Interview with Elizabeth Mattfeld, UNODC Global Programme Coordinator and Miles Roston, Director, Ethan Films

Tell us a bit about the history of ‘Listen First’, and your involvement with this initiative?


In 2016, UNODC was instrumental in supporting the UN General Assembly Special Session on the world drug problem. Historically, substance use prevention was not the primary focus of the work related to the world drug problem, so we wanted to focus on prevention. We worked primarily with France, but several Member States lent their support to develop materials that would be fun, engaging, and focus on parenting skills as one of the most essential substance use prevention strategies with a long-lasting impact. We started with three videos with a fun animated purple family under the theme 'Listen First' - highlighting the importance of listening to children and youth to keep them safe. Over the years, as the project grew, I took more of a leadership role in developing the next rounds of science-driven materials. In 2020, with the pandemic, we looked at how we could take those same characters and expand 'Listen First' to help parents and children during lockdowns, and The Science of Care was created together with Miles and Ethan Films. Those materials had ten short videos with ten science sheets, and the focus was effective science and evidence-based practices for prevention.


Ethan Films produced and directed the first video materials with Giovanna Campello and Gilberto Gerra in 2016, whose work was inspiring to us as new parents ourselves. Then, when the pandemic happened in 2020, and we were locked down here in Spain with our two small children who were not allowed to leave the house for months, it became a daily project to organize different activities and routines for them. So the thought of making something that would be helpful to parents in coping with all this, that's what inspired the concept of 'The Science of Care'. Those videos came from that experience, and we also filmed with other families in their homes around the world, coping with the lockdowns in their different ways.

What does Ethan Films do, and how does 'Listen First' fit into your vision?


At Ethan Films, we make fiction and documentary films and animation - but there's always a social issue or idea behind our work. My partner Jenny Lundstrom's background is in human rights, and I spent a good ten years making films and books about children orphaned by HIV/ AIDS, so 'Listen First' fits our vision very much. It's the same issues that we care about, especially this new project, ‘The Science of Skills’ that deals with children who may be vulnerable and could benefit from learning about life skills that help them to survive and thrive. What's great about the 'Listen First’ program is that it's science-based, so there's no moralism; it's about things that work.

What is this new 'Listen First' initiative: 'Super Skills – The Science of Skills'?


'The Science of Care' targeted parents whereas 'The Science of Skills' is made for the children and those working with them. The title for both programs is 'Listen First' because we know the strongest science is around active listening. Everything is based on evidence and science. At this age, approximately 6 – 10-year-olds, one of the most effective and evidence-based strategies is building social and emotional skills such as communication, decision making, self-management, and stress management. So now we're looking at listening and learning between peers - skill development – but active listening remains in focus. 'The Science of Skills' entails five fun, engaging animated videos in a whole imaginary world with four heroes who will take us on adventures and teach us about their 'super skills'. They come with ten 'Skills Sheets' that provides the science behind the skills: compassion, empathy, motivation, integrity, respect, gratitude, honesty, curiosity, confidence and hope. There will also be guides on how to use the materials for different stakeholders.

Tell us more about the Super Heroes and their world!


Our four characters live in Skilltown, which is done in full 3D animation. They are, in a way, underprivileged kids themselves; they have kind of 'disabilities', a very big nose, big ears, big hands, big eyes, but they've turned their disadvantages into their superpowers. Likeable Listenup can hear sounds that other people can't, Sensitive Smellup can sense other children's hopes and fears, Helpful Handy can touch the stars, but also your heart, and Loyal Lookup can see through buildings and dangers from afar. They can feel emotions better and are sensitive to other children - they're 'listening first.' So once other children discover their abilities through a daring rescue in Episode 1 ‘Being Special’, they become heroes in the community. They go through their own adventures and emotions. And like other children, they have to learn how to control their feelings. Sometimes they overreact. They lose their toy, go crazy, start screaming, and then learn to calm down. And they have to overcome their fears. For example, in 'The Book Challenge,' Listenup gets scared of a smiling book that she thinks is laughing at her, but then she realizes that she can fulfill her dream of becoming an astronaut if she reads the book and the book was smiling 'with' her. The team transfers these skills or ideas to the other children in the community who don't have superhero capes but can learn these social and emotional skills and pass them on. Each of our superheroes has a sweet mentality, and they help each other – they really are a team. They live in a magical world where anything can happen that hopefully feels as dramatic as anything children can see these days. The sun, the moon, and even the books are engaged and get worried if the children are not doing well. There are no parents in this world; it's really about the children learning these skills themselves. The idea is that we are all Super Heroes, and we all have skills, but sometimes we need to learn how to use them or be reminded that we have them.

What's the connection between drug use prevention and skills development?


UNODC has published a resource called the International Standards on Drug use Prevention. So we know what's evidence and science-based, and what will work at the different ages and settings; for primary school age, there's a significant focus on skill development. Once you've developed these skills, you can carry them with you into life. For me, the characters' development and the process in which they learn the skills are also about leadership. It's about making sure that you care and have compassion and empathy for others. Young people sometimes have a tough time understanding that skill development is about how they develop on their own. Not independent from their family, but within this type of community setting. And primary age is also a time when they spend more time with their peers. So learning these skills is extremely important for them to be successful, not just in school but also in relationships with other young people. And that foundation will help them in the future in terms of preventing substance use.

What's the creative process behind these animations?


Elizabeth and I had a lot of talks about it, and we both wanted to have something specifically going for children. We wanted to do something that would appeal to them visually, and that's why we use this 3D technology. It's about creating a children's world that’s dynamic, fluid and fully alive - with the characters able to fly and a super active camera. Then there's the thinking about connecting their 'superpowers' with their senses – yet maintaining the connection with social and emotional skills – and we have had some crucial support from Elizabeth, the UNODC team and external experts in making sure the message and science are there. There's also lots of time spent dreaming or fussing around, and together with a great animator and designer, we came up with these characters that have been tested with focus groups worldwide.

What's the plan for using these new materials?


UNODC has a 'Listen First' website, where you can find the videos from 2016, the material under 'The Science of Care', and now the new 'The Science of Skills.'

For UNODC, there are two important messages: to continue to focus on science, and we would also like people to see that you can engage with these materials in many different ways. So we want countries to engage with the materials in the way that Slovenia, Poland, and UAE already have. They translated and used 'The Science of Care' materials, and we anticipate that they will do the same for 'The Science of Skills' because they found success with that. Throughout' Listen First,' we've looked at the five key relevant stakeholders: parents, educators or teachers in schools, healthcare professionals, prevention and treatment workers, and policymakers, all have an important role to play in terms of substance use prevention. And we have a significant number of partners worldwide that have been willing to help us share these resources, some in the most remote places and others at the global level. So the ways to use the materials are unlimited. We encourage people to go to the website to contact me if they are interested in using them. And then we also like to highlight success stories - so when people use the materials, we include that in our monthly newsletter. We are also interested in collecting data about any impact it may have made in their community for children worldwide.

What's your personal motivation behind this? Why does it matter to you?


My interest in this work is that substance use prevention can be engaging and transformative. 'Listen First' gives us a chance to put science at the front of the conversation and engage people. It provides an understanding that substance use prevention is universal; it's for everyone. Learning skills is not just to prevent substance use, but it helps people to grow healthy, stay positive. It prevents violence and bullying. Many different risky behaviors can be prevented by learning these skills. So my investment in 'Listen First' is really about making sure that young people have the chance to grow healthy and happy and positively contribute to their communities as they get older because these skills transcend age. They may be learned early on, but we know that they are useful throughout their life. It is a strong foundation that will help young people even in a resource-deprived setting.


Witnessing children orphaned by HIV/AIDS, especially in Africa, I felt privileged observing children coping in such extraordinary situations and seeing that if they had help and had people caring about them, how much that could make a difference. In my experience, if children, especially those living in vulnerable situations, have these emotional and social skills, that goes a long way towards making their lives better so that they don't want to sniff glue because they've got so many better things to do. And so learning these skills, such as being grateful or being compassionate or having integrity, are things that we can tell good stories about. Hopefully, it will be inspiring to children. One of the most important things Ethan Films does is to try to make things exciting and entertaining. To me, social issues are fascinating because they are dramatic. So all these stories that we do, even now with 'Listen First,' are fun, dramatic stories, and that's my job, to make sure they stay funny, engaging, and entertaining.

Finally, how has it been like working together?


UNODC really appreciates the partnership with Ethan Films. We may have the science and the information, but painting that picture and creating that level of engagement - that allows for learning and targeting that level of engagement - is certainly a strength that Ethan Films has that UNODC appreciates. It’s also their commitment to work that matters and makes a difference for children around the world.


Elizabeth and UNODC are doing some very important work, and it's been great to be given the opportunity to be working alongside their teams. I really do believe in telling stories. I think it is how we relate to others and learn and understand a lot in life. So for me, it's really special that we get to create these videos, and we're grateful that we get the creative freedom to do that.

Elizabeth Mattfeld

Elizabeth Mattfeld is a Global Programme Coordinator with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. She has worked with substance use prevention and treatment programs for more than twenty-five years and has recently coordinated UNODC’s Youth Initiative activities and the ‘Listen First’ project. Elizabeth is a strong advocate for children having piloted a program in Afghanistan for children exposed to and using drugs, and she has a passion for following the science.

Miles Roston

Miles Roston is an award-winning filmmaker, director of the feature film 'Game,' and theatrical documentaries including 'The Subversives' and 'Refugees, Who Needs Them?'. Miles has worked with broadcasters and producers worldwide and has won a Cine Golden Eagle and an Emmy nomination. His documentaries about children orphaned by HIV/AIDS were broadcast worldwide. He is also the author of two books, one of which features a foreword by Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu. Miles graduated from Columbia University, New York City.

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