Documentary As A Collective Dialogue?

Embracing This Labor Of Love

While working with my graduate students and talking about expanding our notions of what we can accomplish with documentary film, I think about this life I’ve chosen as an independent film and media artist. Since values play such a fundamental role in the work I do and how I do it, I wonder about the phrase “a labor of love,” and how easily it is used, often ruefully, in our field.

My long time colleague, Louis Massiah, the founder of Scribe Video Center in Philadelphia succinctly states a moral foundation for documentary creation:

“As a filmmaker, I am very interested in men and women who have made a conscious decision to dedicate their lives to work toward a higher, more civilized humanity,” he says. “In many ways, our society rewards us for accepting the status quo, so it takes great courage, and often times great personal costs, to dare to challenge the society to change; to progress to something better; to be more humane; to work for a society free from oppression.”

There is no reason to struggle to make any type of film all alone — especially, let’s say a short, social documentary. Since it always costs more than a non-commercial funder or nonprofit supporter is willing to invest, why not make it a fun and exciting development process while honoring the story insights that your subjects can offer?

Last summer I embarked on a new short documentary project that I made sure would have community participation baked into it. More than ever, I am drawn to inviting other people into a creative dialogue when the narrative possibilities for a film project are still open and flexible. When actively designing encounters where I can listen to, and blend into the work some of the voices and insights that remain invisible in mainstream media, I feel closer to a truth that documentary promises to achieve.

Berkeley volunteers working for the first soda tax to pass in the US

After the November 2014 election, The Ecology Center in Berkeley had saved a little bit of money to make a short film about the local Measure D Campaign to tax the distributors of sugar-sweetened beverages (i.e. soda) in the city. This modest local tax was on the ballot to raise one-to-two million dollars annually, and be earmarked to pay for cooking and gardening programs in the public schools. During the Great Recession, these pioneering Berkeley public school nutrition programs had slowly been defunded by changes in the federal SNAP grants that had supported them earlier.

With its millions in the pocket, the beverage industry fought other local efforts to tax soda in cities like San Francisco and Richmond, CA. To be sure, it startled California policy watchers when Measure D won in Berkeley — the first in the United States. In those few tense days remaining in the run-up to the election, the “Yes On D” campaign was able to fund me to shoot documentary footage leading to what would be a climatic victory on November 4.

Over several years, I had built relationships with the members of the Berkeley Food Policy Council while making my episodic documentary Lunch Love Community. They trusted me as an ally, even though I have always been more of an observer to their deliberations than an advocate. There is a fine line to walk between being perceived as an advocate and being recognized as an independent observer, trusted to present the truth as she sees and hears it.

Yet, as my film practice now evolves across new platforms and channels, I am exploring another way to define how a community story ­– with many, diverse and interconnected social actors — can evolve into a media work.

My experiences tell me that dialogue is a powerful force to enhance film viewing experiences. There is the dialogue with my own self, with friends, and with a wider community of allies. When the moment comes to let go of the project and let it fly, there is the dialogue with the wider world. It is that much more exciting and meaningful to have a conversation about a film — with other people in a real place — than to simply consume it, digest it and forget it.

If the film attracts you, there may be a part of you that desires to step into it. You want to have an emotional stake in it. You want to share it and, even if for a little while, make it a part of your life.

Involving yourself with an artwork is the beginning of a new friendship.
November 5, 2014 Measure D victory press conference

In his book, On Dialogue, physicist David Bohm writes about this intentional and powerful process of the dialogue:

“The object of a dialogue is not to analyze things, or to win an argument, or to exchange opinions. Rather, it is to suspend your opinions, and to look at the opinions — to listen to everybody’s opinions, to suspend them and to see what all that means. If we can see what all our opinions mean, then we are sharing a common content, even if we don’t agree entirely. It may turn out that the opinions are not really very important — they are all assumptions. And if we can see them all, we may then move more creatively in a different direction…and out of the whole thing, truth emerges unannounced — not that we’ve chosen it.”

It’s interesting to really discover for yourself how participatory media making is about inviting people into the story-making process. I design formal conversations about what the film might be on the screen, where it could circulate, and what its purpose might include for the future. Since everyone has an opinion and point of view, I get curious — especially when their perceptions don’t match my own preconceptions. Eventually, these insights, which emerge from an active listening process, will infuse the project’s narrative structure in small and large ways that are never evident at the beginning of my production process.

Images from “Berkeley vs. Big Soda” short documentary

Several months later, the time was found and a bit of funding came in to begin shaping and editing the short film about Measure D, titled Berkeley Vs. Big Soda. I worked with my colleagues at The Ecology Center to gather eight activists who had worked on the Measure D campaign. I designed a two-hour workshop for them, and facilitated it using a process called “card-storming.”

I’ve used card-storming by myself and with other groups of individuals — artists, organizations, students and academics, community stakeholders — when we need to generate ideas outside our own comfortable ways of thinking and perceiving. This is not brainstorming. It is more like a game that we can play quickly and efficiently with one another. The time flies, and the process is deeply satisfying. After two hours working together, we will have produced a collection of ideas that will be clustered and mapped out into simple-to-comprehend categories.

This process always demonstrates the magic of collective intelligence.

Introverts and extroverts have an equivalent voice. People who might not know what they think or what to say find that, all of a sudden, ideas gush out. Everyone has something to contribute, and they all find expression in the form and template of card-storming.

At the beginning of the session, I explained to the group what their participation would mean as I was beginning to edit the pieces of documentary ephemera and create the story. I gave them a framing question for their consideration: “I would feel satisfied and inspired if this film would…” (fill in the blank)

Next, I asked participants to think about what they would like to see in the story itself, where it could go, and how it could be used. I asked, “what are some of your thoughts, feelings and experiences from the campaign that you can still remember six months later?” And I asked people to reflect on what ingredients helped the campaign succeed when others failed.

I handed out half-sheets of paper, and I gave people ten minutes to write three-to- five word headline-style ideas on paper with the fat colored markers I distributed. “As many as you can,” I said, “don’t over-think them.”

The “Berkeley vs. Big Soda” participatory cardstorming workshop

Then, the participants paired up to quickly talk through their ideas with each other. In this phase, they had fifteen minutes to discuss and blend their ideas together — through rewriting them on new half-sheets, or, together, coming up with new ideas.

People love this activity because it is a “job.” Self-consciousness is forgotten in order to complete the task at hand, in the time allocated. I asked each pair to generate at least ten to fifteen combined headlines together.

From there, the most interesting and fun part of this process got underway: I asked the pairs to send up to the wall their “best idea.” Then, a “provocative idea.” We followed that with a “unique idea.” Half-sheets filled the wall.

We looked them over for a moment, and I stepped away to the back of the room. Their next task was to start rearranging the half-sheets into columns of similarity. People love to organize, find patterns and look for structural coherency. It is what we do naturally as human beings.

A sense of urgency and creativity kicked in. There was excitement in the air. Half-sheets were being moved around. People were talking to one another, asking questions, engaging with the headlines taped on the wall. They were seeing their ideas merge into the greater whole. More half-sheets were taped up, and positioned into emerging subject columns.

When the columns began to cohere and make sense, we put a fresh half-sheet at the top of the column with a symbol on it — square, heart, triangle or star. Then, the group named the columns. Some people are really great at this headline naming, and others like to tweak the names. This phase is a powerful part of the process because it tells us immediately how well our card-storming is working for everyone involved.

By this point as we began to wrap up the process, people were out of their seats, strolling along the wall, moving sheets back and forth. The column names that emerged were offering new ways to re-position some of the idea headlines. The process opened up different and stronger relationships among thoughts and possible directions.

What happened at the end of the session? As always, when I use this method, I was astounded how complex and evocative ideas can be communicated in succinct and simple language, and in a collaborative workshop context. All the insights that individuals pull out of themselves can be expressed and visualized on interconnected pathways.

We ended the workshop with a sharing of the common content we generated, and how it would shift the story creatively and with a sense of a common purpose and direction. Together we were able to complete a structural map in two hours, and all eight columns elegantly expressed the hopes and dreams of my original prompt question. No one sensibility was left out, and every fragment was filtered through conversation and deliberation.

All creativity is a labor of love when it is a collective dialogue.

On March 28 The Ecology Center launched Berkeley Vs. Big Soda (2016) online so that people around the country can watch+share it, get inspired, and use the resources on the campaign website to start soda tax conversations in their own communities.

Care to continue the conversation? I’d love to hear your thoughts and feel free to share with friends and colleagues.


Helen De Michiel is a Berkeley-based media artist, writer and educator. Her narrative, documentary and new media works have earned her a Rockefeller Intercultural Film/Video Fellowship and several NEA awards. Her episodic documentary, Lunch Love Community (2014) is in distribution with Bullfrog Films. She is currently a Visiting Professor in Critical Media Practices at the University of Colorado, Boulder. helen@thirtyleaves.org