Canadian filmmaker Firdaus Kharas created the computer-animated television series Magic Cellar as a way to tell children stories of African folklore. The show has garnered so much attention worldwide that it has earned a distribution deal in the United States, where it will begin airing on HBO tonight.
Produced as a joint venture between Kharas's film company Chocolate Moose Media Inc., and Johannesburg's Morula Pictures, 20 episodes of the series have been completed so far with plans for another 32 to follow.
The stories were collected by tape recorder from storytellers in communities stretching across sub-Saharan Africa and then translated to script and screen. Told as a series of simple morals, the 11.5-minute episodes aim to present diverse representations of African children and teach their viewing audience about Africa's vibrant history and culture.
"Some of them are 200 years old, some of them are 400 years old," says Kharas of the Magic Cellar tales. "They are literally centuries old."
Originally offered in four languages spoken in South Africa - English, Afrikaans, Zulu and Sotho - the show is now broadcast through parts of the Middle East as part of an Arabic-language deal with JCC, a Qatar-based children's channel. And there are plans to expand the show's South African broadcast reach by dubbing it into the country's seven other official languages.
The show has also been given a high production value, says Kharas, with painstaking attention paid to highlighting the parts of the stories which are uniquely African in nature.
"Every blade of grass is authentic, every tree is authentic, but more than that, not just the stories are authentic but every costume is authentic," Kharas says.
The show has been showered with international recognitions including a first-place award from the Chicago International Children's Film Festival, where the prize was decided by an all-child jury.
"For them to walk into a festival and give the top award to a completely different looking animated program based on African culture, I think, spoke volumes about the capacity of other children to absorb different cultures and multicultural programming," Kharas says.
Kharas's career trajectory has been unusual. The 51-year-old producer and filmmaker got a late start in the entertainment business after a career as a bureaucrat with the United Nations and the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.
"All the issues I deal with, like HIV/AIDS and children's rights, and so on, are the same issues I've always dealt with, human rights and things like that," says Kharas, speaking from his home in Nepean, Ont.
"If you look at it from that point of view, this is a different way of doing it ... and all of [my films]are about major social issues."
His earlier animated Three Amigos public-service announcements, for instance, taught audiences worldwide about the need for safe sex.
Eventually recognized with a Peabody Award, the group of animated shorts about the lives of three condoms named Shaft, Stretch and Dick, have been translated into 41 languages and are estimated to have been seen by more than 100 million people.
"I am literally trying to make the world a better place, to better the human condition using mass communications," says Kharas, of what he tries to accomplish with his films.
He believes the animation has qualities that allow him to connect stories with people in a way that live drama cannot match.
"It allows you to span time zones and to do various things in storytelling," says Kharas.
"When you're trying to change people's behaviour, especially young people's behaviours, and you're trying to do those kinds of things, I think animation has a great advantage," he says.