How is this a Documentary Media Project?

As my classmates and I near the finish line in June (2011), preparation for final submissions is in high gear! The Doc Media department encouraged us to write a 15 page project summary before the holidays. This document is intended to launch our final thesis paper which is expected to be 30-50 pages long. As this is a Master of Fine Arts degree, the primary component of this program is the media that we produce; second, is the supporting document which should encapsulate the following: what the media project is about, it’s social relevance,  the methodology used to create it, and lastly, how our media contributes to the discipline of “documentary media”.

Here’s a short section of the project summary I submitted:

HOW IS THIS A DOCUMENTARY MEDIA PROJECT?

My effort with this project is to articulate and help invested subjects articulate the conditions within (public, private and alternative) high school that are positive and negative. While personal stories such as these may not convey an absolute truth about how education is being experienced by the majority of high school educators and learners, the three documentary media modes of dissemination that I am producing to address this issue will hopefully appeal to, and attract, a diverse audience who will contribute to the discussion and help to propose solutions.

The Documentary Media program has encouraged us to contemplate how documentary should be defined, how truth telling can be achieved or approximated, and how the dissemination of documentary forms have been evolving. Documentary media-making is an elusive genre; for some filmmakers truth is blurred behind fictional imagery (e.g. Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg) and for others, fictional imagery is designed to clarify the truth (e.g. much of Errol Morris’s filmography). In my reflections on how to approximate the truth regarding what occurs inside high school institutions, and how to represent the reality of how learners and educators feel about the system they are in, I feel that my documentary media should be a door to stories for long time; this is why I feel a film alone will not suffice.

Documentary media today, needs to extend itself beyond one-sided (1.0) representation of an issue and be open to discussions and perspectives from larger communities–especially if the media-maker really wants to put forth a truth-claim. We need to ask ourselves how to engage multiple community voices with our work and how uncovering “truth” can be approximated with the tools and knowledge rapidly evolving online.

Truth is as unique as the individual who speaks it. The multiplicity of voices that surround us can contribute to our search for reality and they are, I would say, our best bet to uncovering what is “real”. Every documentarian needs to ask themselves what the value and need of conveying reality is within their work. If it’s key, then exposing their work and inviting participation through multiple media forms on and offline should not be an option, in my opinion, it should be a responsibility. This belief navigates my desire to produce my project in three forms of documentary media–[this] blog, podcasts and an multi-media installation.

Colin Low

There are three documentary media projects have been on my mind for some time and have inspired the work I am producing for the Documentary Media program. Two of them are relate to the National Film Board of Canada’s (NFB) Challenge for Change program: The “Fogo Process”, a method of community building (created on Fogo Island, Newfoundland) that filmmaker, Colin Low, established while at the NFB in 1967; CitizenShift, the social media website that I worked on at the NFB from 2004-2009; and lastly, This American Life, a weekly public radio show (from Chicago, IL) that has been on the air since 1995.

Challenge for Change was an NFB initiative (funded by eight federal government departments) from 1967-1980. The intention of this project was to collaborate with citizen’s from across the country to produce films and videos that would shed light on their personal and community concerns with an aim to generate social change; economic struggle was  a common theme.  Colin Low’s initiative on Fogo Island launched Challenge for Change. The evolution of Low’s “Fogo Process” has always stuck with me:

Fogo Islanders identified a number of key issues during filming: the inability of island communities to organize, the need for better communication, resentment towards resettlement and anger that the government seemed to be making decisions about the community’s future with no consultation…What happened next was crucial for the success of the project and in defining the essence of the Fogo Process: the NFB conducted 35 community screenings in Fogo Island to solicit reactions and feedback, with the total number of viewers reaching 3,000. What was revealed at screenings and subsequent discussions was that while residents in this tiny community were not always able to discuss issues with one another face-to-face, they were comfortable explaining their views on film. So it was through the mirror of documentary cinema – by hearing themselves and their neighbours on screen – that islanders began to realize they all faced similar problems. This sparked a community-wide dialogue. This dialogue reached all the way to the provincial capital. After cabinet ministers watched the films, the provincial government asked the NFB if it could respond on camera to the islanders. The filmmakers agreed, creating a remarkable two-way cinematic exchange between the often-overlooked Fogo Islanders and their government in St. John’s.

The dialogue that was established through a media “intervention” between citizens who were not able to communicate face-to-face has had a direct influence on the installation methodology that I proposed.

CitizenShift is a participatory website that invites all citizens, including independent media-makers, to contribute to a dialogue on social-change by sharing their media (video, photographs, audio and blogs). I spent much time helping contributors to develop ideas and methods of sharing and explaining their story in multiple forms of media. We wanted our audience to understand how a subject and/or media-project on a social issue came to be, how it evolved and how it concluded. I also trained individuals in basic skills of to produce media, and I presented the value of outreach through social-media and social-networking at various conferences, organizations and schools. This project undoubtedly sensitized me to the benefits of sharing documentary stories in multiple forms in order to reach and engage an audience.

I listen to This American Life on a regular basis. The fascination I have with the program is the fluidity in which the documentaries are told. A number of factors seem to influence this experience: consistently good stories with drama, tight editing with tasteful and clever sound effects, the organization of each story into “acts”, and the natural expression that the host Ira Glass, and most of his guest hosts exhibit when narrating their story and interviewing their subjects. When I listen to this program I consider the audio interviews I have acquired thus far and the elements I am missing to produce to an audio documentary of this caliber.

The media I am developing is not without its challenges. I am working with mediums that I am both accustom to, and also quite new to. The greatest hurdle that I needed to surpass, however, was determining the subject matter and the focal point of my project that would sustain my curiosity and passion throughout these creative endeavors. Launching into an inquiry of high school education and how learners and educators are effected by their experiences within it, originates from such a personal place that my level of satisfaction and intrigue never ceases to grow.

Wendy Quarry, The Fogo Process: An Experiment in Participatory Communication. University of Guelph thesis, 1994.

About cayoup

Colleen Ayoup was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec. She has been engaged in media creation for nearly twenty years. After attending the Dawson Institute of Photography (Montreal), she worked as a commercial photographer for several years until the craving for different creative pursuits gave way. This desire led to two subsequent degrees in Psychology/Film Studies and Film Production (B.A., B.F.A) at Concordia University in Montreal. Her short fiction films and documentary, Kings (2001), about drag-king culture in Montreal toured festivals internationally. In 2004, she joined the National Film Board of Canada where she coordinated Doc Shop, a program designed to give emerging filmmakers an opportunity to learn trade skills from industry professionals and produce a short documentary for broadcast on CBC. She also contributed to the development and creation of CitizenShift (citizenshift.org), the NFB’s first social-media website that she subsequently coordinated for five years. She is a recent graduate of the Master of Fine Arts program in Documentary Media at Ryerson University (Toronto, ON)