Monday, December 3, 2007

Documentary Workshops

Film making is the art of visual story telling. It’s the process of weaving together different visual and auditory elements to tell one complete story. A good story is one that grips our imagination and takes us on journey of discovery through emotions, places, facts and realities. A good story challenges our perceptions of the world. A good story gives structure and meaning to a film. Finding the right story is an essential part of the film making process.

These are the words that begin the documentary film making workshops that I research and deliver at two journalism schools in Accra. The workshops take place at the Ghanaian Institute of Journalism (GIJ) and the African Institute of Journalism and Communications (AIJC). Those in attendance are members of the newly formed Journalists for Human Rights school chapters.

The workshops are well attended by young, eager students reporters who want to learn more about the television side of the industry - an area that the schools neglect in favor of traditional print journalism. A lack of resources underscores the schools inability to teach the information and techniques that many of those who are able to find employment in the field will need to be successful.

I design the workshops as an overview to the process of film making, from story generation through to final cut. It is created so that anyone with access to a camera and the desire to create a documentary can make it work. Speaking to an audience who are interested in discussing human rights issues and creating work designed to effect change allows me to place the emphasis on the importance of story development and the subtleties involved in telling an effective story.

I pull much of the hard information from a terrific resource called “Video for Change: A Guide for Advocacy and Activism”. A book produced for WITNESS, an NGO that focuses on the power of video when placed in the hands of people who desire change in their lives and communities. Given to me before departing for Ghana, by Michael Jackal of Fernwood Press, it contains chapters written by Kat Cisek, filmmaker in residence at the NFB. Kat is a documentary guru who has been working at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto for the past three years. She spoke at the NFB’s Momentum workshop series that I attended last year and has been an inspiration for me, and my work.

The workshop at GIJ goes well, despite a lack of promised cameras for a shooting exercise, and TV and DVD player for viewing and deconstruction. As an exclamation point on the minor inconveniences we experience, a marching band starts playing just outside the classroom we inhabited. Shouting at the top of my lungs, I expound the virtues of telling small stories about regular people who face seemingly insurmountable problems, like poverty and inequity.

We start late, and finish early, but have a very constructive session with good discussion. At the end, the group asked for volunteers for a documentary project they want to pursue, a story about the rights of the child. A crew is formed and in the near future more practical workshop sessions will be organized to help them along towards their goal.

The workshop at AIJC goes a little more smoothly and is better attended. About 40 people show up on a Saturday morning to participate in the session. No cameras, but at least there is a TV & DVD player to do the deconstruction exercise. It turns out to be the best part of both workshops. I choose to show the first 15 minutes of a documentary called “Black Gold”, a story about coffee growers in Ethiopia and their place within the global coffee industry. It highlights the inequitable distribution of wealth from impoverished coffee farmers at the bottom to the billion dollar profits of multinational corporations at the top.

As the film begins I narrate the subtitles and on-screen graphics to the assembled crowd sitting in their seats. I have a microphone and feel a bit like the voice of God. After the first two minutes I turn and look back at the workshop participants. They’ve all moved to the front of the room, sitting on desks, chairs and whatever else they can to get as close to the screen as possible. I feel like they’re fully interested and engaged, and it feels good. I pause the film every few scenes to ask questions and give information on what’s happening. The discussion generated is the best of just about any workshop I’ve been a part of. Many times I sit back and let the participants ask and answer their own questions. The deconstruction of 15 minutes of video takes about an hour. The assembled crowd gets an in-depth analysis of disparate elements successfully woven together in effective visual storytelling.

The handout I give out at both workshops serves as a brief ‘how-to’ guide for documentary film making and serves as a model for the approximately 70 young journalists in attendance. This model is easily reproducible and can be used by just one person and a camera or a team of people with a big budget. Hopefully many new documentaries that have the power to create change in Ghana will be created. If even one person picks up a camera and makes something that effects change, the workshops will have been a success.

French filmmaker, Robert Bresson is well known for his assertion that, “…a film is born three times. First, in the writing of the script, once again in the shooting, and finally in the editing.” It could also be said that a filmmaker is born and reborn at each of those stages, too. In inspiring young journalists to see themselves as filmmakers, to challenge them to see stories in new ways and realize the potential power of the medium to effect change in their communities, they can be reborn as advocates for the change they seek in the world.

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