Turning Media Upside Down: the power of community-made media.

This post, written by VV’s Research Officer Namita Singh, was originally published in Samas Satellite on 26th January, 2009. The original post can be found here

It is around nine in the night in a seemingly sleepy village in Gujarat, India. You can sense there is something different today. Instead of being in their homes and sleeping, there is commotion at the village center. There are around 300-400 people, including women who are discussing their land rights after watching a film about  Agricultural Land Rights, produced by few youngsters from their own village, in their very own language.

They are surprised to know that any landless person is entitled to land from the government; they never had this information. Villagers from across 25 villages, who have seen this film on Land Rights, decide to get together, take out a rally and file applications with the Collector asking for the land they should rightfully get. Around 750 Dalits (the lower-caste of India) from the most feudal parts of Gujarat, file applications to get their land rights with the Collector and are forcing the government to distribute land to the landless, marginalized communities, land which is illegally occupied by the so-called ‘Upper castes’ or being given out to big industrial units.

This is just a glimpse of what Community Media can achieve. It has the ability to empower people, give them a voice, organize communities and initiate social action. A strong alternative grassroots media movement is springing throughout the world and India is a huge part of it. Community Media is all about turning the mass media upside down. The passive ‘receivers’ of mass media messages are turning into active media ‘producers’, creating their own messages and meaningful media.

The stories of the marginalized have continuously been ignored by the mass media and they find no voice, no space, and no visibility in the dominant paradigm of global mass media. Only the upper middle classes and rich class find a representation in the media. Messages which are important for the underprivileged are hardly ever communicated to them. They have no control over the content in the mass media; hence, they can not communicate about their issues to the larger world either. This is what Community media is changing.

One such community media initiative started in India sets up ‘Community Video Units’ across India. It was started in partnership by Video Volunteers and Drishti Media, Arts and Human Rights (Ahmedabad, Gujarat). Under this initiative around 70 people from different parts of India, all belonging to marginalized communities, have been trained in filmmaking and produce videos on their own local issues. These issues range from communal harmony, to basic infrastructure to women’s rights. These videos are then screened on a wide-screen projector across pre-decided 25 slums/villages around that local Community Video Unit. The film screenings are followed by discussions, which open up a space for communities, to discuss issues pertinent to their development and deciding on individual and community actions to be taken to solve that issue. They confront and challenge government authorities, like getting non-functional Public Health Centers restarted; they participate in an active citizen life taking responsibility for improving their own conditions, for instance, organize cleanliness rallies in the villages; the communities get a public sphere; where they get together and make decisions impacting their lives. In many places people for the first time got together to discuss issues, for the first time women spoke up in public. In short they get initiated into an active citizen life, making democracy a functional one and fighting oppression in their personal as well as political lives.

Through this initiative both individuals and communities have been empowered. For Sofia, a young married Muslim woman, from one of the Muslim Ghettos in Ahmedabad, being a filmmaker was the last thing she had thought about. She could not even think about staying out of her house after six in the evening. Today, she moves around her community with the camera, walks into the government officials’ rooms with ease and motivates all her community members to take action. She has been able to convince her in-laws and husband to let her work. She has worked on around 12 films over a period of two years and tackled issues that are of the most concern to her community and even become a community leader.

The all-Dalit team in Gujarat was able to enter a temple village only because they had a camera in their hands. No Dalit had ever entered the village temple. In the very words of one the team members, Jeetu, ‘This was when I realized the power of camera and knew it could fight Untouchability’. Through their films, this team has brought into light the plight faced by Dalits on an everyday basis and also figured out solutions to make lives better.

After a film screening in a tribal hamlet in Andhra Pradesh, this is what one of the villagers had to say: “For the first time in my life I have seen a film on issues like this. How come the government has never shown us films like these? When I start seeing a film I feel it should never end and I should keep seeing it. This film has brought out the issue very well and now I know we can approach the government to build roads here. It is my right.”

Those who have needed access to technology, communication and information the most have been kept away from it and the globalization of media and communications is increasing that gap even more. Through Community Video, and many such initiatives this discrimination on the basis of technology is being fought against. It is empowering communities to negotiate power relations, express their identities and question the oppression around them which is on the basis of caste, religion, gender, economic situation.

This initiative has set up several localized, small – scale media units producing meaningful and responsive media by communities in response to the corporate or state-run media which is seemingly pervasive and homogenous. It is a media which is building capacities of the communities to initiate media activism and start a social process leading to positive change.

Community Video is both democratizing media and using media for a functional democracy. It is opening up far more spaces for individual and community action to move towards a democratic and participatory society, getting people organized and letting the people at the grassroots lead this grassroots alternative media movement and lead their own lives. The movement has just begun, it still has a far way to go before it can become a substantial opposition to the pervasive mass media, but beginnings have been made and a new meaning of democracy is being discovered.

Written by Namita Singh, a VV Trainer.

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