Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Scoping Twelve Broadcasting and Community Media Debates

What, and where, is community film? In this, the first of three blogs on this topic, I want to explore the big, top-down dimension of broadcasting. Does it have a thriving, retreating, or merely a residual community dimension?

When I was growing up in Great Britain in the 1970s there were 3 or 4 TV/film channels to choose from: BBC1, BBC2, ITV and (later) C4. Only wealthy people had access to video cameras and/or projection equipment. How life has changed since then! The explosion and proliferation of ‘choice’ since the 1970s has been remarkable for many people.

There has been a rapid and bewildering growth in the production and consumption of moving image media. But it’s not just a story of quantity and quality. As I suggest below, it’s the interrelated of group and media that needs further analysis for community media enthusiasts.

A key realization is that the yawning gaps between making, broadcasting and consuming have narrowed beyond recognition in the last decade. The internet has added millions of hours of opportunities to make, comment, and to watch, through platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo. ‘They-think’ is being replaced by ‘We-Think.’

Does the mind-boggling growth of moving image media mean that there is now more space for creativity, for special interests and collectives, for non-profit collaborative production, and for the community sector as a whole? What is that sector, and where is it in the wider media landscape?

What does our current situation mean for the relationship between the local or the regional community and the community media sector? What’s happening to ‘community’ and ‘community media’ in the bigger commercial and state-owned sectors?

Idealists celebrate the ‘progress’ indicated above. Pessimists point to the glorification of mindless celebrity; the demise of regional TV production that reflected, in former times, the real lives of local communities; the worthless frivolity of uploaded video which drowns out creativity, quality and impact.

What, and where, is community film? In this, the first of three blogs on this topic, I want to explore the big, top-down dimension of broadcasting.

Here are some of my thoughts, composed in Birmingham UK, as the snow falls, and normal life grinds to a halt with the approach of festive holidays.

1. Major production companies have not entirely abandoned the local and the regional. Commercial production has arguably fallen back since the innovative and award-winning work of British companies such as Granada and YTV in the 1970s. News and magazine-style  regional programmes still reflect the lives and preoccupations of a locality or region. Dramatic productions which include soap operas dealing with contemporary social and community issues also create a space for the representation of life in the North, South, or the capital, as well as showing urban and rural perspectives.

2. In news and magazine programmes the obsession, with one person / one story tends to undermine the complexity of networks and community-links. The community situation and narrative seldom emerges from the ego-driven soundbites and video-wink. Arguably soap operas permit the leisurely exploration of issues and narratives, in contrast the fragmentation of the news media. For the pessimist the soap opera turns hard issues into frivolous entertainment and creates fictive parallel worlds of thriving pubs, vibrant local markets, loyal family relationships.

3. Whereas the news story is grounded in novelty, in the instantaneous, and the momentary, community issues tend to be intractable, unfinished and recurring. Even documentary approaches to community life have difficulty exploring historical contexts, unless there is a pre-determined and tidy narrative of elegy, celebration, or loss. History and struggle is comfortably assimilated to heritage and fancy-dress re-enactment. Postmodern approaches collapse past and future into a simulated but vacuous present.

3.  The realities of good news about community life is under-represented, or gleefully over-celebrated, undermining the ongoing challenges that communities face. Arguably, charity work (which is excellent), gives the sense of a public sector in need of rescue, or failing to cope with the demands upon it. Voluntary sector aspirations and achievements are admirable, but they are in reality a tiny percentage of healthcare provision. A distorted and disproportionate media representation helps to exaggerate the quantity and quality of provision that voluntary and community groups can or will deliver. That in turn leads to a disenchantment with both the volunteer-led groups and the public sector, thereby paving the way for corporate or private solutions. It is also worth noting that private and profit-led education, health and housing are seldom interrogated in the media by the communities that they include and exclude.

4. Class interests are played out in the preference for benefit fraud stories which are better news than tax fraud and avoidance. Corrupt trades people are better news than bungling professionals. The lives of ordinary people are often served up for the delectation and disgust of their social superiors. Accordingly we have a diet of culturally impoverished inadequate parents and runaway children. The cycle of perceived community decline and degeneration is played out with voyeuristic delight.

5. Let’s admit that with the exception of a weekly dose of Panorama-style documentary, a strong political or campaigning message is largely absent. Single-issue programmes run the risk of bias; but by accommodating opposite sides as equal they run the risk of distorting the balance of feeling in a community. Outlooks and interests are seldom balanced in real communities. Nor are community interests as static as a unique broadcast event or packaged product might suggest. The one-off documentary product therefore runs the risk of undermining the processes at work, for better or worse, within a community.

6. Community leaders are featured as pundits and enlightened observers, and in preference to anyone who may have a switch-off political agenda, no matter how valid or representative in electoral terms. Colourful extremists are usually preferred to milder voices. Conversely, radical opinions and solutions are presented in the most glaring colours as a descent into violent insurrection, community collapse, and the need for more effective systems of policing and punishment.

7. Despite a degree of scepticism, I suggest that community ‘portraits’ whether based around exploring our heritage, or exploring our coastline, are a vital component of community identity and pride. I’d suggest, however, that we see far more of the rural idyll than the rural issue, and far less of the urban issue. The urban tends to be represented not as dialogue and debate, but as a window on crime, drugs, drunkenness, policing and late night streets. The urban is seldom represented as a site for fulfilling work, pleasure and community engagement, which it is the happy reality for the majority of its residents.

8. Major production companies sometimes feature short films made by ordinary people, supported by equipment and training. Video competitions are another angle and opportunity for wider participation than top-down ratings-led production. Professional standards and approaches create a culture of excellence for new participants. Aspiration and amateur or not opposite words in vibrant communities.

9. Major production companies have invested heavily in web-based interactivity. It is important to realize that viewers are not passive receivers of broadcast material; that soaps are susceptible to critical commentary in the workplace, home, or social forum, by commenting online, or creating your own blog. The critical community is growing daily and should not be underestimated as effective dialogue and interrogation.

10. The work of major production companies is now frequently re-presented on other platforms, in other media. Parody, satire, and lampoon are effective approaches to undermining privilege and pomposity. There is a lively participatory and deliberative amateur workforce, often loosely collaborative, or disconnected.

11. The existence of a thriving critical and creative community means that the output of major producers cannot be contained by its intentions and restrictions. The commercial and aesthetic assumptions or major producers is constantly slipping within an unstable media environment.

12. With the wider availability of free and inexpensive video tools more individuals and group or community interests have the opportunity to refashion the top-down diet.
Supported by remixes and mash-ups, corporate and state legality and decency are gaily abandoned.

Subsequent blogs will examine community versions of industry structures; examples of media democratization; community media literacy; participatory and education engagement with film as a tool for social change and cultural enrichment.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Civil Society Groups and Volunteer Film Projects

Film: Breaking the Silence

Volunteering and Film

In this blog I’ve tried to move beyond the tired discourses of PR and Marketing and Management Science, to explore what really happens inside a charity, group or social enterprise when volunteers have a leading, structured and valued role in a film project. I argue below that a film project unlocks creative potential, and that it is an excellent tool for evaluation and improvement.

What happened to the outputs?

It is tempting to see a film project as something driven by the need to promote your work or your organization; to raise funds, or to increase public awareness. These are solid and worthy objectives. They are also measurable in terms of immediate impact. 

If you are successful in your film product then improvements in these areas are likely to result. But many films often just sit on a shelf after the debut screening; there is a sense of deflation and perhaps unfulfilled expectations of being a big hit on YouTube, or a life of red carpets and celebrity. Perhaps your film did not unlock the hoped for a stream of funding, sponsorship and donations. Many expensive public service films also fall into the category of the Great Unwatched. Dull news derived from dull brochures makes for dull films. Film is never a solution in itself; nor is it just a translation of existing media.

Why Participation beats commercial promotional priorities

A key point is that there’s a big difference between making a film as a collective, or working with a social media facilitator, and having a film made for you and about you – an outsider looking in. Most film production companies have very limited experience of the participatory approaches which are becoming more common in civil society. Commercial promotional film makers will not want your volunteers playing with the equipment. They might do some damage, or tell the truth as it is, or slow down the efficiency of a ‘proven’ business model. Effective participation takes time and confidence building but its good effects are cumulative and part of a distinctive fine-tuning of your message and impact. We are not inventing civil society; we just need to be better at doing it!

What are the benefits of working together with ‘film’ technology ?

I’d suggest that when we examine the film production process we are sometimes so focussed on one category of outputs and outcomes that we miss the added value secured by a communal approach to a set of issues. The creative doing, trying, and risking, can be a richly rewarding collective exercise on its own terms. We also tend to undervalue the sustaining improvements in critical and creative communication that may have rewards across a medium and longer term period for a group or an organization. Film can allow us to overcome barriers and blockages; it helps us to be more reflective and responsive to repressed issues and to emergent agendas. Collaborative participatory film production employs the skills needed by members  of a diverse and constantly changing society.

Volunteers will be able to move from less to more technical roles if you employ a negotiated and a flexible approach to production. In fact there are so many roles that you could incorporate in your production that it makes sense for people to have multiple and shifting tasks rather than fixed job descriptions.

Are you allowing enough time to engage in strategic thinking ?

Volunteers can also be paired in similar work such as directing, sound, presenting or scripting. We are looking for dialogue not singled minded egotism and vanity. Having multiple and parallel roles is not commercially the most efficient approach as time will be spent in discussion and negotiation. Perhaps you will find your film, like your group, pulling in opposite directions. This situation provides an excellent opportunity to debate strategic issues such as where we have come from and where we are trying to get to; what are our priorities; who is our target market?

Volunteers know best

A confident volunteer team will cut quickly to the most relevant issues; they will inject a freshness and vigour into a film project; they will trash the jargon and officialese and pomposity that besets institutions. Crisp, critical, clear, confident creative – these are the qualities that engaged volunteers deliver to project work. And remembers that there are dozens of roles in film production: technical and non-technical; in front of, or behind, the camera. From costumes to researchers, to sound worlds, to discussion and dance...

Moving beyond talking heads …

The simplest film consists of a recording of someone expressing their views, head and shoulders, in front of the camera. Recording opinions and outlooks could be the beginning of an evaluation of staff, service-users, volunteers, funders, trustees, etc. But it doesn’t take much imagination to take your project further. Think about place and location too.
Where is the film set?
What’s inside the frame / view-finder?
Is there any self or group-censorship going on?
Are there any ethical issues? Are we taking enough risk?
Is there a fear of participation? What’s the underlying cause? How can it be addressed?
Is our film essentially an internal or external evaluation?
A celebration or a satire?
Has the film become a story that holds your attention?
Is there a creative angle?
Are there solutions to problems presented?

Perhaps most significant is the effort to find a quirky, distinctive or even a humorous angle. Volunteers should be proud of their film production and product, and not all community films have to be a dreary mini-tragedy. (Nor, for that matter, a 2 hour epic!)

So many questions?

I’m much more interested in working out typical questions rather than trying to fix the answers. But I do believe that the positive engagement of volunteers, fully supported by their community group, are part of the solution. Given a chance, volunteer-led creative participation is a powerful tool for change.