Lights, Camera, Social Action: The Disposable Film Festival

With our world’s amazing technology making spectacular cameras small, cheap and ubiquitous, new types of moviemaking (and, by extension, moviemakers) are proliferating.

From the highest-powered film industry vets to those picking up a camera for the first time, everyone is excited to figure out the best way to utilize the many tools available to them. As managing director of The Disposable Film Festival (DFF), which celebrates films made on low-cost, easily accessible video-capture equipment like cell phones and pocket cameras, I’m more excited than ever about the possibilities for this more diverse—and potentially more democratic—film community.

When I joined DFF it was not the technology that attracted me, but the amazing stories that wouldn’t have been told (or even attempted to be told) with more mainstream professional and prosumer cameras. After reviewing thousands of “disposable” films each year, I can say unequivocally that the most interesting films have a great story that is made possible by the devices on which they are shot. Disposable moviemakers use the aesthetics and constraints of their chosen cameras to their advantage, not just treating it like a stand-in for a more expensive device.

New Access, New Moviemakers
Ever-expanding access means that the films being made today are more varied in perspective than ever before. It’s not a matter of when disposable moviemaking will become mainstream; films made using nonexistent budgets, great ideas and inexpensive cameras already are mainstream.

With the easy accessibility of moviemaking tools, the world has seen some really interesting social action films that have spurred and stoked change, particularly with the Occupy movement and Arab Spring. Activists and mission-driven organizations for whom documenting their causes for the wider public was out of reach only a few years ago now have easy access to the tools they need to get their messages out into the world.

The power of these tools in social action films is that they allow moviemakers to document different perspectives on private issues, like domestic violence or health concerns, in a way that a big crew cannot. An individual moviemaker with a small, unobtrusive device can ask questions of people in power, access spaces not open to someone with a press pass and a hulking camera or position himself on the frontlines of a protest to humanize the people involved without risking thousands of dollars and becoming a target. In short, they allow us to tell stories that would otherwise not be told. And it’s these stories that can be a powerful catalyst for social change.

Plenty of activists and advocacy groups are doing amazing work and not documenting it, or else they’re falling into the trap of doing what they would have done on paper or in person: Plopping their president or program director in front of a potted plant and a beige wall to reel off the organization’s mission statement.

We know it is not simply a matter of having access to a camera that keeps people from making advocacy films. In many ways, increased access to cameras and editing software has generated pressure to create the next big advocacy movement, sometimes at the expense of story and basic editing and visual communication skills.

Criticism of oversimplification and the efficacy of so-called “slacktivsm” aside, the sheer numbers associated with the wildly high viewership of online videos like KONY 2012 creates added pressure to not only tell a story, but to make it simple—and get 100 million people to view it.

Tension Between Storytelling and Mission
Among those who follow advocacy film, the tension between mission and storytelling is a hot topic. Most documentary directors have had the experience of chasing that perfect nonprofit or advocate, only to have to deal with strict requirements for what he or she will say or even specific requests for how the film should be made. As Elizabeth Creely—a writer and member of the Bay Area Coalition for Our Reproductive Rights—explains, with so much noise out there, your window for grabbing the public’s attention can be extremely small. So many moviemakers find themselves paralyzed by the desire to get their message out perfectly, often at the expense of the story.

Focus on Story, Not Technology
It is easy to think that, because you’re using a camera with only a few buttons, the process can be a bit more laissez faire. But it’s precisely because you have more freedom from technical constraints that you should take more time to develop a really great story. A phone and the wherewithal to start filming during an air raid or interview a protestor who later gets arrested does not turn your footage into a story; such standalone clips just get absorbed into the online noise. Plan meticulously, as you would for any film or article.

Having done both traditional and disposable advocacy moviemaking as a lone producer, I can say that a simpler camera paired with a good audio recorder is much less complicated than a bigger rig, but the work of editing and storytelling isn’t going to be any simpler. Shorter and more visceral does not mean faster and easier. But now, in our more accessible film community, you can get your hands on better editing tools, examples of the types of shots you might want to use and tutorials to get you back to the story when the tech gets in the way.

Start Shooting
I’ve had many conversations with advocates who know the message they need to tell but aren’t totally sure what their exact angle is going to be or how to employ that animation resource the nonprofit they’re documenting is really keen on using. While you do need to think about story and the message you want to get across, the medium of disposable movies allows you to make a film without the bureaucracy of traditional moviemaking.

Tape is cheap. If you aren’t totally sure a storyline is going to work out, shoot it and see what happens. If you’re a moviemaker, you’ll have something to show your advocate partners. If you’re an advocate, you can see what you’re working with and learn as you go. You may just need to re-shoot some scenes or cut some material if it’s not working out. Getting started in uncharted territory is one of the biggest challenges to advocacy film projects, but sometimes the only thing to do is get started.

Stick To Your Talents
A mutual lack of resources often gives activists and advocacy moviemakers a shared mentality that they have to do it all. But if you do have the option of working with other people, being a one-person band, conductor and audience is not the most effective way of going about things. Given the technologically advanced environment we now live in, the division of labor between moviemaker and advocate can be more flexible. Anyone who has uploaded a film to Vimeo and waited for the views to roll in without some sort of promotion knows it doesn’t exactly work that way. You have the ability to help other people tell better stories, and an activist’s network and promotional capabilities will be a huge asset to you when it comes time to share those stories. As the moviemaker, focus on guiding the story and creating the film, then work with a nonprofit to help get it out there.

As Ted Hope said during this year’s DFF, the new generation of moviemakers isn’t different because of their use of technology, but because they “do not ask for permission to make culture.” In the realm of social action film, this freedom from permission is especially important. If we can use this new media while still applying the same meticulous focus to story and collaborating with people from other fields, disposable film can spur social action more than ever before. MM

As managing director of The Disposable Film Festival, I lead educational programming and started the “Lights, Camera, Social Action!” initiative to encourage the production of advocacy films. As a moviemaker and media educator, I work with community and advocacy organizations in the U.S., U.K. and Ireland to teach storytelling, technical skills and feedback strategies fundamental to creating work that has a place in mainstream and public dialogue. I also lead research and applied strategy at Mule Design Studio and am the co-host of the podcast, Let’s Makes Mistakes. I tweet about film, research and social change @slowtext.

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