Editor’s Note: Please Note that this updated version of a previous blog contains significant new content.

The beating heart of every news event is a story about people. Community video helps those affected to bring the issue to life. The result is accurate, authentic, and powerful—and here’s how to do it.

By Freyana Irani.

Community video is about having the person who lived the issue make the news. When local populations voice their own narratives, they bring life and authenticity to human rights issues. This message—don’t make the film yourself, train the community to make it—is a challenging one for activist filmmakers. Training a community may not be possible in the parameters of every project. But whether you’re making a film directly or through the hands of a community, the principles of community video can make videos more accurate, moving, and resonant.

Video Volunteers is grassroots organization planted firmly in the grassy hills of Goa, India, and a pioneer in community video. In addition to being a partner in WITNESS’s work against forced evictions, their IndiaUnheard initiative has turned over 150 housewives, auto-rickshaw drivers, students, and local activists into community correspondents. These correspondents tell the stories lived by their neighbors and relatives, articulating the voices of India’s poorest and most disadvantaged communities. Through over 700 videos, they have documented human rights issues involving caste, religion, gender, corruption, land rights, and displacement.

The following advice can help video activists present human rights issues through compelling, authentic, and accurate narratives. It’s distilled from interviews with several staff members at Video Volunteers, and based on their years of experience in community video.

Developing a Narrative is Critical from Any Perspective.

Finding a human story in a news issue and using it to develop a narrative is vital, regardless of whether you are training communities in video news advocacy, or whether you are documenting an issue as a concerned outside activist.

Ayush Kapur, Program Coordinator and Trainer with Video Volunteers, recommends that video activists:

  • Narrow down a broad issue. Get out of the mindset of changing everything, and focus one topic or one intended outcome. Instead of tackling the public health system, for example, focus on employing more doctors for the local hospital.
  • Find one story. The gravity of a human rights issue can be aptly represented when told through the personal experiences of one individual.
  • Keep the personal story in the foreground. “When the event passes by, the angle is lost, and the story is gone.” Stories that merely report on the facts of an event lose their relevance. And with it goes the impetus for activism.
  • Carefully consider who conducts the interview. A person of that same community, language group, religion, ethnicity, gender, or town may put the subject at ease.
  • Consider including yourself in the video. Video activists from inside or outside the community can be filmed engaging with community members, increasing transparency and indicating they have the community’s support.

Telling an Authentic Story When You’re Unable To Train a Community

When one personal story carries the weight of an entire issue—providing the angle, shaping the tone, and evoking responses—the trick is to find the right storyteller, and to treat their story ethically. This is particularly crucial when you’re unable to train a community to make their own film—when you’re making a video about an issue experienced by a community that is not your own.

Manish Kumar, Video Volunteers’ Program Manager and Principal Trainer, suggests that video activists:

  • Research the area and community. Understand the issue from the perspective of the people actually living it.
  • Hold group meetings. Let the community direct you to people with compelling stories to tell, without making anyone feel targeted.
  • Explain that your project involves filming. Explain the purpose of the project and what you will be filming.
  • Give the person time to think it all over. “You have to be very lenient and sensitive in getting these stories.” Ask the person to call you when they feel comfortable talking, or follow up with them after a few days.
  • Establish trust and respect with the person you are filming. People have legitimate safety fears about being filmed on camera. Identification could lead to retaliation from opponents, including local government officials.
  • Take your first interview without the camera. This builds trust, as well as an understanding of how the person is affected by the issue.
  • Take formal permission from the person before you film.
  • Show the community the completed video. This is equally important for the video activist and the community, establishing the filmmaker’s credibility and demonstrating her responsibility to the community.

Views from within a community are organic, empowered, and invaluable, explains Jessica Mayberry, Video Volunteers’ Founding Director. Consider what could change if we begin investing in the articulate voices of the world’s poorest and most affected communities. Even when unable to train a community, filmmakers can bring an authentic and accurate perspective to a news event by following the principles of community video.

From Video Volunteers’ experience, telling a personal story makes a crucial difference. Voices from inside a community are incredibly valuable, and especially when they are telling the stories of those around them. Perhaps through speaking from the heart of the human struggle, stories can truly speak to the world.

Freyana Irani is a volunteer assisting with WITNESS’ work in forced evictions and video editing. She is a writer and has a background in human rights law and advocacy, and film studies. 

Video Volunteers is a WITNESS partner in advocating against forced evictions. Their IndiaUnheard initiative trains local citizens to voice local issues through video advocacy.

One thought on “Telling the Story at the Heart of the News

  1. Excellent article. Thought provoking and well balanced. Empowered community videos are indeed a potent weapon in the war against injustice and inhumanity everywhere.

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