Sean Economou and photographer Jason Burke with one of the families they worked with in MalawiSean Economou, Watts of Love, with permission
The short documentary film, Ukwati, or “The Wedding,” has won MY HERO' Film Fest Relationships First Award. Ukwati is about child marriages in Malawi, a land-locked country in southeastern Africa, and one of the poorest nations in the world.
Produced and directed by 25-year-old Sean Economou for the nonprofit, Watts of Love, Ukwati captures the relationship between a mother and her daughter as they struggle to survive. Due to extreme poverty and limited resources, some parents in Malawi believed that their only option to secure funds for their family was to marry off their young girls to men over four times their age: the girls were sold for the equivalent of US fifty dollars. Then, in 2017 Chief Theresa Kachindamoto and her team reunited thousands of these lost children with their families. In 2021, Watts of Love partnered with the chief to distribute solar lights and provide financial literacy training for the girls and their families: today the girls are able to afford to go to school, and their families are on the road to prosperity. The short documentary film is touching and heartfelt, and the cinematography—shot by then-sixteen-year-old Jayson Burke, is stunning.
Sean and Nancy Economou of Watts of LoveSean Economou, with permission
There are many quiet heroes in this story: the Malawi girls and moms in the film; Chief Kachindamoto who helped free the girls from sexual slavery; Nancy Economou, the founder and director of Watts of Love; Watts of Love teams on the ground in Malawi; Sean Economou, the film’s producer and director; and Ukwati’s 16-year-old cinematographer, Jayson Burke, who goes far beyond his years to reach memorable depth and beautiful footage of these girls and their families.
MY HERO’s Interview with Filmmaker Sean Economou
Sean Economou, who produced and directed the film for the nonprofit, Watts of Love, studied filmmaking at Columbia College, with an emphasis in post-production. The son of activist and founder of Watts of Love, Nancy Economou, Sean grew up with the organization and started to work for the nonprofit during college. Sean told MY HERO: “To see my mother doing what she was created to do has really inspired me. A mother of five boys, she had this dream and went for it: such an impact from a Chicago suburb mom!”
Nancy Economou started Watts of Love ten years ago to fight poverty. To quote their website: “A lack of electricity is creating an endless cycle of poverty, financial literacy makes it last.” As of 2022, Watts of Love has distributed over 77,000 solar lights—one per family, impacting over 542,000 lives in 52 countries.
For the last one-and-a-half years, Sean has been Watts of Light’s Creative Director. Amazingly, Ukwati was Sean’s first film.
When we asked Sean about the inspiration for the film, he said:
It’s a crazy story. My mom heard about this chief in Malawi who was dissolving child marriage throughout the nation. She had this dream to meet her: it was the one thing in the world she wanted. One day she was in line at an airport in Malawi, and it turns out Chief Kachindamoto was standing right next to her!
The women talked about their work while taking the bus to the airplane together and Nancy received an invitation to visit the chief. Visiting a year later, Chief Kachindamoto shared many stories about the girls who were sold into marriage and their families and spoke about how the girls' daily lives were lived.
Chief Theresa Kachindamoto of MalawiCourtesy of Sean Economou
The first woman leader in her village, Chief Kachindamoto, had helped implement the adoption of a constitutional amendment in Malawi to officially outlaw the practice of child marriage. As a result, thousands of customary marriages--that had been arranged by chiefs, were annulled. In the process, Sean said, Chief Kachindamoto was criticized by her community for defying culture. As she told him, “Rather than defying culture, I’m defining it.” Her goal is freedom, choice, and education for these girls.
Several months later, Sean and his mom were sitting in their living room in Chicago, feeling the weight of the stories the chief had told Nancy. “Sitting with this powerful story,” Sean said, “we agreed that we could help.” They decided to pitch the stories the chief had told Nancy to their board. The board agreed to send Sean and a female colleague to Malawi to find the stories and learn more about how Watts of Love might help. Local partners arranged for Sean and his colleague to meet ten girls, where they interviewed the girls and families about their experiences – the process took about a week. Those ten stories, Sean said, constitute the whole story of the script. Sean stayed in Malawi working on the film for three months: it took one month to edit the photos, stories, and testimonials and six months total to complete the film.
“My big concern,” he said, “was that we didn’t want to make the men or the mothers out to be villains – the truth is that their circumstances related to extreme poverty are the villains.”
From left to right: Mia Kiboloski, Mathew Hau-Hau , Sean Economou , Levi Hawkins , Jayson Burke in MalawiSean Economou, Watts of Love, with permission
Thanks to the solar light kits and financial literacy training, these girls can now afford to attend school. The thirty-percent of family income that was spent on kerosene could now be applied to the family’s future. “It’s everyone’s big dream to be able to afford school for their children,” Sean told MY HERO, and when combined with financial literacy training, families are empowered to raise themselves out of poverty.
As Chief Kachindamoto said, “When you educate a girl, you lift up the entire region.” This beautiful film not only raises consciousness about child marriage on a very human level, but is a testament to how a coordinated team of dedicated individuals can accomplish so much with so very little.
Dir/Editor - Sean Economou
D.P.- Jayson Burke* / Paul Wesolowski
A.C. - Levi Hawkins / Mia Kibiloski
Composer - David Chapdelaine
Malawian Producer- Matthew Hau-Hau
*Jayson Burke is an 18-year-old cinematographer based in Chicago, IL. Jayson was 16 years old when he shot UKWATI and celebrated his 17th birthday in the mountains of Southern Malawi. His passion is cinematography and telling stories in the most visually beautiful way possible.
Links for more information
Watch the film, Ukwati: https://myhero.com/ukwati-the-wedding
Learn more about Watts of Love and their impact: https://www.wattsoflove.org
Read story about Watts of Love founder and director, Nancy Economou: https://www.wattsoflove.org/about/founders-story
Read more about Chief Theresa Kachinadmoto’s mission to end child marriage in Malawi:https://unwomen.org.au/chief-kachindamotos-life-mission-to-end-child-marriage-in-malawi/