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"The shot that you want or the answer that you desired might not come when you want it. Film-making is 24/7!" Imani Ross said after finishing "Not Your Mama's Drama."
This summer the Pulitzer Center partnered with the Philadelphia-based Scribe Video Center for "The Pulitzer Center Lens: A Journalism Workshop for Youth on Crisis Reporting." Founded in 1982, Scribe Video Center is a media arts center in Philadelphia that provides skills in digital media making to young people and adults. Scribe also works extensively with training community groups in media production.
The goal of this workshop was to explore issues of global significance from the local level out. Pulitzer Center grantees and photojournalists Dominic Bracco II and Carlos Javier Ortiz served as mentors—helping students conceive and refine their ideas, coach them through production, and provide final critiques, as well as advice on dissemination. Helyx Chase, from Scribe, worked directly with the students throughout the process over the course of the four weeks.
We kicked off the workshop at Scribe with three days of intensive creative, intellectual and technical work. On the first day Carlos and Dominic shared their reporting on gun violence and other systemic crises around the world. Neither photographer is interested in covering breaking news stories. They want to answer the "why" and the "how" behind the "what" in their reporting, and they do so with empathy and respect.
We also talked about the pressures on the journalism industry, about the participants' own media consumption habits, and the importance of seeking out those stories that rarely get the attention they deserve. And we talked about how so many global stories we hear about from a distance are also relevant in our own backyards: from gender-based violence and failing education systems to climate change and food security.
From there we opened the discussion up to the team, asking them which issues they felt deserved more attention in the news. What frustrates you about the way you see your own communities represented? What images could challenge these stereotypes? And how do they fit into that picture?
The five participants, Olivia Haynes, Jasmine Tarver, Kemi Jackson, Imani Ross and Folake Ayiloge, entered into a lively conversation about how the media distorted images of beauty and gender, especially for African Americans, creating unhealthy norms and pressures. Carlos, Dominic and I learned some new words: "Ratchet" and "T.H.O.T." (watch the clip, you can learn too) and how words like these are "micro-aggressions" committed from within their own communities against other women. The group also kept gravitating towards the role that hair played in African American communities, and how norms around beauty and what is acceptable are shifting.
The team all had very strong ideas so they decided to start by interviewing each other. Dominic and Carlos spent a day running around town with them to collect more interviews and b-roll.
Over the next three weeks, guided by Scribe facilitator Helyx Chase, the team collected additional interviews and b-roll and started editing the piece together.
Carlos, Dominic and I came back to Philadelphia for the last two days with the team for some final reviewing, editing and pickup shots to thread throughout the piece.
As with all documentaries, the last hours were a race. Deciding on the sequence and the flow is never easy and, with a team of five people, consensus can be a challenge. But throughout the time I spent with these five young women, I was impressed by their teamwork and collaboration. They are a spirited bunch with sharp ideas and a wonderful sense of humor, which I believe shines through in the cut.
Dominic reflected on his experience working with the team, "Perspective is really important in documentary work. Everyone has a camera, and everyone is making content. But what is most impressive is when the creator, or in this case creators, find something that they have a unique perspective on. These girls did that. Their video is quite impressive. It's fun. Its engaging. But most of all, it hits topics that they find important. I came back home thinking about race, sexuality, presentation, voice, societal pressures, and how they relate to young women, in a way that I wouldn't have without having spent the time with the team and listening to them work through these ideas."
I asked the team about their experience making the film. What was the hardest part? What did they learn? And what surprised them the most?
Everyone struggled with the logistics of coordinating shoots and finding the right interviews and, of course, cutting the material down. For Olivia, cutting it down was hard "because although it [a clip] may have been entertaining or important to me I had to realize maybe some things weren't all that strong." For Imani, it was "making all of the participants comfortable enough to talk to us. It's hard talking to strangers especially when they're asking you some tough questions."
Learning along the way
For Jasmine, the most important take-away from the experience was that "ignorance and indecency exist everywhere, which is why we need to create our own media."
Kemi said "when making a documentary you have to be open-minded. You have to share your opinion and ask questions that make people think. You have to connect with the people you interview and be open to new ideas and a different way of thinking." Olivia also found it important to learn "how to talk and interview people without making it excruciatingly awkward and uncomfortable."
Folake had made mokumentaries before, but never a documentary. She said "I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to learn about documentary production from Pulitzer Center journalists! In addition, I learned a lot from the people we interviewed. We got a diverse set of people with different perspectives, and it was rewarding to hear their takes on the issues we presented. Some people even mentioned phenomena I was not familiar with, causing me to learn more about our topic as we went along."
Kemi was most surprised by the dynamics of the team: "We all had around the same ideas for the documentary. We got along immediately because we all agreed with what the other person was saying and we meshed really well together, working on the documentary and just talking about things we felt that were important to us." Folake too: "What surprised me most was our ability as a team to meet the deadline for the documentary. We had about four weeks to go from pre-production to post, and despite our conflicting schedules, we managed to finish with a very strong film. We surveyed hours of footage and worked really well together in deciding what should go into the final product and what we unfortunately had to let go. We were all very invested into this project and towards the end had an assembly line going, getting last minute b-roll, editing, voice overs, etc. I don't believe we would have made the deadline if we didn't have the talented group we had."
Olivia was surprised by what she learned through the process itself: "I didn't think I was going to learn so many life skills that could be you used outside of the workshop and in filmmaking in general."
And for Jasmine, there were two things that stood out: "Perspectives play a huge part in making a film. And people really want positive change."
We're excited to share the work and hope you'll share it with others. You may not know quite what to expect. As Imani said, "I never thought it would turn out this way. It's like a baby, you have this idea of what it's going to be and how it's going to turn out but ultimately the only thing you have control over is its name!"
We'll have a premiere here in DC at the JEA/NSPA Fall National High School Journalism Convention on November 8. 2014. It's one of the largest gatherings of student journalists in America and we think the film will be a hit. It may inspire more young journalists to dig beneath the surface and tackle the issues they feel most passionately about.
We'll also host a screening and discussion with the team and Dominic here at the Pulitzer Center on Friday November 7th at 6pm. See the Google hangout of the event.