By Rosemari Ochoa and Maria R. M. Howell
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Gordon Quinn, co-founder of Kartemquin Films, was honored at Media That Matters for 45 years of filmmaking history. Kartemquin is an incubator and shelter for countless independent films and projects that started as a feisty collective of individuals and became a consortium of highly talented producers.
Quinn provided opening remarks, addressing how filmmakers increasingly have to weigh the ethics and responsibilities to subjects and audiences. “We are asking people to share a great deal with us […] and to trust what we will do with what we share.” The discussions at MTM addressed both the sharing of stories and the subsequent choices made by the storytellers.
Keynote speaker Katy Chevigny, Senior Director of Arts Engine and Producer of Pushing the Elephant provided insights from a robust career of documentary filmmaking. Chevigny emphasized the importance of understanding a story’s strength as well as the platform that best conveys the message. “Maybe it’s a radio piece, an op-ed, a blog piece, or maybe it’s none of those things. Maybe it’s just a story you are going to tell to explain why you started your advocacy organization.”
Chevigny shared her perspective on the links between the stories storytellers decide to tell and how storytellers work with others to tell them. She confronted the social fascination with the myth of a rugged, individualistic filmmaker that is mirroring the heroic film narrative. Although teamwork is at the core of how films are made, it's up to the filmmakers to remind the public that creativity is a collective project.
Using the examples of films Pushing the Elephant and Hoop Dreams, Chevigny concluded that the power of the group can be fundamental in creating change, “in real life, moxy and grit doesn’t always triumph.” Chevigny urged audience members to contemplate and honor the complexities of context and collaboration, both in the process of storytelling and within the story itself.
The Center for Social Media’s Research Director Jessica Clark kicked off day two of the conference with a mini-module on impact assessment. Clark discussed how “design thinking” offers a framework for media makers to think about research and evaluation to increase the impact of their projects. See the Center for Social Media blog for additional resources and the full presentation.
Moderated by Pat Aufderheide, Director, Center for Social Media
Jacqueline Olive, director and multimedia producer of Always in Season, is looking at the history of American lynching. By combining the documentary with an island in Second Life, an art exhibit and interactive website, Olive has established a true transmedia project that addresses a shameful period of American history, one that still has an impact on the descendents of the lynching victims.
Through Second Life, participants witness a historical lynching and are able to act and change the resulting events. Olive hopes the experience will have an impact on how participants respond when faced with similar situations in real life.
She developed her film and the Second Life experience simultaneously, which allowed the partnerships to inform one another. In working with the Second Life technology crew she discovered, “they’re not just tech guys […] they are translating your story technologically. It’s really important that they are engaged.”
For the past five and a half years Roland Legiardi-Laura has been working to empower youths in the Bronx through literacy and poetry. His work resulted in the Power Poetry project and the documentary, To Be Heard.
Through the project, Legiardi-Laura realized his students were using cell phones to compose, share, and store poetry. He responded by partnering with Dosomething.org to develop an application, Poemisodes, where smart phones allow users to record audio and video, overlay text, and edit poetry. For Legiardi-Laura, the world’s first online, mobile community for youth and the creation of poetry can act as a means of personal transformation that incites political and social transformation.
In creating the application, Legiardi-Laura said the top 25 percent of your community is genearally creators so you want to give them something creative, innovative and fun to make that happen. Through this application he seeks to create the world’s first online, mobile community for youth to share poetry and act as a means of personal, political, and social transformation.
Luisa Dantas is also working on a multiplatform project, Land of Opportunity, about the reconstruction process of the areas damaged by Hurricane Katrina, which also reflects the development issues facing America’s urban areas at large. In addition to a documentary film, she is creating shorter clips for online and offline use based on the needs of project partners.
The online content will feature short five to ten minute pieces with a user-friendly interface where users can access additional content. According to Dantas, the interactivity of the website and ability to access content with specific user interest is crucial because it appeals to the public including educators who are looking to integrate content into their curricula.
All three filmmakers contributed to the message that documentary filmmakers don’t always arrive equipped with all the necessary tools or skills, and certainly not all the money.
Insight: Six Ways to Generate Revenue Streams
By Roland Legiardi-Laura
- Find sponsors – They can be organizations and individuals with a stake in the project and that will benefit from association with it.
- Micro-payments – Currently, this is a very young technology, but growing in potential.
- Convene – Conduct workshops, trainings and conferences about the film’s topic.
- Think ahead – Make the project sustainable and replicable.
- Go commercial – Consider allowing banners and text ads.
- Subscriptions – Use a mix of free apps and premium apps for a minimal charge.
Dantas elaborated, “If you have an idea and you want to extend the reach of your story beyond the reach of your piece, you need to start to suss out who has the skills set of what you want to do, because there is a huge interest in tech developers in working with more traditional storytellers.”
Overall the panelists agreed that ideas, imagination and passion will sustain filmmakers and storytellers in the future – with or without funding and transmedia platforms.
American University Professor and director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking Chris Palmer discussed ethical dilemmas in wildlife filmmaking based on his book, Shooting in the Wild. Branding, ratings, revenue and convenience can often lead to decisions that are ethically compromising for the sake of engaging, high impact, and high octane wildlife footage.
In order to assess the ethics in your wildlife film, P almer suggests answering three questions:
- Are audiences deceived or mislead?
- Are animals harassed, disturbed or killed for purposes of the film?
- Does the situation have an impact on conservation? (negative or positive)
Palmer concluded that filmmakers must “lean their weight” in the ethical direction. “You can’t be too unrelenting about it or you’re not going to be hired. You have to consistently ask questions.”
Moderated by Jennifer MacArthur, Director of Television and Digital Media Engagement, National Center for Media Engagement
Panel moderator Jennifer MacArthur said in her introduction to the conversation on collaboration, “It’s not just about what you want, but it’s about what the group wants. […] Collaboration requires shared leadership and authority.”
The discussion linked back to an important insight in the conference keynote address. In sharp contrast to popular culture that celebrates the efforts of the individual, “creativity is really a social project,” said Chevigny. The power of the group can be fundamental to creating change.
Dean Hamer, strategist for Qwaves Outreach Partners, presented a strong model for collaboration through the outreach campaign for his film Out in the Silence, about the bullying and harassment of LGBT individuals in rural America. He partnered with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) in grassroots and peer-to-peer efforts to promote school screenings and school safety trainings. Additionally, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) played a key role in the film and became an organic partner for film distribution, screenings, and town hall meetings.
Hamer utilized a new distribution model that mixed fee and free views of the film on iTunes, Hulu, Snag Films and film festivals. This not only allowed for people to view the film without fear of being stigmatized but also helped with long term sales.
Collaboration was also crucial for Leah Mahan in the Bridge the Gulf project, created concurrently with the documentary Turkey Creek. What started out as “a very local story with a lot of idiosyncratic features” in Southern Mississippi evolved into a much bigger story after Hurricane Katrina. In the wake of an unprecedented natural disaster that spanned the coastline, Mahan faced the question of how this group of communities could communicate with one another and achieve the capacity to tell their own stories, drawing on more regional themes regarding community health and ecological renewal.
As the story grew, so did the project and the need for collaboration. Using a grassroots strategy, Bridge the Gulf focused on providing individuals with opportunities to tell their stories. Mahan worked with the project team to create a media fellow program. The program matches people interested in sharing their stories with a trained citizen journalist.
Media strategist and writer Amanda Hirsch used the experience coordinating the Economystory.org project to demonstrate how breaking down a project can help with efficiency. “Collaboration isn’t [inherently] efficient. It’s not habitual and takes a lot of time and effort,” said Hirsch.
Building smaller projects collaboratively, such as widgets and a map, helps build a foundation for trust, networking, and relationship building among potentially competing organizations or ideas. Hirsch emphasized the use of collaborative online spaces such as basecamphq.com, while not overlooking the importance of bringing collaborators together in person in social settings.
Moderated by Jacquie Jones, Executive Director, National Black Programming Consortium
MTM’s final discussion on what we can learn from innovations in radio storytelling put a magnifying glass on the essence and universality of storytelling for all media production.
Glynn Washington, host and executive producer for Snap Judgment—public radio’s fastest growing show in a generation—told us where his stories come from. “Our stories come from all walks of life. Black and white sound so tired. Brown-ish. Browner. And not-so-brown.” This American Life’s (TAL) Ira Glass described the program as a “distant cousin of This American Life that grew up in a much wilder neighborhood.”
For Washington, TAL is a “gateway drug” into public radio and demonstrates the bridge across platforms. Hands on a Hard Body, a piece from a documentary film, propelled the film into notoriety when it was featured on TAL. This crossover is what extends stories to new and diverse audiences.
Washington emphasized that a 10 minute radio story will be a very different piece from a film or other media production. But each piece can inform and promote the other, which is what makes multi-platform work so powerful.
Michael Garofalo, Senior Producer at StoryCorps told the audience, “There is something empowering and transformative of the people who are telling their own stories.” StoryCorps has three-minute pieces featured Fridays on NPR’s Morning Edition. “It pops out of Morning Edition. We do narrator-less pieces without a host filling in the gaps. You’re really listening to the person telling their story.”
Narrator-less stories don’t mean that there isn’t an editorial point of view. Garofalo said that all pieces that air are vigorously fact checked, but how do you fact check that someone’s grandmother was really great? Editing someone else’s story entails a certain responsibility but also provides a novelty. “Sometimes you have to talk [the story] back to them,” said Garofalo, “It’s amazing to see what happens from that. People think that their story wouldn’t interest anyone and doesn’t matter.”
Everyday people telling their own stories is potent. Garofalo played an animated short designed with the audio from an autistic son interviewing his mother. Panelist Al Letson recalls hearing the story while in his car and wondering, was he the son his mother always wanted?
This universality was a common thread throughout the conversation. Letson, host of State of the Re:Union (SOTRU), “wanted to talk about how we are so much more like-minded than our media portrays us to be.”
SOTRU strategizes about multimedia and how to reach out to a younger generation, piquing their interest through radio that really speaks to them. “If we can’t get the sound that we want into the show, maybe we can find a way to use video to grab that group. Maybe we can use video to talk to a different group of people.”
Ultimately, storytelling is about the art. It’s figuring out how to tell the real stories, whether there is an emotional impact that makes the audience look at the world in a different way. Letson point out that storytelling feeds a core human need for narrative that distinguishes us from any other animal.
Whether using radio documentary or film documentary, media makers are providing platforms where other people’s stories have worth and value. Stories are the way we try to understand each other. “A good story can change the world,” said Letson.
Letson provided conference participants with closing remarks that brought together why storytelling across platforms is so important to making media that matters.
“Storytelling is a sacred and beautiful art that we have to continue passing down, whether it be in film, whether it’s on radio, whether it’s on the Internet, whatever multimedia platform that we have to prepare ourselves for, the way that we do it is through telling those stories.”