Blending An Emulsion: Part Two

October 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

When reporter Sarah Henry’sBerkeleyside article appeared and was reposted and retweeted the morning after the Sunday PFA screening, the dialogue we had started about school food moved online.

Among the many comments about the Berkeley school lunch program – complaining, attacking, defending and explaining ­- a few commentators just said thanks to the chefs for making this program work each day for their kids.

To my surprise, these online discussions spread and kept on going for another three days. The flow of commentary was intense and partisan, giving me new story ideas for the long form film still to be completed. As author Sara Miles said, “Anywhere there’s food, spirit and matter intersect.”

Now that Lunch Love Community is let loose online, Sophie and I as independent filmmakers and artists hold no power over the way in which the webisodes can be used or repurposed. Their status as precious objects, to be sold, bought, or controlled has vanished. On the Internet, we’ve traded ownership for free-ranging access to dialogue and action. My reality is that my documentary work grows now in the context of an expansive conversation that knows no limits, and where the distinction between process and product is continuously dissolving.

Yet, the webisodes have become more valuable than I’d thought possible, inviting real life involvement beyond a click: from reading a blog, to watching a short film, going to a meeting, signing on to a committee, and creating a new local policy that could affect thousands of students. Sophie calls the webisodes “tools” for anyone to use as they wish. In this evolving media economy, documentary is becoming a downloadable app to sharpen focus and provoke change.

The movement of media online will be in flux for a long time to come. As collaborator and best friend forever, the Internet comes with a price, one whose mercurial and startling needs and desires demand constant attention, exploration, and energy.

Designer Bruce Mau, author of An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth, said that now “it’s our job to jump fences and cross fields.” Digital culture, with its openings and obstacles, has obliged me to make radical changes in how I create my media work. I make mistakes faster and correct them even faster, and I connect my work to forces way outside the screen, the theater, and narrow assumptions.

After the Pacific Film Archive screening I saw how Lunch Love Community reflects its subject both in process and spirit. The physicality, the drama and the fragility of the real, and to many, imperfect Berkeley School Lunch Program – an institutional service fighting to exist within a system of precarious and uncertain resources draws me back to the intersection of food, matter and spirit. Its magic comes from its “wabi,” the flaws that reveal the human touch and the striving to do good.

Conflict is no longer only constructed in the narrative of a documentary’s structure. It now spills out way beyond the screen. How we engage with critics, blogger journalists, commentators and passionate participants will reveal new relationships to non-fiction filmmaking and its transformation emerging now on the Internet.

In my experience, it is every documentary filmmaker’s aspiration to transform consciousness by presenting alternative ways of seeing or doing things in life as it is actually lived and struggled over. When there is an audience to speaks its mind to you, around you, and beyond you, that emulsion you have worked so hard to blend together will hold, lose its delicate fragility, and become more potent than you had ever imagined it to be.

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Blending An Emulsion: Part One

October 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

Why were we screening short web documentaries for an audience in a traditional university museum film theater if they could easily see them on the Internet any time?

This was the question I wanted to answer honestly for the Lunch Love Documentary Project as my co-producer Sophie Constantinou and I were laying out the elements to design a two-hour event for our Pacific Film Archive screening in February 2011.

Steve Seid, video curator at the PFA and clever wordsmith, called this screening and community gathering a “Media Social.” We set up the event as a public expression of stories and issues that now surround food reform, and in particular, how these topics have played out in Berkeley, where I live, and have been making the Lunch Love Community documentary project since 2009. Sophie and I wanted this first public screening-event to be inviting and familiar to the community, but also slip into the mix a few, riskier and unpredictable combinations with a Berkeley flavor in which film, performance, and town hall meeting could spark something exciting and memorable.

Lunch Love Community — a series of short webisodes that we’ve been giving away online since December 2010 to anyone who could use, post or burn them to a DVD — has been an emulsion made up of separate and distinct elements. Like oil and vinegar, movies and the Internet, collaboration and creative autonomy, we are working with materials and processes that don’t naturally combine smoothly. Emulsions can be fragile and unstable, or they can cohere, with a lot of rapid whisking, into a thick and rich new substances.

For the people who came out to sit together in a dark theater on a sunny and warm mid-February afternoon, I wanted to offer a more expansive, live community experience than could be had on a small digital screen. Ever since we’d been making, showing and using documentary film in new spaces, combining both the virtual and real, I’ve tried to retain a connection to familiar ways of approaching, watching, and considering the film experience — no matter how far and wide our web films travelled online. Bodies and minds together in a dark theater for a couple of hours is still one of the most powerful ways to connect and imagine alternative realities.

Around 150 people showed up to see the short films, ranging from 3 to 10 minutes in length, and listen to four speakers we invited from our community: Joy Moore, community food activist; Stephen Rutherford, elementary school teacher; Bonnie Christensen, Executive Chef for the School Lunch Program; and Charlotte Biltekoff, Professor of American and Food Studies at UC Davis. In the intervals between films, each of the speakers would briefly comment on one of four framing questions that linked them individually through their work, to one of the themes around food, education and school lunch reform that got its start here in Berkeley.

I was curious to explore how, in our super social-mediated world, people are now interacting and engaging with one another and the films in different environments. What would happen when individuals came together in a dark room to enter the magical world of film, and after, break away and interact with experts about real social issues and problems?

How then, to capture that energy, and move those conversations on to the Internet, where the films could be watched again in a completely different space and framed in a completely different context where they were just beginning to generate attention? This was the transmedia experience I was looking for as a filmmaker — one that was solid, grounded in real people’s lives and work, and where form follows function.

The structure we had designed for the PFA screening could not contain our speakers’ needs to digress, question, or defend the school lunch transformation in Berkeley. Following the first webisode The Parent Factor, and commenting on the question, “What are You Up Against?” Stephen Rutherford used his ten minutes to point out, in a heartfelt, digressive monologue, how the promises of the lunch program, while being touted and celebrated, were not actually being realized effectively at his elementary school.

Chef Bonnie Christensen watched and listened to him. Her anger was visible as she took notes on what she was hearing as an exaggerated, public misrepresentation of the facts. After the next short film, The Labor of Lunch, Chef Christensen spoke to her framing question, “What is the Future?” in a way we hadn’t expected — by delivering a blazing, improvisational rebuttal to Rutherford’s comments. Berkeley schoolteachers in the audience then took the mike to add their pointed responses, both pro and con, to a debate we hadn’t anticipated.

Real life experiences, strong feelings, and unpredicted controversy erupted out of the containers we had designed to hold these passionate voices. I wished I could have pulled out my video camera (which I did not have with me) to capture this exchange — individuals in the audience getting excited and engaged as they asserted their thoughts, and brought their experiences to bare in front of others. This was Berkeley in action – a city of fearless idealists and opinion makers with the drive and courage to examine and try to fix the flaws they had uncovered. An alive and present force of real life concerns and conflict flooded over the films, and came together in an inadvertent demonstration of the confusing and messy processes it takes to make change on a community level.

Here was what we had hoped to stimulate- “citizen participation.” The films encouraged people to imagine new possibilities for children, for education, for beautiful food that awakens their kid’s appetites and senses. The event led us to revisit the assumptions and ideals of the school lunch reform movement, which in turn opened onto a larger, more free-ranging conversation about how little time children get to eat and play at school, how pressured teachers feel now with disappearing resources, and in this time of shrinking resources, how to work on educational equity in racially and class-divided neighborhoods.

Jumping Fences – A day in October

October 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

I drive to casual carpool at the North Berkeley BART station, pick up two riders, we cross the bridge and stop at the corner of Howard and Fremont Streets in San Francisco where I drop them off.

I continue on to Citizen Film offices in the Mission district to work with my producing partner, Sophie Constantinou, on title and graphic finishes for the first batch of Lunch Love Community webisodes. Things feel urgent because we’re screening two of them for the first time that night at the Berkeley Film Foundation fundraiser being held at the David Brower Center in downtown Berkeley.

Film Fund Photo

I also have to proofread my latest California Council on the Humanities grant proposal, which we would be submitting that day through Citizen Film as the sponsoring organization.

Six web movies are now completed, between three and six minutes in length. It’s taken several weeks of working with the raw documentary material to figure out the form and understand the story of each piece alone and in the larger context of the whole group. I’m excited about the next six that we are making. Maybe it’s like writing songs for an album.

I keep in mind as I work, that each short piece resembles a necklace, and there could be only a few carefully selected beads to string along on it. Each bead is a shot, a piece of interview, or dialogue, music, sound or graphic text. Since mid-August we’ve spent our time working with the pattern and rhythm of each film, and then editing and shaping each one uniquely to its story and theme.

Mike Shen, our editor, would review the materials we’d pulled, and sequence them into a narrative or proposition that the web movie could be organized around. In a slow evolution with a few crucial leaps forward in the last two months, our vision and input has worked harmoniously with Mike’s considerable editorial abilities. It’s been a very disciplined process of addition and subtraction while bringing each element into play precisely.

We’d reached a turning point recently with this project – one that I’ve watched come into focus over the last several months. It’s been evolving into a three-dimensional collaboration. And more than ever, I understand how its success depends on the quality of the trust relationships we are building and growing.

Lunch Love Community now involves several dedicated people and organizations to make it happen in as many layers as necessary, and to give it weight and endurance among the ephemera of the web. Because of the complexity, cost, risk and continuous need to create an audience or community through social media streams, I’ve brought the project to my colleagues at Citizen Film and Media Working Group, and they decided to join me in its production. Sophie, who has been shooting, is now my co-producer and webisode project co-director. Jean Donohue, filmmaker and founder of Media Working Group is the executive producer.

I leave the Citizen Film office as Sophie is burning the exhibition DVD to bring over to Berkeley later that day. The issue of scale is fascinating — that is, the jump from creating a moving image on a laptop, to experiencing it with a group for the first time on the large screen with surround sound. I’m relieved to see that Sophie has confidence that the webisodes will work well in a theatrical setting, even though we’d designed them with an eye for small computer and mobile device screens.

We meet in the Brower Center lobby– our panel moderator Mark Fishkin, executive director of the Mill Valley Film Festival, Abby Ginzberg, documentarian and the main organizer of this fundraiser for the Berkeley Film Fund, filmmaker Rick Goldsmith who had just returned from a screening of his film The Most Dangerous Man in America, about Daniel Ellsberg, and Daniel Ellsberg himself who had just returned from speaking in England. Also a Berkeley resident, he’s been busy recently speaking out about WikiLeaks.

The Most Dangerous Man in America was a 2010 Academy Award nominee, and the intense gravitas among the Berkeley social issue documentarians in attendance at the event is palpable to me. I am nervous and find myself at the periphery of the reception, an observer rather than a circulator.
Abby included me and Sophie onstage to discuss how Lunch Love Community was presenting a local Berkeley story to the world through internet media exhibition and distribution; Rick and Daniel Ellsberg were placing their film within recent global events impacted by WikiLeaks releasing documents, much like Ellsberg had done with the 1970 Pentagon Papers.

I set up the webisodes succinctly. They seemed to play nicely for this audience, and I appreciated Phil Perkins’ sound design more than ever, especially to be able to notice the audio subtleties that are missed in the YouTube translation.

Berkeley filmmakers, especially those clustered at the Zaentz Media Center are a tough group to please. They are highly accomplished and known throughout the world for long form documentaries about complicated and provocative subjects. Several of them came to the event to support the Foundation, or because the Foundation had supported them. They’re scattered among the politicians, media people and business folk who believe that giving modest grants to local film production is a worthy and important activity.

Sophie explains the reasoning behind making the webisodes and the intention to create pieces that can touch and support advocates for food reform anywhere that there is access to a computer. She connects in tone and stance to younger people there who get what we are trying to do with this experiment, and appreciate the lightness in our mode of offering the work.

I listen and watch the audience carefully. Most of the questions are directed to Daniel Ellsberg, but a few filmmakers worry aloud about what internet delivery and distribution will do to the theatrical, big screen, communal experience. I think that we try and explain that it shouldn’t be an either/or proposition, but simply that the nodes of entry to a media experience have expanded and become more layered and participatory.

I am neither particularly comfortable nor overly anxious, an interesting combination of moods. My overall sense is that we are in the process of shaping a new pathway to reach people who might never be especially interested in documentary. And we are giving the webisodes away for free to anyone who wants to use them.

After the event ends, and people stop by to say hello and wish us well with the project, I find myself trying to take a detached perspective on the evening’s dialogue about the art and form of documentary as it evolves around new media interfaces and delivery systems. It was a moment in which I was pivoting between two different realities, generations, expectations and methods of approaching the question of how to sustain a strong documentary practice now.

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