In this first audio recording of How Freelancers Can Succeed, Ande Schurr interviews film-maker Justin Benn about ‘participatory video’.
This multi-layered filming technique affords the director an alternative to telling a story from a director's point of view. It gives, instead, the subject the chance to tell their own story, in their own way.
Of interest to documentary directors, policy makers and funding-bodies alike, Justin's coherent explanation helps us understand how we can go beyond conventional film making to facilitate social change and get paid for it.
Benn was a mentor at the recent DOC Lab 2012, in Auckland July 13-15.
Listen to the audio interview, conducted in the lead-up to the Lab, or read the transcript below.
Justin Benn, currently based in Auckland, has produced and directed features, commercials, documentaries, corporate videos, terrestrial TV to special interest. He is also a DP and has taught at tertiary level institutions as well as for the IGO, NGO and CSO sectors. Justin specialises in participatory video, communications strategy e-learning platforms and online learning design.
You've just come back from the Philippines?
I've been consulting with the Netherlands Red Cross on a five year program called 'Partners for Resilience' which entails work in nine countries mostly around the Equator. One of the communication projects that they're trying to facilitate is Participatory Video as a means of both engaging communicates and catalyzing peer to peer education between communities, in terms of the development work they're doing, but also to facilitate local conversation between beneficiaries and other stake holders that might be involved such as local engineering firms and government. They're really keen to use a myriad forms of communication to help this work achieve its goals, and one of these forms is PV.
I was training about 16 field officers in a week, how to use a camera and script, write and make a film, then go out to a community and teach them how to do the same thing. We made four films in 36 hours for a screening on the last day.
Is the whole premise that no one is left in the dark; that everyone understands, from the community up to the investors, exactly what projects are happening and what problems there are?
Yes, that's one way of describing it. The idea behind it is that the author of the work is the community and the beneficiaries themselves. As such, there is an authenticity and a directness about the content and the message which is almost impossible to refute or deny and that leads to very direct responses and engagement both by the community involved and by the people with whom they have to work. There is no sense that the message is mediated; the communities are creating the content themselves. They're in charge of how they're seen and how their narratives and messages are developed and directed. So that hopefully leads to a more satisfying result for them and for the NGO's (Non Government Organizations) themselves.
What is the result that you're hoping for?
In this situation last week, in the Sabang Province in Mindanao, the work we were doing there was with a group of people from the Tayaga community and they are specifically trying to focus on a certain hierarchy of ideas - on development they need to get going. One is support for building a sea-wall to help mitigate the effects of typhoons and tidal waves as well as the replanting of mangroves. They see these as the top two projects which will then allow them to consider things like the sewage systems locally and building water supplies as a result after they secure their safety.
So what we found happened is that we made the films and screened them on the last day. We then had people from the local government come and witness and they were able to directly address the community there and then and talk about what funds they were going to make available to help this work take place. That kind of direct very shortened response is one of the benefits of this kind of work.
What can the documentary director do in NZ to engage this multi-layered approach to filming?
This work (Participatory Video, PV) is not to supplant the normal documentary form but to augment and extend it. Think of it like another tool you have at your disposal as a film-maker. In that way you can conceivable use it to its fullest potential without feeling that you're at odds with your own particular voice and observation. When you get involved in PV you very quickly learn that you're absenting yourself almost entirely from the production process, even if you're facilitating other film makers which is quite hard if you're used to doing your own thing.
However if your stated goals for the work, and this isn't the case for all documentary makers, if your stated goals are to effect some kind of change and to facilitate some kind of advocacy then at some point you'll want to get involved with processes which help that and PV is one of those processes but they are different from the external point of view, which would be the normal position of a feature documentary. In that case you're looking from the outside in and you would be directing the narrative, controlling and relating to your audience of people who are more like you and your community.
I guess the idea, for thinking about ways in which you can identify these different audiences, is thinking about how you will engage these different areas of interest, in their own sphere of activity. You may have people living in the rich west who might be your donors or you might be raising awareness and visibility of situations for these people to help facilitate discussions.
With PV, you might be working directly with beneficiary communities to help them talk directly to fund holders and policy makers about the processes that effect their lives. You might consider making marketing pieces for the intervening NGO. So you're looking at multiple and very distinct audiences. Not just the one who might be the best to look at, or have the most fabulous imagery or unusual stories which would befit a feature length documentary.
It sounds like this form of documentary film making is not meant to be broadcast beyond the community level?
It can be but what people that I work with are finding is that, just as people read different types of material for different purposes, they view different types of content for different purposes and don't necessarily conflate the two. Whereas say, some of the principles that would guide documentary film-makers, would be to empower, educate and entertain. The sorts of field of activity were PV might work or find its primacy would be in that of empowerment for a community to effect change. So that you might be helping to witness what's going on but not necessarily directing the conversation between the beneficiary community and the outside work. You're helping them to make that conversation go faster or better.
I was lucky enough to go back twice to Ethiopia, Wage Wargaje, where we helped them make their own films and then I also filmed the process of this PV (see the video below) and that is me working in a more normal fashion, working as a documentary film-maker, looking from the outside in rather than being there as a behind-the-scenes catalyst. There we have a suite of films which are both PV but also documentary and you can see the difference from how the narratives developed, one was really about people in their problems talking directly to their peers and local community while the film I was making about the process was really directed at other film-makers who might want to see how this process works.
What brings you to work in the NGO space?
I got into this by accident. I overheard a conversation on the beach in Trinidad and Tibago, whereby somebody from the Red Cross climate center needed a film-maker the next day to do some work, and I volunteered. I hasten to add that I'm not still volunteering, I'm getting paid for the work that I'm doing. I didn't expect to engage in this space. I've worked on features, TV and other productions. What keeps bringing me back to this work is the uniqueness of the activity taking place.
I get a chance to witness change taking place, to witness these conversations like last week in the Philippines between the community reaching out for help and somebody listening and responding. That's really a privileged situation to be in. It's quite, quite different from the normal process of making film, which is very empowering of me as a film-maker, whereas in a situation like this I get to see other people take control of their lives and really make things happen that perhaps might not have happened without the facilitation and intervention you're helping to engage in. It's fascinating and I encourage people to have a go in being involved. I'd like to try it here in New Zealand actually.
How would you try your Participatory Video technique here in NZ?
Recently I did some work with Westpac and they are targeting, as a part of their educational outreach program, people from the Pacific and Maori communities because they are trying to engage with school leavers, to get them to stay in education and go into university, to present them with pathways of their future they may not have been aware of. So they are looking at creating or engaging in mentoring program with people who are from those communities who work in the bank and helping to form those bonds where they start a conversation with people from a school-leaving age in those communities.
One of the things that I'm trying to get them to consider is to facilitate the conversation. If they can find the way to get their target audience to express their situation, where they are in terms of their career, they'll get a better understanding of how to engage with this audience. So rather than guessing and thinking "maybe these students feel this way and we should talk to these topics", if we can get students to make films about where they think they're at and present that to the bank, and the bank will directly respond either through making more films or other outreach programs perhaps by sending mentors directly into schools. It's about making decisions in an informed, evidenced-based way rather than just anecdotally.
The bank is very engaged because their target community are potential customers and staff. In a situation like this where you think "NGO" work, if you're making films for donors, you kind of know what the formulae is. These kind of films can seem a little hackneyed so thinking about ways in which you can facilitate these kind of conversations are of great interest to participants involved and not just the beneficiary and the stake-holder - in this case Westpac and the Committee for Auckland. They have a vested interest in making sure these conversations take place because it helps them and one of the things I have said this week at the Doc Lab event, is that this is a rich scene for both content and financial reward as a film-maker. It's different from what you normally do, but these sorts of conversations are the things that people really want to make happen but don't know how.
I was doing some consulting work (in Geneva) a few years ago and they were talking about their water programme taking place in northern India and also the work they were doing with Google and Nokia, who had created a series of operational management tools on their phones called 'Nokia Live Tools'. The communications officer at the time when we had this meeting was saying "perhaps you could spend some more time with me here, because I'm in touch with communications officers all over Geneva and around the region. We regularly get to the end of the year and have all this money to spend and don't know how to spend it. We've made our marketing piece for the year but we need to do something else, what can we do". It's into this space that I think the different forms of film, like PV and other online work, falls. Being clear about what you want to do with your communication strategy, using films like this, can lead to some really interesting opportunities for you as a film maker.
It sounds like a whole lot of film-makers are going to find their soul when they listen to you!
And get paid! There are agency after agency who are sitting on silos of information and their own films and libraries of content that don't know how to reach their audiences and one of the things to consider is that these agencies and institutions live in fear of collecting masses and masses of data that nobody sees. They need visibility, they need engagement. How do they get that? A feature film won't quite do that. They can't buy the TV and they don't reach the audiences they want to. As a film-maker, and thinking of yourself more broadly as a communicator, the intention you can bring to that space is going to reward you and the people involved immeasurably.
Where are these films screened?
In this particular work, you'll be creating audiences through emailing the video link or setting up local screenings or perhaps at a school. Institutions need to find out where people congregate online or elsewhere and directing that. That's part of your role as a communicator, to identity where they meet, what their interest is and finding a way to reach them.
So it's not just a blanket social media tag but rather an intentional place where the audience hang-out and the film-maker must be willing to go to where they are?
Yes, and be mixed in your approach. It may be that you have some screenings and materials but you might need to draw their attention in different ways depending on who the audience is. The more complex the audience structure, the more complex needs to be your response.
What are the biggest challenges for documentary film-makers who want to help communities in NZ and around the world?
The biggest challenges are always identifying a route to financing what you're doing. There's no shortage of ideas. The second biggest challenge is probably to refine a lot of these ideas into structures and mechanisms that will work. PV is one that's proven to work but it's not going to be the only one that's available to people. Being able to define that mechanism and actually sell it to an investors as an idea is a challenge. I'm looking at ways to extend PV and branch out and overlap and get into other areas of communication as a means by which we can extend the output of that particular strategy.
At the Doc Lab Incubator will you be helping film-makers to explore this space more, to tease out their interest, their ideas and where the money is?
Yes and to pay attention to what are the stakeholders involved in the story they are telling. To decide for themselves firstly are they observing or are they there to catalyze or are they there to facilitate. Whose interest are they serving? Which audience are they directing their work at and are their other audiences that they could pick off and choose and make content for.
To think about it not just in terms of themselves as a film-maker, but to think about opportunities for creating bridges, connections and activities between the different stakeholders that might not have occurred to them before the work is being made. Being able to coalesce ideas from a community and put these in front of fund-holders is an amazing thing.
A lot of people who are in a position to handle funds and make things happen in terms of resources are faced with, more often than not, one type of content to engage with. That's a lot of reports, hundreds of pages long, a lot of data that is basically very hard to visualize. Putting lucid and well-crafted films, either directly made by yourself or by the beneficiaries is something extremely valuable to them; it's something that is very difficult for them to get in other forms. It cuts right to the heart of the conversation and can facilitate action and change in a way that you would dream of perhaps, and not necessarily see in other ways. So it's an empowering process for you as a film-maker even as you absent yourself from the production process.