MICA-supported 'Music by Prudence' wins Oscar

Arts school played a role in the making of documentary about Zimbabwean musicians

March 08, 2010|By Michael Sragow | michael.sragow@baltsun.com

"Music by Prudence," made partly with the financial and creative support of the Maryland Institute College of Art, overcame several other strong candidates, including the American labor tragedy "The Last Truck," to win best short documentary at the 2010 Academy Awards on Sunday night.

Few Oscar films have packed in more profundity per minute than this tale of Prudence Mabhena, 21, and seven other disabled young musicians in Zimbabwe transcending bigotry and isolation through art and fellowship.

"This is amazing. Two years ago when I flew to Zimbabwe, I never imagined I would wind up here," said Roger Ross Williams, the film's producer-director, as he accepted the award. "This is for Prudence."

Many Zimbabweans regard handicaps as signs of sorcery. So singer-songwriter Mabhena and her bandmates in the Afro-fusion marimba group Liyana were stigmatized at birth. Not every band member has an affliction as visible and extreme as Mabhena's: She suffers from arthrogryposis, a condition that deforms joints and cost her both her legs.

But all the band members survived brutal or apathetic treatment at the hands of parents and/or siblings who regarded them as stains on the family's reputation or drags on the family's fortune. They found their individual and group voices only when they landed at the King George VI School & Centre for Children with Physical Disabilities in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. It's not just an academy but an institution devoted to their physical and psychological care.

In the King George VI School environment, Mabhena was able to dream of reaching an international audience with her singing.

On Oscar night, that audience got a glimpse of her gliding across the red carpet in a green dress, with the film's producer-director.

Another school, MICA, was instrumental in bringing her story to the Academy's (and now the world's) attention. Last week, Williams said, "MICA was amazing. I couldn't have done the film without them."

Early on, the film's producer, Elinor Burkett, who first thought Liyana should be captured in a movie, put Williams in touch with Patrick Wright, the chair of MICA's video and film arts department. Wright lent his own equipment, and some of MICA's, to Williams for a critical period of early shooting. Wright found seed money for the project, cut trailers to win long-term backing, enlisted students as interns and recommended, as a cinematographer, Errol Webber Jr., who graduated from MICA in 2008 and immediately went to work on the movie.

Recent MICA graduate Matt Davies, who received a credit as production assistant, said that after spending countless hours logging footage, he thought every minute of footage was essential. But when he saw the completed film, he thought it was "marvelous that they packed so much into a short-film format. You get a really good sense of what life is like there, the hardship and what you have to deal with. You could do a half-hour on each member of Liyana, but Prudence's character, who she is, what she has to deal with, her striving to be positive about her future despite her past, is overwhelming."

"We all did this because we love Prudence and Liyana," Wright said at the time of his nomination. "Here were all these young kids, physically disabled, making music in a country falling apart around them. And, here, in the middle, is this beautiful woman who sings like Aretha Franklin."

Tonight, Prudence Mabhena and her friends got respect.

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