Nyogon: together

Dissan, Mali | Film Feature


Michael Axtell

1 Campaigns | California, United States

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This campaign raised $15,354 for post-production. Follow the filmmaker to receive future updates on this project.

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**CURRENTLY EDITING THE FILM** A farmer in rural Mali is using a groundbreaking alternative plant-breeding model to save his village from hunger and the scourge of climate change. What if this model can also help avoid a worldwide food crisis?

About The Project

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The Story

Check out this dreamy "The Origins of Dissan Village" trilogy mini-series. Malians telling their own stories in their OWN words. Part I brings you into the world of Dissan, Part II gets you settled, and Part III is addressing the issue of social justice...



Siaka "Jeliba" Kouyaté comes from a long line of traditional West African griot storytellers. Here he introduces the concept of what it means to have this role and how it relates to the film:











QUESTION: What if you lived in a place that did not have the means to supply you and your family and friends with FOOD in times of drought and meager harvests?

         Such a scenario in the coming decades in the developed world is not as far-fetched as you may think. The good news is that you would not be alone in such a struggle and that you have friends already working this moment on your behalf -- you just may not know it yet...

         For in the dry Sahel lands of southern Mali in West Africa, the village of Dissan faces these conditions every day, battling against food shortage, extreme poverty, and climate change. The spreading desertification of the region threatens the very survival of its inhabitants, as well as all vegetation and animals. But a fearless local farmer, Burama Sangaré, and his impassioned American anthropologist friend of over twenty years, Dr. Scott Lacy, may just have found a way to end famine in this region and beyond.


Leading Dissan farmer, Burama Sangaré




   Nyogon: together is a feature length documentary film with a story and footage spanning over two decades. The film is now in post-production from Dreaming Monk Productions, in association with the NGO African Sky and the San Francisco Film Society 'Filmmaker360' project development program.

   The film's setting is in the dry Sahel lands of the southern region of the storied nation of Mali in West Africa. It will feature three languages: English, French, and Bambara: the main tongue of southern Mali. In this language, "nyogon" (written as "ɲɔgɔn fɛ" in Bambara and pronounced "nee-yo-gawn fay") means together. Coincidentally, "nyo" means millet/grain. This film features a type of sorghum grain variety that has manifested and spread through the power of community, so it is only fitting that the film's title reflect the relationship between seed and community. As the Malian adage attests, "One finger cannot lift a stone."



Dissan village is located in southern Mali in West Africa. Farmer Burama Sangaré with his younger brother Yacouba Sangaré and long-time friend and collaborator Dr. Scott Lacy. A local teacher speaks with a women's literacy group outside Bamako earlier this year.


Set to HD to view trailer about participatory plant-breeding!





1. Groundbreaking non-GMO Agricultural Research in West Africa

This film details what participatory plant-breeding (PPB) is, its scientific origins, its farmer-first ethical foundation, its success fighting hunger in sub-Saharan West Africa without agribusiness and global market influence, its potential to work in other regions, as well as some serious challenges it faces under current plant-variety regulations.


2. Intimate and Inside Access

Director/producer Michael Axtell has known several main Nyogon characters since his first trip to Mali in 2008 and he has known Dr. Scott Lacy since his time as an anthropology undergrad at UC Santa Barbara over a decade ago, which has blessed the film with intimate access to characters and locations. This has yielded very candid interviews and exclusive footage.


    Storied ancestor of Dissan village, N'Pan, visits the film in spirit form


3. Poetic Storytelling

This is a different type of story about food security that will take you on a reflective journey to understand sustainable plant-breeding science, the power of community, farmer ethics, and their impact on Mali and beyond. This will include:

- Traditional forms of oral storytelling, poetry, and proverbs that pace the story, delivered by local Malians

- A non-linear narrative structure

- Minimal use of infographics

- Long meditative shots that pay homage to the cadence of life in rural Mali 

- Impromptu discussions with African and Western plant-breeding scientists embedded in Mali

- Traditional ceremonies, music, and dance involving local villagers

- Candid interviews over the years with Dr. Lacy about life, love, the history and future of humankind, and finding higher purpose and meaning

- Personal discussions with Burama and other villagers about farmer ethics, climate change, family values, religion and spirituality, and politics, in their own words

- Rarely seen footage of Mali

- Dreamy sequences and montages


Dr. Scott Lacy in Dissan earlier this year, 22 years after first setting foot there


4. Character-Driven Story of Transformation that Stands the Seeds of Time

In Nyogon, we see the main characters grow, evolve, and transform over 20 years of film footage! Scott has spent big chunks of time every year living and conducting research in Mali for the better part of the last two decades, speaks fluent Bambara, and has worked with Burama and several other film characters since first arriving there in 1994 as a Peace Corps volunteer. Scott is not a professor who spends a few days "in the field", shakes hands, and then vanishes forever back to his office desk; rather, he has given his heart and soul to his efforts in Mali, bypassing a more normal career and life path. His collaboration with his ja tigi (or brother's keeper), Burama, has survived sickness and disease on both their parts, being thousands of miles apart for parts of each year, recent political coups, stalling talks involving international plant variety governing bodies, and the unfortunate end of Peace Corps Mali due to ongoing militant action in parts of Mali. Burama experiences personal transformation, as well, that along with Scott and others, can inspire us all to act toward promoting social justice in our respective communities. 


Director/producer Michael Axtell with his host-brother and Mali namesake, Yacouba Sangaré


5. Deep Roots in Visual Anthropology 

Both Dr. Lacy and Director Michael Axtell have a background in ethnography and anthropology, each with a passion for illuminating the value of traditional knowledge and wisdom, which informs their respective crafts. For this film, Michael spent six weeks in Mali during the course of two trips there, embedding himself in the culture with the locals before taking out a camera to film. After his first trip to Mali and even receiving a Bambara name, he felt that it was his moral obligation as a filmmaker to be of service as a storyteller, by giving a voice to the characters and communities in the film. Traveling and working in Mali has taken Axtell on his own inner journey beyond anything he's ever imagined. 


a "Chiwara", or mythical farming antelope/beast in Bambara lore





Principal photography wrapped after an amazing two-week trip to Mali this year! In order to accomplish our post-production goals, we've set the following funding benchmarks:


Minimum goal: $15,000

This provides us with the resources to finish our film and create a screener, which will allow for a film festival premiere. These expenses include editorial, color correction, graphics/animations, translation/transcription/subtitling from Bambara to English, sound mixing and design, music composition and music rights to pay local Malian artists.


Stretch goal: $20,000

This provides us with additional marketing and promotional resources to make the film distribution-ready and able to show the film to audiences at numerous festivals, community and like-minded organization screenings, as well as educational settings such as high schools and universities. In addition, the film would be prepared for online distribution.


King Sundiata, founder of the storied Mali Empire in the 13th Century A.D. 





    We greatly appreciate you taking the time to learn more about this project and campaign.


OTHER WAYS TO CONTRIBUTE whatever your heart allows:




SHARE THE LINK to this campaign with your peers and colleagues 


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JOIN the NGO African Sky and get involved in its various humanitarian projects


GIVE AN OLD FASHIONED PHONE CALL to your nearest and dearest who would be interested in joining us! You're surely a storyteller in your own right, so feel free to share this with your community!


   Because of the sheer immensity of the story and dozens of hours of video and audio to be edited, we need your help. With your helping hand, Nyogon can educate, enlighten, and inspire social change on a local and global level - inspirited with the power of community seen in the village of Dissan and by the partnerships Dr. Lacy, Burama, and their colleagues have built over the years. 


 Jeliba Kouyaté comes from a long lineage of "griots", traditional West Africa storytellers


I NI CÉ !!  / THANK YOU !!


ALA KA HÉRÉ DE I MA  /  MAY THE UNIVERSE GIVE YOU PEACE (traditional Bambara blessing)


Use the WishList to Pledge cash and Loan items - or - Make a pledge by selecting an Incentive directly.

Music Licensing

Costs $2,500

This portion of the monies raised will pay for music rights and support local Malian musicians.


Costs $3,000

This will be used to hire Malians, formerly employed by Peace Corps, to transcribe and translate interviews from Bambara into English.


Costs $7,500

These funds will pay for the services of editors and animators to complete a deliverable screener of the film by early 2017.

Cash Pledge

Costs $0

Sound Design

Costs $2,000

These costs will go towards a Sound Designer to enhance the sound and musical elements of the film to improve the viewer's experience.

About This Team

   Featured in Film:



Burama Sangaré is a leading farmer in the village of Dissan, local political representative in the village's region, and has worked tirelessly for over two decades with Dr. Lacy, plant-breeding scientists, and his fellow farmers on finding viable non-GMO seeds to feed his village and surrounding areas. The rest of the world can learn from his vast knowledge of agriculture and his views on human self-reliance and farming ethics, based on a lifetime in the fields in some of the world's harshest growing conditions.


Dr. Scott Lacy, known in Mali as Solomane Sangaré, is an anthropology professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut. He received his PhD at UC Santa Barbara in 2004. He researches community development and sustainability issues affecting the developing world, focusing most closely on West Africa and Mali. In 1994, perhaps by fate, Scott first arrived in Mali as a volunteer in the US Peace Corps, and did not speak a word of Bambara. Now he is fluent. He is the founder and executive director of African Sky, a non‐profit organization that collaborates with Malian communities in various service programs, and enjoys being a partner and collaborator with all his Malian colleagues.


   Yacouba Sangaré is Burama's steadfast younger brother. He moved to the big city of Bamako years ago seeking work after growing up in Dissan, but is still an active member in Dissan's community and collaborates with Scott and African Sky on various projects throughout southern Mali. On Scott's first night in the village over twenty years ago, Yacouba was the first to greet him and provided Scott a lantern so he could read in the dark.


    Siaka "Jeliba" Kouyaté is not only an amazing chaffeur and big personality who has worked with Scott for over four years, but he has assumed the important role of being Scott's personal "djeli", or griot, acting as a dynamic storyteller, confidant, peacekeeper, and historian, following in the footsteps of his family lineage and this ancient West African tradition that is older than Mali itself. His praises for the village of Dissan, various characters in the film, and for Mali are not to be missed.


   Sam Samaké is the esteemed former Chief of Peace Corps Mali. He first met Scott over twenty years ago and gives perspective on the legacy of Peace Corps Mali and the future direction of the post-Peace Corps Mali era.


   Bocar Bocoum has worked for Peace Corps Mali for several decades as a language instructor. With an infectious smile, he recounts Scott's early days as a Bambara language student while also offering his passionate insights on the power of cross-cultural exchange, Malian values, and the future of service programs in Mali sans Peace Corps.



Dr. Krista Isaacs is a leading and dedicated agroecologist researcher at ICRISAT Mali (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics), based in Samanko, just outside Bamako. She has worked with the famed Eva Weltzien, a mentor of Scott. Her innovative work in Rwanda and Mali is emboldening participatory plant breeding initiatives through direct partnerships with rural farmers who grow crops in some of the world's most challenging growing environments. By blending agronomy, ecology, and social science, Krista integrates local knowledge and gender inclusivity to scientific discussions on food security and seed production. She earned her PhD at Michigan State University and is inspired by her former work as a Peace Corps volunteer.


   The illustrious Dr. Eva Weltzien worked as the main participatory plant breeding researcher for ICRISAT Mali for many years. She has worked closely with Scott and Burama on testing varieties in the fields of Dissan and has been Scott's mentor in his studies over the years. In 2002, out of twenty-three sorghum varieties from the ICRISAT lab, Burama chose one to test in his fields, "Bemba", that ended up being a sweeping success in southern Mali. Before Mali, Weltzien spent many years conducting research in India, and if you're still not impressed, several years in Syria before that.


   Tamba Traoré is a teacher of several subjects, including English, in the Markala area, north of Bamako. Aside from working closely with Scott and African Sky on numerous community-oriented projects, Tamba is an avid writer and poet. Through his soothing voice, he offers his intimate writings as well as timeless Bambara proverbs to the audience.


   N'Pan Sangaré is the original settler of Dissan and founded the village several hundred years ago. His spirit form appears in the film and helps guide the audience on this journey. He embodies the sacred knowledge of the trees and local crocodiles that protect Dissan from harm.


Production Team:


      Director/Producer: Michael Axtell, award-winning producer at AboveGrey Pictures and owner of Dreaming Monk Productions, was born and raised in the misty hills of San Francisco, California. He is known as Yacouba Sangaré in Mali, named after his host-brother there. Michael has a passion for visual anthropology and is the descendant of several generations of farmers on his maternal side. He studied film and video production at the Bay Area Video Coalition and the San Francisco School of Digital Filmmaking and recently won the Best Commercial Award as Producer for "Pancakes" at the 2016 HollyShorts Film Festival, the "Cannes" of the short film world. He first started building his craft while working for two years as a producer, director, cameraman, editor, and anchor on “Gaucho Scoreboard,” a sports television show at UC Santa Barbara.

     He holds a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his work strives to highlight the wisdom and insight of ancient and traditional forms of knowledge while exploring the intersection between human ecology, science and technology, and the evolution of human consciousness.

     Over the past several years, outside of work as a video producer, he has trekked to the Outback and Great Barrier Reef of Australia, walked on the sands of Zanzibar and the primordial Serengeti plains of Tanzania, regularly attended sumo wrestling events during a year of work in rural Japan, and has loved conversing with the locals in Spanish during his several trips to México. He traveled to Mali for a month to shoot footage for this film on his first trip there several years ago, and finished production in the spring of 2016 after two more amazing weeks in Mali.

    Nyogon will be his first feature documentary film.


    Co-Producer/Editor: Ezra J. Stanley is a creative force of nature with talents as a film director, actor, writer, editor, and painter. Born and raised in San Francisco, he is the owner of AboveGrey Pictures, specializing in auteur films, commercials, and music videos. He was selected as one of the world’s Hot New Directors for 2010 by Shoot Magazine and recently won the Best Commercial Award as Writer/Director for "Pancakes" at the HollyShorts Film Festival, the "Cannes" of the short film world. His Levi's Jeans commercial "Post‐Mortem’” won Best Commercial HollyShorts and his American Express commercial, “Traveler”, was also an Official Selection at this festival. Ezra J's ancestors came from the small tropical nation of Belize, giving him an innate understanding of the value of learning from traditional knowledge and spirituality. His unique approach to visual artistry and story-development expertise is irreplacable in this production.


   Production Assistant/Translator: Sadio Sogobá has worked for many years as a Bambara to French/English interpreter and translator for several companies and NGOs in Mali. He recently teamed up with African Sky to help facilitate a workshop for a women's literacy group in the village of Zeala, and the Nyogon team soon realized that his services would be a huge addition to the film. He has a passion for studying issues of sustainable development in rural Mali, and utilizes his experience of growing up in a village to fuel his work. He was instrumental in helping the team capture great interviews with local farmers for this film.

Current Team