from them. Neil would build these platforms up in trees. He and Kim would put together these roped systems where Neil could actually ride the rope down and do this shot through the forest or up and down a tree. It was heaven.

Cynthia with an orphaned chimp

How did your interest in primates lead to your work with public health?

I was doing a lot of work in the Republic of Congo because they have a lot of apes, a lot of gorillas and a lot of chimpanzees. I was doing a 90-minute film for A&E called Primal Contact, about our relationship with gorillas. I got to know this whole group of conservationists and scientists that were working there, and we became friends. In December of 2001, I got an email from somebody in one of the conservation organizations: “We've got a problem at Lossi Gorilla Research Site. It appears that the gorillas and chimps are dying of Ebola.” In very rural Africa, where people rely on hunting for their meat, if they go into the forest and find an animal already dead, it used to be considered a bonus. Unfortunately, that animal could be infected with something and might not have died of natural causes or might not have died of a bullet or something.

I said, “We really should do an Ebola film.” Geographic had these young, handsome or pretty presenters who would be part of the film. One of them was interested in Ebola and talked them into doing the story. Because I had so many connections, they wanted me to go with the crew. It took us two years to do the film on Odzala National Park. I was there for a year and a half of it. I'm standing there one day, and Nick Baker's in the forest and he's dressed from head-to-foot in HAZMAT. It was one of those days where everybody was a little on edge. He says, “here I am at ground zero, Ebola's all around me,” and this was my epiphany. I looked over at this group of Africans, who I knew, and whom I knew had members of their family who had died, and I thought to myself, “Nothing we're doing is going to help these guys.”

It made sense that we'd make films that were people telling their own stories to people like them.

What made you decide to start INCEF, the International Conservation and Education Fund?

As a filmmaker I wasn't focusing. I had an offer to do like 26 hours of aerobics on one of the Discovery Channels or something like that. If it was only about making money, that’s what I would want to do. There were lots of things happening in my personal life. My sister had died in January and then my mother died in September. My father had already passed, and I inherited like 60 thousand dollars. I thought to myself, I'm going to start a nonprofit that makes films to help these people. It made sense that we'd make films that were people telling their own stories to people like them.

This is about actually seeing some change and being focused. Trying to teach people to live better lives has to come from those people, which is what our method is. The decision has to come from that woman and that man, that farmer, that hunter, and they have to figure it out themselves. You're giving them chance to think for themselves and to make their lives better and their families better, rather than just making a film.

The crew in Odzala National Park, where Cynthia spent two years filming.

How did you build your production capability?

I worked with local media professionals. I worked with a Congolese cameraman and a Congolese journalist, and then we hired a Congolese editor. First, there were three of us, then four, then five, and then I hired two educators. Wildlife Conservation Society gave us an office. For a couple of years we were working in this office rent free in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, and then later we spread out to Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. In the cities, you give them to the television stations, or the towns have a film night. How do you get these films to the villages? Our guys pretty much walked from village to village with these little kits we put together. Then when we were in DRC, we started using bicycles because there were actually paths to drive the bicycles through. With our new CDC grant, we're actually buying five motorcycles.

Educators travel from village to village in Republic of Congo teaching people about Great Ape conservation and how to prevent the Ebola virus. The International Conservation and Education Fund (INCEF) works to save lives and change behavior through video.

What makes your communication method effective?

It was clear to me from my experience that I needed to have somebody local talking about Ebola. They didn't want to hear a white person. This local epidemiologist that I'd worked with on Ebola said, “I want you to meet these people from CDC.” [The Centers for Disease Control] I met these people who worked with monkeypox. With monkeypox, we do a little history of how a monkeypox epidemic started in a place, and the doctor at the mission hospital is one doctor. Another doctor went to him. He called the embassy. They did the tests. They found out what this was, because they thought it was smallpox, and smallpox had been eradicated.

Most of the time it's done in local languages, by local people who have experienced the condition, women giving women information, men giving men information. It takes a long time and a lot of visits to villages. My teams are all local people who get on their motorbikes or their bicycles and go off village to village until they've reached the required number of villages.

The educators know the lay of the land and are known by the local people. It makes much more sense for them to be disseminating to the people they know, and it's easier for us to train them to use the equipment and to facilitate the dissemination. We learned, through experience, how it worked. We have reached over a million people with our little groups, and we have created 94 films. It's made for a rural audience in this one province in the Democratic Republic of Congo who speak that language and will recognize the other characters in the film. It's turned filmmaking into a much more meaningful thing for me. It's given me focus.

As a non-profit, how does funding impact your work?

The way the grant world is set up is that you get a grant for 2 or 3 years, and then the whole time you're working on trying to get another grant. I have seven years with this new grant from CDC. We've been working with them for more than seven years on monkeypox. It means that we've been working in this area, where they're now doing a vaccine trial, for 14 years, and that means that we'll probably help eradicate monkeypox from this area. We are constantly building capacity. Right now, I'm paying tuition for two of the people who work for me to go to university, because, at some point, they should take over bigger and bigger responsibilities at INCEF. They're Congolese and that's the way it should be. I believe that the problem with development is it doesn't have enough sustainability. It takes up to 30 years.

What are some of the other public health issues you address?

It depends on what we can get funding to produce. This guy at UNICEF saw some of the monkeypox work and said, “We need you to do mother/infant health stuff.” We started doing a lot more health films. We do emerging viruses, but we also do mother/infant health. We did a film on the importance of feeding breast milk exclusively for the first six months, because it helps build up a child's immunities. A mother saying this child, I didn't exclusively breastfeed for six months, and she was constantly getting sick, but this baby now, he's nine months old and I breastfed him exclusively for six months, and he's much healthier than my first child was. Or a mother who, with her husband, figures out that they only want to have four children, and they should be this far apart, talking to a mother who's had eight children and the difference in what they can afford to give their children. 

What did you think your life would be like as an adult?

I assumed I would marry this lawyer, and we would have a big house, and we would have 4 or 5 kids and a couple of cars and life would be Friday afternoon at the grocery store and I'd drive a station wagon, of course. That's what I thought until that fourth year of teaching. I called off the wedding, said to myself I've got to do something, I've got to get out of here.

What advice do you have for somebody who wants to do this type of grassroots social change?

I call it communication. I think people need to make up their own minds. What we do is we use a method of communication for rural audiences specifically, and I think it's all about the communication and how to use communication as a tool, and for people who want to do this, I think they should just learn how to edit. The only advice I have for people is get out of school and do it. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.