Magazine Feature

Fresh Takes

Student filmmakers promote dialogue and activism in their communities.

"We're not here tonight to listen to the adults," Orlando tells the audience. "We really want to hear what young people have to say."

He holds up a videotape, a short documentary he and his colleagues -- Alexis, Kellon and Christine -- are producing about the criminal justice system. They are here tonight in a makeshift screening room in midtown Manhattan representing Youth Organizer Television (Yo!-TV), and are eager to exhibit their work before an audience of their peers -- approximately 25 young, dedicated media artists.

As a group, this small community embodies not only the panoramic racial and cultural diversity of New York City, but also the determination of many disadvantaged teenagers to bring their ideas and opinions to the public forum. For these young people, ages 12 to 20, the documentaries and messages they create with video technology function as high-tech calls to arms to promote dialogue, peer learning and social activism.

Prior to Yo!-TV's presentation, videos about teen pregnancy, cultural exploitation, and the media's role in glamorizing the military had already been scrutinized by the attentive audience. While the videos varied in subject, tone and technical sophistication, each relayed a distinct, hard-hitting message.

"We call ours Tough on Crime, Tough on Our Kind," announces Orlando. "In it we examine how the criminal justice system targets young people of color."

Their curiosity piqued, a few in the audience sit up and edge forward in their seats.

"Like all of you, we see a lot of what is wrong in our neighborhoods," he continues. "But so far the solutions have also been wrong. The message is one you will all understand." Orlando then hands the tape to Kellon, who pushes it into the VCR and hits 'Play.'

Tough on Crime opens with an interrogation. A young Latino male, framed in a tight close-up, peers directly into the camera and challenges the viewer:

"Why are young people of color being sent to prison when others are not being treated the same?"

"Why does the media misrepresent youth?"

"Why are those most affected by society's problems being punished?"

"Why doesn't the system do anything to fix the problems that create crime?"


And then, after a pause:

"It's about who has the power."

Tough on Crime then goes on to examine how three young people -- two African American males and one Latina woman -- became entangled in the juvenile justice system. The teenagers tell their own stories, candidly describing how their life circumstances compelled them to make poor choices. These narratives are interspersed with perspectives of city officials, social workers and community activists, who denounce what they see as the entrenched racism of the system and the scarcity of services and counseling for urban youth.

Tough on Crime covers a lot of ground in its 15 minutes, but its message comes through undiminished. And it's obvious, judging by the hands raised quickly in unison after the tape is ejected from the VCR, that the video has struck a chord with the audience.

One young girl comments on how the people and situations portrayed in the documentary could have easily taken place in any city or town in the U.S. This video should be taken on the road, says another and suggests schools and community organizations that would welcome it. Other onlookers offer suggestions and criticisms about the video's technical choices and pacing. All in all, the Yo!-TV team seems pleased that the audience has validated their hard work.

"That's part of the appeal of video education and peer filmmaking," explains Susan Siegel, co-founder of the Global Action Project (G.A.P.) a local media arts organization that is hosting tonight's screening. "Kids thrive off each other's feedback. They have such respect for each other's work. They know the kind of commitment it takes to produce a short video. It's also refreshing for them to learn from someone closer in age."

For Siegel and other educators, the empowering effect and the impact on self-esteem of peer filmmaking can't be overstated, especially when scapegoating and stereotyping of young people by the news and entertainment industry have reached new intensity. Self-representation of young people in the media can neutralize negative images. But the merits don't end there.

Many experts have praised youth-produced videos as highly effective tools to help teenagers find their voices and use them to create change in their communities. Whether in a city of 8 million or a rural community in the Midwest, neighborhoods are often underused laboratories for learning. Marginalized youth, equipped with a video camera, can transform issues that once hobbled their academic and social development -- racism, crime, stereotypes, poverty -- into opportunities for research, problem-solving and social action.


Images and Sounds of Activism

"It's difficult for young people not to be overwhelmed by our media-saturated world," says Siegel. "This problem is compounded when they don't have access to the technology or expertise that enables them to at least understand -- or respond to -- the stuff they watch and listen to every day."

Siegel joined forces with Diana Coryat to create the Global Action Project in 1991. Siegel's background in diversity training and conflict resolution meshed well with Coryat's experience in documentary production as they developed workshops and programs for young people that integrated media production with intergroup relations.

G.A.P.'s Urban Voices is an after-school program that trains low-income youth to research, write and produce videos on issues that are important to them and their communities. The students learn how to develop and facilitate workshops, using their videos to educate their peers on important social issues such as racism, poverty and violence.

G.A.P. also collaborates with community organizations around the world to produce videos that highlight dialogues in war-torn nations, including Bosnia and Northern Ireland. Peace of Mind: Coexistence Through the Eyes of Palestinian and Israeli Youth, in which three Israeli and three Palestinian teenagers use video cameras to record a year in their lives, presents a valuable and overdue youth perspective on the Middle East conflict.

"We challenge youth from different backgrounds, whether they live in New York or Jerusalem, to hold a mirror to themselves and think a lot about content and creating a safe space for dialogue," explains G.A.P. media instructor Raeshma Ravi. "The filmmakers must develop the trust in themselves and others who may share different points of view. It's wondrous to watch students become teachers."

Down the street from the Global Action Project, at the Education Video Center (EVC), Kellon of Yo!-TV sits before a video monitor, using a Macintosh-based editing system to smooth out some of the rough edges in Tough on Crime, Tough on our Kind. In addition to his interest in the technology, Kellon and his colleagues are attracted to the medium for its educational potential.

"Before we started this video, we didn't have all the answers and still don't, but we learned a lot doing it. I bet you many grown-ups don't know most of what we know. Maybe we can help teach them."

As it turns out, Yo-TV! is addressing Tough on Crime to adults, not teenagers.

"The kids in our neighborhoods already are aware of the problem," Kellon says. "We're not telling them something they don't already know. Adults are the decisionmakers, the people in power. We need to tell them what is going on in our community."

It was this level of commitment and "Do It Yourself" credo that motivated Steve Goodman when he founded the EVC almost 20 years ago. In the late 1970s, Goodman, a student at Columbia College prepping for a career in journalism, began work on a documentary project about street gangs in the South Bronx. Through his camera, Goodman took a hard, uncompromising look at these young people and the economic and social marginalization that had debilitated their lives.

Upon its completion three years later, Goodman screened the finished work for the kids in the South Bronx neighborhood and saw firsthand the transformative power of the medium.

"I think often in life we walk through things and become a little numb to problems we see everyday," Goodman says. "With a camera, you can look at something with a fresh perspective and see familiar things in a new way. The kids in the neighborhood who saw my video seemed galvanized. That's what video can do: It presents a picture, an issue to address, and then asks, 'OK, so what are you going to do about it?'"

Shelving his plans for a journalism career, Goodman founded the Educational Video Center in 1984 to teach documentary video production and media analysis to urban youth and community activists. At EVC, which is housed in an alternative public high school, students learn how to develop and facilitate workshops, using their videos to educate their peers on important issues, and to discuss strategies for activism. Goodman and his staff oversee four major programs: documentary workshop, Yo!-TV, teacher development and community organizers' TV.

The synergy between the student as video artist and the student community activist maximizes the potency of the programs. Once complete, the videotape becomes a tool for social action.

"The roles of producer and activist are concurrent," explains Goodman. "Tapes don't just get left on the shelf once they're done. Tough on Crime, Tough on our Kind will be shown at a human rights film festival in a couple of weeks and at community organizations after that. A tape we made on how to assemble gay/straight alliances has been used in many schools. Some that were made ten years ago are still in circulation. That is organizing. That is activism."


Whoever Controls the Tape Controls the Message

Several recent studies indicate that children are exposed to media at least eight hours per day through television, radio, movies, music and video games. According to the Center for Media Education, four of these hours are spent in front of the television -- approximately 1,500 hours every year, 600 more than they spend in the classroom.

The amount of time by itself, however, isn't really the issue; the racial, cultural and generational stereotypes young people are exposed to present a more serious problem. And youth are often the victim of these misrepresentations. When the news media turns its attention to issues affecting teenagers, the stories usually revolve around hateful popular music, the latest synthetic drug, or acts of extreme violence at school.

While the ability to analyze messages can blunt their negative impact, many experts are urging educators to embrace both the "deconstruction" and construction of media. Dissecting and analyzing a commercial, news report or movie is an indispensable activity, but, left unaccompanied, could frame the media exclusively as something to be distrusted. Empowering students, on the other hand, to produce their own positive messages not only enriches their understanding of various mediums but also introduces them to powerful communication tools that can be used by everyone.

"Media literacy is still a young discipline struggling to find its place," says Steve Goodman. "One of the first steps for schools is to acknowledge that print isn't the only form of literacy -- media is the language of our popular culture. While there's a definite growth in interest, schools need to make the right choices when they decide to invest in production."

Many programs, for example, tend to stress the technological/vocational aspects of the trade, not the content-focused group dynamism. A favorite tack is to build a TV studio, complete with lockdown cameras on tripods, and produce a daily news show. While such an approach may provide valuable vocational skills and fun for the students, says Dr. Renee Hobbs, professor of communications at Babson College in Massachusetts and director of the Media Literacy Online Project, it's gravely lacking as a form of expression, community engagement and social activism.

"There are so many things you can understand only by doing. Knowing how a wave form monitor works is fine, but that doesn't tap into the potential of media literacy. All messages are constructed and represent a set of choices by the filmmaker, the rap artist or advertiser. The skill of choosing is invaluable. Do students really know what it means to make choices?"

She continues: "The Educational Video Center is an exemplary model of integrating media production, analysis and giving kids the opportunity to explore their own voices, make these choices and contribute to their communities. That's a very powerful combination of elements."

EVC's Teacher Development Workshops, seminars, summer media institutes and in-school consultations give educators the framework to integrate video production, multimedia and media analysis into the classroom across the K-12 spectrum.

"To do community-based documentary work within a school setting, the schools have to be of a certain structure," says Goodman. "For example, having to get the superintendent's permission to leave the building to shoot doesn't exactly validate the community as a place of learning. So a lot of these bureaucratic and institutional structures get in the way of what could be a very popular art form."

Additional obstacles emerge over what is and is not appropriate content for students to explore. Similar to the dilemmas they face with school newspapers, educators sometimes cringe at the thought of placing video cameras in the hands of their students.

"You have to be sensitive to the issues teachers tend to face," explains Hobbs. "When you give teenagers the opportunity to use their own voices, they very well might say something that makes adults uncomfortable. They might point out the hypocrisies or fallacies of the adult-dominated society, or they might reproduce the existing power relations and make videos that are misogynistic, racist and violent."

Guidance from instructors who know how to foster student creativity and channel it constructively, therefore, becomes absolutely crucial. At G.A.P., EVC and other community media arts organizations, facilitating the production process also means respecting the students' voice -- even when their finished video may be tarnished by distortions.

At an earlier screening, the Yo!-TV team found themselves on the defensive when viewers expressed concern over the starkly racial framework of Tough on Crime, Tough on Our Kind. The producers juxtaposed an all-White lineup of "experts" with an African-American/Latino lineup of juvenile offenders, creating what some saw as a rigid and misleading portrait. What about all the activists of color who are campaigning for changes in the criminal justice system? Would it not have helped create a more accurate picture to include one White teenage offender?

Orlando at first seems a little irritated when the issue reemerges at the G.A.P. screening. "What we have portrayed in the video is how a team of young people who live in an urban neighborhood see the situation," Orlando explains sternly. "It was no oversight. We made a conscious decision to do that. We're not going to manufacture diversity."

"It's a powerful video, but any type of stereotyping can be dangerous," Susan Siegel adds later. "I would rather they contextualize the piece a little more, but debate is all part of the process. They obviously gave it some thought. These kids are learning about how their choices can influence the perspectives of people who will see their work."

Packing up his belongings after the screening at G.A.P., Orlando says he welcomes the feedback and understands why some viewers may take issue with some of his team's editorial decisions.

"That's OK. It's good that we have to defend the choices we make, but we stand by them.

When we show this video at schools and community centers, young people will understand the larger truth."

Orlando removes the videotape from his knapsack and taps it with his index finger. "This is our reality."

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