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DOC Lab 2012 finds a sense of community

AUT hosted DOCLab over the last three days, with a bunch of teams, individuals and mentors mixing up presentations, practical workshops, roundtables and project-specific mentoring sessions over three days.

From the UK, B3 Media’s Marc Boothe presented a session, Finding Your Story, on Friday. Boothe is a recidivist presenter at Doc Edge events, and this time offered perspectives on routes to production.

His own experience of being British and of Afro-Caribbean descent has kept issues race, culture and identity at the forefront of his work, although he continually stresses the importance of quality.

The incubator programme B3 Media runs, which produces up to 30 pieces of work (primarily film) a year, is “ruthless” at getting rid of potential filmmakers who don’t or won’t put in the hard yards in development.

Sharing examples of projects that had gone through the programme, Boothe was able to point to a good number of people involved in those projects who had parlayed that experience and the short films they’d created into longer-term career-sustaining opportunities.

Turning specifically to transmedia exploitation around projects, the major focus of the lab, Boothe noted the importance of treating different elements within a project as individual opportunities without lessening their contribution to the whole.

The purpose of expanding a project beyond a linear storytelling exercise (be it a book, play or film) was to offer additional layers of material and to provide bridges between the audience without requiring participation in the main event in a specific time and place.

At the heart of it, however, remained a story that needed to be told – and told well. The rest was not window-dressing, but opportunity for wider exploitation of the story, related material and themes, and the chance to engage with a wider audience.

When it comes to money, that wider audience presents a stronger chance of making (or recouping) dollars.

Exploitation of material across multiple platforms also created new opportunities when seeking to fund a transmedia project, he suggested. Different pockets of money (both public and private) were available for different purposes and some of those pockets might focus on or specifically exclude activity in certain areas.

He also described the funding of projects in such as “a Rubik’s cube of partnerships”, although it was unclear whether he meant that almost infinite possibilities existed or that it was infuriating trying to get everything to line up neatly. Probably both.

On Saturday morning, the focus was on activism and engagement, also sitting neatly within the overarching transmedia focus of the Lab.

Justin Benn, recent NZ resident and formerly a filmmaker with the Red Cross, presented his globe-trotting resumé as a filmmaker working for an NGO/charitable organisation. He offered insight into negotiating the politics of an organisation that embraces change “at a glacial pace, even by glacial standards”, and presented some concrete examples of the value of the work he’d done across several years and continents.

Much of what he offered came back to a principle of Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), something he’d trained to do early in his career, to centre teaching on the learner’s needs rather than presenting a fixed curriculum to which the learner was required to adhere and absorb.

Benn’s particular area of work was on community outreach filmmaking and, to satisfy the politics, meta-filmmaking – which he described as an alternative to writing reports that would never get read.

He offered advice on approaching ideas and projects from the POV of others, particularly participants, stakeholders and funders, as a way of finding a route to satisfying one’s own wishes to achieve goals.

Working within a system, as no organisation as large as the Red Cross operates without them, was important, he suggested. He offered the example of an organisation’s institutional use of jargon and acronyms. Presenting suggestions in terms they would understand – or TEFL’s learner need centred education – allowed people to absorb information in ways they felt comfort and familiarity with.

Benn suggested that had he offered to make films for the Red Cross, the answer would have been a polite ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ – despite the fact that his introduction to the organisation was a chance encounter when it needed a filmmaker to record a conference.

But he swallowed the jargon and offered to produce a VCA (Vulnerability and Capacity Assessment) for the organisation, and the answer was Yes. From that acceptance, a programme of community filmmaking has been developed that the Red Cross employs across multiple territories.

In essence the programme is not a new idea, having been a staple of community arts for decades, and Benn made a point of not taking any credit for the idea – merely its application in the particular environment he was working in.

The programme teaches a community the practicalities of how to make a film, supports it to make a film, usually about an issue important to the community, and shares the film with those who have the capacity to create change to address the issue – be that donors for fundraising, local or national governments or other NGOs.

Benn claimed that a community (and he was talking predominantly about geographical communities, usually villages in third world countries) was motivated and therefore easily engaged because it had something to say about its experience and was used to people not listening.

By allowing the community to define the narrative it remained engaged throughout the process and beyond, often because it has issues it wants resolving.

It represented one way of “giving a voice” to a community that might feel it lacked one, although mentor Lina Srivastava objected to the concept of “not having a voice”, arguing that – while someone’s voice might not be heard – that shouldn’t be understood as them not having one.

“What about animals?” someone asked, which created a bit of a diversion as the relative intelligence of dolphins versus dogs and their ability to express themselves came under discussion. No conclusions were reached.

Benn described the participatory video projects as “worthy work”, but noted that the programme didn’t only allow people to communicate their concerns but also to share positive developments that might have a wider application, such as when an Ethopian village found a way to farm effectively on challenging terrain.

Benn also documented the programme through “meta-films” as a way of delivering the VCA, reporting to and gaining support within and without the Red Cross to continue and expand the programme.

It wasn’t necessarily transmedia, although communication and the use of film to stimulate ongoing conversation – and ensuring the mechanisms necessary for ongoing communication were in place – were at the core of the projects.

Benn closed suggesting such projects as the Red Cross’ participatory video programme can vivify, sustain, engage, empower, extend, augment and build trust within communities.

Lina Srivastava presented an overview of the elements of transmedia activism with particular reference to a couple of film projects she’s worked on, Born Into Brothels and The Devil Came On Horseback.

Both arrived, the former winning an Oscar, before the social media wave really hit, and would have been even more effective if social media had been around at the time, she suggested.

Srivastava defined the purpose of creating a transmedia campaign, at least on activist projects, as to build a community, engage it and effect change. Even without Facebook and Twitter, the two films and activity around them created international awareness of what had previously been local issues, and led to action.

For those who don’t know it, Born Into Brothels followed a photographer who spent time in Calcutta photographing prostitutes. The photographer also taught photography to the prostitutes’ children (and some of their work appeared in the film).

Campaigning around the film created a specific fund to help educate these children, and sold their photos to raise money – several hundred thousand dollars as it turned out. The photographer also created the not-for-profit Kids With Cameras, which replicates the work in other disadvantaged communities.

Some of the issues around it were difficult, although the model of “poor people selling their wares to white folk” has been enthusiastically operated by several aid agencies over the last couple of decades.

Srivivasta noted that criticism of the campaign around Darfur-set The Devil Came On Horseback was that the campaign wasn’t giving people enough opportunities to buy things to support the campaign, “and why weren’t there any bumper stickers?”

Whether bumper stickers are a useful tool against genocide is debatable (and Srivivasta was of the opinion they don’t) but raising awareness and building communities which might have something more positive to contribute is an important part of the job.

From there, Srivivasta explored the purpose behind transmedia activism: to create communities and call them to action … preferably without bumper stickers.

She noted it was important to define goals early and to leave room in the blueprint for others to contribute by providing platforms. Creating different entry points was important, she claimed, because diversity of opinion and information is necessary and different people will arrive via different doors.

Describing transmedia as “storytelling through decentralized authors” she recommended creating a framework within which people could engage.

There was some debate on whether forum activity should be moderated or not. Youtube was an example of one unmoderated forum where people can say what they like but, sometimes, how people express themselves is not constructive – or legal in some jurisdictions.

Srivivasta noted that projects and communities need leaders, saying it was hard-wired into humans and talking of how choreography and conducting an orchestra allow different individuals to excel within an organised structure. It led to some debate about the benefits of dictatorship – benign or otherwise.

In a later session about mobile filmmaking, debating the importance of production value versus message, Laurent Antonczak described much of the user-generated news footage of the Arab Spring as “three pixels fighting one another”.

At the heart of any, Srivivasta suggested, was the need for a cohesive narrative, shared goals and a common identity. “We concentrate too much on the feelgood, on what people want to hear not what people want to say.”

It was also important to consider the implications of fragmented distribution and individual schedules for consuming content.

Shared experience, collaboration, multiple perspectives and voices from “the community” all added to growth of awareness around a project and opportunities for participation in it.

As the opening of Antonczak’s presentation noted, “The simplest solution to everything is apathy.” Building communities takes time and effort. It was, therefore, important to make sure that transmedia elements in a project were designed to build appropriate communities, whether the intention was to build an activist campaign or sell merchandise.

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Shanon O’Sullivan contributed to this article.

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