by Kafi Kareem
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
On May 12, the Center for Social Media’s (CSM) 2010 MAKING YOUR MEDIA MATTER CONFERENCE (MYMM) welcomed registrants from across the country to participate in a full day of panels, discussions and networking opportunities. Participants included media industry representatives, academics, funders, independent filmmakers, and students. The event was held at American University’s Katzen Arts Center in Washington, D.C.
This year’s theme, “Real Stories, Real Impact,” asked panelists and participants to explore the strategies before, during and after production that generate real social action. The conference included speaker presentations and panels, in between which attendees participated in group discussions and networking breaks. Participants also benefited from a “shout out” opportunity where they could take to the mic to share each other’s projects or organizations with the entire conference community.
CSM director, Patricia Aufderheide, invited MYMM 2010 participants to join her in celebrating each other – an immensely talented community of professionals and learners. She also announced changes in the Center for Social Media staff including the arrival of new associate director, Angelica Das.
Alison Hanold, outgoing associate director of CSM, encouraged participants to join the MYMM social network, a growing online community for sharing practices to make media that matters. She also took a moment to thank the conference’s partners, including presenting partner, Media That Matters in New York.
In a brief introduction, New York University (NYU) Professor, and public access cable television pioneer, George Stoney, introduced MYMM as his “favorite festival.” He recalled an incident when Geraldo Rivera visited NYU and boasted of quotes he captured by manipulating his interview subjects. Stoney reminded MYMM participants of the importance of examining the ethics of making media.
“I constantly keep at the back of my mind that we are playing around with people’s lives,” he explained. “We [media makers] have a tremendous responsibility, and I’d like to thank Professor Aufderheide and her staff for constantly reminding us of that.”
Keynoters Pamela Yates (director) and Paco de Onís (producer) of Skylight Pictures have been creating social issue films for over 25 years. Their most recent film, The Reckoning, follows International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutors for three years, across four continents and interviews subjects in six languages. Skylight additionally made over a dozen short films related to the ICC for educational and advocacy purposes.They described Skylight Pictures as a core group of three people, including editor Peter Kinoy, plus an outreach team called Skylight for Social Media. Yates explained that the pair intended to share more than just their success stories in the realm of social filmmaking with conference participants. “We’re also going to tell you today about ideas that failed and what we learned from them,” she said.
Yates explained that The Reckoning came about because they thought it would be exciting to follow the first years of the establishment of the International Criminal Court – an international prosecuting body formed in the late 20th century in response to repeated mass atrocities around the world. She and de Onís shared a clip of the documentary, which illustrated tensions between international bodies that support and oppose the ICC. She stressed that the film’s success was made possible though connections made within the human rights community:
I can't tell you how many filmmakers have come to me saying, ‘I want to do outreach but I'm only one person.’ You can’t do it as one person. You have to work with other people to create the materials. You have to work with people in the field.”
The support from various communities is invaluable, she explained, but filmmakers also bring advocacy tools to these communities in the form of the finished film.
Skylight Pictures built relationships with several organizations including Human Rights Watch, Transitional Justice, The American Society of International Law, Enough, Coalitions for the International Criminal Court, Amnesty International and Facing History and Ourselves. These organizations became outreach partners. Yates explained that such partners have no editorial control and know this fact at the inception of their relationship with the filmmakers. “But they have invaluable knowledge of the networks and communities on the ground that help the film get made and expand the impact of the film in a big way,” she said – describing community partners as “key elements in creating a huge social network.”
When to give it away
Next, de Onís introduced a clip from their 2005 feature length release, State of Fear, the tagline for which reads: “A country wages war against terrorism and loses its democracy.” The film is based on the findings of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The filmmakers tried to enable access to everyone who wants to use the film despite monetary limitations. They arranged barters or other systems of exchange in order to increase access, sometimes even giving copies away for free. De Onís explained that Skylight Pictures stopped giving up distribution rights to State of Fear because as filmmaker-activists they wanted more control over who could access the film.
De Onís explained that copies of State of Fear were in high demand in Peru. The filmmakers decided to allow anyone who provided a blank DVD to receive a free copy of the film from local non-profits. De Onís told Peruvians, “This is your film. There’s no copyright issues.” Over 600 people showed up to get a DVD copy of the film from a local nonprofit. According the filmmakers, each of those persons represented a community far away. “This is an example of low tech outreach that’s very effective,” De Onís said.
As a result, activist Kanak Dixit of Nepal used his copy of State of Fear for pro-democracy workshops. Dixit explained to de Onís that Nepalis see the Peruvian experience as a mirror of the injustices in their own country. In fact, Dixit made a Nepali version of State of Fear without paying any fees to Skylight Pictures.
Although the makers distributed several copies without charge, they noted that State of Fear was their best selling DVD. Giving free copies to those that couldn’t afford the film was an excellent form of promotion; those who could afford, did buy the film, including several law schools. They credited their educational distributor, New Day Films, recommending that other social filmmakers consider working New Day.
Breaking Language Barriers
It was during the making and distribution of State of Fear that Yates and De Onís they discovered that having multi-language versions of the film was critical to its international impact and accessibility.
The team went to the Ford Foundation, who provided the majority of funding for the film. In 2008, with additional funding in hand, they put together a Quechua translation team to add voiceovers in the Quechua language to the entire documentary. In doing so they created the first ever Quechua-language documentary. “For the Quechua people it was really an event,” explained de Onís. “One of our goals is to reach underserved audiences . . . this [the Quechua version] is our favorite version of State of Fear.”
Lessons and Victories
As promised, Yates and De Onís shared some of the lessons they learned from mistakes made during their film projects. They explained that they tried to create an online social network for State of Fear. They used open source tools and thought it would be a simple task. However, they discovered that they grossly underestimated how much time and effort maintaining such a network would take. They needed to hire someone else to maintain the network since it was too much for the core members of Skylight Pictures to do on their own given the other production responsibilities.
Speaking of victories in social filmmaking, Yates commented that, unfortunately, human rights victories are few and far between. Because activists so rarely achieve big victories, Yates offered this advice: “You have to celebrate them [human rights victories] . . . and use them to recharge your batteries.” Skylight Pictures gained one such victory when State of Fear was successfully used as part of a campaign to persuade the Chilean government to hold the former President of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, when he landed in Chile. Fujimori was wanted in Peru for human rights abuses during his administration and was subsequently tried and convicted.
Tools and Tips
Yates made special mention of the local assistants who make Skylight's international location shoots possible. “What some people call fixers, we call line producers,” she explained. She shared photos of local outreach partners in Columbia and Africa that worked with them on The Reckoning.
De Onís then introduced some of the technological tools that contributed to the success of The Reckoning, which is part of a larger campaign to promote global awareness of the ICC. IJCentral is at the core of their awareness campaign. One of the tools used on the site uses a Google Map app to create IJMap, which highlights the locations of individuals and groups worldwide who are taking action that relates to the ICC. The map uses a filter to pick up any tweet that mentions the ICC and international justice, capitalizing on the growing popularity of mobile smart phones. “When people appear on the map we let them know and they become regulars,” De Onís said.
In this way, IJCentral gathers a community around the issue of international justice. IJCentral also aggregates blogs. The filmmakers explained that IJCentral is not about their films, but about the issues in the film, whereas Skylight Pictures website is reserved for highlighting their films.
Along with IJ Central, De Onís and Yates’ team created a Ning social network site called IJCentral Action Network. Ning is an online platform that allows users to create their own social network, much like Facebook or MySpace. But Ning users can create their network around special interests, with a unique visual design, customized features and member data. “Part of the goal is to build a community around the idea that International Justice is an idea that needs to be supported,” said De Onís.
De Onís and Yates also championed Frontline SMS, open source software, developed for humanitarian work. It can be downloaded to mobile phones and laptops to allow users to send and receive text message with groups of people. “You can buy a local cell phone with a local number,” explained De Onís. International outreach partners can have local screenings, and, through Frontline SMS, simultaneously interact with a law class in the United States.
The filmmakers also encouraged fellow activist-filmmakers to carefully consider whether or not to opt for a theater release. They explained that Skylight can't qualify for Oscar consideration because they don't show their films in theaters. “This can be an extra cost for documentary filmmakers who have to spend money on renting theaters and making prints instead of putting money into their projects,” Yates said.
In terms of distribution, De Onís and Yates advised that filmmakers not confine themselves to restrictive distribution deals. Though they were contractually obligated to air their film online on PBS for 30-days, the makers of The Reckoning left the film on the PBS video portal for 6 months, removing the international block to allow global access. However, they eventually hosted the video on Vimeo, a decision which allowed them to gather more viewer information (such as emails) from those who watch and embed their videos. “With PBS, 50,000 people watch the film but are unknown to the filmmakers,” noted De Onís.
The filmmakers directed participants to handouts available at the conference venue, which shared details of their outreach campaign. The campaign included a satellite media tour (funded by the Righteous Persons Foundation), POV community screening kits, community screenings and Skype Q&As with various speakers.
Currently, Skylight pictures is making thousands of screening kits for civil society groups in Africa who are concerned with the history of the ICC in Africa and the ongoing peace and justice issue. The filmmakers will use these kits to educate people locally about the ICC – a big subject of debate all over the continent. “This is another example of low tech outreach that is very effective.” said De Onís.
Finally, before hosting questions from eager participants, the pair revealed that State of Fear and the Reckoning are part of a four-part trilogy with four themes: Truth, Justice, Legacy and Memory. They are currently working on the third film in the series, Granito, which deals with the theme of legacy and reexamines Yates' filmic documentation of the Guatemalan genocide in the 1980’s.
Throughout the day, social media makers provided live demos and interacted with participants during networking breaks. Demos included the following:
Digital Democracy showed clips from its Handheld Human Rights project, which uses mobile phones to make human rights data “accessible and actionable.” The project is currently deployed in Thailand where associated groups use mobile phones to share human rights information internally and with the outside world.
Internews demonstrated how the organization empowers local media worldwide, highlighting the way in which its support enabled humanitarian channels to broadcast critical emergency news to Haitians in the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake.
Women in Film and Video, Washington, D.C., showed 30-second PSAs, written, directed and edited by local high school students who participated in their Image Makers Program – a community outreach program designed to teach youth about film and video production.
The Association of Independents in Radio's Maker's Quest 2.0 (MQ2) – a grant program enabling producers to experiment with new strategies in cross platform media – shared some of its talented producers’ latest cross-platform audio projects.
Nancy Schwartzman, maker of “The Line,” talked with participants about the tactics used to make her film and showed clips of the documentary, which explores themes of sex and consent.
During the lunch break, participants joined roundtable discussions on ethics in media making. Each table assessed one of three hypothetical ethical dilemmas to determine the most suitable response. The three hypothetical situations at the core of each roundtable discussion were based on real-world ethical conflicts that documentary makers often encounter:
On returning from lunch, Patricia Aufderheide led a discussion which began with reports from the various roundtables. She explained that the 2009 MYMM conference sparked a discussion on ethics that has been continued in the MYMM community. Based on this discussion, CSM published a study in September 2009, outlining perceived ethical challenges that documentary directors and producer-directors in the United States commonly cite: Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in their Work.
The study found three common values that guide ethical decision making in documentary film practice: Do no harm (to vulnerable subjects); Be honest (not necessarily accurate); Be responsible (to the project, project partners, contracts, company vision, funder, etc.). Inevitably, these three values came into conflict with each other, and when that happened, documentary filmmakers had no shared understandings to rely on, to resolve them. They typically made themselves victims, by saying some version of “the funder (or film) made me do it.” By mapping these common challenges, the study helps filmmakers articulate them.
The documentary community, according to Aufderheide, needs to have more open conversations about the problems of ethics in filmmaking. She commended Women in Film and Video, Washington, D.C. for hosting roundtable meetings where industry players can discuss these themes in closed quarters. Aufderheide also called for developing a code of best practices for ethics in documentary filmmaking.
In the United Kingdom, the BBC has made a significant contribution to fostering meaningful discussions on ethics through Safeguarding Trust, a site for independent production companies and freelancers, which trains producers to make ethical editorial decisions according to BBC standards.
Aufderheide led conference participants in an exercise to test producers' responses to ethical challenges that might arise in the creation of BBC programming. Aufderheide presented multiple choice questions from BBC's Safeguarding Trust training site. Each conference participant received a Tuning Technologies radio frequency response card, which allowed participant responses to be transmitted to the presenter. The tabulated audience responses were projected and compared to BBC's recommendations.
Alyce Myatt, Executive Director of Grantmakers in Film + Electronic Media led the panelist presentations on New Tools and Research. She began by commending keynoters Pamela Yates and Paco De Onís for stressing the importance of establishing outreach partners from the start. This is important because people at her organization “want tools that put a face on their issue; that will translate data to humanity,” she said. She invited participants to got to fundfilm.org to learn more about her organization, which is currently accepting submissions for its 44th Annual Film and Video Festival.
According to Myatt, monumental wealth has been generated in the US in the last two decades. “We have living donors,” she said. “They come to the table very media savvy, business savvy and hands on. It's a little bit harder than when there were a few large [grant providing] institutions.”
Myatt explained that nowadays producers may have to seek a number of smaller grants from more funders as opposed to receiving one lump sum from a bigger grant making organization. Each funder, Myatt explained, is engaged in social issues “but very particular social issues.” Identifying funders interested in the issues explored in your work as a filmmaker is therefore key.
“Many funders are not knowledgeable about social media,” continued Myatt, explaining to participants that they may have to encourage funders to use strategies that suite their target audience. “Encourage knowledge of multiple platforms.” She urged filmmakers to attend the South by South West Film Festival and Interactive Conference to network and learn. She also urged them to visit and contribute to the Grantmakers in Film + Electronic Media Media Database.
Jessica Clark, Director of the the Future of Public Media Project at CSM, followed with tools for measuring impact. Clarke introduced the New Models for Impact Assesment. She outlined the research process for the assessment report, summarizing its key findings. "Media makers," Clarke said, "must learn to work with users who are connected to multiple networks and can distribute, amplify, and serve as ambassadors for the media producer’s content."
Making networks or forming publics is a new goal of media makers, Clark said. Media projects are becoming collaborative efforts that involve individuals, self organized networks and even institutional networks. Clark cited an example of a network of institutions (including PBS and NPR) that came together as part of the Economy Collaboration funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to support collaborative public media content on the economic crisis. “Broadband changes the way you interface with audiences,” explained Clark.
Assessing impact is key to making sure that media makers are serving their mission, and it is also essential for strategic planning, support from funders and engaging users. Clark explained that, although people measure impact in a number of ways – engagement, influence, reach, inclusions, relevance – CSM is most concerned with measuring impact through the formation of publics around media projects. She pointed to the need for identifying tools such as social media buzz trackers and model formats for impact reporting.The full transcript of Clarke's presentation is available here.
Shaady Salehi of Active Voice rounded off the Tools and Research panel with a presentation on working with nonprofits. Salehi designs and implements film campaigns in addition to acting as a consultant. “This is a really exciting time for social issue film,” Salehi announced. She presented Active Voice's research, which identifies funders and filmmakers' respective wants when they enter a media project partnership. “Filmmakers and funders come from different worlds,” she said “sometimes issues come out too late in the process.” Active Voice developed a strategy that they call the Prenups to address what filmmakers and funders should talk about “before tying the knot.”
The third panel of the day focused on ways of “Developing Synergies to Build Your Conversation” or expanding outreach as a social filmmaker. Lisa Smithline, producer and marketing strategist at Cultural Front Productions, moderated the panel discussion. She began by asking participants how many of them were currently working on films. She followed with another question, “How many of you have thought about your outreach and distribution plan?” She explained that this part of a project deserves consideration from its conception.
Patrice O'Neill, producer of Not in Our Town, a project about hate crime resistance, addressed intolerance and building community. “We make films and create media that we think can encourage dialogue and action in communities,” explained O'Neill, pointing out that collaboration is essential to such a strategy. The practice, she said, is to take what's on the screen and put it into larger application in real life. “Our perspective is about what people are trying to do about the issue – collaboratively.”
O'Neill directed participants to niot.org, which has a map on the home page highlighting geographic locations where people are taking action against hate crimes. She suggested that the effect of sharing information in this way is that people can build on the actions of others and recreate the movement in their own communities. The site includes 35 original films that people can use anywhere. People can also access the site's features from other platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. She ended her presentation with an invitation to conference participants to join Not in Our Town in “painting a better version of ourselves, our towns and our countries.”
Meg McLagan, director of Lioness followed with clips and strategies from her film campaign, which was created to draw attention to issues faced by women on the ground in military expeditions. American service women in Iraq and Afghanistan involved in combat often faced contenders who didn't believe the reality of what their units were being asked to do on the ground. Her film campaign sparked a discussion around policy at a time when the official policy was that women didn't participate in combat. However, the lines that defined “combat” were blurred.
“We really went in there with a sense of trying to understand the logic of their world and the choices they had made.” The filmmakers structured their audience in a way that invited multiple audiences into the story. “We have been able to reach our core audience of military, their family VA [Veteran Affairs] health providers, and we also reached gender equality issue organizations,” McLagan said.
For their partners, working face-to-face was very important, since, accourding to McLagan, it was important to show that as filmmakers they were genuinely invested in telling the stories of service women. They made connections this way and were invited to attend conferences. One invitation led to another. Their outreach partners eventually became their distribution partners. “VA bought a number of copies,” Maclagan said, and “through these partnerships we've actually been able to stay afloat.”
MacLagan left participants with these takeaways:
The third presenter of the Strategic from the Start panel, Debra Koffler, founder and executive director of Conscious Youth Media Crew (CYMC), San Francisco, informed participants that all of her projects begin with community partners. “Our starting point is the community, starting with young people” she said. “One of CSN's main goals is to really encourage dialogue about the issues that we cover.” CYMC mostly produces documentaries but one of their latest projects is a feature film called A Choice of Weapons, which explores themes of gentrification, eviction, civic engagement, urban landscapes and intergenerational communication in Bayview, California – a lower income community affected by hazardous environmental conditions. Koffler shared the trailer of the film, which she says is completely “youth produced” by a team between the ages of 17 and 22.
The production team aimed to keep the youth voice in the film. “Writing the story was where the youth engagement began,” said Koffler. The team did research and found information about the gentrification and eviction crisis in the area, bringing their findings into the writer's room. “We wrote the script based on the lives of the youth who lived around or in the neighborhood,” Koffler explained.
A Choice of Weapons' community partners included local activist Espanola Jackson and Minister Christopher Muhammad of the Nation of Islam School and Greenaction. “These issues [explored in the film] resonate in real life and this strengthened our community connections,” said Koffler. “Empathy was key to the project's success.”
Their team attended hearings and other events to foster awareness of the issues in the local community. Once the filmmakers proved their commitment to the project, community members were more responsive. Koffler referred to the community as the “gatekeeper to neighborhood storytelling.”
The film was screened on university campuses, high schools and the UK International Youth Film Festival, but the producers now face challenges of distribution, marketing and reaching a larger audience.
Moderator Lisa Smithline urged participants to connect with people who can find uses for their films and called film a “gateway drug” because it introduces the issue and evokes excitement.
How are narrative films making a difference? The final panel of the day sought to answer this question. Moderator Claudia Myers, screenwriter, director and assistant professor at American University told participants that the panelists would examine the differences and similarities between documentary and fictional social issue films.
Lisa Cortes, president of Cortes Films, served as senior vice president of Lee Daniels Entertainment and executive-produced Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, a film about an overweight teen mother from an abusive home who finds an opportunity for alternative education after the public school system fails her. Cortes began by showing the Precious trailer. “As an independent filmmaker,” Cortes said, “I'm in the same boat as documentarians. I'm continually looking for stories that broaden [perspectives].”
Cortes said she looks for stories that provide and alternative to the mainstream movie menu. “I'd like to go through the front door, but I often can't find the key,” she continued. “I'm looking for funding and community just like documentarians.”
Cortes read Push in 1996, and she saw the young women in her community mirrored on the pages of the novel. It wasn't until 2005 that she and Lee Daniels were able to option the project. “The story was distinctive so we wanted to tell the story. There were characters that I was not used to seeing in any format.”
The film, in Cortes' mind, fit her mission of broadening representation and voices in film. “I've always been attracted to stories that look at redemption from the most unlikely sources . . . This film stimulated dialogue whether you liked it or not. People from different countries and walks of life identified with the story.”
Cortes also talked about the fact that the film sparked conversations about what communities can do to create change. She had talked to a 60-year-old Caucasian mid-western woman who said to her of Precious, “This is my story.” She explained that she had similar conversations with girls and women around the country and internationally.
Finding the right cast for the project was important to Cortes who said that she worked hard to resist Hollywood perceptions of who should be cast in the leading role. “When you go to Hollywood and tell them what you're looking for, they say, 'What about Raven-Symoné?'” she said. The filmmakers were very close to shooting when they finally found Gabourey Sidibe, the first-time actress who played the leading role.
John Schreiber, Executive Vice President of Social Action and Advocacy at Participant Media, shared his company's mission: to produce films that are entertaining, that talk about issues in a meaningful way and that are used in social action campaigns as a means of change, advocacy and finding solutions – “if we're lucky,” he added.
“Documentary makers come to us with a sense of urgency. The challenge is that that doc audiences are exponentially smaller than they are in fiction,” said Schreiber.
Rounding off the fiction panel was Emily Meyers, executive director of Meaningful Media, a company that aims to improve the visibility of social media film. She said that social issue film is an often-denigrated genre, considered “professional suicide,” “foolish” and “impractical” by business minded detractors. Meaningful Media aims to systematically understand what makes social issue films successes or failures.
Meyers's company is working towards launching Meaningful Mediapedia, a new web resource that curates pro social media according to 10 media types and social issue types. As part of this project, Meyers' team tracks data points, extracting valuable quantitative data. Their biggest finding is that, on average, social issue films perform above the rest at the box office. Their data found that the top performing social issue themes were, in order of ranking:Environmental; educational; economic. (Economic included anything to do with poverty.)
In discussion, Schreiber noted that in a hit-driven industry, average returns on box-office were not significant indicators to many decision-makers. “For every 12 shows, one will be a hit,” he said.
The panelists agreed that narrative film created different opportunities than documentary, partly because it attracts larger audiences. Emily Meyers added that “Fiction allows you to tap into people's most innermost hopes and fears.”