Socially-conscious moviemaking is on the rise—from thought-provoking documentaries like Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts to dramatic adaptations of real-world atrocities such as those seen in Hotel Rwanda and The Last King of Scotland. But how does a film student break into this arena?

The Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI) has provided an outlet for young moviemakers hoping to affect change in the world with the creation of the PSAid Film Contest.

Through this competition, students from around the world are invited to create a 30-second public service announcement promoting the organization’s motto of "cash is best." The top three finalists will receive a total of $20,000 in cash prizes, and the winning film will be distributed to major television networks and cable channels. CIDI director Suzanne Brooks sat down with MM to talk about the impact of film on the international relief effort and how the PSAid Film Contest can greatly enrich a student’s moviemaking education.

Jennifer Straus (MM): You’re currently accepting entries for your second annual contest. How do you see the competition evolving even more in the coming years?

Suzanne Brooks (SB): My hope is that the contest will continue to grow, have greater recognition and perhaps find a wider audience and list of potential participants.

MM: Why do you think film is an effective way to educate people on the issues surrounding international disasters?

SB: I think there are several reasons: We answer thousands of calls every year from people who are moved to respond to international emergencies. Invariably, it’s the images they see on TV or the Internet that move them to want to help. Whether it’s "When I saw that baby, I knew I had to do something. I imagine how I would feel if it were one of my own," or "The images of the tsunami were so surreal, I had to watch it over and over again… Then I had to do something," images are what really move people.

MM: Why did you choose to target students for the CIDI contest?

SB: University students have limitless—and often untapped—desires to do good and change the world. I want to see those efforts used to send a message, which can indeed change the world!

Since I’ve been doing this work I’ve probably answered over one million phone calls. Many of those calls are from college students who have wanted to provide assistance after disasters have struck overseas. Rather than have them undertake activities such as canned food drives or used clothing collections, which only help to impede professional relief efforts, why not give them an assignment that can make a real difference?

I feel that students are imminently capable of devising a crisp, targeted message that will move people to do the right thing. If you look on the Internet there are countless examples of the capabilities of young people. Sometimes when somebody has been doing something for a long time, it helps to see it through younger eyes!

MM: What do you look for in a submission, besides delivering CIDI’s "Cash is Best" message?

SB: I am looking for a fresh angle! I’m looking for something that can say—in a concise, 30-second spot—why we stress cash is best. I want something that will make people say "A-ha! That’s why they say cash is best!" Ultimately, I want something that will change past behaviors.

MM: What advice do you have for students looking to submit to the contest, or those interested in documenting international disasters as part of their overall work?

SB: The greatest advice ever given to me in college from a professor was to "read the newspaper—everyday." I didn’t really grasp it then, but I get it now. Even if you don’t understand why the Hutus and the Tutsis were fighting, read it anyway. Eventually it will make sense.

Read everything. Question everything. You will never learn to spell “Azerbaijan” if you only hear it on pronounced on the TV; you must read it in the newspaper. CIDI makes an effort to post not only our "Guidelines," but also articles about in-kind donations, what went well in a relief effort, what didn’t work well, what actually did more harm than good. There are many examples of lessons learned on our site. I encourage students to read all this information. It will be extremely helpful for them in developing a submission, but it will also help show them—or teach them—what’s really going on in the world and why cash is best.

For students who want to document international disasters as part of their overall work… Well, the first thing I would recommend is not picking up and going to a disaster site on your own. Disasters happen not only in a tropical paradise, but also in some very dangerous places. There are security concerns. Food, lodging and medical care are all pushed to the limit during a disaster, so you don’t want to be a burden. My best advice would be: If this is really where your passion lies, find a good international relief agency that you respect. Develop a relationship with them before disaster strikes. Sign up for your local Red Cross disaster management courses to get your feet wet.

MM: How do you think participating in a contest like CIDI’s can benefit a moviemaker’s education?

SB: It’s a challenge. A filmmaker gets 30 seconds to change the way people think about things. Giving for disasters is an emotional response. Often people give, but when you analyze the action, it’s really all about the donor. Despite what it appears to be, it’s rarely about the recipient. There are so many reasons why cash is best. If you can convince someone to change his or her behavior, the way he or she thinks or react to something in 30 seconds, then you’re destined to be a success in whatever you choose to do as a career!

For more information on CIDI and the PSAid contest, visit

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