Critical Approaches to Culture + Communications

A Weblog by Ron Burnett (Founded in 1994 and now celebrating 23 Years!!)

This site began as one of the first academic sites in Canada when the World Wide Web was in its early phase of development. I have maintained it through many iterations since 1994.

Video/Film: From Communication To Community (2)

The best known experiment carried out by the people associated with Challenge for Change occurred on Fogo Island off the east coast of Canada. Even at the present time the event is recalled with a great deal of fondness by Fogo Islanders. (Scroll down to the middle of the web page.)

Does this then suggest that we have a good example of the possible impact on the communities involved of work with media like film and video? On the surface it does. An often debated problem which arises needs to discussed however. What are the origins of the desire to go outside of one's own community and address the needs of others? How can we evaluate, and from which vantage point can we assess, the impact of a project like this one?

The answer to the first question is complex and cannot be fully explored here. Suffice to say that there are numerous examples of government organizations whose sole raison d'être is to nurture projects in poorer communities in Canada and elsewhere. The premise that these projects will improve the living standards of the community they are located in is fundamental to the thinking which makes them possible in the first place. Some of the projects arise out of pure necessity but can the same be said of film or video? Surely there is a substantial difference between the creation of images and the building of houses. But what is often overlooked is that the former is being created and sustained by an ideological concern to transform members of the community at the level of their own thoughts about themselves, and in a self-reflexive twist, about the way they have arrived at the insights which the process is encouraging. This could be put another way. Fogo Islanders were encouraged to examine what they were going through both as they were filmed and afterwards. They became viewers and producers of images. This foregrounded to them problems which they had perhaps thought about before but never really confronted. How did the Film Board respond to this changed reality? What continuing role did the Board play within the new context which they had helped to construct.

Clearly one of limitations of this approach is that financing will only be made available for as long as the project itself exists. Neither the government nor the Board could afford to stay in Fogo, to live the changes, to live with the changes and thus over time develop an in-depth evaluation of the long term impact of their work. Another limitation is that the reports we have on the changes come from the Board and from interviews conducted by Board members.

It should be clear by the now that the vantage point we can take to evaluate the process is not as easily constructed as one might think. Fogo Island remains very disadvantaged. The Film Board continues to make films and videos. The gap which first existed has only been marginally bridged.

What if we were to examine this project as educational and pedagogical in design and effect? Challenge for Change could legitimately argue that they provided tools of expression to people who'd never had them before. They could argue that there was an inherent democratic spirit to the process which at least opened up the possibility of political change. They could point to their experiment as a vast improvement on what is usually available through more conventional means and through mainstream media.

But there is another point. How can filmmakers from a city like Montreal know and understand the needs, the language, the intuitions, the perspectives of people from another community? The encounter between two cultures involves a complexity which the creative process often makes difficult, in part because of the complexity of the differences, but also because the instruments being used focus problems in a rather unique way. Colin Low has described how he tried to discuss the best approach to filming the Fogo Islanders with community leaders and other potential participants in his project. These discussions, he said, were the basis upon which the films were made. This strategy, which includes repeated interviews and evaluation of the results, is meant to provide a voice to people whose voices have been dispossessed.

Clearly there is a contradiction here since the dispossession is somehow being lifted by the arrival of the film crew. Why has their impact been such an important one? How do they know? Often, the desire to confirm and reaffirm the validity of the work leads to an attribution of effect simply because the media are experienced as exciting by the participants in the process.

The evaluative mechanisms which are available are extremely limited. Perhaps the films themselves should be allowed to tell the tale. Perhaps, as present day video workers so often assert, it is what the people do with the medium which should the basis for an evaluation of the import and effect of the projects undertaken. We can learn a great deal from how the videos are used in the community. But it is difficult to evaluate the experience of others, the different and multiple ways in which they translate their experience into words, into an intelligible discourse. And the crucial word here is intelligible, since it is the assumption of the videoworker that the communication must have some meaning. He or she expects a result which a non-participating viewer could and must understand in order to legitimate the project.

Thus the Fogo Island films should be able to cross the boundary between Newfoundland and Montreal and Toronto and Vancouver and other smaller regions of Canada, should communicate across a complex social and cultural divide. This imperative to communicate must be understood as one of the driving forces behind the experiment. Paradoxically,the Fogo Islanders are being put in a rather ambiguous position because of it.

To be continued.....