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How Participatory Filmmaking Saved My Career

Filmmaker Bryan Bello rides the metro with Director Levester Green. Photo courtesy of Bryan Bello.That Sunday morning began as all the others, with a rest on the Red Line. Real, uninterrupted rest - well, relatively uninterrupted. The winter walks to the metro from the McDonalds where Levester and I sought refuge between hours of rail operation, always presented the illusion of coming rest.

But no more than thirty minutes into the ride - the distance from Shady Grove to the American University stop where we first met - an all too familiar cold crept into my bones. Metro kept the cars cool to deter us, and others like us, from actively hunting shuteye on their grounds.

When I say “us” I should say, “him.” Levester is actually without housing. I’m just a filmmaker (a student filmmaker at the time) with a rented apartment, who chose to spend his winter weekends on the streets in pursuit of some direct-cinema pipe dream.

“Chose”: the distinction wasn’t lost on me. And this morning it especially weighed on my mind. These were the last hours of a six-weekend experiment in which I spent my days and nights embedded in Levester’s world.

A leaden futility descended upon my thoughts like the white blanket burying the fast approaching New York Avenue station, my nearby apartment, and every other block, stop and line from here to wherever Levester went after the hug that ended each session. I felt like a poverty tourist, even a parasite.

What was the goal of this project anyway? What was the point? And not just of this film, but of documentary filmmaking in general? To tell stories? To tell stories that opened eyes and minds (as I had endeavored)? Okay. Even if the film ended up being “good” or “powerful,” the modern appetite for new content would drown its message in a matter of months, at the end of which Levester would still be homeless, policy affecting the right to housing wouldn’t change and the deeply personal time we spent together would reduce to an academic pitch tailored for the benefit of grantors.

I was having a crisis, not just of impact, but process.

To continue on in filmmaking, I required a method of production that generated results throughout the creative process. That produced impact in the act of creation and not just at the end of it. And, finally, that empowered all involved regardless of critical reception.

The solution I arrived at with the help of Levester and an open-minded local nonprofit was a street filmmaking cooperative. I would educate and equip a group of interested individuals, all of whom had experienced or were experiencing homelessness, with resources to produce their own stories together. I’d help them organize in a way that would continue to improve their collective experience long after they told their stories, and most importantly, long after I had left.

Pie in the sky? I know. I heard that a lot. I couldn’t even win a $1,000 one-thousand dollar grant from our school library for creative projects addressing homelessness.

Fast-forward one year later, April 29, 2015.  The co-op debuts its first three films to a sold out audience at the top independent theater in Washington D.C. Reporters from The Atlantic and PBS attend, spreading our filmmakers’ messages far and wide. Our directors make money from the night’s earnings. The audience laughs, cries and sticks around to ask questions of the artists, many of whom they had willfully ignored just days earlier as they passed them on the streets. Our films get assigned as homework in universities as far away as Seattle. Partnerships between our nonprofit sponsor (Street Sense) and local advocacy groups proliferate, putting us in a position to better lobby City Hall. Finally, shortly after the screening, Street Sense receives a six figure grant (its largest grant ever) to fund our co-op and its sister theater workshop for three years.

What!? I’m still baffled. The only money we had to start was $2,000 for AV equipment. Why did the experiment work?

Here’s the guiding premise: Invest in individuals, not stories. The stories will come.

The co-op shoots on location at Freedom Plaza for director Morgan Jones’ film Late Show. From left: Levester Green provides cinematography, Robert Warren records sound, Morgan Jones directs and Bryan Bello facilitates. Photo courtesy of Sarah Nelson

During each day spent in the development of one of our films, a new act of self-discovery by a group of marginalized men and women unfolds. They embolden themselves by learning technical skills such as working with a DSLR and Adobe Premiere. They remind all who see their documentaries that given a fighting chance, they could powerfully contribute to a twenty-first century economy,having just visibly contributed to its culture.

Whose story was I telling that winter anyway? Whether it was mine, Levester’s, or a little bit of both, the story Levester ended up directing for himself will surpass in nuance, power and (without a doubt) import, whatever it is I end up cutting for myself.

The results born of our production environment are singular.  Insights into the human experience emerge that I could have never revealed on my filmmakers’ behalf. Our viewers sense this and despite the camera shake and other developing production qualities, the stories - and the way they were made - linger in their minds long after they've left the theater.

All aspects of the production are intriguing. Our films and method equally serve to spread our messages and advance our goals. I’d say our greatest output is an infectious and celebratory community experience.

It is my thinking that the productive ecosystem developed through our experiment could not exist without first investing authorship in each story’s owner. This was the key to the method I began searching for the moment I left Levester on the train that stormy Sunday morning. I wanted to work in an environment that made every step of production an act of empowerment for the storyteller. That’s the environment I work in now.

Bryan Bello is an independent filmmaker based in Washington, DC and a graduate of the MA program at American University. This is the first in a series of posts about his experience using participatory methods in media production. Bryan is the founder and facilitator of the fimmaking cooperative at Street Sense.