On the Media

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ON THE MEDIA: Journalist Murders: The Ultimate Form of Censorship | Inter Press Service

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has condemned the killing of more than 800 journalists globally since 2006. A measly seven percent of these murders have been solved. The protection of journalists and fighting against impunity is part of the UN’s 16th Sustainable Development Goal – to ensure public access to information and to protect fundamental freedoms. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has released their annual impunity index which ranks countries based on the

Source: Journalist Murders: The Ultimate Form of Censorship | Inter Press Service

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ON THE MEDIA: A Twin Cities documentary filmmaking project helps local Iraqi refugees tell their stories

Jameelah Hassoon and Jamal Ali came to the U.S. in 2009.

In Baghdad, Jamal Ali was a U.S.-trained engineer who worked as a UPS manager. In Minnesota, he has reinvented himself as an interpreter — and, in recent years, a fledgling documentary filmmaker.

Ali is part of an annual project launched in 2012 that enlists Iraqi refugees to tell their stories on film. This year, he led a team that set out to highlight success stories in the small local Iraqi community and examine the idea of Muslim refugees as a threat. St. Paul’s Landmark Center will host a screening of the documentary and a discussion with the filmmakers later this month.

 “We just want to pass a ­message that [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant] is not representing Islam,” Ali, the movie’s co-director, said. ISIL “has been denied and refused by all Iraqis.”

Funded with a state Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund grant, the “Iraqi Voices” project is the brainchild of a local nonprofit called Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project. Since 2007, the nonprofit has brought in visiting Iraqi professionals and supported clean water projects at Iraqi schools.

Ali says he and his family discovered the documentary project at just the right time. He was resettled in Minnesota with his wife and two adult children in 2009 after a stint in Jordan, among the first ­refugees from the Iraq war to arrive in the state.

It was a challenging transition at first. Ali’s wife, Jameelah Hassoon, an anesthesiologist in Baghdad, struggled to come to terms with the realization she would not be able to restart her career because of education and licensing requirements. Getting involved with the project provided a good outlet.

Nathan Fisher, a Twin Cities filmmaker who had shot a documentary about Iraqi refugees in the Middle East, recruited the family to the project. They and other participants — a largely middle class bunch that included a former veterinarian, teacher and entrepreneur — shot three- to eight-minute documentary shorts about their lives. A middle-aged woman dreams of reuniting with her adult children, who couldn’t accompany her to Minnesota. A young man recounts narrowly avoiding a terrorist attack in an Iraqi barbershop during a visit to a barber in ­Columbia Heights.

 Ali’s son, Naser, in his early 30s, created a movie about realizing that not all Americans are rich and happy. The movies have been screened at the Walker Art Museum, on the Macalester College campus in St. Paul and in churches across the metro.

“We wanted to express our feelings to the Americans,” Ali said. “It helped us release some of the stress we had.”

This year, the group of 10 amateur filmmakers decided to collaborate on one longer film.

“This year’s film was about debunking myths about Iraqis: ‘We are here. We are not that scary,’ ” Fisher said.

The film features a family that runs a St. Paul neighborhood grocery with a diverse clientele, where they serve Middle Eastern food and cheesesteak sandwiches. It also highlights Hala Asamarai, an Iraqi-American who won election to the Columbia Heights school board earlier this year.

The Landmark screening Oct. 29 will include a Q&A led by Joseph Farag, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota. The free event runs from 2 to 4 p.m.

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ON THE MEDIA, HAITI: Hurricane Matthew in Haiti: Looking Beyond the Disaster Narrative

Well-meaning people have either emailed or texted me over the past couple of days, with some variant of “how are things going in Haiti?”

Short of people’s prayers, and the question, “is everyone you know ok?” How indeed to respond?

Hurricane Matthew is a Category 4, meaning that winds are gusting at 145 miles per hour. This is the first category 4 since 1954, Hurricane Hazel, which introduced nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to Haiti.

Aside from random notes trickling in here or there, the coverage has been minimal. This is in direct contrast to the earthquake that rocked the country on January 12, 2010.

Anthropologist Gina Athena Ulysse has inspired a generation of scholars, challenging us with a deceptively simple call: “Haiti needs new narratives.” The coverage of this storm is an urgent case for why.

Disaster aid is faciliated by media coverage. An article inDisastersdemonstrated a correlation in the amount of seconds allocated on prime time news to a particular disaster and the generosity of the response. However, the Haiti earthquake’s high media profile—and the generosity it inspired—came at a price. With stories of devastation, appearing to many foreign observers as hell on earth with phrases like “state failure” often repeated, foreign media coverage also naturalized foreign control of the response.

The media coverage—then and now—highlights the importance of what can be called “disaster narratives.” What is covered, what is not, who is hailed as a hero, whose efforts are ignored, shape the results. I detail this connection in a just-published book chapter.

The story is still unfolding. As I write this Tuesday night the category 4 storm is leisurely moving north, still dumping rain on an already fragile environment. So we won’t know for quite some time the full extent of the damage.

Coastal cities in the southern peninsula, including the largest cities, state capitals Les Cayes and Jéremie, are under water. The main road connecting the peninsula to the rest of the country has been blocked as the bridge in Petit Goâve has been destroyed by the torrent.

The centralization of political and economic power in Port-au-Prince that began under the 1915 U.S. Occupation and accelerated withneoliberal economic policies imposed by the U.S. Government, multilateral agencies such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) and others renders getting relief much more difficult.

Once-thriving ports and regional economies, these secondary cities are now dependent on the road to the capital for almost everything. The province of Grand’Anse, with Jéremie as its capital city, is particularly isolated. Its primary economic lifeline, accelerated as the asphalt road has been advancing in the past several years, is charcoal.

Paradoxically because of its isolation, the Grand’Anse has noticeably more trees than other provinces. But this is changing: commentators from all across Grand’Anse have commented on the connection between this road and an uptick in charcoal production. Anthropologist Andrew Tarter is collecting quantitative data on charcoal.

The cutting of trees for charcoal production has rendered Haiti much more vulnerable to extreme weather events. The photos of the deep brown deluge testify to the topsoil being washed away, that would have been otherwise protected by tree roots.

Washing along with the soil is this season’s crops. This summer many breathed a measured sigh of relief as an almost two-year drought ended. These hopes were washed away with the downpour, representing not only food to feed Haiti’s exponentially growing urban population in competition with cheaper, subsidized imports, but the cash to send rural children to school. The high cost of education, and that it comes at once, is a major trigger for individual families producing charcoal in the first place.

With water everywhere in the photos it is easy to forget that clean, safe, drinking water will be an urgent priority in Haiti, still battling cholera brought to the island nation six years ago this month by U.N. troops. While finally apologizing for the disease that killed over 9,000 in five years, the U.N. has evaded responsibility for reparations.

These longer-term impacts are unfortunately not a part of the story. Frankly I would be surprised if news outlets will be talking much about the storm at all after tomorrow, as the focus is on Matthew’s impact on U.S. coastal areas. The governors of Florida and North Carolina have declared a state of emergency, issuing evacuation orders. Given the juxtaposition in this several-second media blips, one might well be wondering: why can’t Haiti do that?

The short answer is: they most certainly tried.

The Miami Herald’s Jacqueline Charles discussed the efforts of the elected mayor of seaside Cité Soleil trying to offer relocation assistance. Other local mayors refused, except for Pétion-Ville, offering emergency shelter for 200 residents (the request was 10,000). This is among the only accounts of Haitian people, particularly elected officials, doing something.

Given the fragile state of infrastructure and communications, local Haitian governments, the Civil Protection Department (DPC in the original French), have been doing an admirable job of moving people out of the most danger. Residents of Île-à-Vache were moved to Les Cayes, only to be doubly displaced by the deluge. In Abricots, an hour and a half from Jéremie via a very difficult and rocky road, moved residents up the hill.

While we outside of Haiti may not be told, grassroots organizations are doing an admirable job. In Cité Soleil, Konbit Solèy Leve has offered emergency assistance and Sakala, shelter. Peasants associations in Camp Perrin and all over the South province are welcoming people from LesCayes, down the hill.

These patchwork efforts highlight the limitations, particularly lack of resources. Charles reported that the Cité Soleil government was bankrupt. The communication and logistics necessary for evacuation, emergency shelter, and life-saving food and water, are straining Haiti’s already fragile economy.

And yes, there are still people living in what used to be called “camps.” Given official pressure to reduce the statistic, tens of thousands of people living in Karade are not “internally displaced persons” since Karade is now a “village.” Not two weeks ago, residents were newly threatened with violence in an effort to force them to leave.

I hesitate to write this given how Haiti has been politicized in the most cynical way by a candidate who has expressed his hostility to immigrants and black people generally, but frankly, Haiti was not “built back better” by the $16 billion relief effort to the 2010 earthquake, as UN Special Envoy Bill Clinton cheerfully promised.

So, what now? Right after the earthquake I wrote a piece for Common Dreams offering suggestions, which basically boil down to support local efforts, initiatives, ideas, and organizations.

Many people, including Haitian scholars, journalists, and social movements, have taken stock of the lessons learned from thehumanitarian aftershocks. Among them include:

1)      Support the initiatives led by Haitian people and groups

2)      If we contribute aid to a foreign agency, demand they post their decisions and relationships with local groups

3)      Solidarity, not charity

4)      Address the root causes, including neoliberal policies our governments enforced

5)      Demand that our aid has real participation by local groups, not just doing the work but setting priorities and identifying how the work is to get done

6)      Actually reinforce human capacity – making sure this time expertise is shared with a critical mass of Haitian actors, who can and should be the ones making decisions

7)      Link humanitarian aid to development (not the old, failed neoliberal model), and disaster preparedness

The storm will leave, the flood waters recede. I hope the world’s attention span will last at least a little longer, so that we will finally apply lessons at least Haitian people learned.

Mark Schuller

Mark Schuller is Associate Professor of at Northern Illinois University and affiliate at the Faculté d’Ethnologie, l’Université d’État d’Haïti. Schuller’s research on NGOs, globalization, disasters, and gender in Haiti has been published in thirty book chapters and peer-reviewed articles. Schuller is the author or co-editor of seven books—includingCapitalizing on Catastrophe: Neoliberal Strategies in Disaster ReconstructionHumanitarian Aftershocks in Haiti—and co-director / co-producer of documentary Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy. Recipient of the Margaret Mead Award, Schuller is the board chair of the Lambi Fund of Haiti and active in several solidarity efforts.

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ON THE MEDIA: To avoid mistakes like banning the Napalm girl photo, Facebook needs to start acting like social ‘media’

To avoid mistakes like banning the Napalm girl photo, Facebook needs to start acting like social ‘media’

By saying that Facebook is a tool and not media, Zuckerberg seeks to protect his company from the kind of content regulation that media organisations have to abide to

Bart Cammaerts: 

To avoid mistakes like banning the Napalm girl photo, Facebook needs to start acting like social ‘media’

By saying that Facebook is a tool and not media, Zuckerberg seeks to protect his company from the kind of content regulation that media organisations have to abide to

Facebook has recently been criticised for banning arguably the most iconic photo from the Vietnam War. The photo depicts children, including the naked Kim Phuc, fleeing from a US napalm attack.

A Norwegian newspaper covered the story and criticised Facebook for its indiscriminate editorial interventions. It also reproduced the famous photo, which they shared on the newspapers’ Facebook page, Facebook subsequently demanded to “either remove or pixelize” the image.

This is turn prompted Espen Egil Hansen the editor in chief of the Norwegian newspaper Afternposten to write a front page editorial voicing his anger about the decision but also touching on a few relevant and important tensions and contradictions inherent to Facebook as a social media platform.

My own take on this debate regarding editorial responsibilities of Facebook is that Zuckerberg’s claim that Facebook is not a media company, but a tech company, a neutral tool, is utterly false. Facebook is of course a media company, as much as it is a tech company. The clue is in the name, it is social “media”, not social “tool”. It is high time that Facebook accepts this, as well as the important democratic responsibilities that come with it.

The tension to which Zuckerberg implicitly alludes with his comments relates to the distinction that is often made (also in terms of regulation) between media on the one hand and communication on the other. The postal services, the telegraph and the telecommunication industry have always argued that they cannot be held responsible (nor be liable) for the content that circulates through their networks, be it in a letter, a telegram or a telephone call, whereas “the media” is. However, this stark distinction between media and communication is a thing of the past. The internet and the many platforms and protocols that it offers has increasingly blurred this schism between media and communication.

A good example of this convergence, is how people who say silly or libelous things on Twitter or Facebook are increasingly prosecuted for what they say online. In the libel case of the false allegations against Lord McAlpine, the measure used to sue people was the amount of followers someone had on Twitter. In a way this could be seen as an acknowledgement that social media is also a broadcaster in the hands of elites. Hence, Sally Bercow got sued whereas someone with fifty followers saying the same thing was not.

Another example of this blurring between media and communication is the editorial power which Facebook and Twitter has to and does exercise on the content that circulates on their platforms. I say “has to” because its claim that it is merely an innocent platform ignores the fact that in various jurisdictions the distribution of certain content is illegal. Just one example, in Belgium and Germany it is illegal to deny the Holocaust, regardless of which media platform you use to voice such heinous views. Furthermore, we as an open multi-cultural society – nor Facebook or Twitter – would want to encourage the free and unfettered circulation of Isis propaganda and it is thus right that this kind of content is regulated and ultimately removed from the public space.

However, by saying that Facebook is a tool and not media, Zuckerberg also seeks to protect his company from the kind of content regulation that media organisations have to abide to. The press and broadcasters have a lot of power in our society but with that power comes some degree of responsibility. Part of that is the requirement that media organisations abide by certain rules and guidelines about what is acceptable and what is not. In a democracy, such rules or guidelines, which tend to differ between press and broadcasting – are agreed upon by a profession, an industry or democratically through parliaments and enforced by regulators (in the UK: Ofcom and Ipso).

The establishment of the boundaries of what is acceptable as public speech online and what is not, is a very complex and highly sensitive matter. However, just as media organisations do, Facebook is a very powerful actor which needs to assume responsibility for the content that circulates on its network and walk a fine line between protecting its users – including children – from harmful and racist content and promoting an open space for the expression of a radical diversity of views, opinions, representations and identities. This drawing of the line should be done transparently and in respect of democratic values, involving humans rather than algorithms to make decisions and with fair and user-friendly means of appeal and redress in the case of mistakes being made. Acknowledging that Facebook is media rather than a benign “neutral” tool would be a good first step in that direction.

Bart Cammaerts is Associate Professor in Media and Communication at the LSE. 

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ON THE MEDIA: What We Mean When We Talk About “Engagement”

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ON THE MEDIA: A Deaf Journalist in Nigeria Fights to Advance Disability Rights

A Deaf Journalist in Nigeria Fights to Advance Disability Rights

People with disabilities in Kaduna State in Nigeria took to the streets in May to protest a proposed law banning street begging and hawking. The administration of governor Nasir el-Rufai said that the goal was to keep children in school rather than begging in the street and to enhance security after a street bombing that left 25 dead and others injured.

But activists say the government needs to enact the Disability Rights Law and provide gainful employment before they ban the primary means of income for people with disabilities.

People with disabilities in Nigeria protest a proposed law that would outlaw begging on the streets — a main source of income for many. Credit: Julius Shemang

Despite decades of activism and advocacy by nongovernmental organizations, disability legislation in Nigeria has been stymied since 2013 when a bill was passed by the National Assembly during the administration of ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo but never signed into law by the president. The current Senate reintroduced and once again passed the Disability Bill in June 2016 and it is waiting for presidential approval.

Julius Shemang, a journalist and the Chairman of the Joint National Association of Persons With Disabilities (JONAPWD) Kaduna State, has been at the forefront of the call for a disability rights law in Nigeria.

“Lack of education, employment and poverty in the disability community made many resort to begging in order to finance their education and that of their children,” he said in an article from The Nation (in Nigeria). “While we welcome and commend the present policy on free education for all children by the present regime, the gesture should be effectively extended to People Living with Disability.”

The Joint National Association of People with Disabilities appealed to the government to pass the Disability Rights Law before banning people from begging and hawking on the street. Credit: Julius Shemang

People with disabilities need the protection of the a disability rights law because of discrimination faced in school and at the workplace, often based in a fear that disability is contagious.

Julius Shemang

Shemang lost his hearing at the age of 14 and he developed a passion for reading and writing because he felt, “…as a Deaf person, these were the best options I now had to cope effectively with the world having lost touch with the hearing world.”

As he adjusted to his deafness, Shemang became upset at the way the able-bodied population viewed disability, treating it as a matter of charity rather than a human rights issue. He went to the New Nigerian Newspaper(NNN) headquarters in Kaduna State to propose writing on issues of the disabled to draw public and government attention to their needs. He was initially told he should go teach at a school for the Deaf but he was able to convince them to give him a chance at journalism. His first article was titled “The Deaf Want to be Heard” and discussed how the Deaf were being denied admissions into universities and being denied employment opportunities.

“That was the beginning of my involvement in advocating for the rights of people living with disability,” he said in an interview in Poor Magazine.

When questioned by a news editor about how he was able to report as a Deaf person, Shemang says, “Whenever I go to cover an event, I go with a partner or get someone at the event and ask him or her to listen and to jot down points from various speakers. In addition, I use my eyes to observe movements and the behaviours of people around and try to make sense and meaning from what I observe, after which I sit down to combine and write everything into juicy reports for the reading public.”

Having the readers know that he was a Deaf reporter, “…really helped change public perception, negative attitudes and feeling toward the disabled as they too began to join the campaign for a society that speaks inclusion and justice for all,” he said.

In 2006, frustrated with the lack of coverage of disability issues in mainstream media, Shemang was inspired to start his own newspaper — Kafanchan Times –that covered disability as well as other human life issues. For financial reasons, he was forced to stop publishing the paper in 2010 but he hopes to revitalize it soon. It is currently the only newspaper owned by a disabled person in northern Nigeria and fully registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission.

“Both the disabled and the abled population viewed Kafanchan Times as an ideal platform that encouraged the learning and recognition of both sides in a collective struggle, as well as the need to liberate the disability community in Nigeria, Africa and globally,” he said.

Although there are some other media focusing on disability issues, such as Inclusive Network News (INN) TV, an effort of Sign Language Interpreters and other disabled people in southern Nigeria, currently the coverage is still sparse.

“I will say that the mainstream media have not done enough in fighting the disability cause in Nigeria,” says Shemang. “For instance, I don’t know of any media organization that ever visited the headquarters of JONAPWD Abuja to find out what we are there for, what we do, how we do it, our struggles, and challenges. In recent months, it was wrongly reported in a national daily that the population of Nigerians living with disabilities is close to 15 million when in reality the number is 25.5 million, according to United Nations data. The mainstream media do not consult organizations of people living with disabilities to get accurate information about disability issues.”

Shemang also acknowledged that media coverage is influenced by money. “Most media organizations in Nigeria cover issues that increase the size of their pockets and not the issues that impact [marginalized] people’s lives. The poverty state of the Nigerian disability community coupled with the unwillingness of the mainstream media, are principally and systematically responsible for the huge failure of the government in successfully implementing the National Disability Law. Some media in Nigeria have done well, but a lot more needs to be done to impact lives and change public perceptions.”

JONAPWD works to advance the causes of people with disabilities in Nigeria.

He offered a plan for how media coverage of disability issues can improve. “One, we organize and invite the media for coverage. Two, the media invite us or come to us and do the coverage. Thirdly, we jointly plan how to get the issues out.”

“In essence, there should be no limit to what the media should do to impact the lives of people with disabilities because we are the most neglected and discriminated group in the society,” said Shemang.

The Kaduna government passed the street begging and hawking bill into law September 1, but Shemang says people with disabilities are still protesting and monitoring the situation to ensure that further harassment does not occur. He and his organization continue the struggle to enact the Disability Rights Law.


Patricia Chadwick, Digital Media Coordinator for Internews, writes on disability and media issues in the international arena.

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ON THE MEDIA: Frederick Wiseman to receive honorary Oscar

Frederick Wiseman. Photo by Gretje Ferguson

Documentarian Frederick Wiseman will be one of four individuals honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at its 2016 Governors Awards gala in November.

Wiseman will receive an honorary Oscar statuette at the Hollywood presentation on November 12, along with actor/director/producer Jackie Chan; film editor Anne Coates; and casting director Lynn Stalmaster.

The acclaimed documentarian, awarded with Venice’s Golden Lion in 2014, has helmed 40 documentaries over the span of his career, with his most recent, 2015′s In Jackson Heights, being the first project he took to public pitch forums – specifically, to the Hot Docs Forum in 2015.

While presenting the project to a host of international commissioners at the Forum, Wiseman told the roundtable: “One of the reasons people like my films is because they’re complex explorations of complicated subjects, and I try not to simplify them in the service of having some fantasy of reaching a larger audience.”

In addition to the honorary Oscar and the Golden Lion, Wiseman has been recognized with three Primetime Emmys, and a Peabody award given to the filmmaker “for a mastery of television documentary destined to be studied through the ages.” He has also received the International Documentary Association Career Achievement Award and an Award of Distinction from the American Society of Cinematographers.

According to the Academy, the Honorary Award is given “to honor extraordinary distinction in lifetime achievement, exceptional contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences, or for outstanding service to the Academy.”

“The Honorary Award was created for artists like Jackie Chan, Anne Coates, Lynn Stalmaster and Frederick Wiseman – true pioneers and legends in their crafts,” said Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs in a statement. “The Board is proud to honor their extraordinary achievements, and we look forward to celebrating with them at the Governors Awards in November.”

 

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ON THE MEDIA: Documentary pays? Navigating the “anti-system” – part three

Documentary Pays 3

Realscreen‘s special report on doc financing and the economic pressures on filmmakers continues with a look at the issue through the commissioning and distribution lens. For part one of the report, click here, and for part two, click here.

In every generation, there’s a small group of doc makers for whom “sustainability” is more than a buzzword. They’re able to make that second documentary – then third, then fourth – and sustain lengthy, sometimes illustrious, careers.

But as realscreen previously explored, most doc makers working today fall outside of that elite circle. As the Center for Media & Social Media (CMSI) have found in a forthcoming study, 67% of respondents who identified as documentary professionals don’t make their primary living through doc filmmaking. Director Emily James illustrated her struggle through the concept of ‘auto-exploitation,’ while noting a wider – sometimes seen as exploitative – commercial system around doc makers that uses their work as the central commodities of the industry.

But what do those on the other side of the commissioning table make of the commercial system in which they operate? In what ways do they look out for the filmmakers they commission? And what about the distributors, professionally entrusted to turn profits for the filmmakers they represent?

Nick Fraser (pictured, top left), editor of the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ doc strand, says bluntly that the whole genre is “catastrophic” when it comes to sustaining careers, but also doesn’t see a way of regulating documentaries or the process behind them.

“The problem about all these surveys and stuff is they circle around this subject; they kind of hold out the prospect that it will be possible to normalize and industrialize docs, and I feel trying to write a book on the subject of docs is something you can’t do.

“Docs will always be the strange hybrid of something that people love, but they get made in a borderline miraculous fashion and there really isn’t any way of industrializing them, because if they’re any good, they’re different.”

Fraser acknowledges a significant inflation of doc costs in North America, but notes more opportunities – though “poorly spread” – in the region, with decent levels of government funding available in Canada. The situation, he says, is tougher in Europe where some broadcasters have experienced hefty cuts, particularly the BBC.

“Increasingly my job is putting bits of string together into knots and hoping they hold together for the package and the film.” – Nick Fraser, BBC ‘Storyville’

“It’s very tough, and the only way I can get around this has been to amalgamate the work of many broadcasters, put it together and find enough money for filmmakers,” he says, referencing the successful ‘Why Poverty?’ seriesand recent ‘Why Slavery?’ project, which unites international broadcasters in commissioning and funding a number of films around a theme.

Fraser says he tries to give all filmmakers hope and assistance in putting packages together for their projects – “Increasingly my job is putting bits of string together into knots and hoping they hold together for the package and the film,” he explains – but adds that solutions to the funding squeeze aren’t straightforward.

“[It’s] an anti-system – it always has been – and you just have to hope that more important players or individuals come to the market with money,” he says, adding that an essential step is encouraging traditional elements of the “anti-system,” such as broadcasters, to step up their game and “spend more money on docs… the erosion of funding, from my point-of-view as someone working at the BBC, has been pretty borderline awful.”

“My license is what my license is.”
Jane Jankovic – commissioning editor at the publicly-funded TVOntario (TVO) – agrees there are more opportunities for doc financing in Canada through a mix of public and private funds that aren’t as widely available in other countries.

She commissions projects with budgets that range from CAD$200,000 up to $1 million, with most budgets coming in between $350,000 and $400,000. Her license fees for first-window commissions average $70,000 to $80,000 per film, with occasional exceptions on either side of that range. And often, that fee is at least matched by the Canada Media Fund, which is triggered by a broadcast license fee.

But Jankovic (pictured, center) is clear about the parameters of her support, particularly for bigger-budget projects.

“My license is what my license is, and I’ve been very vocal about what my license is. My Canada Media Fund commitment is what it is. If someone’s coming in to me with a project, I don’t really care what their budget is, as long as they can raise the money,” says Jankovic, who has served as a doc commissioner at TVO since 2006. “I can trigger a lot of it, but they have to do the footwork and the sweat equity to get that money together.”

She says that when filmmakers come in – particularly those who are new to the field – she indicates that they must pay themselves in the budget, and asks to see it in on paper as a commitment.

“It doesn’t mean [their salary] stays there, because they will continue to whittle away at it [with production expenses], because they think, ‘Oh it’s just $1,000, it’s worth the $1,000′ or ‘It’s only $5,000, that’s okay.’

“I have certainly worked with teams that have brought in outstanding documentaries but when I look at the time they put into that film and I compare it to their budget, I know they did that for nothing and they were paying their bills in some other way,” she adds. “I don’t think that should be encouraged or even, frankly, admired.”

“If someone’s coming in to me with a project, I don’t really care what their budget is, as long as they can raise the money.” – Jane Jankovic, TVO

On the other end of the spectrum, she says, are filmmakers that “absolutely pay themselves first” and appear in every budget line. Jankovic outlines that a budget has to be reflective of the needs of the production plus the filmmaker’s salary, but doesn’t have to take into account total living expenses for the numbers of months or years a project is in development.

“Sometimes, I see what I think is a very high fee for a producer or director, and they’ll say to me, ‘Well yes, but I’ve been working on this for three or four years,’ and I [say] ‘I can’t pay you for the time you’ve put in on your own. What I can pay you for is to get this film out.’”

Jankovic makes it known that her financial obligation ends following the endorsement of a license. After that, she says, it’s up to the filmmakers to look for funding from as many avenues as possible that the broadcast license can trigger.

And herein lies the problem with dual director-producer roles and the navigating of finances, says Jankovic.

“[Filmmakers] just keep slicing away at their 15% of the budget and they think, ‘Because I’m doing both the producing and directing, I can afford to lower my fee just a little bit,’ and then it’s always just a little bit, a little bit, a little bit [more].”

The commissioner says she doesn’t often meet as many people who are interested in producing. In fact, she offers that there doesn’t seem to be a full understanding of what producers do.

“They’re horrifically undervalued and I’ve seen many projects where there’s been a weak director, or a director that’s gone off the rails, and it’s the producer that saves the project – not just financially, but also from a creative perspective,” she says.

“Having that second set of eyes that can step back and see whether or not that story is working, is really critical I would say [for] 99% of the projects that I deal with.”

Art vs. commerce: a distributor’s take
Esther van Messel (pictured, right), founder and CEO of the Zurich- and Berlin-based distributor First Hand Films, is often caught in a limbo between art and commerce. Offering the character of Ari Gold from the HBO drama Entourage, she says some people perceive distributors as greedy ten-percenters.

“That’s not us. It’s documentary. Nobody goes into documentary sales or distribution for financial reasons. But on the other hand, it has to make sense and it has to pay and it has to not be abusive in any financial way. It’s a very challenging job.”

Alongside acquiring films on completion and serving as an international distributor and sales agent, First Hand is one of a growing number of distributors that often comes in early on projects, getting involved as executive producers or co-producers and helping with financing and the production process.

One of their recent co-produced successes was Ido Haar’s Presenting Princess Shaw, which last year premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and was picked up by Magnolia and Participant.

A key factor in the commercial viability of such projects is an acknowledgement of what things costs, says Van Messel, who served as an EP on Princess Shaw.
“If a budget is $300,000 but you’ve been working on it for five years, then it’s not $300,000 and you have to face that. You can’t tell your landlord or the person in the supermarket that you’re living off air,” says Van Messel.

“Nobody is in this for the money, but at the same time, as sales agents, if we don’t make the producers more money at better conditions – sooner, and including our commission – than without us, we don’t have a reason to [exist],” she says.

“If a budget is $300,000 but you’ve been working on it for five years, then it’s not $300,000 and you have to face that.” – Esther van Messel, First Hand Films

Van Messel points out that, overall, there has been more of a professionalization of the industry in the past 10 years, but admits the situation could be better, and there could be more self-respect among filmmakers as well as respect for the genre.

“I do think there’s a professionalism required, [an ability to] actually think a bit vertically and think ahead, and I think that’s a producer’s job in cooperation with their international representative,” she says.

“It’s such a complex profession that I really wish people would take more pride in it and refuse to be taken for granted just because they’re allowed to tell stories. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be paid properly.”

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ON THE MEDIA: Documentary pays? A field-wide responsibility – part two

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Realscreen’s special report on doc financing and the economic pressures on filmmakers continues with a look at some funders’ perspectives on sustainability and diversity, creative producers and carving a way forward. Catch up on the first part of the report here

Paradise Lost director Joe Berlinger admits he chose “a tough subject” for one of his first feature docs, Brother’s Keeper (1992), which he made with the late Bruce Sinofsky.

“Four farming brothers who all slept in the same bed together. One was accused of murdering the other,” Berlinger says plainly. “Today, that would be a very common thing to make a film about, but back then, it wasn’t common.”

Joe Berlinger

Joe Berlinger

The pair maxed out a dozen credit cards, took second mortgages out on their homes and went hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt in order to make the film, which “at the twelfth hour” received some funding from PBS program ‘American Playhouse’ and UK pubcaster Channel 4.

Brother’s Keeper later won the Sundance audience prize, and grossed about US$2 million in its international theatrical release via self-distribution.

“We really gambled everything. Luckily it paid off, but I swore I would never pay for a movie myself again unless it was something that meant a lot to me and I couldn’t raise the funding any other way.”

Since that experience, Berlinger says he’s “always had commercials as part of his DNA” and also pursues branded content and TV series. “You’ve got to treat it like a business and pay yourself a living wage,” he says.

“If you’re going to go about it as your way of making a living, you have to either know how to budget a film or hire a producer who knows how to budget a film, and figure out what it fairly costs.”

Costs of the “average” doc

But how can early-stage filmmakers know what things are supposed to cost when there are few rules of thumb, particularly when it comes to how much they pay themselves?

At the Sundance Institute, Tabitha Jackson, director of the Documentary Film Program, finds herself wrestling with exactly this quandary: the cost of the average doc.

“There is no such thing,” she says, but if there were, she estimates a price tag of around $400,000 to $500,000.

“And that actually is not true. I would say that it’s probably closer to $800,000, $900,000, if the filmmakers paid themselves,” says Jackson, who joined the organization from UK pubcaster Channel 4 in late 2013.

Tabitha Jackson

Tabitha Jackson

With all kinds of different money sources starting to enter the field – some of it recoupable, some of it not – Jackson says the sustainability conversation is stirring among funders who are keen to convene and discuss ways of making the system work for all stakeholders.

“Part of what I hope is that we, as a field, can be scrutinizing budgets as we give grants, and making sure filmmakers have a proper line and a realistic line [of] what it would take to pay them – and not just the directors but the producers as well – so that we, as funders, can get more used to seeing what a doc actually costs.”

Jackson advises that improving education around the cost of filmmaking, and what is okay to put into a budget, are steps in ensuring not only sustainability, but also diversity among filmmakers.

“The voices we also need to hear from are the people who can’t even contemplate going into this work because it’s not sustainable, and they simply can’t shoulder the amount of debt that it might take to make their film with no expectation of getting any money back from it,” she says.

“If we’re not representing the voices that can express our realities somewhat, it weakens the power of the form, and it’s not a cultural record anymore – it’s a very partial picture.”

Supporting producers

One recent advancement, Jackson says, is increased support of creative producers through such initiatives as the Documentary Creative Producing Lab, taking place at the Sundance Mountain Resort in Utah this August.

The myriad roles occupied by producers working in documentary warrants its own exploration, but what is clear is that many directors are also wearing producer hats on their projects – a tension that can negatively impact their finances.

The Overnighters

Jesse Moss’ The Overnighters

“When my director self is fighting with my producer self, you know who wins? The director always wins,” says Jesse Moss, director of The Bandit (2016) and The Overnighters (2014).

“The director always wants or takes more time, wants or takes the expensive archival shot, wants or takes the extra production days. The production part of me loses out and the creative part wins, often. It’s very hard to maintain internal financial discipline when you’re wearing both hats.”

Creative producer roles, which are commonplace in the narrative world but less so in non-fiction, involve management of budgeting, legal, accounting and other financial aspects, as well as the creative resources needed to keep projects running day in and day out.

“We really see the need for, and the shortage of, creative producers in the non-fiction field, particularly in the U.S. economy,” says Jackson, who adds that Sundance wants to address issues of recognition, education and sustainability around these roles as well.

As such, delineating best practices around budgeting should also include conversations about crediting, and the role of creative producers as well as producers and EPs – another dialog that is essential, says Jackson, in helping the industry acknowledge the expectations of not just the individual filmmaker, but also the doc making team.

But ultimately, the filmmaker needs to be recognized as the first investor.

“So often the filmmaker spends years of their lives going out and getting the story, filming and doing the research and getting contributors for their film – completely unpaid – so we need to bear in mind that the artist is the first investor, and find a way that that is reflected somehow in the budget.”

A way forward

Looking ahead, Luke Moody, head of film at the London- and New York-based Britdoc Foundation, predicts there will be more developments in non-project specific support that allows filmmakers to hone their creativity without financial restrictions. Some examples are the BFI’s Vision Award, intended to support a “new generation of diverse and ambitious film producers,” as well as Sundance’s ‘Art of Nonfiction’ program, which helps filmmakers develop creative voices without having a specific film to pitch (though it is invitation-only).

Other opportunities might take the form of fellowships, residencies, artist development bursaries, seed funding and production company overhead grants. And to bridge professional knowledge gaps, Moody points to such producing labs and workshops as European Audiovisual Entrepreneurs (EAVE), Future Producer School and Jihlava Emerging Producers.

Luke Moody of Britdoc

Luke Moody of Britdoc

He similarly notes there is “no one model” to adhere to in structuring a team and raising budgets, but adds, “More could be done on our behalf and other funders. For example, collecting sample anonymous budgets to share on the Britdoc resources page.”

Also key, he says, is that industry events – festivals, labs and workshops – build detailed sessions on financing into presentations.

One such major opportunity to coalesce and broach some of these topics will be the IDA’s Getting Real conference, which takes place in Los Angeles from September 27 to 29. Career sustainability is one of the event’s three pillars, alongside diversity and the art of storytelling.

“One of the approaches of Getting Real is to create spaces for a much more frank conversation,” says Simon Kilmurry, executive director of the IDA.

And while that’s hard to do on an individual level because a doc maker’s projects may rely on grants and commissions, it’s easier as an organization to step back and identify who’s getting paid, and who’s not.

“I think what we’ll get out of Getting Real as an organization is a way to frame the [conversation] with funders and financiers, so at least there will be a more field-wide acknowledgement that perhaps we might be undervaluing some of this content, and if we really want a field that is sustainable and vibrant and creative, we may need to step back and reassess the economics of it.

“There’s probably a percentage of filmmakers who are doing really well and others who are kind of embarrassed that they’re struggling. But the reality is, when I talk to filmmakers who might be perceived as really successful, they’re struggling, too.”

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ON THE MEDIA: Documentary pays? The price of filmmaking – part one

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realscreen.com, by Manori Ravindran, July 8, 2016

In this special report, realscreen examines the economic pressures placed on some documentary filmmakers working today, and why doc directors – many of whom also play double duty as producers on their projects – aren’t paying themselves for their time.

In part one, we look at recent surveys and studies investigating the costs of doc making, while part two, to publish tomorrow (July 8), features funders’ thoughts on transparency around financing.

Forgoing personal wages to force down a budget and secure funding is a familiar exercise for doc makers. So familiar, in fact, it makes you wonder: if this is the so-called golden age of documentaries, why aren’t more filmmakers getting paid accordingly?

“It’s like I should be grateful to be able to do my art, and expecting to get paid is like an after-thought”
-Jesse Moss (The Overnighters)

The reasons are two-fold. The democratization of technology and abundance of distribution platforms allows most anyone to make docs, but with so many opportunities and a saturated market, it also means more doc makers – even veterans of the field – are struggling to first get their films financed, and then make money and recoup debts incurred.

Personal pay cuts and deferred fees abound, rendering documentary filmmaking a curious profession in which one pays an impossible price to sustain a career – if you’re lucky.

“Part of it is that tension between art and commerce that afflicts us,” offers Jesse Moss (pictured above, left), director of critically acclaimed doc The Overnighters (2014). “It’s like I should be grateful to be able to do my art, and expecting to get paid is like an after-thought.”

financing-moss-films

Jesse Moss-directed docs

Moss recently made his fourth feature doc, the CMT-backed The Bandit – the first of his films to be fully financed at conception, allowing him to take a combined producing and directing fee. Most of his previous work, however, including Speedo (2003) and Full Battle Rattle (2008), was made through a combination of sweat equity, private equity, grant funding, loans and – as always – a significant personal financial investment.

“You assign a commercial value to your work, and it’s almost like that’s antithetical to the [act of] making art, yet we need to survive,” he says. “And because the system is so fluid, the way in which films are financed is so different in every film that your value on one project is not necessarily your value on another project because of the nature of the film itself.”

The golden age offers no golden rules for budgeting, but many argue it’s time now for a field-wide conversation about sustainability. If the doc community aspires to be less self-selecting and more diverse, part of that effort should include improved transparency around financing, and best practices for drawing budgets, discussing maker salaries and crediting.

It appears that for the documentary field to move forward, it needs to first step back and turn the lens on itself.

Unpaid or underpaid, from Los Angeles to London

Perhaps one of the best indicators that sustainability is becoming a priority in the non-fiction community are recent surveys delving into the pressing, day-to-day issues facing doc makers in the field.

A forthcoming study by American University’s Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI), in collaboration with the International Documentary Association (IDA), is looking at the experiences of working documentary filmmakers and other industry professionals in the U.S.

Launched in late January, the tentatively titled “The State of the Documentary Field Trend Study: Perspectives from the Industry” had collected 573 complete responses to its IDA-distributed survey as of June 17, with a breakdown of about 47% directors and 28% producers. Full results will be presented at the IDA’s Getting Real conference in September.

Jane Ray of Whicker’s World Foundation

Caty Borum Chattoo, co-director of CMSI and the study’s director, says preliminary findings show that about 67% of respondents who identified as documentary professionals do not make their primary living through doc filmmaking, and about 66% of those who identified as such made either no salary at all, or less than 50% of their annual salary from their films.

Initial findings of how recent doc projects were funded reveal the main sources of funding as foundation grants (31%), followed by personal finances (26%) and then broadcasting and cable licensing deals (21%). In response to how much personal money was spent on a recent project, about 36% said they spent between $5,000 and $50,000.

Meanwhile, the London-based Whicker’s World Foundation (WWF) in January partnered with Sheffield Doc/Fest and the European Documentary Network to assemble a picture of the current doc making field in the UK and Europe by reaching out to filmmakers via a 16-point questionnaire. The goal was to see how much the organization’s top funding award of £80,000 could buy for a doc maker.

Based on the responses of 191 participants at varying stages of their careers, findings revealed that around 27% of respondents said their time would have cost more than £60,000 if they had paid themselves fully for every day of work, while the median valuation was roughly £10,000.

In addition, 87% of respondents said they had not received the calculated wages for their work. Common reasons included “tight production budgets” or the inability to raise necessary funding, while some who worked on passion projects out of love, or a need of experience, simply didn’t expect pay.

“Auto-exploitation”

Jane Ray, consultant artistic director for Whicker’s World, says the financial strain evident in their survey wasn’t only relegated to emerging talent, but also involved 30-year veterans of the industry.

“The whole emphasis on the broadcasters is the strength of your idea: ‘You seduce us and we will take your idea but let’s not talk about money,’ and it makes things very difficult because obviously the whole nature of doc production is enormously isolating,” says Ray.

“I think there’s a sense that it’s such a competitive world that if anybody gets a whiff that [a doc maker is] a bleeding heart, difficult person who is going to go into the commissioning room and say, ‘Look, are you going to pay me for this or what?’ they will never work again. I think it’s a mix of fear and shame.”

Filmmaker Emily James

California-born doc maker Emily James was among the respondents of the Whicker’s survey. A UK resident since 1995, James studied documentary directing at the National Film and Television School (NFTS) and sold her first doc, The Luckiest Nut in the World (2002), to Channel 4. Her current feature effort is a copro between BBC’s ‘Storyville’ doc strand and A&E Indie Fund.

James hasn’t managed to pay herself much of a salary on any of her projects, and like many filmmakers, she subsidizes her docs through commercial work and savings. In the 16 years since graduating NFTS in 2000, the amount of time she has been in production – fully-funded – and without needing other sources of income adds up to five years.

Speaking of her experience at film school, James says there was little practical guidance around financing – a pattern she still notices while mentoring.

“Often you meet filmmakers and you show them a budget and they don’t even know what they’re looking at,” explains James. “If you’re not able to get your head around where the money is and how you use your resources to maximize efficiency, then it’s like you’re trying to run a race one-legged. It’s such an important skill but it’s one that gets very, very little formal teaching or education.”

In the Whicker’s World survey, James labeled the standard of paying everyone on a film crew full rates except yourself “auto-exploitation” but cautions that the wider commercial system also needs to be challenged.

“We’re exploiting ourselves, but we’re also being exploited by all the people around us who are making a proper living from what they’re doing, and using our work as the center of that.

“Nobody ever pays you back for all of that effort you put into [development]. But then, if the film is good, you suddenly have all of these other people that are working for distributors, festivals and broadcasters – who are being paid a waged job – and they’re using the work that we’ve created as the central commodity of their industry without ever repaying the people that took the major risk at the beginning.”

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ON THE MEDIA: #DocsSoWhite? – A Panel on Diversity in Documentary Filmmaking

only-black-person-bold-italicfilmmakermagazine.com, Conversation Moderated by , Septem 7, 2016

#OscarsSoWhite is hardly a new phenomena in dramatic narrative circles and Hollywood, but determining where the doc community fits into the debate – is. Without empirical data, it would seem the doc community is doing a better job at building diverse and inclusive opportunities than Hollywood counterparts. But if that’s true, by how much? What measures are in place to ensure that the people in front and behind the camera better reflect the world in which we live and the stories we tell? How do public vs. private dollars impact this outcome? If, in the end, it is determined that the doc-world also has a race problem, who is accountable and what, if anything, can the industry-gatekeepers, creators and consumers do to change course? 

The following conversation was part of a #DocsSoWhite? – Diversity & Inclusion Panel at the 2016 Independent Film Festival Boston (IFFB). An introduction to the panel was given by Julie Burros, Chief of Arts & Culture for the City of Boston. The panelists included: Lois Vossen, Independent Lens Executive Producer (ITVS), Simon Kilmurry, Executive Director, International Documentary Association (IDA), Darius Clark Monroe (Filmmaker, Evolution of a Criminal), and Sabrina Avilés, Executive Director, Boston Latino International Film Festival (BLIFF). The conversation was guided by Chico Colvard, Filmmaker, Professor & Founding Curator of the UMB Film Series.

Chico Colvard: There are, of course, any number of people — Black, White, Brown and others – people outside, as well as inside the industry, who find it difficult to talk about race. Lois you said White people need to be on this panel so that there’s an element of “accountability” – I was thinking that allies are also needed to create a robust conversation. I wonder if you each can speak to why you agreed to talk about what is a difficult conversation for many to have?

Simon Kilmurry: I understand that this is a play-on what’s happening with the OscarsSoWhite campaign, but I think it’s actually a really important question. I come from primarily a public media background and would like to say that we are better than our commercial counterparts in terms of how we create points of access for our diverse voices and diverse communities, but I think we can all agree that public media and commercial media can be doing a better job at that in the documentary field. And I think it all goes back to, not only who’s making the films and who’s telling the stories – both in commercial and public media, but who are the gatekeepers, too? Who are the funders? Who are the people on the broadcast side? Way beyond series like Independent Lens and POV, who do a good job, but across the broad spectrum of people who are getting to produce and are getting to make decisions about who is getting to produce and direct these films. I think it is a serious question that we need to step back and look at. I think there is some really good research that we can build on and broaden. So I’m glad we’re having this conversation and this certainly is part of our “Getting Real” conference. Diversity is an issue filmmakers are raising with us constantly and that needs to be a central theme. So it’s definitely a focus of our work, at the moment.

Lois Vossen: I do feel that this issue is paramount to the work that we do. It’s absolutely at the center of what ITVS is all about. It is the reason the organization was founded — to mandate to bring more diversity to public media and to set a role model so that other media can step onboard – and obviously it is the key mandate to Independent Lens. So it’s what we do all day, everyday, to the best of our ability. As Simon said, we can certainly always do more. And not only can ITVS do more, and we’re always striving to do more on Independent Lens, but I think PBS and public television, as a whole, has a mandate to do this on a level that is higher than commercial television. And so you see great things like Stanley Nelson’s Firelight Media emerging because of this issue.

The reason I think this continues to be an issue is because of the transparency issue. At ITVS we set out to gather the information in order to hold ourselves accountable. We spent years trying to get the information from other organizations – both inside public media and outside public media – and no one shared the information: How many filmmakers of color were they funding? How many filmmakers of color were they mentoring? How many stories were they telling that came out of communities of color? Who was telling those stories? So the fact that people wouldn’t even share the metrics was alarming to us and very much underscored the problem to us that the problem is still very much real.

I do think there’s a good sign in that non-fiction film is better than fiction, to some extent. Women are doing better in non-fiction – but even women are in secondary roles and are being paid less. And certain filmmakers, who come from non-white communities, are up against a huge plethora of issues. Darius and I have had great conversations about this. I know when we were working together on Evolution of a Criminal and he was out in the world… just the conversations he was having about just this issue were enough to infuriate me. So that’s why I did the panel. I think it’s a really important topic.

Darius Clark Monroe: Evolution of a Criminal was my first experience of navigating the whole festival circuit, distribution circles, pitches – essentially meeting everyone in the documentary community. It felt a bit like the Twilight Zone. So this panel was something that intrigued me. Not just to continue to stir the pot, but I also think this is a necessary discussion – especially because when I would go to festivals, I would see in the program guide so many films about people of color, all over the globe, but when you look at the producing team, the director, the editor, everyone was pretty much white. That just annoyed me to no end because I feel it is important to be open and honest about the culture we live and that it’s not easy to just swoop in and study and observe people you did not grow up with and don’t know and have some semblance of authenticity. We are talking about documentaries, so on some base level we are talking about truth and representation — allowing people to speak truth and have a say.

To me, what’s even more powerful than the shooting of people outside of the dominant culture – it’s the editing. Who is truly controlling the voice of the people in front of the camera? I was starting to get a chip on my shoulder because I was seeing it over, and over, and over, again. And I kept wondering, why, if anything, so many filmmakers, who happen to be White were so interested in people of color? Yet, I never saw so many documentaries that explored what it meant to be white – what it meant to go to another country, let alone another continent to shoot and observe – just what does that entail? You rarely see filmmakers discussing what it means to turn the camera onto them and explore that.

So I feel like this conversation isn’t just about diversity. It is about who owns the power and how can we divvy up that power – but also how can we investigate what it means to be diverse, what it means to control the lens?

Sabrina Avilés: A lot of the documentaries that I’ve worked on — and what I find frustrating, as well — is that we’re trying to tell stories about relations of our people, if you will; about the experiences of Latino people, whether it’s a positive theme or a negative theme, and yet, it’s hard to find people with my background working in the industry. Everyone wants to be a director. Everyone wants to be a producer, but when you come to the editing – even things as a PA or researcher, I need someone who speaks Spanish. It can be very frustrating to try and find that. From my perspective, and I speak from the Latino experience, I think part of our responsibility is to make Latinos aware that they can actually make a living at this. It’s not easy, but from a creative source, it is so fulfilling.

I’m getting a bit emotional, but growing up in this industry – straight out of college I was really lucky and worked at WGBH – I didn’t have any mentors. Everybody saw me as this… “who are you?” And immediately, wanted to label me – “if you’re Latina, then this MUST be your experience.” And so that’s the other thing, the expectation of who you are, leads to people wanting to define you and what you can and cannot say. 

Chico: Darius talked earlier about who is in FRONT of and BEHIND the camera. That there isn’t any shortage of White filmmakers venturing into very narrow and often harmful portrayals of the so called Black/Brown experience and then widely disseminating those films and subjects to mostly White audiences as victims or objects of study. I don’t think there are white industry types: filmmakers, distributors, broadcasters, programmers and the like sitting around plotting ways to undermine and exclude Black/Brown people from access to the industry. I do, however, think there’s a correlation between these same industry types’ lack of personal ties to Black/Brown people and the racial disparities witnessed in the industry. I wonder if anyone can speak to that?

Lois: Yeah, it’s an important question. First of all, I want to underscore what Darius said about who’s telling the story and who has the access. There’s a great story told by Stanley Nelson about a time when he was making Black Panthers. He was sitting with one of the former Panthers and it was a hard interview, but it was good… and at the end of that interview, the Panther said, “in that moment of the shoot-out, I felt like a free man.” The reason Stanley tells that story is because he knows that if a white filmmaker had been sitting there, doing the interview, he wouldn’t have gotten that out of that subject. And it underscores again and again, who is sitting there asking the subject to tell their story and then, as Darius said, who’s going to edit that and then ultimately bring that story forward? And so it’s critical that you have to have that representation throughout, because you can’t fabricate that knowledge. As Darius said, if you grow up with it, you know it. You can’t fabricate it. So I think that’s important.

In terms of the accountability… I think about all the time. And I’ll be honest, there have been times when I’ve actually thought, “Should I leave this job? Should there be someone else in this position?” I’ve always had a co-programmer, who’s a person of color and that person’s counsel and conversation is critical. We constantly talk about things like this and I will say, Noland Walker, who I now work with and just have the utmost respect for beyond words, will often shed light on something. And it’s not that it’s completely foreign to me, but it’s a different gateway in that I hadn’t thought of. He’ll even give conversations like… he was recently at a pitch session, where someone came up to him – and for those of you who don’t know Noland, he’s African-American, and this person said to him, “well, you know all about violence.” [audience gasps] And Noland was like, “Woo! I do? Actually, no I really don’t.” The assumption that simply because he’s an African-American male that he somehow had this insight…. When Noland tells me these stories – literally the hair on the back of my neck just stands up because I can’t imagine what that’s like to have to consistently have to face that. So for me, there’s no way I would do my job without a Noland by my side because I think it’s absolutely essential that I be in constant conversation and reminded about those things.

Simon: I think that if you did have a more diverse set of gatekeepers making decisions, you would come up with a wider range of films and filmmakers being supported. I think there is a kind of cumulative effect that power is concentrated in one place rather than spread out. One of the great experiences I had over the past years was when I was working with Michéle Stephenson and Joe Brewster on their film, American Promise, they were examining the notion of implicit bias and I think we all have to recognize that no matter how good hearted we are or where we sit on the spectrum, that we all have our own implicit biases. And it’s only by having a wider range of voices that we can help balance that out. It is where those concentrations of power are that we have a fundamental problem.

Chico: Darius and Sabrina, when Lois and Simon are talking about the need to diversify the gatekeepers, they’re talking about that taking shape in a professional context. What I’m suggesting is that evidence of diversity in our personal spaces, or lack thereof, dramatically impact the makeup of diversity and the decisions we make in our professional circles.

Darius: You know it’s interesting just being a filmmaker, a storyteller, just being a person, who is living and breathing and walking on this planet, there are so many things you can, obviously, observe. One thing, when you are Black in the documentary or just the film community, the work or recommendations you get are specifically tied to something the White culture – the dominant culture views like, “Oh, this social justice” or “criminal justice” — this is a “poverty story,” these are “black athletes.” So every time something gets tossed your way or someone sends you an email in an effort to include you, it’s always very specific about the “Black experience.”

It’s like one of those things where I complain about not getting an opportunity, but then when I do, it’s always a very small window of options that are presented. And that’s always something that’s strange to me, because – again, as a person living and breathing in this country, everyone else – if you’re not White, you know White people just as much as they know each other, because this is the world we live in. I have to interact: I’ve had to study, educate and be educated by White people my whole entire life. So if anyone can be dispatched to tell a story about White people, it’s people of color who can tell that story. We have to navigate that world so often, on so many different occasions, that it’s not something “foreign” to us. There’s no way for us to be in this business – whether it’s documentary or commercial – without having to constantly engage with White people. Whereas it’s the complete opposite for White people. They don’t have to engage. White people don’t have to engage with Black people, with Asians, Latinos – they don’t have to engage at all and yet they want to be the authority on other cultures. So I’m asking, in addition to these interpersonal relationships, some humility – because there’s some arrogance there. Because you know for a fact that you do not need to interact with people of color at home, work. You get to choose when to engage with people of color, whereas the opposite is the case for me – I don’t get to choose. I am literally inundated with White people.

I’m not complaining about these relationships, but there is this trend. And I don’t want to just let people off the hook by saying, “Oh, there’s this dissonance and implicit bias.” A lot of times, and I’m not going to name any festivals, but when I was on the festival circuit, I reached out to a few filmmakers, including Joe and Michéle, and I said, “I’m noticing a trend!” and that is there are certain filmmakers and films that did not film in certain parts of [America]. Obviously work is subjective. Some work may or may not be as strong for one festival versus another, but I noticed a consistent pattern over 3-4 years! With films that had won Grand Jury Prizes at premiere festivals – films that had shown in competition at Sundance were just completely off the radar at some festivals and these festivals tended to be in parts of the country that are 99% White. I felt like that was strange that they believed these films were somehow marginalized or pushed aside because they didn’t feel that their audience would be able to connect to the material if it were about people of color. To me, that’s not just a random happenstance. This is something that’s been going on for years and needs to be addressed – because I do feel that when we talk about these opportunities, sometimes it goes as far down as something as simple as an economic opportunity for a filmmaker, for their career, for their future. So that dissonance can turn into oppression or suppression and it can have a deleterious impact on the future and forward movement of a filmmaker. Again, Michéle and Joe had a phenomenal film that did incredibly well, but I kept noticing that the film was not on the radar at certain festivals around the country – and when I looked at those program guides, I also noticed that there was not one single film directed by a Black person or person of color. That’s a HUGE issue – that’s not just unintentional bias, that’s on purpose and people need to be called out and shamed.

Sabrina: Now that we’re getting submissions for the Latino Film Festival, I said, “If I see one more immigration film, I’m just going to shoot myself.” It’s that whole thing again: if you’re Latina, there’s that assumption that you have to talk about immigration. Well you know, I’m actually Caribbean and that’s not my story. So I agree with you, we get a lot of submissions from Latin Americans and although there is a chunk about social justice, you actually have filmmakers making films about family, and culture, and art – things that are relevant to everybody, not necessarily only people of Latino-American descent.

On the other hand, I’m working on a film about the sterilization of Puerto Rican women and I feel like because of my background and my experience – I should tell that story. So it’s an interesting quagmire because I would be “bullshit!” if I found out a White person started to tell that story.

Chico: Darius and Sabrina, you talk about the limitations on what kinds of stories we get to tell and whether those stories – despite being cloaked in the right pedigree, are still restricted in how nuanced/“race free” or rewarded and programmed as much as our White counterparts. To that point, I want to share a bit of a conversation I had with Roger Ross. In the history of cinema – White filmmakers are handed stories to make, whether it’s about a legendary musician, hall of fame baseball player or the next redux of Iron Man. With Roger’s latest film, Life Animated, it is completely race free. I asked him if he was aware of how rare that is for an African-American filmmaker and whether it takes having to win an Oscar before a person of color can make a film that is race free. His answer was, yes!

On that note, let’s bring the audience into this conversation.

Audience: I don’t know if our panelists can see the room [via Skype], but we are about 95% Caucasian… so that just goes to show who makes up the documentary community. I came here today expecting to be all pissed-off and my expectations were met. So Darius, you keep that chip on your shoulders.

Process is impossible to navigate for people who aren’t trained to do so. The more simple barriers, like fill out an application for a grant, are put in front of people, the more difficulty they have in doing it – unless they’ve had a particularly good primary school and secondary education. That’s a very difficult thing for people to do. So you almost have to eliminate the application process and shower these creative people with money, even if they can’t define what they’re doing. Those would be my comments to you, today.

Chico: I want to give everyone an opportunity to respond to that comment.

Sabrina: For me, and speaking as a Latina, yes perhaps not everyone has that private school education, but I feel that we have to raise the bar so that – we need to address why these kids don’t know how to write these grants. To just hand them money is bordering charity. I want to go in there [schools] and say, “This is how you pitch a project. This is how you write a grant.” What you’re doing is giving them a skill set that they can use in other aspects. Yes, we need to give them the opportunities, but I don’t think we need to lower the bar.

Chico: The people of color I know in this industry are extremely qualified and just as capable and skilled to fill out a grant or take on any of the other difficult tasks required to usher a film across the finish line. I don’t think a deficiency in their skill set or talent is a barrier to their access and success.

Lois: Yeah, I agree. It’s not a shortage of talent. The talent is there. I mean, ITVS, 67% of our money goes to filmmakers of color and we could be giving more – if we had more. It’s not that there aren’t great projects by talented people. Occasionally, as is true with White filmmakers, some filmmakers come to us early and they need mentoring. They have the ideas, they have the access and they certainly have the passion and the experience. So I don’t think there’s a dearth of talent. I think its quite the opposite.

Audience: I found something really interesting. I do a lot of disability advocacy work and when we talk about “diversity,” that seems to be the thing that always gets forgotten. I wonder if this is something we’re missing? I’ve been on a lot of panels and usually it’s me, a bunch of women and one Black dude. How do we include all of the people that are Black and Brown and Native American and disabled and White – and not discount their need for access and inclusion?

Simon: I think that’s a really fair point. This shouldn’t just be a binary Black/White conversation. This is about populations and representation from a whole range of communities. And it’s also geographic. A lot of resources in the field get concentrated on the coasts or the major cities and other parts of the country – the “fly-over” states don’t get included. I think it’s a much wider conversation that this is part of and that we need to be having across the board. Issues of representation about and by people with disabilities are as important as anything else.

Chico: In Oscar history, only four films directed or produced by an African American have been nominated for Best Documentary Feature and only two for Best Documentary Short Subject. In 2009, Roger Ross Williams, who we mentioned earlier, became the first African American director to win the Academy Award for directing (in any category) the short Music by Prudence.

Three years later, in 2012, T. J. Martin became the first African American to win an Oscar for the documentary feature,Undefeated.

Here are the documentary stats for Academy Award winners and nominees: African Americans (Feature Nominees = 4/Winners = 1 | Shorts = 2/Winners = 1) Asians (Feature Nominees = 10/Winners = 3 | Shorts = 19/Winners = 6) Latinos = 0 Native Americans = 0. Disabled = unknown?

I wonder if people can talk about some initiatives and action steps you’re taking to address these dismal stats?

Simon – let’s start with you. You mentioned earlier that you and your colleague, Ken Jacobson, who is in charge of IDA’s Getting Real Conference taking place in LA later this fall are focusing on three themes: career sustainability, diversity and art. Can you tell us more about that?

Simon: Well certainly from our perspective there are a couple of things we’re doing. One, we have a survey we’re wrapping up, which looks at diversity and career sustainability, so we have some data to work with. That’s going to need to be an ongoing process and effort so we can measure whether any progress is being made.

The themes of the conference, that we are producing, which is happening at the end of September [2016], are driven by the conversations we’ve been having with filmmakers. We’ve had focus group meetings in New York and Chicago and L.A. and on the phone with probably about 100 filmmakers at this stage — producers, editors, cinematographers – and it’s out of those conversations that we came up with the three pillars: career sustainability, diversity and art, the creative approaches to documentary storytelling. They are all inextricably linked.

The group that we’re gathering in L.A. is going to be about 4-500 professionals, who are involved in the field, mostly makers, to talk about what specific solutions can we be working on as a field. We aim to come out of that with some working groups and a central task force to help us advance the conversation. We’ll see what comes out of it.

There were some concrete actions that came out of the first Getting Real conference in 2014 around conversations with funders and public media. So there is an opportunity to bring a significant number of people together to come up with some actual action steps and concrete measures. So I think there’s a chance there.

Lois: ITVS has had a Diversity Development Fund [DDF]. Originally when that fund was created from a foundation it was a termed grant – it was for 3 years. But we felt it was such a vital part of who we are and what our mandate is that when that grant ran out, we made it a core part of our programming. We lobbied to have that implemented into our ongoing funding contract so that our funder, who gives us money, allows us to spend money that way. And we will continue to have the DDF because it is the single most important way for us to identify filmmakers, who are trying to get into the system, which is closed and hard – to get them a leg-up.

What we’re looking at doing now is to add a second tier – sort of like a Diversity Development Part II. Because what we have found, not surprisingly, is that great talent comes to us with great ideas. We give them a small amount so they can go out and develop the idea and maybe put together a trailer, but they are still having a hard time competing with the predominantly White field. We’re hoping that this alternative funding will help those projects become more viable – not just for ITVS Open Call, but with all the myriad of funders out there, who are supporting documentary film.

So that’s critical to us and for me, it really is the most exciting work that we do – not just because it’s young talent, because our Diversity Development, as you can see, produces people who are at various stages in their careers, but it is about bringing in new ideas and making sure that those voices are able to continue to make the film. And a big part of what we talk about is will there be a second film and how can we keep them going?

In addition to ITVS shouting proudly that we fund 67% of diverse filmmakers, Independent Lens has 54% diversity in terms of the programming we represent. This is to go back to Darius’ point earlier: it is a sad reality that the vast majority of programming that I am able to bring to our slate is ITVS funded programming. Because when I go to festivals to look for programming, it is predominantly – heavily, by a huge majority — White filmmakers. So it is very hard, on the festival circuit, to find films that are made by diverse filmmakers because there are just less of them, as Darius pointed out.

The other thing that I think is critical, and again, I’m in a position where I have a wonderful situation, but ITVS feels very strongly about diversity on all levels. So our staff is always 60% or more diverse and we’ve never dropped below – or we’ve never certainly dropped below 50% — and that creates a huge reality. Everyone working on the marketing side, thinking about how you’re going to talk about the films, the outreach side, the funding side when you diversity throughout the organization is absolutely critical. And we do it including our vendors. Like when we’re going to hire a dubbing house, we try to find the dubbing house that has the most diverse staff, etc.

And then the last thing that I’ll just throw in there is something we’ve been working on; my colleague, Erica [Deiparine-Sugars], with other funders, is to try to create – and this grew out of the last IDA conference — is to create more consistency around the funding guidelines so that filmmakers, especially filmmakers, who are coming at it against these sort of large obstacles, don’t have to recreate the wheel every time they apply. We think that will provide more opportunities for filmmakers from diverse communities to be more competitive for larger sources of money from funders, who are typically looking for proposals that have all the “bells and whistles.” So if we can get that a little more equalized, we’re hoping that that will also increase.

So those are just a few of the things we’re working on, but we’re always open to suggestions and feel as though these kinds of conversations have to be available in order to hold us accountable and push us forward.

Sabrina: For me as a programmer with the Latino International Film Festival Boston [LIFFB] along with a ground troop of supporters, we want to create more of an educational presence throughout the year – without reinventing the wheel, but talking to other festivals and high schools about how can we start introducing filmmaking as an option for younger students. Yes, a lot of festivals have that component, but specifically targeted at communities of color.

Also as a filmmaker/producer, it is essential to me that my crew better reflect the diverse world we live in and to emphasize that we are not only minimum-wage workers, but that there are a bunch of us that area well educated – professionals with backgrounds in law and medicine… And again, I recognize that that’s just my reality and that’s what I bring to the forefront of my personal and professional life. Unfortunately, this equation isn’t always as important or part of their reality.

Darius: For me it’s difficult because I don’t run a festival, I’m just a freelance filmmaker. So all I have is the work. I feel like my role is to speak truth to power. The thing is it gets a little scary because I’ve noticed that over the last couple of years on social media I’ve almost become silent. Other than re-tweeting a few articles, I’ve just become quiet because I have been concerned about speaking too loudly about this issue and being silenced, professionally, which is a real reality. Not everyone is a Lois and a Simon. There are folks who do not want to hear this and don’t want to be bothered with it.

My focus is to continue to do work that is challenging and continue to talk about the reality. It’s not just about diversity because I don’t want people thinking this about some affirmative action thing – it’s about inclusion. That everyone has a right. Their opinion, their life experience, their talent should be at the table – not there simply because there was a need for a person of color or disabled person, but because you have a right as a human being to be present, to speak up and have your say.

Also my goal is to continue to learn. I don’t know if in 15-20 years, if I’m in a position as a gatekeeper, will I have to eat my own words and to make sure that I’m studying these issues and following through so that I’m not just talking the talk, but also walking the walk.

So yes, there is a need for this conversation to continue, but the other word that keeps coming to mind is “disruption.” There needs to be a massive disruption. TV has been dominated for so many decades by the dominant culture. This country, just living in NY, you realize that this is an incredibly diverse world we live in, but you might not know that by simply watching TV. So I agree with Lois that we need a level of diversity at every level of this operation. It can’t just be the filmmakers. We need people in the jury pools, at the festivals, broadcasters, in the edit suites – every single step we need representation of what reality looks like. The world is not 95% White.

Lois: I want to add that when Darius said he thought he was going to have to be quiet, is when I became infuriated and also quite afraid, if someone of Darius’ stature, who’s made this extraordinary film and who has proven he’s a great filmmaker and talent with a unique voice – if he has to be silent, then I thought… I must be living in a glass bubble. So the more that we don’t silence Darius — the more that we say, “Darius, louder, louder, louder,” is what we have to do.

I would also like to just say one more small thing, but it all adds up. My challenge to all filmmakers, but especially White filmmakers, is to have people on camera, who represent. So, if you’re doing a historical documentary, people tend to, “what did the White person say about this in 1965?” You know there are a diverse group of people we can use as experts, who represent who we are, as well. It’s about who’s behind the camera, who’s in front of the camera – especially who’s in the role of “expert” or “social commentary.” So I challenge filmmakers all the time. I’ve even asked filmmakers to go out and re-shoot interviews where I’ve heard, now, like what five White people think about – can you tell me what anyone else thinks about this?

Darius, please keep talking.

Darius: I’ll try [audience laughter].

Audience: Hi everyone. Really great conversation, but I want to shift the conversation to that moment, where a filmmaker has an idea and that filmmaker may be a 12 year old White boy or 12 year old Black girl, but their idea might be stopped because of this massive brick wall they have to overcome with regards to access. For instance, if I wanted to create a documentary about disabled or Puerto Rican women sterilization, why shouldn’t I be able to do that if I’m really passionate about it and how do I overcome that stigma of, “Oh, you’re a White male” and how do I connect to my characters as well as maybe you can?

Sabrina: I just have to respond to your comment because I find it really disturbing. When in the history of the world has a White man needed permission? The job of any documentary filmmaker is to gain access and build trust with their characters – whatever subject or community you’re going into. That is your job regardless of whatever is compelling you to tell that story. If it is a community who’s experience is not yours because of region, race or ethnicity, then you have to be aware of that. As someone who works in programming or as someone like Chico, who reads proposals, you look at the team they surround themselves with. OK, maybe this person isn’t from that community, but have they built a team of crew-members and advisors that balances them? I’ve lobbied for White filmmakers making films about Black or Latino communities because they did their due diligence. They did everything to show that they are taking great care and responsibility to build trust – as is your job as a documentary filmmaker. So I take exception with your comment. I think it was a bit naive and that’s okay, but I also think it’s really important to listen and not ask for permission that stems from guilt or not wanting to be associated with the history of White men.

White allies are important, as I think some of the panelists were saying. Listen to Lois. ITVS is the model in terms of building-up a team that reflects and challenges them about their own assumptions. Of course you should make a film about what you’re passionate about, but maybe it takes an extra step to listen to that community and question, “Why do I want to tell this story?”

Darius: I don’t believe everyone should make a film just because they can. That whole, “give me a camera and I should jump into this because I’m passionate about it…” — it’s imperialistic. It’s arrogant. There are certain stories that no, you should not be telling. I’m not saying a lot of stories, but there are certain topics, where you should tell yourself, “I have no business going down this road. This is not my lane. I should not do this. I don’t know anything about this. Even with due diligence, I will be doing a disservice by going down this road – regardless of how passionate I am about it.”

We have seen this endlessly in the whole entire continent of Africa, where you have so many different groups, who are flying over there to lend a helping hand; not even understanding the politics, the culture, the language, but just feeling a passion to help. I think you need to channel that passion to looking in the mirror and ask yourself, “Why am I obsessed about this thing?” You need to sometimes turn the camera around and ask, “Why am I going to seek out the other without exploring what it means to be me?” For example, what does it mean to be a White man in America? What does all of that entail?

You will notice for the last decade in documentary film, a lot of White men don’t have any interest in even talking about that. But as a Black man, I would love to go see that film. And as passionate as I am about wanting to go see that film, I don’t want to make that film. I think a White man should make that film. There are some things I don’t want to touch.

So I don’t think we should just toss around, “Oh, you should be able to do whatever you want to do.” As an adult, you should understand that there are certain things that out of respect for different cultures and different experiences that I should understand where I stand and allow someone else to tell their particular story.

Again, this is a very subjective litmus test, but we have got to remove arrogance and add humility to these ideas in order to understand that we are not just talking about an hour and a half and subject matter – we are invading peoples’ lives and cultures and experiences and we have to respect that. We have to know when to get involved and when to step back.

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ON THE MEDIA: Documentaries Make An Impact Through Artistry As Much As Advocacy

huffingtonpost.com, Blog from Lara Stolman and Shanna Belott, Aug. 18, 2016

“What’s your call to action?” This was one of the first questions asked of us when it was announced that our film Swim Team was chosen for this year’s IFP Documentary Completion Lab. It’s a familiar question for sure.

Somewhere along the line, it became important for documentary films to have a so-called call to action, particularly if these films are competing for the typical sources of funding. Some of the best known and most generous documentary funders now explicitly state or demonstrate through their choice of films that fundable documentaries must address contemporary social issues and seek to challenge the status quo, inspire people to join or create a movement, or otherwise call for social action.

But if you’re making an independent documentary on an artist, any sort of biography or historical film, or something non-traditional, good luck getting support. “There’s been a gradual change in the understanding and acceptance of what a documentary can be,” says Milton Tabbot, Senior Director of Programming for IFP. “Although there are exceptions among funders, these days most of the films that get funding are the ones that have real strong social issues, where it’s clear how the film can be used as a tool for outreach and impact. Some people are still surprised if there’s a strong narrative and story.”

Even our film, about a competitive swim team of teens on the autism spectrum, was dismissed by some as “not about a hard hitting social issue,” and thus ineligible for support. Swim Team focuses on young people seeking acceptance in a society that takes every opportunity to segregate based on disability, and the nonprofits that we have begun to partner with certainly recognize the potential of our film to engage in a national conversation about inclusion. That said, our narrative throughline of a sports team trying to dominate the competition makes our film more difficult to categorize for some funders.

To be clear, supporting films that tackle social issues head-on isn’t a negative trend. Social issue documentaries offer incalculable value towards generating real world impact. And it’s not a zero sum game; films with an agenda are luring new funding to the space. As director Marshall Curry recently observed to The New York Times, “If these funders weren’t funding activist films, they would be funding some other form of activism — not some other form of filmmaking.”

IFP is the rare organization now supporting independent film that embraces diverse voices, including the kind of films that may not be the obvious candidate for a grant. The documentaries IFP has supported through their Documentary Lab, Film Week and/or other channels include such outstanding films as Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, Keith Maitland’s Tower, Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo’sRich Hill, Penny Lane’s Our Nixon, Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie and the Boxer, Todd Miller’s Dinosaur 13, Eva Radivojevic’s Evaporating Borders, Jason Osder’s Let the Fire Burn, and Amanda Wilder’s Approaching the Elephant. In an increasingly competitive field, it’s validating and meaningful to be chosen for IFP’s Documentary Lab, and we were pleasantly surprised to discover the eclecticism of IFP’s other selections.

“We support voices that might otherwise not be heard,” says Tabbot. “As a programmer, I’m drawn to diversity of approaches in this artform, and above all any documentary has to succeed as cinema. If you return to a work five to ten years from now, the film should be able to stand alone as a film, not just as an issue. The issue isn’t the film.”

Film is a powerful medium to change people’s perspectives, but impact isn’t easily measured. This is true even when there’s a strong social issue, but quantifying impact is doubly difficult when the film is not singularly focused on a cause and more concerned with characters, story and cinema. Nevertheless, these films have the ability to absorb and deeply affect viewers.

“Documentaries that are more cinematic, stylistically unconventional and less issue-focused retain the power to challenge audiences’ views of the world, but perhaps in a subtler way,” says Paola Mottura, Documentary Program Manager for IFP. “These films can change the way we perceive certain realities by drawing us into characters, making us empathize with their stories in a way that ultimately may still result in changing our attitudes towards the subject matter.”

Our first week of the IFP Documentary Lab in May included a number of opportunities to learn about and discuss distribution and impact – terms that are increasingly linked in the documentary world. Funders and distributors have ratcheted up their expectations for audience engagement plans from filmmakers, making it our job not only to make the film itself but also design a campaign around its distribution to engineer its impact. If that sounds daunting, it is. As the landscape in the documentary world has shifted to favor the films that are deemed best suited to “make an impact,” an enormous responsibility is placed on the shoulders of filmmakers to create films that make the case for impact right out the gate.

As we got to know the other IFP Lab fellows and discover their films, we realized that what all of our films had in common was a personal and sometimes quirky perspective on stories that have deeper and yet sometimes subtle roots in social and political issues. These issues include women’s equality, mental illness, patient rights, immigration, poverty, racism and more – but none of this year’s IFP Lab films seem geared to change the law, feature a ripped from the headlines story or include experts articulating issues in a talking heads style.

“It takes more work to have that discussion outside the film instead of people talking in the film,” says Tabbot. But films that introduce compelling characters and communities and don’t necessarily advocate or present a succinct “case” may be just as if not more resonant simply because they ask the viewer to arrive at his own conclusions.

Indeed, sometimes an intimate, character-driven story can generate tremendous impact. Tabbot believes that there’s an innate excitement around more personal films that often make them more engaging, and therefore more effective at times. “Rather than approaching a topic in a very traditional way and listening to an issue again and again, it’s intriguing to see artists that are trying something different,” he observes.

Every documentary is a form of commentary on its subject, every documentary filmmaker’s work is informed by her personal point of view. In documentary film, the personal is indeed political. As IFP Lab editing mentor Carol Dysinger said, “Every movie is a conversation with the world.” So if we’re paying attention to the circumstances surrounding a film’s story, many documentaries reveal social issues in unexpected ways.

The late, great Roger Ebert once noted, “film is a machine that generates empathy.” It’s the viewers’ experience of empathizing with a character in a film that can help awaken them to certain causes. By leaning on the raw power of personal, human stories, films that have deep impact may not appear to have an agenda at all, but instead tiptoe lightly towards changing hearts and minds.

Learn more about the forthcoming documentary “Swim Team” at www.swimteamthefilm.com

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ON THE MEDIA: How natural are nature documentaries?

TheHunt_MakingOf_01_03_20MB_1_.0.0

(Rolf Steinmann / Silverback Films 2015)

Chasing down honesty in BBC’s The Hunt

theverge.com, by Elizabeth Lopatto, August 15, 2016

The promise of nature documentaries is that they will show you a world that you otherwise could not see. I will probably never be in a submersible down in the deep, or running alongside a cheetah on the savannah. Few have perfected this form for the mainstream like the BBC. They’ve made a number of blockbuster documentaries: Planet Earth, The Blue Planet, and Frozen Planet, to name just a few. From this tradition comes the newest BBC documentary, The Hunt, which focuses on the tactics predators use to stalk prey. It is co-produced with BBC America and narrated by — who else — Sir David Attenborough.

The stakes are life and death, of course.

I suppose I could feign neutrality, but the truth is, I love these BBC nature docs. After a long day, there’s almost nothing better than settling down with my boyfriend and cat, cracking open a can of beer, and watching footage of wild animals. These shows are uniquely soothing, and the animals are shot so beautifully; well, we all have our own forms of escapism. This one’s mine. I have watched so many of these documentaries that I’ve begun to keep track of Attenborough’s verbal tics — “but there’s a problem” — as well as his tendency to be a bit of a drama queen, repeatedly reminding us that the stakes of the footage we’re about to see are life and death. The stakes are life and death, of course; but then, in nature, they almost always are. And that’s what The Hunt is about, even more nakedly than usual: these predators must kill or starve. The filmmakers focus on the stalk — how hunters attempt to catch their prey. And unlike a lot of other programs about predators, which bill them as “dangerous” or “deadly,” The Hunt documents the failedhunts. In fact, most hunts fail; the best predators in the world only succeed about half the time. And to the series’ credit, it doesn’t just focus on those marquee predators (your cheetahs and wild dogs; polar bears and sharks). Some of the best sequences involve bizarre fish, vicious birds, and a particularly clever jumping spider called Portia.

It’s clever, the way the narratives are constructed. The result is an inspired sense of sympathy for predators, a countermeasure to other media that presents hunters as vicious killers. Personally, I never know whether to root for the predators or the prey. I once saw a starving wolf in Alaska’s Denali National Park — starvation is one way predators die, because their teeth are bad or they are injured or otherwise no longer able to hunt on their own — and its emaciated body as it limped away from me was truly pathetic. At first I did not think it was a wolf at all; too skinny, probably a coyote, I figured. But then I saw the radio collar, which only Denali wolves wear. We wound up reporting the wolf to the park authorities; in all likelihood they would soon be retrieving the radio collar from a corpse.

When we treat predators as blood-thirsty menaces, we shortchange them. These much-maligned creatures are often what hold an ecosystem together. Some are even known as keystone species; like the keystone in a building, they are the foundation upon which the ecosystem is built. They help maintain the local environment by eating prey that reproduces quickly. That gives other kinds of animals, which may reproduce more slowly, a chance at food and survival. It prevents over-grazing, allowing plant life to flourish. And predators typically hunt the vulnerable — yes, that does mean babies, but it also includes animals that are weak or sick and near death anyway.

This perhaps explains the way The Hunt handles kills. Usually, the documentary cuts away from mammals after they’re felled. (Though not fish or insects, probably because it’s less disturbing to watch them being eaten.) This mostly passed beneath my notice, except in the case of one of the more memorable sequences: when a group of chimpanzees hunt monkeys. I have seen footage of these hunts before, and I was cringing, waiting for the extraordinarily gruesome moment when the chimps rip the monkeys limb from limb. It never came; the filmmakers cut away.

I asked one of The Hunt’s producers, Huw Cordey, about the decision — and he told me it was approached with a great deal of thought. “We wanted to be much more focused on the strategy,” Cordey told me. “We wanted people to empathize with the predators, and I just think you don’t empathize with a predator if you see it tear apart sweet little Bambi.” The full footage of a monkey hunt in particular is nightmare fuel, and these nature documentaries are often watched by children. Even for adults, it is troubling to watch. A large part of the audience would have been alienated by the footage, Cordey felt, and so they did not show it.

“We wanted people to empathize the predators, and I just think you don’t empathize with a predator if you see it tear apart sweet little Bambi.”

Some other decisions were made based on footage limitations. In the first episode of the series, a female leopard hunts in a gully, making her effectively invisible to the animals on the plains above the trench. She’s stalking an impala, which she gets and drags into the gully. But then, the impala emerges and runs. “We couldn’t film this, sadly, because it all happened too quickly, but some baboons spotted it and ran into the gully and scared the leopard,” he said. “The leopard obviously let go of the impala.” No reference is made to the baboons in the narration, but it seems like an understandable edit — why narrate footage the audience can’t see? When you work with fact, whether in documentary filmmaking or in journalism, some facts do get cut.

There’s a danger to nature documentaries, too. It’s most clearly demonstrated with the 1958 Disney film White Wilderness. Disney won an Academy Award for the documentary which notably features a sequence with lemmings, mouse-like critters that live in the Arctic, diving over the edge of a cliff to the sea, where they drowned. The narration explains this is a mass suicide. The footage was so striking it gave rise to a new phrase, “like lemmings,” which is sometimes used to describe mass hysteria. In fact the whole thing was a hoax; the filmmakers drove the lemmings over the cliff themselves, and the “sea” was a tightly-cropped river. (The Alaska Department of Fish and Game helpfully explains that while lemmings don’t die by mass suicide, they do occasionally engage in cannibalism.)

Most nature documentaries don’t engage in such outright hoaxing, but staging shots or adding sound effects is common. For instance, stories about animal “families” often splice together footage of unrelated animals to create narratives that would otherwise be impossible or impractical to film. In those cases, documentaries are often telling a composite story of what typically occurs in an animal’s upbringing, rather than the story of one specific set of parents raising their young. It’s also common practice to use footage of tame or zoo animals for close-up shots, in order to avoid disturbing wild animals. In fact, Attenborough has been dinged for this particular approach before, on a previous series called Frozen Planet, when shots of polar bear cubs being born in a zoo were cut together with scenes of polar bears in the wild. Crucially, at no point does Attenborough tell the audience that the cubs are born in the wilderness — but neither does he say where they were born. The provenance of the cubs was revealed in behind-the-scenes footage. Hardly secret, but some members of the audience felt deceived nonetheless.

The noise of cracking bones was created with celery

The Hunt also kicked up a fuss when it was revealed that some of its sounds were added afterwards. The noise of a polar bear on the snow was created with custard powder, with salt crystals “for a bit of crunch,” Kate Hopkins, the sound engineer on the series, told Radio Times. The noise of cracking bones was created with celery. In these cases, the audio engineers couldn’t get microphones close enough to the animals, but wanted to represent the noise for the audience.I’m not shocked by this, and I don’t feel deceived; in every case, the practices the filmmakers are chastised for are practices they have admitted to — either in making-of media or interviews. In essence, they are giving their audience footnotes to the film. As the kind of person who likes to read footnotes, I appreciate this. But it seems audiences believe that documentary filmmaking is meant to render a true view of the world-as-it-is. This is a rather recent attitude toward documentaries; most early documentaries contain fake footage. The New Yorker’s Louis Menand credits Robert Flaherty with raising documentaries from propaganda film to art form with his first film, Nanook of the North. “In vérité terms, Nanook is largely a fake,” Menand writes. He continues:

Flaherty arranged, for example, to film a walrus hunt in order to show how indigenous people once gathered food. The Inuit had long since stopped walrus-hunting, and they ended up struggling to drag a harpooned walrus out of the Arctic surf and begging Flaherty to shoot it with his rifle. Flaherty pretended not to hear them and kept filming. Later on, Nanook and his family are shown building an igloo out in the wilderness. It was too dark inside the igloo to film, so a special igloo — in other words, a set — was constructed with one wall removed, and the family was filmed, in daylight, pretending to go to bed.

Menand dates the style of “plotless, commentary-less, vérité-style record of life as it is” to the 1950s, as an artistic movement. Attenborough offers a different explanation. In a charming lecture published as “Honesty and Dishonesty in Documentary Filmmaking” in 1961, the young filmmaker credits the rise of literal honesty in documentary film to the rise of television. “When television first arrived a large portion of programs were ‘live,’ many of them concerned with events like football matches, the Derby or some Royal ceremonial, all of which would have taken place whether or not the camera was there,” Attenborough writes. In the previous era, movies were understood to be fictional, and documentary films were thought of “in the same terms as one thought of theatrical film.” After television, though, “People then wanted to know whether what they saw would have happened and happened in that way, whether or not the camera was there.”

“Of course, all cameras lie,” Attenborough goes on. Sometimes these lies are deliberate — as is the case of both White Wilderness and Nanook — but sometimes these lies exist, he writes, “because there is no other way of making a film.” Soundtracks are a particular source of inaccuracies, as is the way filmmakers condense time. The Hunt took three years to film; the beautiful sequence of a blue whale eating krill took two years. The first year, the water was too murky for any of the footage to be usable. And the “making of” sequences reveal my favorite inaccuracy: the polar bear section edited out a hunt. That’s because the prey animal in question happened to be the cameraman. (Polar bears are among the few animals that will deliberately hunt humans.)

In fact, the problem is far larger than the lies of the camera. Facts are slippery things; they can render an inaccurate view if they are told in the wrong order, or if some are omitted. Narrative itself is a lie — whether it’s in documentary film, journalism, or any other medium that concerns itself with facts. We believe narrative exists because we travel forward continuously in time, and the chronological progression supplies humans, the meaning-making animals, with a kind of story. But every narrative leaves out facts in order to tell a clear story. In the case of The Hunt, obviously, there are the missing baboons, and the cut away from the kill. Less obviously, the stalk of the camera man and the sound effects. And even less obvious than that: some of the hunters don’t eat other animals as their primary food source. The chimpanzees who hunt monkeys, for instance, average about nine days of eating meat a year, according to Robb Dunn, writing in Scientific American. You would not know this watching The Hunt, simply because it is not relevant to the story the filmmakers are trying to tell. The point of The Hunt is the hunters’ tactics and strategies; whether the animals in question eat other food is beyond the scope of the documentary.

“Animal harassment and cruelty have been pervasive in wildlife filming for decades.”

These are fairly trivial, in the realm of nature documentary sins. The BBC crew is lucky; they have a tremendous budget. The filmmakers used 75 Jeeps, 10 helicopters, 41 boats, 10 spotter planes, “a clutch” of ATVs, two horses, and an elephant to get the shots of animals in the wild. (The elephant, named Gotham, was for filming tigers. Tigers ignore elephants.) Most other filmmakers are shooting with tighter schedules and far less money. That’s possibly why, “animal harassment and cruelty have been pervasive in wildlife filming for decades,” writes Chris Palmer, the founder and director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University. Small budgets and limited time mean that filmmakers use captive animals for hunts, chum waters to send sharks into feeding frenzies, and otherwise sensationalize footage, giving audiences a false impression of animal behavior. Worse, these portrayals demonize animals — sharks, in particular, stand out — making it more difficult to make a case they should be protected from human encroachment. As far as I can tell, The Hunt engaged in none of these harmful practices. The same cannot be said for Jeff Corwin, Bear Grylls, or Steve Irwin, Palmer says.

Palmer cites a fairly stern paper entitled “The Moral Pivots of Wildlife Filmmaking,” by a British documentarian named Jeffrey Boswall. Published in 1988, it lists several more lies than Attenborough does in his lecture. For instance, Boswall views ascribing human qualities to animals as deception; so, too, is incidental music, sound effects (such as the ones used in The Hunt), and making animals behave in a way they ordinarily do not. Though Boswall feels all these things count as lies, he doesn’t think filmmakers should avoid them; instead, they should make individual calls on what serves their purpose. The producers of The Hunt did just that.

I’m glad they did. My absolute favorite sequence of the series certainly would have qualified as deceptive by Boswall’s standards. It is footage of an octopus called Abdopus aculeatus; at low tide, the octopus crawls from tide pool to tide pool, hunting for crabs. The music used in the sequence is reminiscent of The Twilight Zone (there’s even a theremin!); the shots of the octopus on land evoke alien invasion movies. At one point, the octopus is shown in shadow, as aliens are before the big reveal. In the context of Abdopus aculeatus, these choices feel like a joke, a way of acknowledging that a sea creature is “invading” land. I laughed my way through the segment. After I’d finished watching the episode, I rewound the to the octopus footage and watched it again. It was a combination of so many things we think of as artifice — music, clever editing, deliberate narrativizing. But I still laughed with joy and recognition, because something in it felt correct. In the words of a very different documentarian, Werner Herzog, this octopus’ creep was a kind of ecstatic truth. The Hunt is, in other words, art — and art doesn’t need to be perfectly factual in order to be true.

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ON THE MEDIA: Impact of Media on Health in Bangladesh

p01ysrbl
bbc.co.uk, July 21, 2016

BBC Media Action conducted its first ever randomised control trial (RCT) on the impact of our health programming on audiences. In this blog, we explore some of the methodological challenges of conducting an RCT and ensuring randomisation in the field based on our work with pregnant mothers and women of childbearing age in Bangladesh.

This is the second blog in a two-part series on BBC Media Action’s Bangladesh RCT, read more about the results of the study in the first blog.

The ‘gold standard’ approach for being able to talk about an intervention causing an effect comes from the world of medicine: the randomised control trial (RCT). In this kind of study, one set of people – ‘the intervention group’ – receives the treatment while the other group – ‘the control group’ – gets a placebo. Only using this tightly controlled research methodology can we be certain whether or not the intervention caused the desired outcome.

Our RCT was interested in investigating how watching our Bangladeshi health programmes affect the key ‘drivers’ of healthy behaviour among women of childbearing age. These drivers include things like people’s knowledge of antenatal and early newborn care, their attitudes and beliefs around, for example, what to feed a newborn baby, and their intention to do things such as attending antenatal care sessions.

Our study involved 900 women of reproductive age as this group is the key audience we are aiming to influence with our programming, and took place over six weeks in February/March 2016 in two areas (Comilla in the South East and rural Mymensingh). Each day, a group of 30 women was sub-divided into groups of 10 (two treatments and one control) and were with us for around four hours. One treatment group watched our health drama Ujan Ganger Naiya (UGN) (Sailing Against the Tide), another group watched a closely related discussion programme that reinforced the health topics covered in the drama and a third control group viewed a television programme about a non-health topic.

Since mass media can reach anyone and everyone, evaluating whether a mass media intervention has had any causal effect on audience behaviour is notoriously tricky. Let’s look at some implementation challenges that our research team had to overcome:

First, we had to recruit a control group – one that had not been exposed to the treatment – which meant only recruiting participants who had never seen or heard anything about these shows. (See our previous blog for a description of the research design for this trial).

Another challenge was avoiding contamination – ensuring that people did not discuss what they had viewed. Each day, women were collected from different unions (local Bangladeshi political districts) so that there was no risk of anyone going home and speaking about the trial with a future participant. If participants needed to leave the room during the trial, they were escorted to make sure that no one conversed with each other.

The biggest challenge – ensuring randomisation – i.e., making sure the groups were more or less alike on all key variables – is a common difficulty in RCTs. To address this challenge, we created a randomisation matrix so that women were randomly assigned to the three groups and given a colour-coded wristband. There were three colour possibilities which referred to three treatment groups, i.e. one group was shown UGN and a non-health related programme, the second was shown UGN and Natoker Pore (NP) (After The Drama), the follow up discussion show, and the third group was shown an educational drama and discussion show – both on topics unrelated to health. Moreover, which colour band stood for which group was not revealed either to the participant nor the researchers at any stage and was also changed every day. This is known as a double blind process where neither the researchers nor the participants are aware of the treatment allocation to ensure there is no chance for bias.

This means we can be confident that the changes we saw were not due to some pre-existing selection bias such as education level or age.

“It was the most tense part of the study because everything hinged on achieving the randomisation which is difficult with 900 women and their children running around. We allocated most of our attention and resources to this during the fieldwork,” said Sanjib Saha, former Head of BBC Media Action Research, Bangladesh.

Besides all this, it is also vital to ensure comparability. To do this in our study, a health service provider gave the women a standard briefing on maternal health issues – the same as the one given by health workers when visiting women in their homes – to assure that there was a pre-trial standardisation of health knowledge. The briefing was identical each day across all groups. Those in the control groups were given a non-health related briefing.

Finally, a word is in order on ethics. As with any research we conduct, we took all steps possible to ensure that this research upheld the highest international ethical standards, at all phases of the research. Ultimately, we sought to ensure that all participants were protected from harm that might result from their participation in the study. This was a time-consuming study to be involved in, particularly for women with small children. We tried to smooth the process by arranging transport to and from the testing facility, making provisions for chaperones and providing lunch and child care at each of the test centres. All participants provided informed consent, were guaranteed anonymity and were apprised of their right to withdraw from the study at any point. We also made sure that a frontline health worker was available on site throughout the study to answer any questions.

The study was successful. We now know that our health programmes in Bangladesh are having a significant effect on some of the key drivers of health-related behaviours – especially knowledge and intent – in a laboratory setting. We are also reassured that, for knowledge and behavioural intent, watching a factual programme alongside a drama seems to be beneficial.

The BBC Media Action Research and Learning team manages a global cohort of more than 100 researchers around the world who inform, evaluate and generate evidence on BBC Media Action projects across the countries in which we work.

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ON THE MEDIA: Can mass media cause change?

p01x1rhy
bbc.co.uk, July 14, 2016

Can the mass media cause changes in an audience’s knowledge, attitudes and intention to practice behaviors? At BBC Media Action, we have just successfully conducted a randomized control trial (RCT) to investigate this chain of causality in a prime time health TV drama in Bangladesh.

This is the first blog in a two-part series on BBC Media Action’s Bangladesh RCT, read more about the methodology underpinning the study in the second blog.

Do BBC Media Action programmes cause changes in our audiences? Do our television and radio shows increase knowledge, make people think differently or change their actual behaviour? In short, what is happening as a direct result of our programmes?

The answer is: we could never be sure. Our research has long shown that our audiences become more knowledgeable, change their attitudes and take different courses of action. However, we weren’t previously able to scientifically prove that our shows caused these changes. Yet now we definitively know our programmes made the difference – thanks to the use of a‘randomised control trial’ (RCT).

Why use an RCT to answer this question? To explain, an RCT is an experimental research design, in which people are assigned, at random, to groups. One set of people, the ‘treatment’ group, receives the intervention, while a second set, the ‘control’ group, gets a placebo. All other conditions are held constant so that the only difference between the groups is whether or not they receive the intervention. Only using this tightly controlled research methodology can we be certain whether or not the intervention caused the desired outcome.

What does that look like when you are studying the media? Our RCT was interested in investigating how watching our Bangladeshi health programmes affects the ‘key drivers’ of healthy behaviour among women of childbearing age. We consider key drivers to be precursors of behaviour, like people’sknowledge of antenatal and early newborn care, their attitudes and beliefs around, for example, what to feed a newborn baby, and their intention to do things such as attending antenatal care sessions.

In Bangladesh, we are currently airing a health-based drama called Ujan Ganger Naiya (UGN) (Sailing Against The Tide). This programme resembles many prime time family dramas, with storylines around the themes of falling in love, marriage and the important role that mothers-in-law play in Bangladeshi marriages. But the production team also weaves key elements of health knowledge into the dramatic arc, such as the recommendation that four antenatal child care visits are ideal for a pregnant mother. UGN is closely linked to a follow-up discussion show called Natoker Pore (NP) (After The Drama), in which some of the characters from the show, a medical expert and a real-life contributor review some of the key issues explored in the episode.

So one treatment group watched UGN while the control group watched another show produced by the BBC Media Action team in Bangladesh with an educational focus. This helped ensure that production values were consistent.  A second treatment group was also included in the study to investigate whether watching the discussion show alongside this drama has more of an effect than just watching the drama on its own. In short, our research questions were focussed around the short term impacts caused by watching the drama alone vs. watching it together with the discussion programme.

The results from BBC Media Action’s first-ever RCT are very encouraging:

  • Women who watched the drama – particularly those who saw the drama and factual discussion programme – showed significantly higher levels of knowledge across all of our measures of antenatal and early newborn care than the control group.
  • Women in both treatment groups (i.e. all those who watched either one or both of the health programmes) reported improved attitudes on several of the reproductive and maternal health statements we asked them about.
  • Women who watched both programmes reported higher levels of ‘efficacy’– in other words, they had greater self-belief in their ability or capacity to do something – than those who watched the drama alone, who in turn reported higher levels of self-efficacy than those in the control group.
  • When women who watched the drama were asked about a hypothetical future pregnancy, they were more likely to say they intended to pursue a number of healthy behaviours than those in the control group. Women who also watched the factual show responded positively to even more intended behaviours than those who only saw the drama.
  • In order to be effective, the clarity and consistency of messaging across the two programmes needs to be carefully managed. Programmes were less successful at shifting negative attitudes and increasing self-efficacy regarding certain antenatal and early newborn care practices such as attending at least four antenatal care sessions and exclusively feeding breast milk to a new-born.

So, why does all of this matter?

From a methodological standpoint, the RCT constitutes an important piece of evidence for isolating the impact that media and communication can have within the development sector. In this particular instance, we can now say that our health programme caused positive change in the short-term knowledge, confidence, behavioural intent and attitudes of women of child-bearing age in Bangladesh – precisely the audience we are trying to reach. We also now have evidence that watching the health programme alongside a closely related discussion programme has further positive effects – an important learning for production teams.

As BBC Media Action’s Senior Health Advisor Sophia Wilkinsonnotes:

“Often, there is a lack of funding to enable really strong study designs that tell a clear story. So it’s really exciting to have this evidence from Bangladesh that shows that entertaining television drama can indeed increase people’s knowledge and their intention to do something. Even more exciting, is that we seem to have proved our theory that exposure to more than one format will have a greater effect than just one programme! This all helps to strengthen the case for communication for development.”

The BBC Media Action Research and Learning team manages a global cohort of more than 100 researchers around the world who inform, evaluate and generate evidence on BBC Media Action projects across the countries in which we work. Former BBC Media Action Quantitative Research Manager Paul Bouanchaud was a key contributor to this piece.

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AFGHANISTAN, ON THE MEDIA: Badakhshan’s journalists discuss media’s role in women empowerment

wadsam.com, July 29, 2016 – Three experts on women empowerment and more than 60 journalists gathered at Feyzabad’s women’s centre to discuss the media’s role in women empowerment. The event was hosted by the Social Association of Journalists in North Afghanistan (SAJNA) and the Afghan-German Cooperation.

The result of the event was that media has a crucial responsibility in promoting women’s participation in society. It has the power to spread messages and raise awareness for the challenges women face. Most importantly, media has given women a voice which has allowed them to actively engage with the Afghan government, interest groups and society at large.

The meeting was attended by three Afghan experts Zofnun Hesam Natiq, Director of the Department of Women Affairs (DoWA) in Badakhshan, Najia Sorush, women’s rights activist and Nasima Sahar, representative of the Afghan-German Cooperation.

Natiq underlined the Afghan society’s need for women’s participation: “A country cannot develop in a sustainable way if half the society is excluded from the process.” She added: “Today, I would like to invite all Afghan media to help women in assuming their role in society. Let us show how capable, skilled and strong Afghan women are.”

Najia Sorush highlighted the crucial role media has played in the past in strengthening Afghan women: “Media not only changed the minds of women, but more importantly, it changed the minds of men as well. Men increasingly provide support for the women around them.”

Nasima laid out the Afghan-German Cooperation’s wide range of activities for women: “In Badakhshan, the German government provided funding for the construction of a dormitory for female students, a women’s garden and an education centre. Furthermore, in conducting internship and training programs for women in areas such as IT, English, tailoring, food processing and disaster prevention, the German government supports women empowerment as well.

During the second part of the media meeting, the Q&A session, the experts answered questions from more than 60 national and local TV, radio and newspaper outlets. When asked about her expectation in the media landscape, Zonfnun replied: “I wish to see more investigative and in-depth reports on gender-related topics, because it makes stakeholders realise that they are accountable for what they do”.

“Media Meetings 2016 – Afghan media for Social Responsibility” are a series of regular events held by the Afghan-German cooperation and SAJNA. The meetings bring together experts from the public sector, civil society, development organizations and the media to discuss important development issues.

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ON THE MEDIA: Which Countries’ Terrorist Attacks Are Ignored By The U.S. Media?

When a man drove a truck through a crowd in Nice, France, on Thursday night, the act of mass violence set off another all-too-familiar cycle of outrage, mourning and political gamesmanship. Media outlets ran stories oftragedy and heroism; politicians vowed to keep their constituents safe; citizens mourned at candlelight vigils. The attacks drew international attention, including in the U.S., where President Obama spoke from the White House, just as he had after November’s attacks in Paris. “We see our kids in the faces of the young people killed in Paris,” Obama said the following month.

But this month has also seen attacks in Baghdad and Dhaka, Bangladesh, both of which Obama briefly mentioned in his address after the killings in Nice. Likewise, the attack in Paris was preceded by one in Beirut the day before. Yet those incidents received little attention — at least, until the subsequent attacks in France brought them into the spotlight — and the news media appeared to largely pass on covering these cities with the kind of live updates and in-depth human interest stories we saw after Paris and Nice.

It’s not hard to understand why Americans care about France and worry when it’s in danger. Despite the intervening ocean, France feels close to home; our nations are politically, economically and culturally intertwined to the point of kinship. But the extensive coverage of the attacks in Nice and Paris force us to question the boundaries of this kinship: Do we not see our kids in the faces of the young people killed elsewhere?

Mohamad Bazzi, a journalism professor at New York University and a former Middle East bureau chief for Newsday, sees these discrepancies as just a few data points in a larger pattern of American reporting, one with vast and often underappreciated consequences. In a phone conversation about how the media covers terrorist attacks across the world, Bazzi said: “The death toll in the West tends to be lower most of the time, but the coverage the West gets is an order of magnitude larger.”

Of course, there are problems with drawing such a conclusion from a handful of examples. For one thing, each attack claims a different number of lives. Bazzi acknowledged this, adding that the sophistication and coordination of the Paris attacks lent itself more readily to intensive, minute-by-minute coverage. But he stood by his larger claim.

Fortunately, we have the statistical tools to be more precise about Bazzi’s claim. After controlling for the number of injuries and fatalities, will we find that terrorist attacks on Western cities are more likely to be covered by the U.S. media than similar attacks elsewhere?

The Rand Database of Worldwide Terrorism Incidents contains data on 40,129 terrorist attacks that took place from 1968 to 2009.1 Each incident is logged with a date, location, the number of injuries and fatalities, and a brief description of the attack, among other details. One piece of information that’s missing: Did we care?

To answer this question, I consulted The New York Times’s Article Search API, which allows developers to query a tagged database of every article published since 1851. For each attack in Rand’s list, I checked whether there were any articles about it in the database. To do this, I queried for articles content-tagged with “terrorism,” geo-tagged with the city of the attack, and published on the day it took place or the following day. If I got any hits, I labeled that incident “newsworthy.”

This is, admittedly, a blunt measure of news coverage; it would make no distinction between, say, Paris and Beirut, which were both covered by the Times. Bazzi’s critique focuses more on the nature of the coverage, the “sidebars and human features and profiles of the victims and all the associated stories” that the U.S. media published after the Paris attacks. Still, if it’s true that we care less about terrorism in non-Western cities, we should find not only that major attacks receive less depth of coverage but also that minor attacks receive less coverage, period. My analysis homes in on this latter question: Does the location of an attack near the threshold of newsworthiness affect its coverage in U.S. media?

Or at least, in The New York Times. I use the Times as a proxy for the U.S. news media because I was unable to find any other publication that makes its archives as accessible to researchers.

I ran a logistic regression on this data, asking my computer to predict whether an attack was covered based only on (1) the number of injuries, (2) the number of fatalities and (3) the country where the attack took place. Sure enough, this third variable was — for some countries — a significant predictor of newsworthiness.

There were 31 countries2 with enough data3 to study. In 11 (Egypt, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the U.K., the U.S. and the West Bank/Gaza), a terrorist attack was statistically significantly more likely to be covered in the Times than an attack of the same magnitude that occurred elsewhere; in six (Afghanistan, Colombia, India, Iraq, Kashmir and Thailand), attacks were statistically significantly less likely to be covered.4

We can estimate the relative likelihood of coverage for each country by calculating an “odds ratio.” For example, France’s odds ratio of 5.9 implies that an attack in France is 5.9 times as likely to be considered newsworthy as an attack of the same magnitude not in France. We shouldn’t read too much into the exact numbers, as the error bars are pretty wide.5 But the vast disparities, from 10.2 in Saudi Arabia to 0.1 in Colombia, cannot reasonably be blamed on statistical noise.

beckman-terrorism-2

Michael Slackman, the international managing editor for The New York Times, pushed back on my results. “We have no ‘terrorism formula,’” he said in an email. “The context for ‘terror’ in the range of countries you listed — and over a four decade time span — is so varied that it seems impossible to make any kind of objective comparison or insightful conclusion.”

Slackman’s skepticism is warranted. The term “terrorism,” which my analysis regards as a discrete category, is of course highly influenced by political context. Considering that the Rand database includes a variety of groups, from Colombian rebels to jihadists like al-Qaida, we have to be careful when considering these results.

Indeed, Colombia’s claim to the lowest odds ratio of any country in this data set may be because of its longtime armed conflict. Terrorist attacks were quite frequent there during the period covered by the Rand data, and perhaps the regularity of these attacks made them less newsworthy in the eyes of the U.S. media. As Slackman suggests, we have to consider that the nature of attacks in a certain region — not just location — affects how that region is covered.

As another example, Saudi Arabia has the highest odds ratio in the data set. Saudi Arabia is a key ally of the U.S., certainly, but another factor may be in play here: There is a history of anti-Western attacks in Saudi Arabia, many targeting Americans. When I controlled for the presence of the word “American” in Rand’s attack description, Saudi Arabia’s odds ratio dropped to 5.7. This indicates that the outsize coverage of Saudi Arabian attacks could have as much to do with who their victims are as where they took place.

In addition to relevant country-specific contexts, Slackman is also right to be wary of the wide time span that this analysis covers.6 In particular, the political context for “terrorism” differs greatly for the periods before and after the Sept. 11 attacks; an attack taking place after Sept. 11, 2001, was 50 percent more likely to be covered by the Times than an attack of the same magnitude before Sept. 11.7 This could confound our results in countries where terrorism is concentrated on one side of the Sept. 11 attacks — for example, a shockingly small 22 of the 6,878 Iraqi attacks in the data set occurred before the 2003 U.S. invasion.

We can’t reasonably conclude, then, that location affects coverage, all else held equal; in the complex world of international terrorism, it is not possible to hold all else equal.

In a broader sense, though, Slackman’s criticism rings hollow to my ears. Whatever the cause, the numbers do bear out a discrepancy that reflects the expectations of nearly every journalist and academic I spoke to. If confounding variables like those mentioned above were doing all the heavy lifting, we’d see a scattered assortment of countries on either side of the coverage spectrum. Instead, the odds ratios are significantly correlated with GDP per capita.8

beckman-terrorism-1

Bazzi, for his part, believes the disparities are in large part due to anempathy gap, fueled by audience interest just as much as reporter focus. “Editors and producers advance the argument that they’re satisfying the needs of their audience — especially now, when all traffic can be measured, coverage can be catered quite quickly,” Bazzi said. He also argued, though, that the audience doesn’t dictate the coverage focus so much as preserve an existing coverage focus that it has come to expect. “Why did the audience get this way?” he asked.

Mónica Guzmán, vice chair of the ethics committee at the Society of Professional Journalists, said she agrees that both parties are responsible but stressed the role that journalists must play in breaking the cycle. “Many newsrooms like to think they cover all parts of the world equally, but they don’t, really,” Guzmán told me by email. “Unconscious biases abound, and maybe some conscious ones, too. … Great journalists take these challenges head on, and never assume they’ve conquered them.”

In the meantime, what can consumers of U.S. news do to push for more equitable coverage? “It’s hard to impose habits on people,” Bazzi said. “One quick fix for the audience is to go to sources in those countries. … If they see things in those local sources that they think should have been done by their usual American outlets, then they should bring that up.” Being conscious of and vocal about discrepancies, pressing U.S. sources to improve by asking them to confront their place in the feedback loop, may be our best hope to break the cycle.

Even with heightened scrutiny, though, this problem won’t resolve itself overnight. Slackman promised that the Times has “a deep and growing commitment to cover the world” — about this, I have no doubt. The paperhas announced that it is making a $50 million investment in international coverage and distribution. But many readers are committed to seeking out equitable coverage, and still, peak Google search volume for “Beirut” fell short of 1 percent of the peak volume for “Paris” in the days following the attacks in those cities last year.

Intention is crucial, but it takes continued effort to change personal and institutional habits. “Let’s not kid ourselves,” Guzmán said. “This work is hard.”

Footnotes

  1. The Rand Corp. is a nonprofit think tank located in the U.S. that does research for use in military planning. If its data has a systemic bias, I would expect it to be that its documentation of Western attacks is more comprehensive than that of non-Western attacks. This direction of bias, if it exists, strengthens the results of my analysis — my findings suggest that U.S. media coverage is more West-focused than Rand’s database.^
  2. Rand’s database uses some “country” designations, like the West Bank/Gaza and Kashmir, that don’t match up exactly with United Nations-recognized boundaries. ^
  3. Because of the size of Rand’s database and query limits on the Times’s API, I first limited my data set to attacks that caused at least 10 injuries or at least one fatality. This reduced the sample size to 14,547. I then limited my analysis to countries that had at least 25 attacks in this database, at least one of which was covered by the Times. For each of these 31 countries, I ran a three-variable logistic regression with a dummy variable for that country. A single regression with 31 country-specific dummy variables would produce odds ratios comparing each country to a baseline of all countries that aren’t part of this analysis — an arbitrary reference point. Running 31 regressions, each with a single dummy variable, allows us to compare attacks in a country to attacks not in that country. The results of these two strategies, moreover, are nearly identical. ^
  4. A country falls in the “significantly more likely” category if we are 95 percent certain that its odds ratio is greater than 1.0 (which indicates no difference). This is represented on the chart by a country whose error bar lies entirely to the right of the 1x line. The reverse holds for “significantly less likely.” ^
  5. For example, we can’t be sure that Saudi Arabia tops the list — we can only say with 95 percent confidence that Saudi Arabia’s odds ratio is between 4.2 and 24.8. Each point marked on the chart represents our “best guess” as to the true odds ratio, but there’s quite a bit of uncertainty. ^
  6. If we limit the analysis to only attacks that took place after Sept. 11, 2001, the main difference is that error bars are wider because the sample size is smaller. As a result, four countries (Pakistan, the West Bank/Gaza, France and Italy) slip out of statistical significance, and three more (Lebanon, Egypt and the U.K.) fall below the threshold for inclusion in this analysis. Somalia is the only country that becomes statistically significant; it joins the “significantly less coverage” category. ^
  7. This is true only after controlling for the country of the attack. Because of the increase in terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan after Sept. 11, a given post-Sept. 11 attack was actually less likely to be covered than a pre-Sept. 11 attack of the same magnitude, but this likely has to do with the concentration of post-Sept. 11 attacks in lower-coverage areas. ^
  8. GDP per capita is the best single predictor of odds ratio I could find (r-squared = 0.64), although a number of other variables I tried — e.g., rarity of attacks, trade with the U.S., percentage of Sporcle users who remembered the country on a world map quiz — were also predictive. ^

Milo Beckman is a freelance writer for FiveThirtyEight. His work can be found at milobeckman.com. He also constructs crossword puzzles for The New York Times.

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ON THE MEDIA: Documentary Filmmakers Find That an Agenda Helps With Financing

An image from “Indian Point” gives a view of the nuclear power plant of the title. Credit Indian Point Film Productions

An image from “Indian Point” gives a view of the nuclear power plant of the title. Credit Indian Point Film Productions

nytimes.com, by John Anderson, original

Social-issue documentaries are the white knights of cinema — vanquishing dragons, tilting at windmills — but they are not intended as agents of diplomacy. Right is right, wrong is wrong. Take no prisoners. Divide and conquer.

So the director Ivy Meeropol’s “Indian Point,” due in theaters on July 8, is a bit out of step with the competition. The film, which revolves around a portrait of the titular nuclear reactor about 25 miles up the Hudson from New York City, has brought together parties on both sides of the long-running debate over whether the plant should stay or go.

“It was such a nice, friendly atmosphere, because the movie was so evenhanded,” said the longtime anti-Indian Point activist Marilyn Elie, who, with her husband, Roger Witherspoon, a veteran environmental journalist, and Brian Vangor, the senior control-room operator of the plant, are principal characters in the film and have appeared together at festival screenings.

 “But,” Ms. Elie cautioned, “it’s not an advocacy film.”

And by not being one, “Indian Point” sets itself apart not only from the drift of current documentaries but also from much of the money available to make them — money coming from institutions that place considerable importance on a film’s cause and its outreach plan (the organizational networking necessary to reach the audience sympathetic to that cause).

“If these funders weren’t funding activist films, they would be funding some other form of activism — not some other form of filmmaking,” said Marshall Curry, a director. His admittedly thorny films, including “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front” and “Street Fight,” about African-American Democrats fighting one another for control of Newark, have faced problems with financing and outreach because they “were hard to rally troops around.” Green groups, for instance, fled from “If a Tree Falls,” with its sympathetic portrait of an environmental “terrorist.”

 There is also an implicit constraint imposed when a filmmaker has pitched a film one way, and the story goes another.

 A scene from the documentary “Detropia.” CreditLoki Films

“The closest we ever came to an agenda film was ‘Detropia,’” said Rachel Grady. She and Heidi Ewing thought their 2012 documentary would be a positive story about Detroit. Then they started filming.

“As one does, if one is doing a good job, we found out the story was different from our thesis,” Ms. Grady said. “Luckily, the money we’d gotten was from the Ford Foundation, which was a no-strings grant maker.”

But other foundations, like the MacArthur Foundation, are no longer providing grants for individual documentary projects, choosing instead to channel money thorough smaller institutions. That change “was very, very painful,” said Julie Goldman, a producer of “Indian Point.” She said foundations have historically been places you could go for significant financial help “and not have to scrap for every $15,000. But they both decided to do the same thing. So it’s really challenging.”

The alternative is going to financiers who often want a post-release plan from a filmmaker, in preproduction, about how the movie will create a conversation, online or off. “The reality is you end up kind of guessing a lot,” Ms. Goldman said. “Look, some things are going to be obvious — who the partners are, what you can do for outreach. When you’re doing a film on Indian Point, it’s a question.”

What’s happened to documentary financing over the last decade, said Debra Zimmerman, the executive director of the specialty distributor Women Make Movies, “is the coalescence of a number of different trends, none of which has been really good for filmmakers who aren’t interested in making social-issue docs.” She cited the closing of the National Endowment for the Arts’ regional grants, the Rockefeller Foundation’s decision to directly stop financing film, “and the fact, unfortunately, that we don’t have any real national support for film as an art form.”

“So it’s left to private foundations that are basically created to get tax deductions so they can work on social issues,” she said. “That’s what the role of a foundation is.”

“It’s good that social-issue films are getting money,” she added, “but it’s bad that nothing else is getting funded.”

A scene from “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.”

That isn’t quite the case, though many of the social-action entities — Impact Partners (“How to Survive a Plague”), the Bertha Fund (“God Loves Uganda”), Participant Media (“An Inconvenient Truth”), Chicken & Egg (“(T)error”), BritDoc (“3 and ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets”) and its forum Good Pitch (“The Invisible War”) — make no apologies for their agendas. “We’re seeing an explosion of funders moving into the films-for-change space who are working with films for the first time and are coming from more traditional philanthropy and need to be assured that the films will have application beyond the general audience,” Maxyne Franklin of BritDoc said.

Amy Halpin, the director of filmmaker services for the International Documentary Association in Los Angeles, oversees the Pare Lorentz Fund, which gives production money to films focusing on equal justice, environmentalism and other social issues. She said she has not found that “the tail wags the dog” — that filmmakers were tailoring their films to meets financing expectations.

On the other hand, “it’s a question within the field right now about how much we’re asking filmmakers to do other than being filmmakers,” Ms. Halpin said. “We’re asking them to drive these activist campaigns that can have career implications, because when you’re speaking at churches and schools and libraries for two years after you’ve made the movie, you’re not making your next movie. And you only get to be a filmmaker once every four or five years.”

But it’s hard for a financier foundation or broadcaster to not to hear the siren song of social action. “I wouldn’t say it’s a requirement,” said Courtney Sexton, vice president of CNN Films, “but we have an internal outreach and partnership person who works closely with the filmmakers we commission to help coordinate efforts that CNN can participate in.” CNN-financed documentaries have included “The Hunting Ground,” about sexual assault on college campuses.

Significant support for the filmmaker-sans-agenda has come from the Sundance Institute, where Tabitha Jackson, who runs the documentary fund, is widely recognized as sympathetic to the cause of the art documentary. A new Sundance initiative called the Art of Nonfiction is intended to support individual filmmakers, not strictly social-impact movies.

“It felt like we were at danger point maybe a couple of years ago,” Ms. Jackson said. “There was a risk that an inappropriate form of measurement would tend to reduce the funding that filmmakers got unless they jumped through hoops, or pretended to be able to do things they couldn’t. I think the conversation is different now. It’s about sustainability and diversity.”

For Ms. Meeropol, it’s also about objectivity, and how it goes unrewarded.

At a recent Q. and A., she said: “I had not a single filmmaking question from the audience. So despite my best efforts, the film becomes an advocacy piece. And I am a reluctant poster child for the anti-nuke movement.”

Correction: July 8, 2016
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the Ford Foundation’s policy regarding grant money for documentary films. Ford, through its JustFilms unit, continues to provide money to individual filmmakers; it is not the case that the organization has stopped giving grant money to documentarians.

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MEDIA: First Person Singular, Autobiography in Documentary Film

The filmmakers of tomorrow will express themselves in the first person, and will relate what has happened to them . . . and it will be enjoyable because it will be true and new . . . the film of tomorrow will be an act of love.
—Francois Truffaut, The Films in My Life

I haven’t written a nonfiction piece in the first person since elementary school, where I learned to use “we” and “one” if I wanted to express an opinion. The voice of authority, of truth, was impersonal. As I grew up, writing for newspapers in school and in the “real” world, I learned to apply the tenets of objective journalism and ignore any impulse to write “I.” These were the rules of the game.

A couple of years ago while struggling with editing a short film about a bizarre suicide pact between two lovers I knew that I’d have to narrate the story myself. I couldn’t approach this incomprehensible event using the style of TV news, with the voice of an instant expert. After all, I was still in the process of trying to understand the act. Also, making my own story part of the film would help create a narrative structure, much the way events of a picaresque novel are often held together by the main character’s narration.The search could become the structure for the story and, in a way, become the story itself. I looked for models of first person nonfiction style and became fascinated with newspaper columnists such as Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko, and Bob Greene. Here was one place where journalists were allowed to use the word “I.” There were, however, more examples of the first person style in film.

Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Poto and Cabengo was one of my inspirations. The story of a pair of twin girls who were thought to have developed their own private language was transformed by Gorin into a personal essay. This 1979 film was about the girls, but also about language and communication, and Gorin’s own sense of exile—a French filmmaker adrift in Southern California. In this and other first person films, I found a fascinating tension between autobiography and journalism. These were not diary films, because they did not make the filmmaker’s life the subject. But they did not try to hide the presence of the filmmaker either. The filmmakers found new ways to deal with a fundamental concern of documentary: how to reconcile reality with perception, how to situate oneself, as observer and participant, in the world.

What follows is hardly a complete survey of works which could be called first person nonfiction. Here, I am limiting the term to films where there is a narration provided by the filmmaker. Otherwise, I might incorporate for example, Shirley Clarke’s Ornette . . . Made in America, an extremely idiosyncratic and personal portrait of the jazz innovator Ornette Coleman. Also, I have limited my topic to film, neglecting the entire field of video, which includes much intimate, personal documentary work.

One reason for talking mainly about films narrated by their makers is that these works overtly cast the filmmaker as a character as well as a creator. Poto and Cabengo begins with a juxtaposition of a variety of languages. The first images are of Katzenjammer Kids cartoons, with a narrator reciting the Kids’ nonsensical blend of German and English. We then hear the unintelligible voices of the two young girls conversing. A title rolls across the screen asking, “What are they saying?” Next is an expository montage of newspaper headlines and the newscaster-style voice of a woman who describes the media’s interest in the San Diego twins, romanticized as another “Wild Child” story. Then we are introduced to the filmmaker. Over still photos of himself (including one, fittingly, seated at a typewriter), Gorin explains his interest in the twins. Speaking with a fairly heavy French accent, he states, “These two girls were foreigners in their own language.” He wanted to film them before they began to speak like everyone else: “I would have to beat the clock, before they became English majors.” The next shot from his car, racing down the freeway towards their home, gets the story rolling.

Gorin explores the environment around the girls, particularly their bizarre family. Christine, the mother, was born in Germany, and Paula, the maternal grandmother who lives in the house, speaks only German. Tom, the father, was born in the South. The entire family converses in a Katzenjammer-like hodgepodge. As a linguist says in the film, the girls “had two different linguistic models, both of them defective.” Unlike traditional narrations, which attempt to provide answers, Gorin fills the soundtrack with questions that encourage involvement in the process of trying to make sense out of the story. At times, he freezes an image during an interview or repeats a shot. When Christine describes her daughters as “two ding-a-lings who are pretty much alive,” Gorin repeats this segment for emphasis. With such devices and the use of titles and black leader, the film frequently interrupts the flow of the investigation.

Gorin also describes his own interest in the case. “There was a ring of Ellis Island to the story,” an important notion to a French filmmaker working and living in San Diego. And he finds it difficult to maintain an impersonal distance. As he goes towards the family’s house for the first time, he wonders aloud, “How would the girls react to my French accent?” He takes the girls to the zoo, a picnic at the beach, and a library, before realizing, “There was no way I could escape it. The story wasn’t with me but back with the family.” But Gorin and his voice remain integral to the story. In a film that suggests that all language is, by virtue of being an external, unnatural system, foreign to the speaker, it is fitting that there is no central authoritative language, no objective narration.

Ross McElwee opens his new film, Sherman’s March, with a traditional narration, only to dispense with it. The movie begins like an educational film with a narrator describing General Sherman’s Civil War campaign, as a dotted line traces the route on a map. But any resemblance to standard documentary ends here. The complete title, Sherman’s March to the Sea: A Documentary Meditation Upon the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation, indicates the movie’s blend of history, life in today’s South, and McElwee’s search for a new girlfriend.

In a prologue, McElwee explains that he originally intended to explore the lingering effects of Sherman’s Civil War victory. Though William Sherman, born in Ohio, reportedly loved the South and its people, he devastated the Confederacy in a series of brilliant and ruthless military campaigns. (Remember, it was Sherman who said, “War is hell.”) After his troops burned Atlanta in November 1864, he led 60,000 men on the famous march, leaving a trail of destruction across several states. But just before McElwee began filming, his girlfriend announced that their relationship was over. Too distracted to stay with his original plans, McElwee decided to deal with his personal life in the film, combining his inquiry about Sherman with his own quest for a new love.

McElwee’s own synopsis of the film describes its various levels well:

It is a non-fiction documentary story in which I shape narratively the documentary footage I’ve gathered during a serendipitous journey through the South. My film is a story in so far as it adheres to the autobiographically narrative line of a return home followed by a mutedly comic quest in which, repeatedly, boy meets girl, boy chases girl, boy loses girl. It is documentary in so far as all the people, places and situations appearing in the film are all unscripted and unplanned.

McElwee operated the camera and recorded sound alone; the women he befriends talk directly to him behind the camera. They include Pat, an aspiring actress desperately seeking Burt Reynolds; Claudia, an interior designer involved with a survivalist group; Winnie, a doctoral student who lives alone on an island, and a number of others. The portraits of these women are remarkably vivid and lively, which keeps the film from feeling self-indulgent. Interspersed with these encounters are McElwee’s monologues about his floundering film project, his nightmares of nuclear destruction, which increase as his love life worsens, and the film’s ostensible subject, General Sherman. “Sherman was plagued by anxiety and insomnia,” claims McElwee, who attempts to conflate his “creeping psycho-sexual despair” with Sherman’s psyche.

Is this a film about Sherman or McElwee? And what is the relation between McElwee’s life and his film? He conjectures, “It seems like I’m filming my life in order to have a life to film. ” An old friend and mentor, Charleen, advises him on camera, “Forget the fucking film and listen to me. This is not art. This is life.” However, Sherman’s March shows that there is no clear-cut dividing line. McElwee strikes a fascinating balance between being an ironic observer of his own pursuits and an active participant. By maintaining a sense of irony about his romantic pursuits, McElwee uses his search for a girlfriend in the same way that he uses Sherman’s March, as a kind of red herring, a structural narrative device to shape his documentary material. What we remember most vividly about Sherman’s March are the people and places that the filmmaker encounters.

A personal view of more recent history is provided by Nancy Yasecko’s 1984 film Growing Up with Rockets. What is the relationship between news events and our individual lives? Is history just something we watch on TV? These questions were raised earlier this year, when the Challenger disaster instantly became part of our national consciousness. Millions of people experienced a strong personal reaction to the explosion. That tragic, but chilling incident revealed some of the technological complexity of the space program. At the same time, space travel often functions as fantasy, enjoying a hold on the public imagination for many years. Early cinema history provides a fine example: Melies’s A Trip to the Moon, made a half-century before the existence of NASA.

autobiography-in-film-02

Nancy Yasecko reflects on missile launches, Cape Canaveral, and growing up with rockets.

Growing Up with Rockets is a firsthand look at NASA that goes a long way towards demystifying this massive public project. Yasecko grew up in Cape Canaveral, where her family ran a “Spacerium” tourist attraction; her coming of age parallels the growth of the space program. With home movies, newsreels, and original footage, Yasecko provides a personal history of the space agency. While the film doesn’t cover much new factual ground, it is mildly subversive in evoking the scientists and engineers who created the space program as real, imperfect people. Listen, for example, to how Yasecko describes her return to Cape Canaveral as a grown-up several years ago to witness the first launch of the space shuttle:

Mom said there was some concern around town that if the first test flights were unsuccessful, the negative publicity alone would be enough to set the program back a number of years. Dad and some of his friends were skeptical about the complicated design that was required to launch the shuttle like a rocket and return it like an airplane. Mom was amused that the same bunch of mavericks that had put wings on the old Snark and Matador had gotten so conservative in their old age. I remember those old military launches and how we all grew up with rockets going off almost every day, and the special feeling of a manned launch. After that, I had to see this one, and get that old countdown and liftoff rush.

Yasecko’s portrait of the space program is less than mystical. She charts its ups and downs, capturing the emotions of the familiar events in diary style. She talks about the exuberant early days of constant rocket launches, when her schoolmates would run outside and yell, “Missile! Missile!” whenever a rocket went off, to the feeling of despair as the space program fizzled in the mid-seventies. Yasecko was working for NASA at the time, and she recalls, “I left the engineering tract and signed up to study art. … It seemed like a more practical idea at the time.”

The union of Yasecko’s voice with familiar images of news events creates a surprising effect. We are used to having NASA explained to us by male voices of authority, be they the TV anchors who traditionally served as our guides to the news, or the deep-voiced narrators of the documentaries some of us watched in school. Speaking somewhat ironically and intimately, Yasecko provides an alternative to these nondescript, impersonal voices.

The voice and perspective of a woman filmmaker is again strongly asserted in Joel DeMott’s film Demon Lover Diary. DeMott records the making of a low-budget horror film being photographed by her partner Jeff Kreines. DeMott’s “diary” is filled with bizarre incidents that are far stranger than the movie that is in production. The filmmakers, Don and Jerry, are factory workers fulfilling a lifetime dream. Don mortgaged his furniture and car, and Jerry cut off his finger in an industrial “accident” to collect insurance money towards the film’s expenses. DeMott films all this and records sound by herself. She talks to people in the scene, even arguing with the filmmakers, who are frequently condescending toward her because she is a woman. (At one point, they expect her to wait home all day for a phone call while they are out running errands.) She makes asides meant only for the viewer’s ears, mainly commenting on how the horror film is turning into a complete mess. And she films from an extremely close range.

In the past dozen years, DeMott and Kreines have developed a distinctive style of one-person shooting. They each use a combination camera/tape recorder rig that weighs about 12 pounds. They film with a wide angle lens that enables them to stand within three or four feet of their subjects, and they use extremely sensitive film stock, eliminating the need for lights. In a written description of their shooting technique, DeMott explains the philosophy behind this approach:

The filmmaker doesn’t carry on with “his people” (the crew) in front of “his subjects.” The dichotomy those labels reveal, in the filmmaker himself [sic] is gone, along with the crew. Relieved of the alliance, and a need for communication of an alienating sort —the filmmaker becomes another human being in the room. He participates without awkwardness in the society that surrounds him.

DeMott’s technique in Demon Lover Diary responds to a problem evident in many cinema verite films that do not explicitly acknowledge the presence of the filmmaker. A recent example of this is the commercially successful documentary Streetwise, a chronicle of the lives of street kids in Seattle. Though filmed in a sort of Candid Camera style, albeit with more sensitivity and elegance than Allen Funt ever displayed, *Streetwise* never obviates the nagging suspicion that the subjects are acting for the camera. The film’s main characters wore radio microphones. While this allowed for intimate sound recordings, wearing a radio microphone will entail some self-consciousness. To the filmmakers’ credit, most of the moments captured in *Streetwise* seem authentic. But from time to time the audience must wonder, “What about the film crew?” In contrast, the first person filmmaking style of DeMott and Kreines foregrounds their presence, leaving no uncertainty about their relationship to the project.

The question of distance becomes central in many first person nonfiction films. To ask what is the place of the filmmaker in a film is to hint at a broader question: what is the place of a person in the world? Lisa Hsia makes this explicit in her half-hour film Made in China, where she explores her hyphenated Chinese American heritage. Born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Hsia filmed a visit with relatives in China. Her goal there was to become an insider, not a tourist or a mere observer. In fact, this desire is the source of much of the film’s humor. Using an informal, anecdotal narration, and mix of home movies, animation, and original footage, Hsia recounts her experiences, including a variety of embarrassing moments that demonstrate the difficulty of making a connection with one’s cultural roots.

autobiography-in-film-03

Chisu Ryu in a scene from Wim Wenders’s film diary “Tokyo-Go.”

Wim Wenders, on the other hand, plays an outsider in many of his films. The New York City of his Reverse Angle doesn’t seem very different from the Tokyo of his Tokyo-Ga. In both films, the city is presented as a depersonalized place, cluttered with meaningless images. However, whether in Germany, the United States, or Japan, Wenders has been inspired by the films of Yasujiro Ozu, whose austere, ordered compositions depict a tranquil center of family and personal relationships in the midst of a modernizing world. Wenders also has adapted from Ozu his episodic, laconic storytelling style, where minor, quotidian incidents make up the films’ slender plots. Wenders manages to find the common ground of Ozu’s films and his favorite genre, the road movie. This type of narrative structure approaches the diaristic, and Tokyo-Ga is Wenders’s filmed account of his trip to modern-day Tokyo to find what remains of the austere, orderly world portrayed in Ozu’s films.

Tokyo-Ga can be seen as two films in one: his vision of Tokyo and a tribute to Ozu, employing interviews, film clips from Tokyo Story, and Wenders’s narration about Ozu’s movies. What connects these two elements, and what shapes the entire film, is Wenders’s personal experience. As he wanders through a crowded, hectic Tokyo, complete with noisy pachinko parlors, ubiquitous TV sets (even in the backseats of taxicabs), a rooftop golf range, and a park where Japanese teens dance to American rock and roll, Wenders laments, “I was searching for the mythical city of Tokyo. Perhaps that was what no longer existed, [Ozu’s] view that one could find order in a world of disorder. Perhaps such a view is no longer possible.” Yet Wenders does not despair totally. He adds, “In spite of everything, I couldn’t help but be impressed by Tokyo.”

In many of the practices that Wenders observes, there is an obsession with pure form that becomes almost meditative. In the pachinko parlors, the hours in front of the machine “induce a hypnosis, a strange form of happiness. The person merges with the machine, and forgets whatever it is that one wants to forget.” Early in the film, at a train station, Wenders spots a young boy who is being dragged along by his mother; the stubborn child keeps sitting on the floor, refusing to budge. Wenders compares the mischievous child to the kids in Ozu’s films from the 1930s, and he is heartened to see a sign of continuity between Ozu’s world and modern Tokyo. “No other city has ever felt so familiar to me,” he comments. But after all, he views Tokyo through his own memories, thoughts, and desires, searching for a city that really exists only in his imagination.

In the past, the realm of the personal has belonged primarily to avant-garde filmmakers, and as a subtext, to fiction filmmakers. These first person documentaries, though, assert subjectivity, which has long been a dirty word in documentaries, and attempt to reconcile the social with the deeply personal. I think of my favorite photographs of people looking straight at the camera, breaking down the boundary between photographer and subject, implying a connection. In a similar way, the films I have designated first person documentaries explore the encounter between filmmaker and subject. They make the person behind the camera a subject of the film. From McElwee’s confessional monologues in Sherman’s March to Gorin’s analytic narration in Poto and Cabengo, these films suggest the variety of cinematic forms that can situate a person in the work and in the world.

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MEDIA: Inside the Storytelling Revolution

April 2016, buildingpeaceforum.com

commDownload PDF Storytelling is on the rise. With the continued expansion of technology sharing stories has never been easier. Our latest issue of Building Peace, Inside the Storytelling Revolution,examines the countless ways we communicate with one another and the power that stories hold to inspire peace as well as war.

The sixth publication looks at the processes of advocacy and advertising—both selling peace in their unique ways. We feature the work of StoryCorps and how they are lifting up local voices to contribute to a more peaceful society. Our stories also come from the Countering Violent Extremism and filmmaking communities as they explore the ways that narratives can rewrite history—and what it takes to reveal the truth.

Letter from the Editor-in-Chief

Stories are both universal and individual. They are our mannerisms and our beliefs, our choice of words and our dreams for the future. Most of all, stories shape the way […]

Selling Peace: Story by Story

Before dawn on Friday, December 17, 2011, Mohammed Bouazizi pulled his cart to the Tunisian marketplace where he sold his goods. Local officials there harassed him and confiscated his wares […]

Short Stories: Community Murals in the U.S.

When it comes to peace, walls are rarely the solution. Walls separate people and prevent dialogue. They build suspicion and unease. The examples are everywhere including Northern Ireland, the West […]

Peace Needs a Sharp, Pointy Stick

(Legal disclaimer: The author of this article is an outsider with total respect and appreciation for the peacebuilding community but only limited knowledge of how it actually works, its protocols, […]

The Catalyst for Change

“Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.” – Native American […]

Short Stories: Darfur’s Hakamat

In Darfur, in the Western region of Sudan, an influential group of women, known as the Hakamat, are beginning to change their tune. The Hakamat hold a special place in […]

Film, Truth, and the Pursuit of Peace

Film has power as a pathway to peace. In a certain kind of filmmaking, the ends and the means are inseparable; the way that a film is made is reflected […]

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