Watch the new CSFilm Trainee-produced film here, and read a detailed Journal Update about the training process by CSFilm director Michael Sheridan.
This film by CSFilm trainees was shown at the World Bank and on Capitol Hill in early 2013.
Last December Community Supported Film was asked by the Afghan government’s National Solidarity Program (NSP) if we could produce a film on their work to be shown in Congress, at the World Bank and to other international funders. Since our first work in Afghanistan in 2009 we have heralded the internationally acclaimed community-based development work of the NSP. CSFilm’s mission however is not to make films ourselves but to improve the skills of locals so that they can produce and sustain great local video journalism and documentary filmmaking. I therefore suggested that rather than make the film, we train the organization’s six communications staff to produce a lived-reality, character-driven, film themselves.
NSP management was skeptical of their staff’s ability to produce a film that would appeal to a Western audience. So often we make the same mistake, whether as insiders or outsiders, of assuming that the outsider has special skills unmatchable by locals. But of course, the fewer chances locals are given, the fewer opportunities they have to improve their skills.
In the end the management agreed to CSFilm’s proposal and a five week training and production process started. Despite the fact that working within a government bureaucracy proved far more painful than expected, the communications staff of the National Solidarity Program worked hard produced the film we are sharing above. It’s nowhere near perfect but it is many steps in the right direction.
The NSP communications team is made up of Afghan professionals who almost all started in radio and have expanded to filmmaking. Many were refugees in Pakistan during the wars and while there developed some production skills. What they appreciated the most from the training was that it turned their typical production process on its head. Often the tendency is to construct stories based on a text and then to add pictures that support the text-based arguments. This approach creates films that are talk heavy and effectively what we call “radio shows with pictures.”
To get the trainees to think beyond this format, we started the training with two weeks of exercises concentrated on the visualization of stories without the use of interviews or narration. For many it was the first time they were thinking about what we call “scene-based” or situational storytelling. We then worked on improving interview techniques that would add to the visual experiences rather then determine them.
For production we divided up into two teams and broke down the story for the final film into three short stories that would capture the fundatmental layers of the NSP process: participation, accountability and economic impact. One team went to Nangahar province, and I accompanied them. Assistant trainer Hamed Alizadha, former coordinator for CSFilm-Afghanistan, went with the other team to Bamiyan. Even with our insider connections, the most difficult obstacle was getting women to agree to participate. The security environment is worsening and fewer people are willing to risk being seen countering the very conservative customs.
Poor security and rising suspision of foreigners also kept me from being able to leave the NSP office in Nangahar. But the team’s daily work was brought back for intensive review in the evenings.
The final film highlights the success of NSP projects through the voices and activities of three characters. Thousands of people like them have transformed rural Afghanistan since 2002 by building an astonishing 52,000 projects all implemented through local level Community Development Councils in 29,000 villages.
The big lesson learned here at CSFilm is that the organizational management needs training in good storytelling just as much as – if not more than – the production staff. I came in to the training thinking that the producers didn’t understand how to construct visual and engaging stories; but through the process it became clear that the management didn’t trust their staff’s instincts and they also considered films to be good if they overtly sold the message with verbal explanation and facts. They believe that the viewer will trust what they are told instead of what they experience, when in reality we at CSFilm teach that the opposite is true. CSFilm has realized through this process that the management must also be trained in these principals if the staff are to perform effectively. This is especially true in very hierarchical societies like Afghanistan where superiors are not supposed to be questioned.
For the time being, we realize we have to pick our battles with the management! As you will see and hear in this video, we gave in on the use of unnecessary music, and in a few places the trainees still included visual slide shows that hinder the character-driven stories. In the end though, improvements are always incremental, and the changes we did see were tangible, substantial, and very welcomed by the trainees. I look forward to seeing how they incorporate what they have learned into their future work.
National Solidarity Program Photo Gallery: Click thumbnail to view larger.