Eli LaBan will probably start checking his spam folder more often.
The recent Temple University grad — he studied media studies and production — received an email, congratulating him on his nomination for a College Television Award, run by the Television Academy Foundation (aka the Emmy Awards).
But he didn’t realize it until he got a follow-up email to him and the other nominees with information about flying to Los Angeles for the awards ceremony on May 24.
“I was like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute, what is this?’” recalled the Cheltenham native, who grew up going to Congregation Adath Jeshurun.
After momentary confusion, lo and behold in his spam folder was the original congratulatory email.
LaBan took home the top honors in the “Series-Unscripted” category for a series of short social media videos he created as part of a project that began during a study abroad program in Nicaragua.
As he wanted to learn Spanish, LaBan chose Nicaragua for his semester-long study abroad and ended up learning much more than the language — he learned about at least three others.
During his semester there, he took a trip to the Caribbean Coast region, a remote area home to multiple Afro-indigenous communities that speak several endangered languages.
“I was astounded by the unique mix of cultures and languages you hear on the street and the Caribbean influence — it was amazing to me,” he recalled. “The place is very marginalized, there’s very little infrastructure. In this part of the country, there’s no roads, really, between the cities, you have to get everywhere by speedboat through the jungle.”
Inspiration struck for the independent study project he was required to do.
“I was in this area, and it just seemed like, ‘Wow, I don’t know necessarily what my topic is going to be, but I want to do a video here,’” he said, “because this is the place that I’ve never heard about, I’m sure nobody else has heard about. Even in Nicaragua, people don’t know much about it.”
The result was traveling to different communities and finding residents to speak on camera — he has a fair share of expertise with videography, having interned at NBC 10 Philadelphia and working on a series about addiction that won him a regional Emmy — and having them count to 10.
He created three short videos, each less than three minutes long, showing children with enthusiastic smiles and adults counting to 10 in three endangered languages: Garifuna, Rama and Miskito.
The Rama language, for instance, is considered “moribund,” the video says, which means only a few elderly people are still able to speak it fluently.
The videos, which LaBan hosts on his website, are accompanied by footage of the regions in which the languages hope to continue to flourish and text giving further context into the history and traits of the areas.
A fourth short video explores a type of music that is disappearing from the region, showing performances and interviews with the last living Maypole musicians.
He shared one of the first videos of people counting to 10 on his Facebook page, and the response was overwhelming.
“I was able to send it to the people of the community I filmed it in and it started getting shared a lot, like hundreds of times, and I didn’t expect that,” he said. “And I was watching the comment stream under the video, and people were having these really powerful reactions to this one-minute video I did.”
The breadth of responses and shares he received showed how little known this area was, even to local Nicaraguans he met, and he wanted to promote the area further.
Creating short videos was a way to give a quick but wide look into the area in a way that kept people’s attention — no easy feat.
“It’s hard to get people to sit down and watch a whole thing on the internet,” he noted. “If you want to spread a message, you have to make it short and you have to make it catchy so it will stop people just scrolling through their newsfeed. … And also doing a series of videos made more sense because it accurately reflected all these different communities that each have their totally unique story.”
He’ll get to continue telling these stories when he returns to the region in the fall. The SIT Study Abroad through which he completed his study offers a grant for students to return to where they studied for a community project, which he will work on with the Rama community primarily.
He hopes to continue to make videos and spread the word about this cultural preservation.
“My goal is to take something that many people would think is an exotic, far-off issue — you know, people that speak a different language and dress a certain way and are living in the jungle, something that seems so exotic,” he explained, “and make it into something three-dimensional that’s universally relatable, so that you can watch this in the suburbs of Philly or what have you, and be like, ‘Wow, I relate to that.’”
Winning the College Emmy shows that this issue is something that does have broad appeal.
“Now that I have that Emmy, it’s really great to be able to use that award as tangible evidence of the universal nature of this issue, and how this format can make such a niche, far-off situation interesting or relatable for people in a totally different area of the world,” he said. “I’m really happy about it and I think it’ll give a good foundation for continuing to do this kind of work, which is exactly what I intend on doing.”
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