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Reflections on Activist Video Making

By: Cameron A. Straughan

Student # 205337985

April 15, 2003

Going into Activist Video Making, I was concerned that I would be deluged with endless footage of protest marches. I always found that footage completely uninteresting. I think it is interesting only to those who were there – much like home movies taken while on vacation.

In the initial stages of the class, I feared that we were veering down that path – a narrow definition of activist video. I’ll admit – I was suspicious and apprehensive when David Hermolin of the Toronto Video Activist Collective screened some of their work. I was surprised that people seem to enjoy watching people “exercising their democratic rights” via disturbing local residents, teasing the police, and – in some cases – destroying public property. I began to wonder where I would fit in this class!

Watching the Toronto Video Activist Collective footage, I was also struck by the lengths some filmmakers went to make their footage as fresh, original, and provocative as possible. While I can appreciate the effort, for me, it came off as a desperate attempt. Once you’ve seen one protest march, you’ve seen them all. In addition, I think that some of the more artistic and creative protests failed to get their message across clearly. Maybe the artistic and creative act of protesting was more important than the message for some. Along these lines, I’ve always been suspicious as to why people protest. To me, some of the protests I’ve seen seem more like a right of passage for students. I was rebellious when I was a student too (still am, but in a different way!). Now I’m more organized, thoughtful, egalitarian, and creative in my approach to problems. I wonder how many protesters vote? If I knew, then maybe I could tell how many want genuine social change and how many just want to get together with a crowd and make a day of it – a big street rave.

I think it’s safe to say that I think “activist” is a dirty word! But, to be fair, I did think that the TVAC lecture did a good job of illuminating the differences between documentaries, campaign videos, and witness videos. Also, David’s experience with copyrights and the ethical issues of filming subjects was interesting and thought provoking. Clearly, our class wanted to know more about these issues. In the future, I think that an entire class should be dedicated to the ethics of filmmaking and related legal issues (i.e., obtaining permission to use copyrighted materials).

Despite my reservations regarding the “activist” moniker, when my fellow students started to screen their three minute films, I was pleasantly surprised. I was glad to see that many people avoided the classic activist / protest content and chose instead to create personal films on a wide range of topics. I liked the resulting mix of fiction, non-fiction, DV, super 8, comedy, personal belief, and all the combinations therein. In retrospect, the discussion regarding what is activist video was the best one the class had. Come to think of it, considering the variety of artistic expressions and cultures captured in the class’s videos, I thin the course should be called “Environmental Video”. For me, “environmental” sounds much less extremist and limited. I’ve always thought that “activist” meant an extreme left wing vantage point – far from the more balanced view I strive to achieve these days. In fact, according to the Faculty of Environmental Studies’ definition of ‘environmental’ as holistic and egalitarian, “environmental video” would include some of those right wing views that activists carelessly neglect. In this manner, I think that any highly polarized view – be it right or left wing – is not useful for discussion or conflict resolution. However, to be fair, not everyone lives in such a democratic society where there are opportunities for the right and the left to reach a middle ground on an issue. In this scenario, a strong swing to the left may be necessary to balance out a strong swing to the right. In this case, I think activism is more legitimate.

Perhaps my problems with the term “activist” reached an apex when I read the course text – Thomas Harding’s The Video Activist Handbook. I think Harding unintentionally emphasized many of the limitations of taking up an “activist” stance. For example, I think he painted himself into a very small, self-serving corner where I don’t think he’ll yield much influence. I was troubled by his constant condemnation of any type of mainstream press – which he at one time belonged to. I thought his comments about mass media were at the best too general and at the worst just plain ignorant. I don’t believe that mass media is inherently evil, since the impact it has on any given audience is unpredictable. Audiences can often detect nonsense and deconstruct it! Accordingly, there is no blanket negative impact that mass media can have across a diverse viewership – sorry Noam Chomsky!

I was also suspicious that the reviewers on the back cover of The Video Activist Handbook all belonged to left wing organizations, predisposed to liking Harding’s book. In fact, one such reviewer even had authored a piece within the book! Talk about self serving! Bias – anyone? Having strong views is one thing, but I was concerned that Harding’s (bad) advice may be taken to heart by younger, less experienced film and video makers who should keep all options open. Again, I think that change is best achieved through a balanced look at issues involving players from each side, not some isolated, pretentious, self-serving group.

Ultimately, I am convinced that the definition of “Activist Video” is culture dependent. In a western sense, it has its conventions. For example, it 1) must have a strong message 2) must hit audiences on the head 3) must emphasize flashy characters 4) must pit protesters against a stronger force – a classic David and Goliath narrative. Thus, much like Hollywood films, activist videos of that ilk could be accused of hegemony. There is a very specific, highly constructed, cultural specific way that they are created, under a certain left wing paradigm. In addition, most of the students involved in their production will probably end up being middle class professionals one day. It would be interesting to trace their journeys – to see how many stick with the message as they get older. Or is “activism” just a student endeavour, part of the campus experience? Somewhere in there there’s a documentary waiting to be made!

To explore my idea of the cultural constructs of activism, we should compare activist videos from countries around the world. We must also acknowledge that some countries would not bother using video at all. As an example, alternative forms of protest may be suicides or hunger strikes. These forms don’t lend themselves well to western film and video conventions since they are not cinematic enough – not to mention the moral and ethical issues involved. In some forms of protest, there are no heroes, leaders, or mass gatherings of the underprivileged preparing to take on Goliath. Along these lines, I think it would be highly beneficial if future lectures made comparisons between types of “activism” from around the world.

Another change I would kindly suggest for future lectures involves the three minute video exercise. Unfortunately, it was not as enjoyable as I had hoped it would be. I think it boiled down to some people’s reluctance to express their ideas and / or take the camera into their own hands and shoot something. I think “activist video” spells it out nicely – you have to have courage, seize the moment, and DO IT! To alleviate this problem, in the future, I think that when a group of two or three goes out EACH ONE OF THEM should shoot an idea, with the others assisting as necessary. It wouldn’t take much more time and it would prevent people from feeling “left out”, when – in fact – they were not forward enough with their ideas – for whatever reason.

Maybe it’s the “director” moniker that intimidates some – preventing them from taking an active part. Maybe since I was perceived as having some experience as a film/video maker, I was delegated to make major decisions for the group. I think this was unfortunate, since I did not want to “direct” this smaller group project. Thus, if each person could be a “director” for their own three minute piece, with other members playing assistant roles, then they’ll feel better about it. However, I do realize that it is VERY difficult to have an egalitarian process while filmmaking. I tried once before with a video I did for Management in Turbulent Environments. Even though myself and some other members thought it was very balanced and egalitarian, some just didn’t. It’s a very difficult balance to strike in any situation, let alone a film/video situation where someone normally leads, you have creative differences, technical aspects, and tight deadlines.

On the other hand, I greatly enjoyed making Cell Your Soul – a film which I’ve had in the back of my head for over a year now. I believe that a short film that gets right to the point using humour and creativity will catch people’s attention and sink in better than hours and hours of protest march footage. Speaking of protest marches, ironically my film was shot during one; so I was limited in who I could get to help me on that particular day.

Considering that Cell Your Soul was shot in –14C weather, there were only minor problems. We had to take a lot of breaks to go inside and warm up. In addition, the camera batteries, though fully charged, would last for only 20 minutes at a time, due to the extreme cold. Luckily, I was able to get some friends to pitch in and help out. I was especially lucky to get a good make-up artist who did a great job of the brain. She had never worked with a cauliflower before, so she’ll have something new and exciting to add to her resume!

Cell Your Soul is the most complex and challenging film I have produced to date. As such, it kept me busy throughout my term. Starting off with a simple, five page script, it managed to snowball into a 17 minute long film! As part of the overall process, in preproduction I created a detailed shot list. Every shot that I envisioned was there. I just had to fill in the blanks while shooting (i.e., the time code for each shot).

Watching the film with an audience was very useful, since I could sense where the edits needed to occur – without anyone mentioning it. Thus, I trimmed about a minute out of it. Audience comments were interesting. My favourite described the film as “Bergmanesque”. It then struck me that it was a bit like Bergman’s Persona in it’s use of rapid fire shocking images – and, of course, it was also in black and white. I was glad that some people caught the symbolism that rose above and beyond the cell phone theme. The film also highlighted our disconnection from nature, as we become more enthralled with technology. Technology is stifling nature as well.

While the production budget for Cell Your Soul was a mere $70, the postproduction budget was an estimated $5039 (!). This brings me to another point about the definition of “activist video”. It can be “activist” in preproduction and production when the filmmaker has a lot of freedom to do whatever he/she wants to. However, much like a documentary, in postproduction you end up playing the same game as feature fiction films. That is, editing imposes a subjective structure and narrative, and a lot of thought, planning, and money must go into postproduction and distribution.

Along these lines, I discovered that while shooting was a breeze, adding the music is not. Creation of the music added a lot of extra time to my postproduction – I’m still doing it! I had to rent a digital 8-track recorder with CD burner, so I could record the classical music live, via my friend’s keyboard. I enjoyed the challenge, and it was great learning that aspect of film production. It’s truly an “activist video” when you do just about everything yourself – and quickly!

Currently, someone is composing some industrial music for the frying brain sequence, as well as some dark, sinister electronic sound effects to go along with the images. I hope to finally finish this film by next Friday. I have already submitted it to Planet in Focus and the 5th FICA – International Festival of Environmental Film and Video in Brazil, with a note – “picture lock, preliminary soundtrack”.

Looking back, I wouldn’t have done anything differently. I’m completely pleased with the film. It came out just the way I wanted it to. With that said, I am a perfectionist, and I can’t resists tinkering. So, if I could do it again, I would have used actors. The reason I didn’t use them this time is that I didn’t want to lug them all the way to York campus to shoot outdoors in – 14 C weather! Also, I’d like to go to Bay Street to shoot the scenes where the zombie is wandering around the urban landscape. I had originally planned to shoot there, but the protest march downtown dissuaded me – not to mention that fact that we’d have nowhere to shelter the crew from the extreme cold! It also would have been awkward to shoot way down there, then trek to York campus to shoot the interiors. The only other thing I would change if I could do it all again would be to shoot it in 16mm!

In the end, I think that Cell Your Soul is relevant since just about every film or event I attend these days is interrupted by a cell phone going off. Also, as cell phone technology expands without any apparent limit, so does the health concerns – real or perceived. I believe that the film can have a transformative effect. The film makes implicit the ties between cell phone use and cells, tissues, organs, and – finally – cancer. Thus, through its shocking visuals, the film provokes a strong response in the viewer. Depending on your tastes, the ultimate effect of the film may be black humour and/or a horrific warning. At any rate, when I screened the first 5 minutes during one of our Activist Video Making lectures, it generated a lengthy conversation. Even people who now have, or once owned, cell phones weighed in on the topic. The general consensus was that excessive cell phone use was profoundly negative – in a privacy and/or health sense.

In conclusion, based on the bulk of the work I saw produced during the course, I’m hopeful that most of my fellow students will avoid the pitfalls inherent with the traditional “activist” moniker. That said, considering their current trajectory, traditional activist video makers (i.e., TVAC) will have a very small role in contemporary society. To be fair, I think that most of them realize this, thus they do not pursue activist video as a source of income. In fact, I think that video activism is more of a hobby for some professional filmmakers – a side project that at least keeps them in the film industry loop.

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