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True Video Life – Chapter I

Future News Making, videojournalism-as-cinema

True Video Life – Chapter I

True Video Life – Chapter I

The timing could not have been worse.

In eight hours I am to board a plane heading for a city near the Syrian border, but worse still the US embassy has urged its citizens to leave the town asap.

Reuters reports

“Non-emergency personnel and family members” were ordered to leave Beirut and given permission to leave Adana, near Turkey’s border with Syria…” 

Rolling television news is now preoccupied with when the US will bomb Syria and not, if.

I ring the project manager of the think tank Menapolis. I am still coming, but we need contingencies in place: evacuation procedures, insurance…  What possibly could be worth this?

I did my bravado stuff in the townships of South Africa, more than 20 years ago as a freelance journalist. It did lead to an invitation to join Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, but nowadays I seek no plenitude for my work.

5 p.m. I’m in Adana, approximately 100 miles from Killis – one of the entry points into Syria. Further south still is Aleppo, a town synonymous with Syria’s systemic conflict.

‘How was your flight’, says Marwan, my host.

‘OK ! I reply’.

His colleague from lebanon says, ‘Yeah coming through Lebanon to Adana’, you can actually see missiles shooting some distance away’.

Marwan is an expert in the field of evaluating danger. He was formerly the Tunisian country director for the Institute of War and Peace. Everything on my risk assessment stacks up.

An hour after checking into the hotel; they arrive, one by one, with their stories of leaving Syria and attempts at thwarting officials. Few left Syria through official check points, but on buses taking circuitous routes to evade any potential tails.

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They are filmmakers and videojournalists, citizen journalists and NGO workers – all Syrian, with stories to tell. The absence of any official identity, such  as a passport, for good reasons, is momentarily creating a problem for the hotel check-in desk.

Several I will find out are wanted by the authorities for expressing views that were not popular with the government; some shoot for international networks. Many claim to have been tortured.  For that brief moment I contemplate – all these so called ‘Anti-Assad’s in one place. This hotel is a hot zone.

We’re here, myself from the UK and a director from Lebanon to do something, well, different.

The premise is this, in a sea of YouTube videos from any number of conflict zones e.g. Syria how do you produce stories with immersive compelling quality, and professional standards e.g. ethics to pull in an audience.

It is not as easy at it seems without overtly dramatic pictures.  My research into cognitive film theory is to be put to the test. I watch a video in which a bomb drops on a community and injures young children. It’s too graphic. I cannot use it. The videojournalist present was injured, but continued to film events and a selfie. I need a way into the film without using the horrors of conflict as leverage.

There’s an observation that arises from our discussion that is ‘a bit wrong’ and it’s happening a lot. Google ‘beautiful young Syrian girl singing’ and you come up with one of the most popular videos on YouTube from Syria.

The video has been lifted, without credit, or in some cases plainly stolen by various websites and uploaded to their own YouTube accounts. In the group of Syrian journalists I meet is Hakewati who filmed the beautiful young girl. He shrugs his shoulders, as to say what can he do. Footage that he’s risked his life for, which companies take with no credit or renumeration. That’s wrong!

As a spoiler alert, if you want to experience why it’s relevant, don’t google her. Her video features in the film at the end of this article.

How to distinguish yourself from the others

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In the last ten years YouTube has created a technological revolution, but as Paul Danahar says referring to the new Middle East crisis, ‘Revolution is only the journey; it does not bring you to a destination. It’s a process not a result’.

YouTube’s revolution has encouraged various disruptions, but relatively few practitioners or academics compared to film culture have begun to catalogue and provide a pathway into a new nomenclature of journalism filmmaking, if at all it exists.

Just as texts like Bill Nichol’s Introduction to Documentary (2001) have taught us about different forms of documentary, such as the poetic or observational, is there something new in sight for journalism storytelling?

We’re focusing on a genre that appears to be attributable to the web; first observed amongst independent videojournalists and those at the top of their game. But even more interesting, the form can be traced to the 1920 and 60s.

Distinguishing yourself today is not just down to that tired cliche that ‘content is king’ - everyone’s got content. It’s the manner in which the context is shaped by the skills of the producer and how artefacts affecting stylistic parameters work together. This intricate, dynamic equation, forms one of several key essays from respected film academic Noel Carroll.

Institutional professionalism counts for something substantial in the craft skill of factual storytelling and news production. However, several senior professionals interviewed from the BBC et al recognise the news ship and current affairs model, even when dressed up in Galactica graphics, is showing its age.

There is an emerging narrative that the Net disrupted news, but the evidence that the audience is bored of the bulletin, even when it falls below the two-minute presumed boredom threshold, started to grow during the 1990s.

Thus it wasn’t the Net that pole-axed journalism and ate into audience shares. The hemorrhaging started way before, captured by philosophers, such as Jean-François Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard. Journalism wasn’t listening… too abstract it said.

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 In 2000 the broadcast industry magazine, Broadcast, uncovered reasons why audiences were ambivalent about television news. There was a lack of diversity in reportage and the methods of storytelling required reviewing.

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 One of the UK’s foremost authorities on television journalism professor Steven Barnett notes in The Rise and Fall of Television Journalism how regulatory, statutes, financial, institutional and social factors, yields a professional and well-informed brand of journalism.

In the 1960s, companies such as the BBC and ITN produced a varied number of factual story forms under the ambit of current affairs and news.

They were innovatory schemas for their time aided by changes in broadcast technology, such as mobile, light-weight cameras, satellites and a philosophy to simplify complex arguments. However, these emerging styles overtime developed into fixed formulas. For the Vice Chancellor of Goldsmith University, Pat Loughrey, who was a former senior BBC executive this put the brakes on television news’ creative development.

Loughrey’s point is a different argument to Barnett who advocates regulation is needed to sustain news’ public duty at covering what’s needed as opposed to what’s popular. What Loughrey is saying is there’s still room to tell stories in more 21st century ways.

Vin Ray, the BBC’s former foreign editor, tells me the news form has generally not changed since the 60s. Ray is the author behind The Television Handbook, a must-read for BBC news staffers,

This analogy is worth considering. If news were a car, you’d have long retired it for a new model that could cope with modern traffic and societal problems. The issue, says Ray, is no one knows what the new news form is.

This lack of clarity across news is abetted by any number of factors argued by journalism such as, ‘this is the way it’s done’. that there is a fixed way of doing journalism.  Experts, you realise forget television news is a construct. It was never ‘the way you do it’, because there was never always a way to do it. The larger issue is whether the architects of journalism are prepared to invite new styles of journalism.

Ray and the BBC’s Head of Multimedia Mary Hockaday point to the improved use of onscreen graphics, a loosening in formal structures, and for instance the obligatory stand-up that doesn’t have to be delivered square-on standing to the camera.

However, the schema for journalism today has become so naturalised that few see any point in questioning it. Why, for instance, would a reporter only have one camera operator seems a strange question?  Why are camera crews rarely credited on screen? Why is the need to simplify complex arguments pervasive to the point that opposing argument are rendered black and white? Is the medium doomed to be made simple, irrespective of the storyteller?

The new news makers

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The crew that have gathered in our situation room where we discuss ideas and possible stories have all produced documentaries, news or Cinema Verite, but I am here to share ideas  in a new form of factual storytelling and newsmaking, called videojournalism-as-cinema.

At the celluloid end of journalism in the 60s emerged Cinema Verite. Partially adopted by journalism, it’s progenitor, Robert Drew tells me ‘news stole our equipment’  but not their philosophy.

As an alternative to journalism, Cinema Verite played into the hands of  its critics. One of its foremost authorities Professor Brian Winston observes how Cinema Verite lets its journalism of the hook.  In a Cinema Verite film, if a killer states he’s just killed his victim, there’s no recourse for a reporter to pose immediate questions. Firstly, there is no reporter and secondly it is against the spirit of the form to intervene in a shoot.

In South Africa, at a training regime at Rhodes University, I witnessed an American journalist tear the strip of a South African student because he directed a shot.

Moreover, as Jerry Youldman notes the dominance of Cinema Verite  meant students,  ‘find it hard to open their minds to any other approach…they miss the power and the poetry of the earlier films while they  fret about the veracity of details’. It’s not that Cinema Verite is flawed, it’s just that like any system, you require flexibility to improvise when unforeseen circumstances force change.

The original precept of videojournalism, which was seen as a viable answer to a future journalism has been sullied.

It is, I have come to believe, no more about the journalistic quality for incisive story form, any more than it is pretending costs has little to do with its attempt at proclaiming television-type intimacy.

Several academics, and the industry at large refer to videojournalism as the practice of shooting and producing your own story. This description according to one of the UK’s first videojournalism outfit missells the practice.

Videojournalism, according to new emerging literature is fundamentally about six key points, one of which is the ability to create a myriad of  programming and journalism styles. As the late and brilliant videojournalist Steve Punter puts it, the key to videojournalism was turning up to an event and asking what style to adopt to tell the story efficiently and creatively. It’s not a one-size fits all either.

However, the maligned definition, emboldened by institutions looking to production cost-cuttings, has largely stuck. Videojournalism we’re told is about the one man band – a practice which is as old as film itself. The Lumiere’s and their cohort of filmmakers shot and screened their own films.

You have to remember, says  Nick Hart, the former head of press at Channel One, that it wasn’t the networks who devised videojournlism. In fact, says Hart, now Head of Corporate Social Responsibility at Turner Broadcasting, at Channel One in 1994 I ended up showing lots of television executives around, including the BBC to show them what we did.

Today, videojournalism say the UK’s original practitioners is old hat. Even with findings about its original intentions, its narrative is as common place as television journalism. However, a swelling coterie of some of the world’s leading journalists, using video are shaping a new style, which has as yet yielded little attention.

It frames its schema from specific cinema styles and several filmmaking source, playing on cinema’s realisms and its plot syntax to keep the form inline with factual form. And it does not connote fiction. That coup d’état owes much to the Hollywood machinery for commandeering their word for their commercial gains.

For the same reasons, you’ll read a great novel, one of several approaches to producing videojournalism embrace forms such as cyber-realism. Look carefully at mainstream television and cinema, says James Harkin, a new kind of storytelling that deliberately engages our restless, cybernetic imagination already exists.

Harkin continues,

These new stories are not structured in the traditional way – they are oblique and elusive enough to allow for a wide variety of interpretations, and broad enough to allow the reader more freedom of manoeuvre to follow their own path through the narrative.

In cyber-realism, the plot intelligently weaves around discoveries.  it eschews the straight forward ’cause and effect’ designed by news.  That’s not to say ’cause and effect’ doesn’t have its place. Cyber-realism, is by no means the only style to emerge amongst independents. But like the several mapped in The Cinematography of videojournalism: Towards a Creative Methodology. Redefining videojournalism, it acknowledges an audience matured in decoding film, compared with news’ simplification process.

It goes head-on with Neil Postman’s broadside truism that television news is ill-equipped to do serious journalism by presenting forms that are cognitively receptive to audiences. One form that sometimes poses problems are open narratives because they don’t always assume to know the answer – an anathema to news.

The masters of this new discourse in film is HBO with its raft of Neo Noir shows: True Detectives, True Blood, The Wire.

What then if HBO found a way to produce news?  True Video ! What might it look like? Critics might easily scoff at such a theory. HBO produces highly stylised fictional cinema. But ironically, The Wire with its no thrills shooting emerged from journalistic research.

Its plot and narrative acknowledged a filmic-matured audience. Whoever said news has to be drab. Somer experts might also argue that such styles obfuscate the very thing video journalism story telling should promote, which is clarity and  ’cause and effect, but none of the emerging new styles negates these as a matter of principle, particularly in fashioning the bulletin.

Again, to cite Punter, it’s about turning up in the field, and assessing what style to adope from your arsenal of craft skills.

What if it were possible to see cinema in life? This is something already reconciled by Andre Bazin, Henri Bergson, and Russian filmmaker Alexander Drankhov and Dziga Vertov accepted was possible?

And if you’re still LMAO at the suggestion cinema having nothing to do with factual storytelling, a film theory orientation is worth a visit. Firstly, that video mentioned earlier, whilst other articles on this site illustrate this emerging paradigm.

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