Musician with a Camera
WaveRadio drummer and producer Chris Cotter’s documentary of human suffering in an East African country is set for a June 13 preview and soundtrack release show
Photos courtesy of Chris Cotter
Chris Cotter is a world traveler. The 38-year-old West Chester drummer of area band WaveRadio has visited countries in Europe, Central and South America and Africa.
On his first trip to Africa at the age of 27 he climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, went on safari, did the “tourist thing.” But as a budding documentarian, he began to realize that every time he went on an adventure, it felt as if he had only passed through a place. He wanted to do something “more,” he says, and a dream of making a humanitarian documentary unfolded.
Within the next few years he piloted two businesses, TribeSound Records, where he is a music producer, and Tailor Made Media, where he’s a film and video project manager, focusing on corporate, medical and commercial videos.
“What we’d rather [continue to] do is documentaries and films,” says Cotter. “Because that’s good for the soul. You gotta feed your pocket, but you also have to feed your soul.” In 2013 a friend informed him about a crisis in the small African country of Eritrea, and recommended looking into opportunities to help.
“I hadn’t even heard of Eritrea,” Cotter admits.
An East African nation bordering Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti, Eritrea is controlled by dictator Isaias Afwerki, whose iron-fisted regime has maintained control for more than 20 years.
Faced with arbitrary killings, slave labor and the threat of abduction at random, most of the 6.3 million inhabitants live in constant fear. Journalists and civilians face imprisonment or torture for speaking out, so it’s difficult for Eritreans to raise awareness about their plight.
Not surprisingly, up to 4,000 people try to flee the country every month. The United Nations ranks Eritrea fourth among countries whose citizens are seeking asylum. If refugees survive crossing the borders (where guards follow a shoot-to-kill policy), thousands wind up in one of four refugee camps in neighboring Ethiopia for an indefinite period.
Other refugees seek life outside of East Africa, commonly paying traffickers to smuggle them to Europe, Israel—basically anywhere away from Eritrea. Once in a new country, they often face malice from nationals of that country, partially because they are seen as a threat to job security. What’s more, many traffickers are corrupt, and after being paid off, they kidnap, practice extortion or abandon boats packed with refugees in the Mediterranean Sea.
“Right now people [around the world] are starting to notice what’s going on because so many people have died in the Mediterranean over the last two years,” Cotter says.
Cotter immediately knew he wanted to tell the story of the refugees through a documentary, which would be called Refugee: The Eritrean Exodus. He got a crew together, then contacted humanitarian John Stauffer of eritreanrefugees.org, which happens to be based in Pennsylvania. Stauffer provided necessary contacts needed by Cotter and his crew—Joe Acchione, Scott Miller, Joshua Coyne, and Evan Schullery.
Last Christmas, Cotter and producer Miller—the only team member to make the trip with Cotter—left for two weeks to visit Ethiopian refugee camps, including a camp in a desolate desert called the Afar region. They also spent a week in Israel, the destination of many refugees at the time.
Once Cotter and Miller arrived at the Ethiopian camps, reactions were mixed, Cotter says.
Some refugees wanted their faces blurred on camera, some didn’t want to talk to them at all, but almost everyone was grateful for their help in trying to raise awareness.
“Especially in the Afar region,” says Cotter. “They have no one to tell their stories to. They’re just idling in refugee camps.”
Overall, Cotter and Miller talked with 50 refugees. “They just want a peaceful, safe life and home, like everyone else,” says Cotter.
The crew spoke with organizations like Amnesty International and Physicians for Human Rights, and Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard, who says: “Eritrea has one of the most oppressive governments in the world.”
Back in West Chester, Cotter and crew put 1600 hours into the film’s production. In February they launched a Kickstarter campaign for continued production, raising an impressive $30,000 in just 30 days.
At one point in the process, Cotter says he finally needed to determine who the target audience was for the film.
“I decided it was for people like myself, people who don’t know about Eritrea, what it’s like to be a refugee, and to focus on an English-speaking population,” he says.
So he says it only made sense for WaveRadio to do a soundtrack for the documentary. He opted out of using traditional Eritrean or Ethiopian music, and instead went with a modern Western twist.
“The band made it easy, as did all of the guys in my film,” says Cotter. “This whole project came easier than it probably should have—I have really talented friends.”
WaveRadio is typically an experimental rock band, but Cotter, who praises their adaptability, listened to Mumford and Sons, Radiohead and Stereolab, and had the band loosely base the music and the mood on such styles and songs. All songs are original except for one by The National.
On Saturday, June 13, at World Cafe Live at The Queen, the band and crew will hold a soundtrack release show, featuring a preview of the film. Doors open at 8 p.m. and tickets are $10.
Refugee: The Eritrean Exodus is slated to be finished at the end of June, and a July premiere date is planned. Cotter’s end goal is to have Refugee shown on channels like HBO or PBS.
What’s next for the musician/documentarian?
“Something funny,” says Cotter. “I’ll always want to do something like this, but the next thing will have to be lighthearted. Maybe just stupid.”