Applying Lessons from the Classroom

Spectacled Langur Monkey

The spectacled langur, above, one of the many inhabitants of a sanctuary in South Africa where a UNC group will be shooting a documentary July 27-Aug. 12. Senior Fiza Johari will provide updates about the trip at

UNC senior Fiza Johari shares her story about preparing to accompany Journalism and Mass Communications professor Gary Swanson to South Africa July 27-Aug. 12 to help produce a video documentary about free-roaming sanctuaries dedicated to reintroducing once-captive primates and birds to their native habitat and protecting their species from extinction.

It was only a few days into summer when I had heard about the confirmation of the documentary production trip and that I was invited to be a part of a professional project. Not only will I get the opportunity to travel, I will also get to increase my professional experience, taking what I have learned inside of the classroom outside, on-location.

Our on-location production venues are Monkeyland and Birds of Eden, both located in Plettenberg Bay, about 10 hours away from Cape Town by land transportation.

I had heard briefly about Monkeyland and Birds of Eden through Professor Swanson during spring semester, and I was immediately interested to know more about the two free-roaming sanctuaries as well as how I could be a part of such an inspiring project.

With the trip fast approaching, classmate Ryan Workman and I, under Professor Swanson’s guidance and supervision, will need to collaborate on developing ideas on how to create a professional documentary, telling the story of how Monkeyland and Birds of Eden came about, as well as the story behind the man responsible for them, conservationist Tony Blignaut.

I began visiting the sanctuaries’ websites to gather some background information in preparation of the upcoming trip (Monkeyland is the largest free-roaming primate sanctuary in the world with about 400 primates of 14 different species on 30 acres. Birds of Eden houses approximately 3,000 birds of 220 different species.).

I knew that there were some species of birds and primates that were endangered but I hadn’t heard of the Eden Syndrome (the process used at the sanctuaries to prepare previously caged primates and birds for release into the sanctuary forest), and that there were sanctuaries dedicated not only to caring for and protecting these birds and primates, but also to preventing any trade and exploitation of them.

As part of our pre-production preparations, Ryan and I also screened the raw footage and images shot by Professor Swanson and two colleagues during a previous trip to South Africa. The footage supplements the background information from the websites and what professor Swanson provided.

I doubt that the project will be simple and easy as we face a limited production time of just under two weeks. However, it is definitely not impossible. Ryan and I agreed that reading information on Tony, Monkeyland and Birds of Eden is not enough to create a documentary that not only tells the story of the plight of the primates and birds but also relates Tony’s dream for the sanctuaries.

We would have to meet Tony and the other sanctuary staff members, visit the sanctuaries, see the primates and birds for ourselves, and establish a rapport with them before we can begin to dive into the details of the documentary production. In my opinion, that will be our initial challenge. We don’t expect it to be a breeze, but the experience we gain will definitely be rewarding.

Post-production will begin upon our return and students who are enrolled in Professor Swanson’s documentary film and TV class in the fall semester will be a part of the project as well. It is our hope that we will have brought back enough materials for the successful completion of the documentary, which will be finished and screened on campus by the end of the spring semester.

I am glad to be a part of such a strong team in creating a professional documentary. There will be many interesting experiences, both professional and social, friendships to be gained, skills to be put to the test, as well as opportunities to take what we have learned in class outside, and then back into class upon our return, creating a full circle that exemplifies an enriching educational and professional experience. We are lucky to be a part of UNC - a supportive, vibrant and active university community.

About the Principals
Professor Gary E. Swanson is the Mildred S. Hansen Endowed Chair and Distinguished Journalist-in-Residence at UNC. He’s an internationally recognized and highly acclaimed documentary and news producer, director, editor, photojournalist, consultant and educator. Swanson, who’s covered the Olympics, was also an editor and producer at NBC News, where he earned three Emmys. He’s been a Senior Fulbright Scholar to Portugal and China.

Fiza Johari is a Criminal Justice major with dual minors in Media Studies and Philosophy and will graduate in December. Born and raised in Singapore, she’s also lived in New York City, Toronto and San Francisco. In addition to serving on the College of Humanities and Social Sciences Student Council, Johari is president of the UNC Law Club and Chabad @ UNC. She is also a peer educator in the Assault Survivors Advocacy Program.

Ryan Workman is a senior Journalism major with an emphasis in Telecommunications. In addition to serving as director of "Bear News," UNC’s student-run television newscast, he is an independent filmmaker with a passion for film production. Workman is currently producing "Despair," a short independent film to be entered into several local festivals.