By Hannah Ayers

The cab circled the block three times before we finally spotted it: a steel door with a faded number, marking the location of Brooklyn Fireproof Stages. Inside was a flurry of activity: caterers unwrapping breakfast, crew members rigging lights and testing the projector, and a make-up artist organizing her tools.

One by one, Laura Salas, Chanborey Pen, Mary Counihan, Raja Althaibani, M06A8008and Bukeni Waruzi took their place, sitting on a simple stool in a black-box studio. A dedicated crew worked to synch their movements: projector turns on, activist’s eyes open, camera moves on the dolly at a perfectly steady pace.

This was the set of the video shoot for WITNESS’ new introductory video, which I helped produce along with former WITNESS Managing Director Jenni Wolfson and independent producer Krista Parris. It was recently named a finalist in the DoGooder Nonprofit Video Awards for Best Nonprofit Video.

The process leading to this day took place over many months. In early 2013, we found MJ Delaney, an exciting young director from the UK, who agreed to conceptualize and see out the video’s creation. It was MJ who developed the idea of having the activists be immersed in their own footage: a striking, eye-catching way of representing the activists’ demanding work.

Soon thereafter, the renowned production company Moxie Pictures signed on to help bring the WITNESS story to life. Together, we worked to identify activists to feature in the video. Among the thousands of activists WITNESS has worked with over two decades, five emerged as remarkable examples of human rights defenders whose footage and advocacy led to tangible change.

Mary said she was “surprised but very honored to have been asked” to participate. “WITNESS works with so many truly amazing individuals,” she said, “I was flattered that they would want to include me in this special video.” Chanborey said he was “excited and proud” to be in the video.

M06A7689For most of the activists, the experience of being in front of the camera was a new one: “Even though I am much more comfortable being behind the camera rather than in front of it,” Mary said, “WITNESS is such a terrific organization I would do whatever I could to support them.”

While the activists were accustomed to filming solo, often using a handheld camera, the video shoot was an eye-opening orchestration of a dozen crew members and an enormous camera on a dolly. “It was such a special shoot,” noted Chanborey, “as I have never seen this way of shooting before.”

The shoot wrapped at dusk in front of the New York City Supreme Court Building, where we filmed Mary giving an interview. In the coming weeks, MJ worked with editors, color correctors, and music mixers to craft the final polished video. Along the way, so many were generous with sharing their time and skills: Alt-J donated a song, for example, and Nitya Vidyasagar lent her voice. The video debuted at WITNESS’ Focus for Change Benefit on December 5th, to rave reviews.

The WITNESS team is pleased to have brought to light the stories of five activists who embody WITNESS’ work and are grateful to all those who contributed their time and creativity. And most of all, we’re thrilled that the activists themselves are happy with the video. “The video is fantastic,” Mary noted. “It is so empowering and makes me proud to be affiliated with WITNESS.”

For more behind-the-scenes photos, visit our Flickr site.

Hannah Ayers is the Creative Projects Associate at WITNESS, where she produces videos, plans special events, and contributes to communications and fundraising events. 

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