Telling the Story at the Heart of the News

  The beating heart of every news event is a story about people. Community video helps those affected to bring the issue to life. The result is accurate, authentic, and powerful—and here’s how to do it. By Freyana Irani. (Click here for the original blog on the Witness website) witnessCommunity video is about having the person who lived the issue make the news. When local populations voice their own narratives, they bring life and authenticity to human rights issues. This message—don’t make the film yourself, train the community to make it—is a challenging one for activist filmmakers. Training a community may not be possible in the parameters of every project. But whether you’re making a film directly or through the hands of a community, the principles of community video can make videos more accurate, moving, and resonant. Video Volunteers is grassroots organization planted firmly in the grassy hills of Goa, India, and a pioneer in community video. In addition to being a partner in WITNESS’s work against forced evictions, their IndiaUnheard initiative has turned over 150 housewives, auto-rickshaw drivers, students, and local activists into community correspondents. These correspondents tell the stories lived by their neighbors and relatives, articulating the voices of India’s poorest and most disadvantaged communities. Through over 700 videos, they have documentedhuman rights issues involving caste, religion, gender, corruption, land rights, and displacement. Developing a Narrative is Critical. Finding a human story in a news issue and using it to develop a narrative is vital, regardless of whether you are training communities in video news advocacy, or whether you are documenting an issue as a concerned outside activist. Ayush Kapur, Program Coordinator and Trainer with Video Volunteers, recommends that video advocates…
  • Narrow down the broad issue. Get out of the mindset of changing everything, and focus on changing one thing at a time. Instead of tackling the public health system, for example, focus on employing more doctors for the local hospital.
  • Find one story.The gravity of a human rights issue can be aptly represented when told through the personal experiences of one individual.
  • Keep the personal story in the foreground. “When the event passes by, the angle is lost, and the story is gone.” Stories that merely report on the facts of an event, like a protest or a forced eviction, lose their relevance. And with it goes the impetus for activism.
  • Carefully consider who conducts the interview. A person of that same community, language group, religion, ethnicity, gender, or even town may put the subject at ease.
  • Consider including yourself in the video. Video advocates from inside and outside the community can film themselves engaging with community members, increasing transparency and indicating they have the community’s support.
Telling an Authentic Story When You’re Unable To Train a Community When one personal story carries the weight of an entire issue—providing the angle, shaping the tone, and evoking responses—the trick is to find the right storyteller, and to treat their story ethically. Manish Kumar, Video Volunteers’ Program Manager and Principal Trainer, suggests that video advocates…
  • Research the area and community. Understand the issue from the perspective of those living it.
  • Hold group meetings and see who speaks up. Let the community direct you to people with compelling stories to tell, without making anyone feel targeted.
  • Take your first interview without the camera. This builds trust, as well as an understanding of how the person is affected by the issue.
  • Explain that your project involves filming. Explain what you will be filming and what your purpose is.
  • Give the person time to think it all over. “You have to be very lenient and sensitive in getting these stories.” Ask the person to call you when they feel comfortable talking, or follow up with them after a few days.
  • Take formal permission from the person before you film them.
  • Establish trust and respect with the person you are filming. People have legitimate safety fears about being filmed on camera. Identification could lead to retaliation from opponents, including local government officials.
  • Show the community the completed video work. This is equally important for the video advocate and the community, building credibility and a sense of responsibility.
Views from within a community are organic, empowered, and invaluable, explains Jessica Mayberry, Video Volunteers’ Founding Director. Consider what could change if we begin investing in the articulate voices of the world’s poorest and most affected communities.Even when unable to train a community, filmmakers can bring an authentic and accurate perspective to a news event by following the principles of community video. Most importantly, tell a personal story. It is through speaking from the heart of the human struggle that stories speak to the world. Freyana Irani is assisting with WITNESS’ work in forced evictions and video editing. She is a writer and has a background in human rights law and advocacy, and film studies.  Video Volunteers is a WITNESS partner in advocating against forced evictions. Their IndiaUnheard initiative trains local citizens to voice local issues through video advocacy.
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