Freelancer Spotlight: Imen Haddad, a Tunisian filmmaker

I often hear, “How can we get Al Jazeera, BBC, or other foreign international media reporters here?” I rarely hear interest in reaching out to local journalists on the ground. That makes it hard for us to share the stories we want to share, especially with a new technology that might explore more. — Imen Haddad

If you’ve been following our work over the last two years, you’re probably familiar with our mission to foster, support and grow a global network of 360 video filmmakers — especially in regions where the VR industry is less developed.

When we first launched Contrast in early 2017, it was not always easy finding 360 video filmmakers from the regions and communities that we wanted to highlight stories from. Although 360 storytelling is increasingly becoming a more prolific medium within digital newsrooms, the content creators and consumers are still concentrated in North America and Europe.

We often faced challenges in connecting important pitches with local filmmakers in the Global South — Africa, the Middle East, South America, Asia — who had access to 360 cameras,

We decided to use this as an opportunity to create My People, Our Stories, an initiative to help train and equip local filmmakers, journalists or freelancers in regions that lacked a supportive VR industry. Now, a year and a half later, we’ve managed to build (and are still building) a network of 360 video filmmakers from all over the world.

Many of these freelancers revealed a bold and daring curiosity, by learning a new storytelling medium they were foreign to. Many became the first in their circles to experiment with 360 video.

We want to highlight some of these freelancers that have become a part of our community. This week, we’d like to introduce you to Imen Haddad, a Tunisian filmmaker who was part of our first pilot program of My People, Our Stories, where we virtually trained and equipped eight young filmmakers from different African and Middle East countries. She has published two 360 videos with Contrast, both from and about Tunisia.

Imen on set in Tunisia, filming her story on a former fisherman who know buries the bodies of migrants who wash up on shore after attempting to cross into Europe.

CONTRAST VR: How did you first start 360 video storytelling, and what did you learn?

IMEN HADDAD: I received my first 360 camera through the My People, Our Stories initiative with Contrast in 2017. My siblings and friends teased me about its extraterrestrial look. They couldn’t grasp the fact that this strange looking device could document a situation to the full extent. And quite, frankly, neither did I. I was clueless about what tripod to use, where to put the camera, where to hide, how to stitch and what to tell people around who were equally curious.

Throughout that first experience, I learned that you need to consider everything in 360 video creation. From humidity levels so the lens don’t fog, to the direction of the light, the height of the character — every little detail can make or break the story. After few months of trial and error, I also learned that conceptualizing a story in 360 is wildly different from standard video. Writing for 360 entails much more awareness of your environment. I had to visit the locations multiple times to figure out when people are most active, where I should hide when the camera is rolling, and where to place the camera for the most effective and stunning shot. The medium also needs more meticulous handling in post especially [as] files can get quite large, therefore I learned to focus my shots and audio as much as possible to avoid unnecessary content that might distract the editor from the heart of the story.

Imen Haddad’s first 360 video, following a Tunisian woman who works to restore Tunisian heritage.

What are some of the barriers to entry in your region when it comes to storytelling tools like 360 video?

Not to validate the many stereotypes about working in Africa, but some stereotypes do affect our lives as African freelancers. For example, internet connectivity and even electricity availability can limit my ability to stitch and share large files on time. Access to equipment is another thing. You need to have a top-notch machine in terms of stitching. The application to stitch the 360 footage only worked with PCs at the time, so getting all the right machines and equipment was challenging.

Have you come across other 360 video filmmakers in your community?

Honestly, it’s very rare to come across. Even if they are prominent filmmakers, and I tell them that “this is my new approach,” 360 video is completely foreign to them. There is the assumption — and even I had it — that the technology and process is just too complex. Immediately, the questions come up: “How does it work? Is it a problem to get the camera across borders? Will the police make it more difficult for me?”

We still haven’t really gone the extra mile as freelancers to adopting a whole new technology. My point is that, there are certain priorities that freelancers in Africa have — to ensure the ability to create, to have security, to protect freedom of expression. Adding a whole new technology requires an additional effort and investment. Before diving into totally new horizons, first we need to lay the groundwork. At the moment, the hubs are in South Africa and Nairobi, where most of the independent filmmakers in Africa come to settle. And that’s why I find my role interesting, because a lot of countries in Africa are not being represented.

Do you feel like there is enough support for local filmmakers?

I definitely think there is not enough support. You can see a lot of deterrents and even systematic oppression when it comes to storytelling in the way I imagine it should be done. But there are homegrown efforts, to scale up the industry and to support freelancers. It’s from a grassroots level, from independent filmmakers who create collectives in order to support each other.

I work with NGOs and sometimes work at different press conferences. I often hear, “How can we get Al Jazeera, BBC, or other foreign international media reporters here?” I rarely hear interest in reaching out to local journalists on the ground. That makes it hard for us to share the stories we want to share, especially with a new technology that might explore more.

How can 360 video be used for storytelling in the African continent?

It can help expose the more hopeful side of being an African. Yes, it could be instrumental in showing the conventional stories we see about immigration, gender based discrimination, violence, etc — and I believe it is our duty to tell these stories to change the status quo in communities across the continent. However, I want to focus on exposing groups of characters who are unexpectedly changing the face of the continent. The normal people, the local people, who are tied to their communities. I think 360 video can be a way to place audiences in environments, and introduce them to characters who are not victims, but hopeful, and actively doing things to advance a certain cause.

Storytelling across the continent is undeniably striking and dynamic. With colors and bursting energy everywhere around, I am guaranteed to find a story to tell at any given day. It is due to this captivating divergence of African truths that I have committed my career to sharing more of our hopeful and mesmerizing realities.

Written by Joi Lee.