If you can’t tell your story to captivate an audience, who will?
Coming near a theatre near you. Your story. The twists, turns, c***p you’ve been through, pain and triumph — the hero’s journey. It’s Hollywood’s formula of ‘feel good’ storytelling. Except it doesn’t always have to end that way.
Photojournalist Yannis Kontos puts himself in harms way to capture life as we don’t know it. The result is mesmerising, laid down to a thumping sound track. Thousands of images, cut in three hours, as he’s elevated from a fearless photojournalist to an award winning one.
My central question to a small gathering of postgrads revolves around Yannis et al., how outliers, those the media and politicians might constructs as others are able to move into main — M.others. Hard work, grafting, even 10,000 hours, but something makes us drawn to their work.
That Elephant in the Room
Asked to recount any memorable piece of media, journalism doesn’t get a mention. Don’t be alarmed. It’s not unusual. I’ve asked this question across different societies, media conferences and age groups. Generally, it’s the same response. Working journalists might reference the moment e.g. BBC Newsnight’s Jeremy Paxman’s fourteen times same question interview with Home Secretary Michael Howard, but a film?
Imagine asking a chef to name their favourite dish, only for them to mention the exquisiteness of landscape gardening.
Why is that?
Either journalism is missing a trick in being memorable, and you could argue why should it, or it’s misplaced the art to drive a pylon into the synapses of its recipient’s neurons. Misplaced too because in the 50s, 60s and 70s films from the likes of Tonight’s Slim Hewitt, who called himself a picture journalist or World in Action, where the Future Bourne director Paul Greengrass cut his teeth (In the US , 60 Minutes) made for good pub talk.
The general lament now for a former BBC executive, now Vice Chancellor at Goldsmith Pat Loughrey says (in video) much of what we call journalism doesn’t deserve to be called a story.
Questions about memorable media invariably yield cinema stories like Citizen Kane, 12 Years a Slave and It’s a beautiful life.
Why does cinema create such an impression, but video/ tv journalism relaying life as we know it — languishes in memory cards rather than the one, the amygdala in our heads? And yes there’s bad cinema too in distorting “based-on-a-true-story” narratives but it’s the visual, audio and textual language of cinema under consideration.
Both television and cinema are constructs, a synthesis of techniques and styles through which a events are pieced together to tell a story. Television news which shapes our lives likes a good drama just like its cinema counterpart. It seeks realism and truth yet remediates scenes nonetheless. That interview after an event, largely symbolic shots, and attenuated sequences? Television news’ constructed a language to tell stories. The operative word here is constructed. It stripped the wide shot, medium shot, and close up from cinema’s language, and attempted to constrain its meaning.
Sixty-odd years ago an editor from Life magazine, writes Francis wheen in Television thought of how “the story telling techniques of the movies or modern novels could be transferred to television documentaries”, as well as journalism. Robert Drew’s endeavours would yield Direct Cinema — a style of filmmaking that with new cameras and sound mimicked cinema; hence its name.
Its impact on moving image films, particularly documentaries was seismic. Journalism, Drew told me, didn’t know what to do with it. A close knit group of friends that included Maysle brothers, Leacock and Pennebaker, they called themselves journalists, but their craft work found its way into theatres.
More recently, an unconnected group of journalists winning international awards, whose work was approved by the editors would describe their influence as cinema.
History being re-lived.
I have been a journalist since 1987 when, as an undergraduate, I got my first break on a BBC local radio station where I learned the craft of audio journalism. I moved to some of the best television media around e.g. Newsnight, ABC News, Channel 4 and then became one of the Southbank Centre’s inaugural Artists in Residence. What was it about the work of some that created lasting impression that stood out, I asked?
It led me to pursue this enquiry with a doctorate? In particular, I would find out these were invariably outliers.
A number of key things framed their work.
- Storytelling Vision Ambition
- Cinema & Art — the exposure.
- Design thinking and knowledge of the digital multiverse
In a performance lecture I marked out a number of figures, some of whom I know personally e.g. Jude Kelly OBE, Travis Fox, Rob Chiu and Ibrahim Kamara of GUAP magazine. Others many of us have come to admire, like Edward Enninful — the Editor-in-Chief behind Vogue.
Condé Nast and the fashion Magazine world gave us Edward, a former fashion directed at ID for over two decades. Edward to the mainstream media looked an outsider. Yet his direction in storytelling giving centre stage to multi-cultural narratives, reworking tropes and styles, and design problem-solving moving the essence of the magazine into a multi-verse of events, has proved profitable as well as ground breaking
Edward and others’ stories, are part of M.other inspiring a new generation.
I’ll expand on the three components in a new post. In the meantime here’s some feedback from the session.
Juliette: the bits that I remember is when you spoke about how the media we most remember isn’t journalism — it’s film and photography.
Mairi: It was interesting to hear a different perspective and gain an insight into how film media shapes us.
Elis: I thought it was fascinating the way we heard about these different mediums available for storytelling and how creative storytelling can be if you really think about it.
Chloe: The bit that really peaked my interest was the Levi’s advertisement, I found it fascinating about the phenomena in social advertising and how much emotion was evoked from a powerful and outside the box campaign.
Louella: It was really interesting to think about storytelling in a completely different way. So much of what we learn here is about writing and how to convey a sense of story that way, but I realised at the end of David’s lecture that some of the most memorable stories for me were purely visual.
Naomi: Found it very insightful as I had done film in my undergrad.
…to be continued.
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is a top writer in journalism on @Medium and publishes www.viewmagazine.tv