by Kafi Kareem
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
The Center for Social Media’s 2009 MAKING YOUR MEDIA MATTER CONFERENCE brought together nearly 250 established and aspiring filmmakers, non-profit communications leaders, funders and students (including participants from Los Angeles, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Germany, Nigeria and Kenya) to learn and share cutting edge practices in social media making.
The theme of this year's conference, "Ethics, Money and Mission," asked panelists and participants to consider how media makers can connect their ethical and aesthetic values with their financial needs. The two-day schedule also provided ample networking time through breaks, receptions and a "Birds of a Feather" lunch, that allowed participants with similar interests to interact during the meal.
Patricia Aufderheide, CSM director, dedicated the conference to Woody Wickham, in loving memory of the public media advocate whom she described as a great mentor and colleague who "was fundamentally optimistic about what independent media could mean."
Dean Larry Kirkman of American University's School of Communication opened the conference with a reference to the Center's newest white paper, Public Media 2.0: Dynamic, Engaged Publics written by Jessica Clark and Aufderheide. As members of an engaged public that Clark and Aufderheide hail as "the people formerly known as the audience," Kirkman invited participants to commence an exploration into the ethics of the "media formerly known as documentary."
George Stoney, an early advocate of democratic media, often cited as the father of public television, delivered a mini-keynote on ethics in social issue film. Speaking on the once common practice of using dramatic reenactments in documentary film, as in his films All My Babies (1953) and The Uprising of '34 (1995), Stoney acknowledged that using this storytelling tool would today be considered immoral. He asked participants to consider, however, that reenactments used to educate and inform, are an important element of the aesthetic and historic roots of the documentary genre. "These [reenactments] have been replaced by exposé designed to titillate and shock rather than inform," Stoney lamented.
Stoney also emphasized that, in his view, ethical documentary filmmaking should be considered a collaborative process. He explained that presenting other people's lives on screen is a tremendous endeavor that ought to be anchored with an agreement between the people in front of the camera and those behind it. "Filmmakers have an objective," he said "Do the people cooperating understand that objective and have the same one in mind? And how will the final product be presented?"
In the making of Uprising of '34, Stoney explained, "We let all the people involved know what we were doing. We had to leave much out because the participants no longer wanted to be involved."
No formal ethical code exists for documentary makers. But Stoney suggests that social media makers adopt the medical field's Hippocratic Oath which says, simply put, "Do no harm."
"Let me suggest that this same oath should be a part of our training for future documentary," he said. He additionally stressed that consequences be considered over objectivity, which he believes to be, in a pure sense, impossible.
Keynote speaker Gordon Quinn, founding member of Kartemquin Films, followed with a keynote on the ethics of cinéma vérité with the aid of clips from The New Americans, Hoop Dreams, In the Family and other Kartemquin films. When Kartemquin was founded in 1966, cinéma vérité was an emerging style that promised to revolutionize social media. Since then Kartemquin has conducted several experiments in reaching people with powerful, moving stories that empower social change.
Quinn explained that people are often hesitant to trust documentarians since they've been burned by journalists. "First thing I say, 'we're not journalists, we're documentary filmmakers and we have a different code of ethics,'" he said.
"We've made some controversial films where people feel that we've crossed the line," he continued, urging media makers to think carefully about the consequences of the choices they make and to let audiences know that much thought went into their decision making process.
Having admittedly made some decisions in his early years of documentary making that he would, in hindsight, reconsider, Quinn advised, "Take responsibility for the decisions that you make because you won't always make the right ones." He outlined five responsibilities, which filmmakers should consider when faced with an ethical dilemma.
The "Money and Mission" panel shared tools and strategies for connecting with funders and defining and preserving a media project's social mission.
Nonprofit organizations are hungry for media, and filmmakers are hungry for funding. This, according to panelist Danny Alpert, executive producer of See3, an organization which creates internet marketing initiatives and visual media for non-profit use, and founder of the Kindling Group, a sponsor and producer of social documentary film. According to Alpert, this circumstance makes for successful partnerships between the nonprofit and social media communities.
"How can we leverage what we see happening in the nonprofit community in the service of storytelling and documentary?" he asked.
The Kindling Group partnered with Active Voice, a team of strategic communication specialists that put media to work for community action and engagement, and the Chicago Health Connection, a nonprofit training agency, to use their 2005 film, A Doula Story as a catalyst for public discussions about teen pregnancy. Around 2500 high schools in the country use A Doula Story as part of the sexual education programs. Chicago Health Connection was also able to use the film as part of a political campaign which secured funding for their community-based childbirth assistance program in the federal budget.
Alpert’s work with Active Voice opened his eyes to how media could help organizations. He offered this money making tip: Exploit your media as much as possible. Re-purpose your media for different audiences to maximize appeal, revenue and funding sources. See3 co-brands websites for filmmakers and organizations to anchor their joint outreach campaigns. Monitoring website traffic also allows them to do marketing and audience research.
Panelist Alyce Myatt, executive director of Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media (GFEM) also recognized the need to connect grant-awarders with grant-seeking media projects. "We’re at a time to think more globally about our work and think who we can partner with the same interests but different skill sets," she said.
GFEM is a membership organization for private donors and institutional funders. Their website provides a comprehensive database of media projects-in-progress which funders can use to find projects to advance their work or special interests. "There are maybe 10 media funders in the world. But there are funders who work with the democratic process, civil rights engagement etc.," Myatt pointed out.
Social media makers (with video, radio, web and other electronic media projects) can upload trailers and other content to the database. Myatt encouraged grant-seekers to attach an image to their project and to choose accurate tags from the database’s wide range of topic areas including, Peace and Conflict, Health, Environment, Human Development and Arts and Culture. Projects are not limited by subject, location or scope, but makers must already have at least one foundation grant or support from at least one government funder (local, state, or federal) in order to submit their projects to the GFEM database. Grant-seekers must also provide budget information, key personnel, the status of the project and an outreach and engagement plan.
"Money is tight," Myatt warned. "Create something to make [funder’s] goals easier to reach."
Panelist Sheila Leddy, executive director of the Fledgling Fund, expressed an eagerness to take advantage of the GFEM media database. Disbursing more than $1.5 million in funding annually, the Fledgling Fund supports media for social impact. Leddy explained that they interested in strong stories and in how filmmakers plan to use these stories to improve the lives of individuals and communities, change policy and raise awareness. The Fund does not support the production stage of media projects, however. Instead they focus almost exclusively on post-production and outreach.
The Fledgling Fund offers some degree of counseling to help social media makers develop a strategic outreach plan, but Leddy advises that makers think carefully and thoroughly about strategic applications for their projects and who they want their media to reach prior to seeking funds. "Someone will say outreach is festivals and screening, and we say, ‘who’s going to be at the screenings? Festivals for what audience?" she said. "At least have a clear idea about why you want to make the film and what effect you’d like it to have."
The Fledgling Fund is also developing new ways to successfully measure the social impact of media projects, as funders need to be able to point to outcomes. Aside from considering more traditional measurements such as awards, broadcasts and critical reviews, they also consider public awareness of the project. They try to gauge whether the general public is learning about the project, for example, by considering if it was mentioned in non-entertainment news. Ghosts of Abu Grahib, made with the support of the Fledgling Fund, brought together a host of torture organizations, and this was another measure of impact. But Leddy acknowledged that social media will not create drastic change overnight.
"We’re hoping that some of these films will lay the foundation" she said. The evolution of social film and other social media has seen a departure from conventional film structure, which makes it more difficult to find co-producers in television. In panelist Julie Goldman’s view, this creates a challenge for her company Cactus Three Films, which is devoted to the creation and nurturing of distinctive, high-end filmmaking as well as television productions and series. Goldman explained Cactus Three strategizes and connects film projects to unorthodox production partners. They take films from idea to distribution and beyond, finding financial partners for, in Goldman’s words, "any and everything." Goldman shared her knowledge of commercial and independent niches, explaining that most filmmakers can find a way to make their project appeal to an organization with the means to provide funding. When asked if there is ever a limit to how much social media makers should bend to appease their funder, Goldman responded teasingly, "You have to have a conscience, I guess."
Moderator Wendy Levy, director of Creative Programming of the Bay Area Video Coalition, introduced the panel discussion on ethical audience engagement and outreach. "Once you reach your audience," Levy said "the next question is: ‘How does the audience reach back in?’"
SnagFilms.com provides one way for audiences and filmmakers to connect – for free. Panelist Andrew Mer explained that AOL True Stories, a broadband channel for documentaries, was the precursor for the SnagFilms website, which allows audiences to watch full-length documentary films in a free virtual theater, and is a platform that allows members embed or "snag" the films to any site on the web.
This online distribution outlet aims to expand the potential for filmmakers to get their work seen and has a solid business model, which pays rights holders an equal share of advertising earned from streaming their film. Media rights holders can earn additional revenue if they provide links for audience members to buy DVDs or pay to download to the film.
Internet audiences can access films on demand and can also blog with filmmakers. Audience feedback allows filmmakers to collect anecdotal testimony, and the site can also provide other metrics.
SnagFilms additionally helps social films make an impact by providing links to charities related to each film (many of them selected by the filmmaker) so that viewers can get involved and support the film’s mission.
Panelists Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar, makers of Made in L.A., identified their film’s core audience in the very early stages of filming, and partnered with them from development to distribution. Carracedo originally set out to create a short film for immigrant labor organizers but ended up making a feature length documentary. She honored her commitment to her first "audience" by completing five or six short videos for the labor organizers, some of which were trailers for Made in L.A.
With the support of the local activist community and individual sponsors, Carracedo and Bahar hosted house parties, which helped them to further expand and identify their core audience from whom they also garnered financial and emotional support. "We knew that the core audience already loved it and wanted us to make the film," explained Carracedo.
In this way, outreach for Made in L.A. started way before the film’s 2007 release. "Filmmakers may feel that they are alone but there are thousands of people working on your issue who you need to talk to," Carracedo said. "Acknowledge your film as a node in a movement."
With the help of Active Voice, Made in L.A. partnered with many community organizations which helped promote the film’s broadcast and hosted screenings. Bahar explained that, in an effort to make screenings free for certain organizations, he outlined a double bottom line distribution strategy that aimed to generate revenue and have a clear transparent exchange with outreach partners.
The makers explained that, more than a year after the film’s release, Made in L.A.’s outreach campaign is still vibrant. Part one of the two-fold campaign is anchored by the film’s website, which provides manuals for hosting screenings. Made in L.A. provides two different screening kits, which include posters guidelines and extra DVDs that organization can sell. The smaller "community screening kit" includes enough DVDs to pay for itself, while the larger "fundraising screening kit" includes enough DVDs to pay for the hit and raise additional revenue.
Part two of the Made in L.A. outreach campaign involved re-purposing the film to create online modules, making short videos available in online forums such as blogs.
"More media online will allow people to reach in and get involved," Levy pointed out.
Panelist Scott Kirsner, author of CinemaTech, a media technology blog, shared several online tools for connecting audiences to filmmakers and filmmakers to audiences. These also serve to identify audiences and begin pre-production outreach:
Maia L. Ermita, panelist and director of Festival and Outreach at Arts Engine/Media That Matters Film Festival, reminded participants that face to face communication is also essential for making an impact with social media. Ermita explained that Arts Engine tries not to limit projects to online distribution strategies. They provide open (copy as you will) DVDs to encourage media users to interact with each other and share content. Additionally, the festival site is designed with a small window so that it can operate on dial up. Their aim is to reach audiences, period. "We try to limit any boundaries to watching the films everywhere," Ermita said.
Ermita screened part of a 6-minute short, A Loud Color to entice participants to visit the film festival website. She also shared an outreach model which placed the Media That Matters Film Festival as a "little engine that gets shorts out in the world" through toolkits and discussion guides for use at screenings, online streaming and DVD distribution.
Sister organization MediaRights.org publishes Take Action Packs, all-in-one packages of new short films with background information, resources, tips and activities on each of the films covered in the Media That Matters Film Festival.
Ermita also highlighted the need for media makers to be aware of the ongoing battle to maintain net neutrality –free and open Internet – in the face of threats from the nation's largest telephone and cable companies who want to be Internet gatekeepers, deciding which Web sites go fast or slow and which won't load at all, and taxing content providers to guarantee speedy delivery of their data.
The final panel of the conference asked, "What happens when you make a beautiful film about a dark subject?" Panelists engaged the audience in a discussion of how to marry the ethics of media making with the aesthetic choices required to make powerful art. On the panel were Sean Fine, filmmaker of War Dance, Cara Mertes, Director of the Sundance Documentary Film Program and Thomas Allen Harris, Director of Chimpanzee Productions.
Moderator Sky Sitney, Programming Director of SILVERDOCS, asked panelists to consider whether documentary makers ought to subscribe to an artistic or journalistic code of ethics.
Fine’s War Dance, which he made with his wife, Andrea Nix Fine, was criticized for being too cinematically beautiful and stylistically distinct—characteristics which would be met with unmetered praise had War Dance not been a documentary about children living in the war zone of Northern Uganda. New York Daily News called the film "Overly polished, but deeply affecting," and the Christian Science Monitor reported, "The filmmaking style is annoyingly slick."
"People say, ‘they made it look glossy,’ but they've never been there," said Fine, who believes that he captured Northern Uganda in a way that reflects the actual beauty of its landscapes and people.
Fine started his film career National Geographic, where he developed a reverence for visual story telling. Sean, a cinematographer, says the he was to push the limits in terms of what is the accepted aesthetic standard for documentary film. War Dance tells a story about child soldiers, a topic that has been covered extensively in the media. But the makers aimed to get to know the children in film, not as icons of the war, but as children. They asked the children to speak directly to the camera in an attempt to make them speak directly to the audience. This decision was also met with criticism by those who considered the film's interviews too staged.
The criticism sparks a debate about aesthetic choices in social media in general. There exists a false perception that beauty is used to trick or deceive audiences. Conversely, a cinéma vérité style of media is considered more raw and truthful even when used to relate completely fictional content.
"Beauty makes it art," said Chimpanzee Productions director, Thomas Allen Harris "and there's a common belief that certain topics should not be treated artistically on film."
"Truth is beauty and beauty is truth, and that's all we need to know on this earth," said Sundance's Cara Mertes, paraphrasing John Keats. Mertes argued that the question of ethics and aesthetics in documentary film asks us to evaluate why we tell stories the way we do. Stunning visuals can evoke compassion and provide an international language, Mertes elaborated, using a clip from Iraq in Fragments, winner of multiple Sundance documentary awards, to illustrate her point.
Harris takes a look at the power of the image and representation in Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photography and the Emergence of a People.
"W.E.B. Dubois advocated that we take up the lens to be empowered," Harris said.
The 2009 Making Your Media Matter conference ended with a reception on Friday evening, full of excited participants teeming with ideas and inspiration. Discussions brought to light resounding interest in various types of social media, but remained quite film-centric. Web forums, for example, were mostly discussed as a means of supporting and promoting traditional documentary films and videos, rather than as an independent medium for social issue content.
The question of identifying a uniform "code of ethics" is an over-arching topic of concern for makers of media that matters, at every stage of a project. Documentary makers in particular walk the bridle line between journalistic and artistic conventions, and films dealing with human "subjects" or characters attract the most scrutiny. Some suggest that the documentarians should go through institutional review boards (IRBs) that review and regulate research involving human subjects. However, many resist this idea.
Panelists and key-note speakers stressed the importance of respecting all of the collaborators in a media project from the characters whose lives are presented in the media, to the funders, to the members of the public who support the media. Finding balance between these ethical responsibilities and the media maker's loyalty to his/her craft is an ongoing struggle.
But who owns the media in the end? To whom does the story really belong? To the characters? The funders? The filmmakers? Gordon Quinn gave equal distribution of the revenue earned from Hoop Dreams to the film's main characters; Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar funded and distributed Made in L.A. with the support of countless community members who they kept informed of the film's progress and from whom they solicited feedback; and The Kindling Group's A Doula Story was only successful because it worked in cooperation with a local nonprofit agency. All of these anecdotes indicate that social media is defined by its impact on and engagement with publics. As such, it belongs to all of those who contribute to its making and use as a social tool. The most ethical media makers are those that recognize this fact.