In the lower hall of the South Oxford Community Centre, I sat in a circle with a group that included American, Thai, French, Colombian, Australian, Austrian, Dutch, British, Argentinian and Italian scientists, educators, photographers and community organizers. We were there to learn how to run our own participatory video workshops, and I was ready for a week of intense lectures, theoretical discussions, film screenings, and a bit of hands-on training.
Instead, Marleen Bovenmars, one of our facilitators, was demonstrating a wacky handshake: one person holding up two thumbs down –the other person pulling the thumbs downward, as if milking a cow. Soon the room was full of people hilariously, embarrassedly milking each other. I believe we were supposed to make a whooshing sound as well, but I was laughing too hard. Nothing breaks down shyness like mutual indignity.
That icebreaker was followed by interviewing a partner and then drawing that person's portrait to introduce them to the group, breathless exercises to shoot group videos in ten or twenty minutes, and group discussions reviewing both what we'd learned as workshop participants and as future facilitators. The lectures I had dreaded about three-point lighting, the rule of thirds, or jump cuts never happened. To be honest, though, I had fully planned to give those lectures about three-point lighting myself, when I start production on my documentary film, tentatively titled The Long Rescue. The film features girls in the Philippines who are rebuilding their lives after being sex trafficked, and early on I decided that I wanted to train the girls how to shoot themselves, and leave cameras for them to use between my shoots.
I had attempted something similar with my senior thesis in college, but this time, I realized my hubris early on –I don't know the best way to teach camera work, editing and ethics to people with little or no experience with this kind of technology. But I knew who did –Insightshare, an NGO that does just that, notably in its globe spanning project, “Conversations with the Earth.” I had met one of its founders, Nick Lunch, at an event in San Francisco, and instantly loved the ethos he works in –bringing the skills and tools to communities so they can express their own voices in their own way. The videos might be used for communication between villages, with policy makers, for monitoring and evaluation of programs, or in some cases, simply as a process for a group to share, and then destroy the video afterwards.
Drawing a "perfect facilitator".
So even though I wasn't entirely sure what I was signing up for, I decided to travel to England and join Insightshare's workshop. It is specifically for people like me, who want to lead their own participatory video workshops –but included people with a wide range of applications. One woman will be working with women in Nepal to document change in their lives with tablet devices, another wants to bring participatory video his toxics watchdog group in Burma, and a group of French educators who want to implement the practice as part of 'design thinking' (a really cool sounding process that I can't possibly explain).
The really crucial concept for me in this training is that we are to be facilitators. Not teachers, imparting knowledge, but coaches who make it possible for the participants to teach themselves. Of course we have to kick things off in various ways, but then the job is to get out of the way and let the group direct their own projects.
Filling in the attributes of the perfect facilitator --visually, not verbally!
Me and my group working on another fast-paced game --making direct-to-camera statements.
For a documentary producer who has learned, out of necessity, to try to control the chaos as much as possible, letting go in this way is the biggest challenge. I have developed my “best ways” to do everything, from setting up a tripod to approaching an interviewee. Which is not to say I'm perfect, but I definitely identify a lot of ways to do it “wrong.” But in this workshop, the first thing we learned is “Mistakes are Great.” It's important to make mistakes, let others make mistakes, and then learn from them.
All of this makes total sense –most people say that they learn by doing, not by sitting and watching someone else do something. And the great thing about the participatory method is that you learn through fast paced games that really make it fun. There will be a big learning curve for me –both in using the PV games and tools and in learning to step back and not try to make events conform to my mastermind plan. I know this will be really good for me, and much better for my girls.
So even though I had been apprehensive as I got on the plane, (my mother had asked, “Do you have to go all the way to England? Isn't there somewhere in the US you can do this?”) I am incredibly grateful that I had the opportunity to do this training. I got practical tools to use in the Philippines, as well as a ton of support and inspiration for the project. I met intelligent, articulate, funny people who are working to make the world a better place in their varied and thoughtful ways. I finally made it to a real English pub and Harry Potter's Great Hall. And I know that no matter what happens with the film, bringing PV to the girls in the Philippines will offer them a valuable new tool for self-expression and media literacy.