Millennial makers of life – Videojournalism-as-cinema
‘And the winner is….’
These words still echo in my head. Past glories that become part of your narrative, hidden from pubic view. No one’s daft enough to clutch their award as they make their way to the supermarket in a bid to draw attention. “Hey [giggle with clenched teeth] you wouldn’t believe what happened to me last night”.
And awards, do not, by any means, make you a better person or reflect whether you’re good at what you do, or do they? Just a bunch of industry insiders giving the next gong to the one in line, the one who missed out last year.
But you couldn’t have thought that watching Steve McQueen bag his Oscar.
Matthew McConaughey was good too, something about projecting his ambitions, so he would never arrive at perfection he had previously imagined for himself. Transcedental! Nice ! Only in the make believe world of movies.
Tinsel town’s lavish hypnotic night has the indelible experience of imagining yourself amongst the nominees and what you would say when Bob, that’s Robert Deniro, calls out your name. ‘Man you were my hero, that stuff in Raging Bull – all adlib huh! What a guy! Now step back a bit, this is my @£%&&^ 15-minutes’.
‘I want to thank the judges, friends and family back in the UK…’
Wistfully the words came out. I was back on stage, snapped back from a parallel exposition. No, this was Washington, and then Berlin. I did not know my awardees. In fact this whole episode is some mistake. I even faked the team and support behind me because some point in a business self-help book said people like teams, but are weary of the solo-do-it-alls.
And that’s when the seed was sown a decade ago. Three years on from those giddy moments, I had another hair brain idea. Now, I wanted to justify to myself that in my head, ‘..and the winner is’…was something I could feel wasn’t serendipity, or next-in-line, or that it was a mistake, and that’s when I started the search.
China, Cairo, South Africa, Chicago, Europe. Finally I’d found it. Now I’m packing my bags to the captivating monastry-looking town or and was Perugia to share. It’s a bigger story than the five articles in this electronic paper, but this time, perhaps in McConaughey moment, the winner isn’t me, but all of us.
On an open public balcony looking across Perugia’s plains, a carpet of cloud creeps menacingly from below.
In minutes the temperature drops, towns are enveloped and any line of sight is obscured for miles. All I can see are monastic crowns of the odd building breaking the sky’s surface.
Perugia, the tourist brochure is proud to tell you is a student town in a small 180,000 residence.
Life ever more dramatic than fiction, Perugia too is where the unsolved murder of British student Meredith Kercher placed this picturesque town in the frenzied headlights of the media.
Small wonder, I muse negotiating the narrow street why Neorealism emerged from this country. The architecture mimics a period giant film set; narrow winding streets provide a script for a villain in chase.
Notwithstanding the Italian’s penchant for using the ruins of the first World War to tell stories, this evokes films such as Fellini’s 81/2 or that Dan Brown’s characters any moment will emerge from the shadows.
This morning, I couldn’t resist a run, fire off some picture and shoot a promo.
My journey to Perugia started five months earlier – at about the time I was completing major research into mass communications and television and videojournalism. Cannes has its film festival, Utah, famously Sundance, yet Perugia has become renowned for its Jazz, film and prominently since 2012 it’s International Journalism festival.
It is where the spectrum of media from across the world dealing in television, documentary to social media gather to share. In spite of the costs to stage the event, it has remained egalitarian and free to anyone to attend. The invitation for speakers to participate comes with a paid hotel and five star restaurant meals for the three days.
Yes Let’s do it. We feel your work would generate significant interest amongst festival attendees.
I became a modern day flaneur, without the opulent trappings, wandering instead the streets and labyrinths of several libraries. Hollywood makes it look glamorous, but the search is arduous and often non-specific. Such is the nature of flaneurism, which ill-suits the immediate gratification of information gathering on the Net, where a user asks and it will be delivered.
Chance yields the odd surprise, a name, a book, and then more purposeful searches commence. In London, in Convent Garden’s Sci-fi fan shop, I stumbled upon author, critic and filmmaker Mark Cousin’s The Story of Film. It is a breathtaking personal odyssey of film discovery from a practitioner, passionate about film. Cousin’s examines the many forms, directors such as Yashiguro Ozu, John Ford and Ingmar Begman and the variations in film’s style.
Two years later Cousin’s would accept and invitation to spend a week with me at an event called Collision at the Southbank Centre where he would critique my work.
In the media trade union BECTU, I placed an advertisement for anyone who would talk to me about the beginnings of television news. Ken Mallor, a sprightly 81 year old from Yorkshire answered my call for help. Ken was one of the first sound men at ITN working with reporters such as Martyn Lewis and mesmerised me with his stories and knowledge on the phone.
The television reporter speaking in the middle of their report… well the first journalist to do that, said Mallor, was Martyn Lewis who was fed up with editors lopping of his end stand ups, so placed them in the middle.
Mallor is also an amateur photographer who has built up collection, worthy of a gallery exhibition. One of my favourites pranks ITV Presenter John Suchet holding a camera and sound gun pretending to be a one-man band.
Mallor and his Cameraman rang the union to complain, as part of the farce. Them were the days of the union power. During one of our 2-hour phone conversation, I mentioned in passing if he ever published I would love to read his book.
In 2013, Mallor published: Just a Sound man - a funny, raconteurish account of the early days filming on the Yorkshire dales one minute then hours later finding himself on route to Saigon. Amongst the credits he placed my name and gratitude. There’s nothing I did to deserve this, but I was thrilled for him, and flabbergasted for me.
Take Care of the Present
Everywhere I look, specialists are trying to predict the future. One of the last centuries heavy hitting media specialists Marshal McLuhan tired of this. Leave that to the futurologists and sociologists, he said, adding:
Historians take care of the past. I’ll tackle the really tough one: the present. Let me see if I can predict the present.
McLuhan would have chuckled at the new industry traveling caravan with magic cures about predicting the future – for profit. The present it is then, I thought, but many of the influential developments have their source in incremental innovations of the past. Facebook is here because of Myspace, which could not have seen a screen if it were not for Berner’s Lee, Ted Nelson or Vannevar Bush. To truly understand, now means picking through the trail and embers of abandoned systems and long forgotten names.
My journey meant bouts of arm wrestling with journalism, documentary, cinema, photography and art to find a clearish narrative. The search would also navigate one of the modern bugbears in knowledge creation – the conflict between the theorists who disdain the practitioners, for not supporting their findings with cold iron-clad evidence, and writes Dave Kehr in When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade the ‘full-bore academia, with its dense, uninviting thickets of theoretical jargon’.
As a practitioner, first and foremost, constructing a theoretical argument was often like trying pulling teeth out of a Louis Suarez. There was no room for ambiguity. A colleague asked: “How did you find the transition into the theory bit”. “Torturous at first”, I replied.
But both camps: Jekly and Hyde would need to work together. Indeed, in 2005 when I made a videojournalism film 8 Days, which would win the International Videojournalism Awards in Berlin, it was the practitioner in me that started thinking.
8 Days featured the UK’s first newspapers to officially use video for content. I had been asked to train journalists from regional newspaper and on the 8th Day, one group were going live on air. The film, bears all the characteristc of a documentary, but closer inspection by the judges critique reveals something else.
When I won the award, exhausted and excited, I asked myself, if I was doing this, who else was and what did it mean?
My head hurts!
Along the route, flaneuring, observing, critiquing, and being rooted to a desk for 14 hours a day – at one point for 34 days in a stretch, I have now spoken at several renowned venues, some of which include:
- Apples stores in London
- SXSW in Austin Texas
- World Association of Newspapers
- University of Chongqing
Perugia is where I could lay out a fuller manuscript though, the actual detailed evidence is locked up in 98,000 thesis.
The evidence I provide delivers a compelling case for the investment of videojournalism as a prosaic form of communications tool. It redefines how news passed down from five decades is badly in need of an overhaul, and that video by individuals, businesses and academia, needs to be better understand as a creative form, much in the same way literature and art is.
Any research is only as good as the method behind it. And for that I would employ a number of strategies. In a scene from the US series “Homelands” the lead actress finds herself looking at a mind map to reverse engineer a problem that needed solving.
In a room next to the garage, the walls are pasted with lined paper, with orange highlights, from more than a 100 interviews. ‘Where are you, damn it, where are you?’ The contributors were leading media management, exemplary award winning videojournalists, and an obscure but hugely important group of journalists from 1994 and then me.
I chased experts to understand their knowledge and how it addressed my questions; I pursued award-winning filmmakers to ask them about their work. I missed Paul Greengrass’ interview after five attempts by seconds. Perhaps another time. And then I homed in on one of the UK media’s unsung media startup stories.
In Britain in 1994 which statistical records from official bodies like OFCOM note as the start of the decline of television audiences, a newspaper group did the unthinkable by launching a television station run by young people.
The group would be one of the first in the UK to use videojournalism at the time one of rare group in the world [press clip below].
Whilst much has been written about videojournalism, to this group, they had starkly different ideas to what is now considered videojournalism. The fourth variable that closed the circle was me; not just as the researcher, but that I was one of those young people recruited in 1994.
This posed two issues. On the one hand it allowed me to get access to the class, now dispersed all over the media. It would take an exasperating quest to track many of them down. Out of the original 30 members I got to 21 many of whom I had not spoken to in 20 years. In 2007/8 social media was in its nascent stage, so bashing the phones was the easily accessible way, though also wasteful, in tracking down people.
The other cross were bouts of self flagellation and near insanity ripping up interviews when it chimed with my own thoughts, because of the fear I was unconsciously steering the research to my personal views. So this is what the text books meant by ‘critical’. To overcome this meant asking the same question again, and again and again – mirroring the scene in the famous documentary When the Emperor’s naked Army marches on in which a frustrated ex soldier begins to beat up his interviewees; former platoon members to eke out the truth. Tell me the truth why you at the soldiers, referred to as white (white soldiers) and black (black personnel) pigs.
There are two other accounts that perhaps underpin the veracity of the research; I do digital media. I worked for a number of agencies evolving in the dotcom era of get rich quick, but I am not wedded to its cause celebre. I grew up and was trained in traditional media, producing for ABC News in South Africa, and Channel 4 News in the UK and respect its practices and practitioners. Since 2004, I became an educator teaching Masters students journalism’s flux. I am therefore split between different camps.
What professionals perceive is worthy, doesn’t necessarily travel well. Scores of Youtube and viral videos prove the point when set alongside television’s economic news works, may not necessarily be the case, more so now in the digital world and where Youtube and personal videos consumer our viewing habits. Slogans, such as ‘content is king’ become meaningless because unless you possess an exclusive which the audience are anticpiating, you’re vying for attention with other content providers.
The manner in which Television tells news is tried and tested. It works, or does it? To test this premise I conducted a simple experiment using my masters Masters students during a news simulation day. I filmed them and produced two stories in different ways. When I later showed different groups e.g. MA students, Chinese undergraduates and professionals from Pearson’s groups, I wanted to know one thing. Try and describe the forms and then tell me which is more memorable.
The ability to remember video therefore is profound, for with it comes terms like immersive, and eye-catching. Conversely, however earnest a video story is rich with information e.g. the economy going south, a CEO addressing staff, if the audience can’t remember or connect emotionally with the story, it’s not fulfilling its role. But how if you’re given the raw materials in a video do you make it memorable?
At the root of this question is a form of communication, cinema. You may understand cinema to mean fiction film making, and while that has a currency for drawing in audiences, cinema no more means fiction films than online news means text.