By Lorna Boschman and Venay Felton
Community Digital Storytelling grows out of our experiences in the world, shared as stories. Our strategy, as mentors developing new approaches to storytelling, is to create and hold open a receptive and welcoming space.
As a result of our choices in workshop structure, facilitators and mentors hold open a space for digital stories to develop through creative processes. Our way of working in Community Digital Storytelling (CDS) is to embrace an informal learning environment. Mentors acknowledge that everyone has a story to tell. And we are happy to listen. Other people’s stories have the potential to touch us emotionally and share their experiences in the world.
Film structure is often analyzed by looking at the character arc. The character has a starting place, encounters challenges along the way, and arrives at some form of resolution. During CDS workshops, participants go through an arc of personal transformation as telling a story requires you to examine and share your personal reality.
“Storytelling is about reflecting back a personal experience and recontextualizing that and witnessing what it was. That recontextualization can lead to extreme insights, like ‘I had no idea what that meant to me, but now I do.’ You’re putting it out there and having that chance to reflect and witness it and have other people share it and see their responses.”Jai Djwa
Participants have told us that they walk into a CDS workshop terrified yet walk out with a digital story. Part of the CDS process is to look more closely at the stories told about us. Storytellers decide which parts of the old stories they still believe and what has changed over time. They experience the inclusive atmosphere within a group of storytellers, hear challenges to unexamined ideas, share a goal to co-create a story, and move toward completion of the digital story.
The mentor supports participants in the workshop by helping them to negotiate the pathway to creating a digital story. This is a process that begins by active listening on the part of the mentor, a deep listening that gives full attention to the storyteller’s version. The mentor offers suggestions, including tropes that grow out of certain genres (don’t look behind that closed door when scary music plays in a horror film!).
In most longer CDS workshops, time is set aside at the beginning to develop each story concept before recording the footage. As storytellers identify the audience they are trying to connect with and the central themes of their story, they move forward in developing their script.
Concept Development: Nurturing ideas that lead to a story
Filmmaking is a process. We go through a series of steps, starting with brainstorming, writing, and production planning. CDS is also a process. We go through the same steps but with a different purpose. With our focus on personal transformation, we value a deeper understanding of the storyteller’s self-worth more than high production values.
“If you set up a video camera, you get a totally different, often uptight, stressed person. The minute you introduce this tiny audio recorder on the table and a little lapel mic, it becomes conversational and it’s way quicker to forget that you’re being recorded. Particularly working with seniors, I found it makes a big difference.”Lisa g. Nielsen, Our World Language
Storytellers may feel intimidated by production gear and crew-in-training who resemble an audience. Some older storytellers like to have a friend nearby when telling stories. For this reason, the recording is framed as a social occasion. The idea of teatime, having a sympathetic friend who will listen to your story, implies that the storyteller can relax and open up. The workshop process becomes a sanctuary from an indifferent world. As older community members may defer to others, it is important to encourage elders to speak with you, if they are willing and you have shown you are a good listener.
Working with older adults differs from mentoring youth. As adults, we tend to think in higher concepts, instead of remembering how things taste, feel, and smell. Adults may be thinking about issues of privilege, equity, and racial representation and wondering how to bring these concepts into their stories.
Youth may experience an arc of transformation, similar to a story arc. The personal transformation is related to finding some form of “authentic truth for someone’s experience” coming from “a deeper level than a lot of communication starts from.” The youth are reminded that doing their best is the most important part of the process. This is not the only story that they will tell so it does not have to be perfect. The inner process takes time and the story they end up telling may be different from the one they started with.
There are also generational differences between how younger and older people learn to use gear and apps. Youth tend to see handouts and guides as a waste of time, while older users and teachers find them handy. Skills exchanges work both ways. Youth tend to explore tech to learn it, and in doing so, find new ways of using the equipment or apps. They are able to teach their mentors new skills in this way. While some older participants (and mentors) are very adept in using digital technologies, many are not adept at transitioning between multiple applications and devices.
When mentors are working with youth or adults, they try to be a peer. Discussions are based on being on the same wavelength. Working with youth sometimes means trying to act as if you are their age and just one of their friends.
Sometimes people feel like they don’t have anything to say that is worth being shared. A good listener can, by asking questions and listening, bring out specific parts of the story that are important to the teller. The very personal can reflect the very universal.
Concept Development: Brainstorming and Story Circles
Generally, facilitators begin workshops with examples of digital storytelling that may interest that specific group. When asked to comment, some folks respond with detachment, sharing concepts that don’t tell much about the story. Others may have an emotional response and describe their feelings evoked by the story. This habit of commenting on stories carries forward into story creation in the workshop. By gathering knowledge from a cross-section of folks in the workshop, mentors set a foundation for developing a digital story that resonates with a diverse audience. For youth, learning to collaborate in this way can set them up to work well on creative projects.
After general introductions and looking at examples of digital stories, CDS facilitators ask people in the group to share their story with the group. When participants begin to tell a story to others in the workshop, they are able to get immediate feedback. Group discussions in Story Circles give storytellers a sense of the potential of their ideas. Story structure can be influenced by what we experience with all of our senses at a certain place and time.
Some workshops use a Story Circle to share stories within the group. This means telling your story idea to the group again and again. The process allows others to respond reflectively about how the story impacts them. It allows the teller to clarify their message. Some people come into a workshop with their script fully formed, but most have only a rough idea to start. The mentors don’t come up with ideas. Instead, they suggest the act of brainstorming.
Stories may also express our emotions and thoughts about pain and loss. Expressing our story allows us to process grief. We may not want to keep telling the same story in person; a digital story can be shown repeatedly and do its work as a story in the world long after we have moved to working on another story.
“I encourage them to really talk about the story, not so much as three distinct acts but as a story arc. What is the through-line of the story going to be? What insights do you want the audience to go away with? This usually happens in the third act. What do you want them to have experienced by the end? I encourage the students to think about that at the beginning. So story arc and story.”Mo Simpson
When youth are stuck, it seems like all of their excitement drains away. By helping them to brainstorm new story ideas or find other ways to approach their story, they become re-involved in the story creation process. Sometimes they need to focus on something else for a few hours: go for a walk or learn about something else. Then they are ready to go back to story creation.
Brainstorming to produce and reflect on new ideas precedes the activities of writing, shooting, and editing. In all aspects of the production, storytellers are the guiding force. In longer workshops with youth, participants brainstorm story ideas together.
“People are not looking for advice in the workshop. They are looking for connection and suggestions.”Sebnem Ozpeta
Creating the story is a process of gradually distilling, shedding stories that others have told us about ourselves. People may start out with a more conventional story and develop it through interacting with others within the workshop. Distilling our story means going deeper into the meaning being expressed. Exercising an economy of expression means that small strategic production or editing decisions create a stronger story as we continue to refine it. The storyteller may have walked into the workshop with no experience but has the potential to walk out with a polished digital story that communicates a deep personal message. So how do we get there?
Refining the Concept: Writing and Revising
Traditionally, filmmaking is broken into Pre-production (writing, storyboarding, shot planning), which informs the Production phase (shooting, audio recording, finding or creating sets, applying make-up), and Post-Production (editing picture and sound, adding sound effects, graphics, titles, and animation). Sometimes folks in the workshop want to literally remake their favourite Hollywood film as a short film.
In Community Digital Storytelling, our emphasis is on stories that grow out of our lives and experiences. We make deep connections with our audience by presenting authentic experiences. And that begins with a script.
The script provides a roadmap for the journey to make a digital story. At the beginning of a road trip, you might want to pack everything you own into that one little vehicle. As you reflect on the journey and talk it over with others, you realize you can dump half that stuff and still tell your story. As your story becomes clearer, you begin to imagine how the shots are framed and what your characters are saying. Or you imagine yourself sharing something that was private. By writing down what you imagine, you give direction to everyone who is helping you with the production.
“It’s always a process of revision, or I hope it’s a process of revision, because I think people psychologically get stuck when they’ve got a story. It’s a story that they’ve told for many years. They keep telling it the same way. ‘Oh, that story! I’m going to bring that story out.’
And so, what I like to do is break up, break the logjam. They’re telling that story the same way. Challenge them to think about, ‘What’s the story behind the story?’ It works okay this way, but I bet there’s even more that you could tell me about that story. And you poke poke poke their reality until it creates a vacuum. New things get sucked in and then you hear about it.”Lorna Boschman, Digital Stories Canada
Writing is terrifying for a lot of folks who may have uncomfortable memories of formal education. Many prefer a peer-based approach to learning. The communication and trust that mentors develop with storytellers undermines the othering process that makes you feel like you don’t fit in. Sharing your ideas for the digital story counteracts fear of committing to your story. As the story moves from a vague idea to something that communicates a message, the possibility can take shape in written form.
“There’s so much that digital storytelling does for the participants. It makes them new filmmakers. It builds community. It’s also a way for people to gain confidence in their ability to tell a story. That’s why I love what I do.”Elisa Chee, Art of Chee
Community Digital Storytelling mentors could be a first audience for the digital story. There may be a connection between the storyteller’s experiences and those of the mentor. When storytellers connect emotionally with their mentor, they are able to tell a clearer story with deeper emotional roots. Most community members we work with are not professional screenwriters. They might not be confident when writing. Writing the story on paper (or digitally) or drawing a storyboard is an important step in co-creating the story.
Sometimes we work with someone who does not want to write a story down on paper. Instead, they are telling a personal story in an oral form and will refine it while viewing the editing process. These folks might have a number of things they want to talk about. We try to customize each workshop experience to suit the storyteller, so that everyone feels comfortable telling a story.
Below and in the next post, we present models for Community Digital Storytelling that we’ve identified through analysis of our first thirteen research interviews.
Program Design: Working with Communities as a Filmmaker and Mentor
The first model grows out of traditional documentary filmmaking and the experiences of many independent filmmakers who freelance based on production or post-production skills. The original program is based on an experienced filmmaker working with community members or a community-based project to co-create digital stories. The filmmaker is hired to work as a mentor or to provide technical or aesthetic training to folks who attend the workshop. The filmmaker may be invited to work as a facilitator or mentor, in support of individuals, often youth, who are learning the process of filmmaking. They typically travel to the host community or centre.
“Make sure you represent people respectfully and accurately.’ It’s extremely important to talk about this with the students or groups we’re collaborating with. And then we ask, ‘what is going to be your core message?’ Moving on, we discuss continuity and montage, the engines of film aesthetics.”Mo Simpson
Mo begins workshops by asking the participants to share why they are attending the workshop, what their interests are, and what their story is about. She talks about herself and tries to create an atmosphere of friendship and trust. Even if you are from a different generation or background, you share passions and a commitment to telling the story well. This is the approach that encourages people to be creative, not the ‘teacher as expert’ who is far removed from the participants. Not standing at the front of the room is an important sign of being peers with others in the room.
She then talks about how stories are constructed with an arc. They discuss animation, live action, using photographs, setting up an interview, interviewing each other, and exploring other ways to approach their story’s creation. Prior to the workshop, Mo collects interview clips to demonstrate screen direction and subject placement.
West Kootenays, British Columbia
Mo co-facilitated a series of school workshops in the Kootenays using an approach called ‘place-based learning’, which immerses students in the history of their own community. For a number of years the mentors returned to run workshops with the students. They usually worked in plasticine animation with primary school students and made short documentaries with high school students. Instead of taking classes, the youth worked full time for a week in groups of three or four, making their films.
The West Kootenays is considered a politically progressive area, yet the students had no knowledge of their community’s history. In 1942, twenty-two thousand Canadians of Japanese descent were uprooted from their homes, stripped of their human rights and interned in camps throughout the interior of BC. The students researched the history of the internment as part of the storytelling process. In New Denver there is a National Historic Site that houses original internment shacks, historic photos, letters and artefacts.
The students were enthusiastic about the project but they were shocked by the history of their own community. In the weeklong workshop they learned to film and edit their stories honouring the history and the elders of Japanese ancestry who still live in New Denver. Mo and her colleague, Catrina Longmuir, encouraged the students to tell a story in their own words that they felt strongly about – something that they wanted people to know.
Downtown Eastside with Fearless City Mobile
In Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Mo Simpson was mentor for a project called Fearless City Mobile. It was an initiative of Gallery Gachet and initially sponsored by the National Film Board of Canada. Public cameras in the area were seen as tools of police surveillance. Fearless City Mobile used Nokia cell phone cameras to make stories that matter to people in their community.
After Mo left the group in 2008, they started AHA Media with their own YouTube channel and website. There are hundreds of short videos on their channel documenting events in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, as well as outreach to homeless people in Surrey and Langley. In a recent message, April from the group wrote:
“We are still using our camera phones and small point and shoots working on doing homeless outreach these days, similar to what we did years and years ago. And they’re doing homeless meetings in Vancouver, Surrey, and Langley, and helping people represent and tell their own stories.”April, AHA Media
Nairobi Kenya with Slum TV
In 2009 Mo gave a joint NFB – United Nations digital storytelling workshop in Nairobi, Kenya with young media activists from Slum TV, Hot Sun and The Ghetto Club, three grassroots video groups in Nairobiʼs vast slums. They have become models of self-empowerment in a society besieged by political disillusionment. With the tools of self-representation they have given a radically redefined image of their home, creating a symphony between all the elements that make up the lives of slum dwellers.
As a young Jewish sound recordist working with the Canadian CTV Television Network, Aerlyn Weissman covered the 1973 Arab-Israeli and 1982 Lebanon Wars. These trips had a profound influence, leading to her participation in initiatives to support peace in the Middle East.
Artsbridge Institute, USA
As a result, she travelled to the United States every summer to work on a program called Artsbridge that brought together Israeli, Palestinian, and North American youth to create films together. It was a 10 week program based in both a therapeutic approach and being part of creative teams who could work on studio projects or create a video. The only requirement of the work they made together was that every member of the team felt their voice was represented.
The Artsbridge program acknowledges that young people are traumatized as a result of living in a conflict zone. For several years, White American youth partnered with the group. When Black youth began to partner, the dynamics shifted. Both Palestinian and Black youth shared a common concern about their community being under seige and exposed to prevalent gun violence. For Israeli and Palestinian youth, the idea of Americans living in similar conditions to the Gaza Strip was a revelation.
Each youth begins by presenting their personal experiences and perspective. Working with teams of three – an Israeli, Palestinian and North American youth, narratives from all perspectives are legitamized through a therapeutic process. Each youth begins by presenting their perspective. Then others in their group reflect that viewpoint back until they have understood it, a form of active listening. The Israeli youth might move from thinking, ‘What do you mean, problems at the checkpoint?’ to ‘It must be awful to be treated this way.’ The North American youth realized that in different parts of the world, power differences could be based in community, rather than race. They heard 16 and 17 year olds discussing the legality of United Nations resolutions.
After engaging with each other for 10 weeks and presenting a showcase of their work to family and local friends, the students had very different views of the “other side”. All the students made a commitment to show their work to their families and communities when they returned home, which continued the processes of challenging the usual narratives and stereotypes
After engaging with each other during the program, the youth saw their relationships differently. They became brothers who vowed not to shoot each other during conflict. Since Aerlyn had been in the Middle East during wartime and had seen brutality and compassion on all sides, she was able to provide insights that other mentors may not have. In the end, all three of the young filmmakers have to be satisfied that their project represents them fairly.
Peace It Together, Canada
Aerlyn was also a mentor for a similar Canadian program called Peace It Together for several years. One digital story, Grave Digging was about dirt being shovelled into a grave. As the shot pulled out, viewers realized the dirt was going back and forth between a Palelstinian and Israeli grave. Sometimes the simplest films have the most powerful impact. The last year it ran, Peace It Together held their program in Pemberton, north of Vancouver. Three local Indigenous men came to talk about their connection to the land, thoughts that resonated deeply with youth from the Middle East.
Aerlyn also worked with AMES who organized a community workshop with a group of mothers who were sex trade workers.
“One of the really amazing workshops, it was with a group of sex trade workers based in Victoria who were all single mothers. They all had kids. What they had to do to keep their kids was to protect them from some of the things that they were encountering, plus all the stereotyping around sex trade workers and the morality. They were some of the most conscious mothers as a group that I’ve ever come into contact with.”Aerlyn Weissman
Cancer’s Margins, Vancouver
Aerlyn has worked with AMES, GIFTS (Gulf Islands Film and Television School), and Cancer’s Margins as a storytelling mentor. In her Cancer’s Margins collaboration The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, the storyteller talked about decision-making over prophylactic surgery, following an ovarian cancer and BRCA gene diagnosis that increased the possibility of breast cancer. The storyteller talked about gender identity and used footage of her scuba diving footage to talk about the futility of trying to push against the ocean.
As a filmmaker, Aerlyn is always trying to push the story beyond the obvious, to use metaphor to provide undercurrents that the audience uses to connect with the story.
“When you have a central metaphor, all of your shooting and editing decisions can flow from there.”Aerlyn Weissman
Based on our interviews to date, the experience of being hired to work on a community-based program, administered by an arts, social, or educational organization, is common among filmmakers. In the next post, we look more closely at British Columbia-based Community Digital Storytelling programs that have been offered in recent years, including a closer look at Our World Language, AMES, Indigenous-led programs, the shorter Digital Stories Canada workshops created for Vancouver’s grunt gallery as well as dub poetry workshops led by Black Dot Roots and Culture Collective.
We gratefully acknowledge that we live and work on the unceded, traditional territories of the Coast Salish peoples sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh), and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) nations.
We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts.