THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE: MADE IN BUSHWICK
“Bring the goat a little higher on the screen. We want to see him really run away,” the director Gosia Lukomska instructed.
The puppetmaster Ronald Binion obliged. Onstage, the goat—a fuzzy blob made from a thrift-store fur coat, card- board, and masking tape—gave a loud bleat and trotted off, fleeing a coughing boy hand puppet, who was trying to pet him.
The puppet show was being filmed as a public-service announcement about Ebola, to air in Uganda. Recently, Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson starred in a P.S.A. intended to educate Americans about the West African out- break. Paul Falzone, who produced the puppet show, runs a Bushwick-based communications N.G.O. called Peripheral Vision International. For Ugandan audiences, he figured that a goat would make a friendly messenger. “Goats are almost a part of the general population in Uganda,” he said, between takes. They’re also not known to carry or pass on the deadly virus. “We thought about making a puppet with a Tyvek suit to dispel myths about Ebola health workers being infectious, but then we thought that might be a little too ‘E.T.’ ”
Ebola hasn’t appeared in Uganda since 2012, but people there are worried. Falzone’s P.S.A. will be shown in Ugandan video halls—community TV rooms that dot the countryside outside Kampala, the capital. The message: People should take precautions to avoid contracting the disease, but they shouldn’t become hysterical. Falzone, who has short hair and a stubbly beard, doesn’t believe in fear- mongering. “We didn’t want to show anyone bleeding or anything similar to the signage governments have pasted everywhere, which have all the graphic de- tails,” he said.
Back onstage, Lukomska was not satisfied with Binion’s bleat. The goat was supposed to sound worried that the boy was sick. “That’s a terrible bleat,” she said. “Horrible. We need to hear the fear in the goat—he’s this boy’s friend!”
“Give me a minute,” Binion said. He got up and stretched. Binion came to Falzone by way of the Jim Henson Company, where he has worked on Muppet films and TV shows, followed by roles on the Comedy Central series “Crank Yankers.”“Everyone thinks puppets are just for kids, but puppets give people a safer way to consider serious issues,” he said.
Peripheral Vision International gets funding from groups like the Ford Foundation; it has produced music videos and other media for Ugandan audiences about such subjects as disability rights and condom use. Falzone, a former communications instructor at the University of Pennsylvania, started it in 2011.“I wanted to use communication to prevent some- one from relying on a lifetime of humanitarian aid,” he said. He spends six months of the year in Uganda, but re- turns to a warehouse in Bushwick to shoot: “New York is still the best place for puppet talent.”
In Uganda, Falzone distributes DVDs that include a mix of his P.S.A.s, news clips, and other programming, such as “Newz Beat,”a show that he created after noticing the popularity of rap-music videos in Uganda. Last year, he shot a music video on the streets of Bushwick for the Ugandan rapper Eddy Kenzo, whose song “Stamina” was an anthem for President Yoweri Museveni’s 2011 reëlection campaign. In exchange, Falzone persuaded Kenzo to star in some promos for his N.G.O. “Eddy gave us some serious street cred in Kampala,” Falzone said.
The Ebola P.S.A.s are a multistep project. In December, Falzone and Lukomska travelled to Uganda to record back- ground noise and voice-overs, to give the spots authentic Ugandan accents and atmosphere. This week, Falzone is making another trip, to test the P.S.A.s with Ugandan audiences. He hopes to expand into West Africa and partner with U.N. agencies and N.G.O.s. “They’re now realizing that people don’t like to be patronized with the same serious message over and over,” Lukomska said.
But first the puppeteers had to finish the show. After the goat ran away from the boy, and a neighbor expressed concern, the script called for the boy’s mother
to take him to a local clinic. “Paul, now make the boy cough. Really cough. He’s got to be sick,” Lukomska instructed. Falzone and Binion—this time animating the neighbor and a nurse—acted out a doctor’s visit and an all-clear diagnosis. (Voices would be dubbed in later.) Then the goat returned with a smile on his face. “If people think too seriously about this stuff, their brains will melt,” Falzone said. “Look at Stewart, look at Colbert—they deliver the message with- out making people feel bad about their lives. We do that, too.” —A.M.Brune