Katy Nielsen's GBA Documentary Shows DR Congo's Many Undocumented, Beautiful Sides

At the 2014 gala, we premiered Katy Nielsen’s documentary about GBA. We wanted to ask Katy a few questions about her inspiration behind the film and what message she hopes to convey.


Katy Nielsen and GBA share a knack that not many can claim: an affinity for storytelling. When Katy was asked to make a documentary with GBA earlier this year, it became clear that a whole new and rarely-told story was in the works.

Katy films the marching band at the fete de presentation celebration

After obtaining her undergraduate degree at Trinity College, Katy worked in Chicago for the Columbia Chronicle newspaper and discovered many formats and forums for storytelling. While working as the Health and Fitness Editor, and also as the on-camera personality, at the Chronicle, she also discovered that she could tell more of a story in a video than she could on paper. She went back to school for an MA in Broadcast Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and focused on documentary filmmaking while she was there. Later, she started working with nonprofit organizations, producing videos for galas to encourage and promote more robust fundraising.

Katy knows GBA founders Jim Calli and Ann Marie Thomson through her parents, who are friends of the founders and are actively involved in GBA. Jim and Ann Marie approached Katy about the idea of making a film about GBA. Katy had been on an African safari a few years prior, and after the experience, she knew it was her “dream to make a film in Africa someday.” Her opportunity knocked quicker than imagined, and, in March of 2014, Katy travelled to DR Congo with GBA Executive Director, Dena Hawes, Ann Marie Thomson, and Jabu Africa founder Sarah Castor in order to shoot footage. It was her first time doing long-form film on her own and with her own camera, and it was an experience that was beyond rewarding.

The fete de presentation was a highlight of the trip

Katy’s filmmaking philosophy is people-driven. She doesn’t want to be on camera in any way– even to narrate; she believes that people tell the story better themselves. “I was amazed by the power of the people,” she says of Congo. Katy hopes that her film can help to change peoples’ perceptions of the country. For while there is much suffering there, there is also so much life, and that life is not often accurately portrayed by other western nonprofits that work there.

GBA’s approach to working in Congo is unique, not only in its service-learning based curriculum, but also in its use of community asset mapping in its program model. The community has much to offer to GBA, from its unparalleled hospitality, to its rich culture, to its stark natural beauty. There’s more than just starvation– there’s freedom, joy, and hope, too.

Katy and GBA strive to make this clear to audiences in the US. “They’re not showing people smiling,” Katy says of other media representations of Congo. “In the US, you could just show the south side of Chicago, but that wouldn’t tell the whole US story,” she explains. There’s a real need to dig in deeper.

The curiosity and helpfulness of the locals made this easy for Katy to do during her trip. When she was filming, Katy says that the whole town came over to watch. The crowd was amazed by the skills of the students. Katy told student Beya Beya, “you’re a leader in your town. Stay strong.”

Katy conducted fifteen interviews during the trip, with a goal in mind of using lots of voices to tell one story– reflective of the many different stories and voices that make GBA what it is today. Katy views developing GBA’s work as akin to that of growing a garden; it takes time. Many other nonprofits rush in to the area and want immediate change and immediate results. However, GBA takes slow, deliberate steps and a long-term approach, walking with and listening to the people whom they serve. GBA is “so special, so different,” remarks Katy. “I think it’s the right way to do it.” Good work is “just like making a film,” she says. “It doesn’t happen right away.”

To watch Katy’s documentary about GBA, click here.

Please also consider donating to GBA so that we may continue serving the people of DRC through our asset-based, service learning curriculum.


What’s up next for Katy and GBA?
Katy hopes to go back to DR Congo in a few years and re-interview the kids in the film to see where their dreams have led them. In the mean time, Katy will continue to make films. She currently works for Make It Better, producing short videos to instruct the audience in various topics. She may also be working on a film in the near future about women and birth control rights in Illinois.