Ask the Filmmaker

Brenda in Illinois asks: I'm curious as to how you decided on the topic and what you learned about yourself doing this project? Would you undertake a project similar to this in the future?

Aaron Matthews: I met Pete in 1998 and thought he was an amazing character for a film -- he told great stories, had many dimensions, and I thought his life, both past and present, revealed a lot about this country and what it's stood for.

Also, the film is an outgrowth of a longstanding interest in the 1960s. My parents were very active in the community and my father remains a political activist. I was exposed to counter culture through them and writers, artists and activists often filled our home. But growing up in the 1980s -- a period notable for its lack of political activism -- at a certain point I started to wonder how the 1960s turned into the 1980s. Many activists from the 1960s ended up worlds away from their grassroots origins, long since having moved on to Wall Street or Main Street. Pete O'Neal, on the other hand, ended up a literal world away -- living in exile in Tanzania -- but still committed to the goals he embraced in the 1960s. Through Pete, his international community programs, and his substantial connections to America (despite America's rejection of him) we learn a lot about that turbulent era, as well as its present-day reverberations.

Finally, "A Panther in Africa" is a companion piece to my previous film, "My American Girls," about one Dominican family's immigrant experiences in Brooklyn. Both Sandra Ortiz (from "My American Girls") and Pete O'Neal are living in adopted countries, struggling with the tension of straddling two worlds, but also gaining a tremendous amount of strength from their situations. Growing up in New York, and teaching English as Second Language for a number of years, I became fascinated with the immigrant experience, and developed a deep appreciation for what it means to be a stranger in a strange land.

I would definitely undertake a similar project in the future.

Hakim asks: How long did you stay in Tanzania?

Aaron: We went to Tanzania three times over the course of a year, for approximately one month each trip.

Andrew in New York asks: What equipment did you take to Africa, what editing system did you use and how do you sift through all that footage to come up with a theme? What's the focus in putting together a piece for funders?

Aaron: Wayne De La Roche and I used 2 Sony PD-150 cameras. Each camera was equipped with a wireless mic as well as a mounted shotgun mic. I edited the film using Final Cut Pro, installed on my home computer.

Sifting through footage is a tedious process. I ended up compiling over 1,200 pages of written notes on our footage, detailing scenes, events, camera angles, facial expressions and of course dialog. Logging footage can be maddening, but it is the most important part of the editing process, since it's where you get to know your footage. The process of taking notes on your footage helps you to remember it, and draw connections between material. Writing is thinking, and much of the process of developing themes and a focus for the film is done while logging.

My advice for putting together pieces for fundraising is to research the foundations to which you are applying. Once you know their focus, you can tailor your treatment and trailer to their interests -- as much as possible given the limits of your project. Above all, your video material should have high production value and should grab funders' attention quickly -- they have a lot to evaluate and are eager to find reasons to reject projects.

Joe in California asks: Will this film be available for purchase on DVD?

Aaron: Yes. Please contact the distributors of A Panther in Africa, Filmakers Library, at 800-555-9815, or check them out on the web at

Holly in Colorado asks: I'm a producer for a national cable television network and have always dreamed of creating documentaries like those you produce. I would love to break into documentary filmmaking and was wondering if you have any advice? I have an idea for a documentary, but am daunted by the expense as well as going it alone. Do you fund your own films or write grants? Fortunately, I know the ins and outs of video production but am not sure how to take that leap... Any thoughts?

Aaron: I fund my films through a combination of grants and freelance work. I teach and, like you, have worked as a producer and writer for cable television. If you really feel strongly about your idea, my advice would be to just start. You have experience working in video, so you're already ahead of the game. Also, it might help to talk to your friends and colleagues. Maybe you can corral some of them to help with your project, or just bounce ideas off of them. Starting a film, like starting any major project is daunting, but it's amazing what you can accomplish with the support of some smart friends and family... Also, thanks to digital video, it's now possible to produce projects with a reasonably high production value for a fraction of what it used to cost on film. As you probably know, you can purchase a good digital video camera for under $2,000, and invest in an editing system for even less. $4,000 is a still a sizable chunk of change, but it's not completely out of the realm of possibility.

Adrienne in Texas asks: I really enjoyed viewing "A Panther in Africa." I would love to visit with Pete and his family in Tanzania? How could I go about doing so?

Aaron: Nothing to it but to do it. As you can see in the film, Pete and Charlotte host a multitude of visitors who volunteer at their community center. In addition, Pete and Charlotte run a sort of a bed & breakfast, where people from all around the world are always welcome -- you can choose to volunteer, or just sight-see in East Africa. Visit for more information.

Kim in New York asks: How can I get in contact with the O'Neals?

Aaron: You can find direct contact information for Pete and Charlotte at

Michael in Tennessee asks: I saw the piece on Pete O'Neal and was so moved as a black man from Detroit that I wanted to know -- is there a way to donate money to his cause?

Aaron: Yes, please contact Pete and Charlotte through their website at