|English | Español||July 31, 2014 | Issue #67|
How I Became a “Recovering Documentary Filmmaker” and Learned to Reach a Wider Public
The School of Authentic Journalism Saved My Life: Your Donations Make It Possible
Greg Berger convenes the Viral Video workgroup at the 2012 School of Authentic Journalism in Mexico. DR 2012 Noah Friedman-Rudovsky.
I read stories of the steady growth of autonomous indigenous movements in Southern Mexico in local free newspapers, on flyers in bookstores, and in mass emails that I read on my black and white computer screen. I was dying to see what was going on for myself. Soon after, a friend of mine invited me to accompany him to Mexico to work on his film. So I put up a sign that said YARD SALE outside my front door, and sold all of my worldly possessions out of my living room window. After I realized that I had accidentally sold my landlord’s sofa, I knew that I had better not come back.
So at the age of 24 I moved to Mexico, my video camera in hand, to cover the many emergent social movements in the region. I produced several documentary films, which I sold to University libraries in the United States. Although I was able to make ends meet, not many people saw my films, which I assumed must have been an indicator of just how very important they were.
In 2003 I took a few weeks off from planning and making “serious” documentaries about movements. I was angry about the invasion of Iraq and I wanted something to lighten my heavy heart. I wanted to shoot a comedy. So I got dressed up as a tourist and made a video about a desperate “gringo” in Mexico selling gum on Mexico City buses to raise money for a movement to push then President George W. Bush from office. Making that video was the most fun I had had in years.
Just a few months later I took a VHS tape of this video, called “Gringo-thon” to the house of an acquaintance named Al Giordano. Like me, Al was an exiled New Yorker. He also had years of experience in both community organizing and journalism. I had met him a few years earlier in Chiapas, and I had followed the birth and rapid growth of his online newspaper Narco News.
Al laughed hard when he watched the video. And he said something that surprised me. “That’s Authentic Journalism! You have to apply to The School of Authentic Journalism!”
My inner compass had been suddenly demagnetized. Journalism, or at least the kind I practiced when making my 30-minute documentaries, was serious stuff, I thought. And this funny video of mine wasn’t journalism: it was art!
But I did apply to the school, and a few months later I found myself in Bolivia with dozens of other young journalists and movement leaders. One of them was named Oscar Olivera. He was a union organizer and a key figure in the 2000 peoples’ movement against water privatization in the city of Cochabamba. He was a professor at the school. Despite my ambivalence, Al Giordano asked me to show my film at that year’s school, and Oscar was one of the people that saw it.
Oscar has witnessed firsthand the horrors of economic inequality and authoritarian rule. But Oscar knows that what motivates people to interrupt their daily lives and confront the systems that lord over them is the universal human desire for a happier and more joyful life. Oscar is passionate about people and the great things they can achieve when they get organized to make their lives better. Oscar asked me to tell the story of peoples’ movements in Bolivia in a video that was just as funny as “Gringo-thon.” It was my first experience using comedy to tell the story of a peoples’ movement.
To my great pleasure and surprise, more people wanted to see these kinds of videos than the funeral dirges that I had previously produced.
Al and Oscar and The School of Authentic Journalism radically changed the direction of my work. Never before has our world been saturated with so much noise, so many competing images, and to tell stories that command attention, stories that move people to action and carry movements step by step to victory is no easy task. “Struggle should be joyful,” says Oscar, and it is something we always keep in mind when producing videos for Narco News TV and in the Viral Video group within the School of Authentic Journalism that I have been privileged to co-chair since 2010.
Our scholars have used comic art, parody, and other dynamic production strategies to tell the stories of peoples’ movements. Making videos that are sometimes funny, always entertaining, and yet always insightful, has allowed us to speak to an audience far broader than the limited circles usually reached by journalists who cover movements. We have spent years walking alongside social movements and worked together to grow their struggles. Unlike other journalism schools, we also teach our scholars techniques to help their work find new audiences through strategies ranging from street level distribution of DVDs to unlocking the secrets of making a video go viral on YouTube.
Just a few nights ago at an outdoor screening, I listened to a brave man named Don Melchor Flores as he told his story to a crowd of people. His words cut through the dark chill of a Mexico City autumn evening. Melchor told the story of the forcible disappearance of his son at the hands of corrupt police, and how last year he and thousands of other people affected by the Mexican Drug War began a long process of becoming organized to end the war. The attention and silence of his listeners was absolute as Melchor spoke.
The audience had just seen, prior to his speaking, a video produced by our scholars. At our last J-School, Melchor collaborated with our scholarship recipients to produce a story that made fun of the ignorance of commercial media while telling the story of his own struggle with urgency and reverence. Melchor’s story is his, but the way our scholars told that story sharpened the focus of his listeners.
This kind of silence and attention does not occur easily or automatically in our world of media saturation. In just a week since the video, titled Foreigner Watch, went up on the Internet, more than 17,000 people have already seen it. That fast reach to a large audience never happened with any of my “serious” documentaries. The humor of the video catches peoples’ attention, and once attentive, this new audience listens with absolute attention to Melchor. I could feel this happen in my gut, live and in person as Melchor spoke the other night to an audience captivated by a video produced by our scholars.
There is no other school on Earth that I know of that teaches journalists and organizers how to do this. This project must grow and thrive. The survival of this school depends on you. Please support the work of the school by making a donation today. You can do it online at this link:
Or you can send a check to:
The Fund for Authentic Journalism
PO Box 1446
Easthampton, MA 01027
And if you think the School of Authentic Journalism could help you in your work as it helped mine, applications are still available for the April 2013 session, by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Completed applications are due November 18, just a month from now. So don’t delay!
School of Authentic Journalism, Class of 2004
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism