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Vol.26, No. 19 Apr. 9, 2001

New Documentary Attempts to Reveal the ‘Common Denominator’ Among All People

By Jason Hollander

Na Eng’s documentary film, Fortunate’s Letter, allows viewers a unique look at the life of an average Zimbabwean family. From this personal vantage, Eng reveals that the family dynamics, struggles, concerns and aspirations in Zimbabwe are strikingly familiar to those experienced by many Americans.

"I wanted to make a film that would reach out to young Americans and dispel the pre-conceived notion of what Africans are dealing with," says Eng, CC’98 and SIPA’99, who recently had her film screened in SIPA’s Altschul Auditorium. "I wanted to distinguish between empathy and pity. It’s easier to have compassion for people when you can relate to them."

The film centers on its narrator, 13-year-old Fortunate Rukainga, a precocious student whom Eng immediately "clicked with" after meeting in an after school girls club. "She embraced me as soon as she saw me," says Eng. "She asked so many questions. She was very curious about America."

The rest of the Rukainga family also greeted her warmly and were most receptive to Eng’s request to feature them in the documentary. "It was hard to explain to people that I was going to be part of their lives for a long time. I wanted to let them know that this was about friendship and cultural understanding," says Eng. "They seemed to fully comprehend my goals and intentions."

A one-person crew, Eng was the director, cinematographer, sound person and producer on the project. Her equipment included only a Sony mini-digital video camera, a boom microphone, a clip-on mike and a tripod. She believes that the Rukainga family was more comfortable being on camera and opening up to her because she worked alone. "I was taken aback by how candid they were," says Eng. "It’s just part of the approach they have to life." Eng notes, however, that some footage was excluded from the film out of respect to the family.

Throughout the film, viewers learn that Fortunate’s father, Max, is an admitted alcoholic and witness the emotional and spirited funeral ceremony for one of her aunts. Several characters address the subject of AIDS, which is currently believed to infect 25 percent of the country’s 11.3 million people. Max confesses that he drinks mostly to avoid depressing thoughts of close relatives who have perished from the disease.

Fortunate is an affable narrator who displays great maturity and insight. "She loved the camera," says Eng, who believes the teenager was a perfect focus for the film. "It’s always compelling to have a young person take the lead." In one scene Fortunate explains her philosophy of refusing to compare her home and possessions (her family lives at the poverty level) to others who may have more. Still, she exhibits great excitement at the prospect of her family moving to a bigger house. Fortunate even addresses the impact of rising gas prices on various industries in her country.

The friendship that developed during the project between Eng and the Rukainga family has proven to be lasting. During one phone call last fall, Mrs. Rukainga informed Eng that she was pregnant and that the family wanted her to name their child. Eng offered the names Justice or Noble and Mrs. Rukainga liked them so much that she used both, calling the child Justice Noble Rukainga.

Eng's experience in documentary filmmaking began as an undergraduate when she addressed the Cambodian community's refugee experience in America, using her mother as the principal character in the film. Then, funded by Columbia College’s Henry Evans Traveling Fellowship, Eng ventured to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to document the political aftermath of the 1994 American military intervention.

As an sophomore intern with a development organization in Nairobi, Kenya, Eng "fell in love" with the land, but realized that Africa needed more attention from the rest of the world.

After receiving her masters from SIPA, Eng, who was born in Cambodia and grew up in St. Paul, MN, traveled to Africa on a Fulbright Scholarship with the intention of making a documentary that would prove that there exists a "common denominator" among all people. She considered shooting the documentary in other countries, but chose Zimbabwe because English is the country’s official language and she had contacts from SIPA who were working in the nation’s capital, Harare.

Eng is currently looking for someone to help her distribute the film so she can achieve her goal of reaching high school students across the country. She believes the 40-minute film carries an important message from which young students would benefit greatly. "It’s not just a sad story, but a celebration of their humanity, their laughter, their music and family," she says. “I’m trying to help American young people share this by bringing out these individual stories."

The film will be shown next at a private screening on April 23 at the Schomberg Center in Harlem as part of the 2001 African Film Festival of New York. Those who want to see Fortunate’s Letter can do so as part of the New Filmmaker Documentary Program at the Anthology Film Archives (32 Second Ave at 2nd Street) on May 23 at 7 p.m. (Cost is $5.00 per person). To order a VHS copy of the film, go to the Fortunate’s Letter Web site at or e-mail the filmmaker at