By Lorna Boschman and Venay Felton
“Every time I do a workshop or workshop series, we have an exhibition or a reading. At a film festival, they are screening everything. There’s nothing like it: the audience reaction and the crowd and the people. It’s encouraging. The participants realize: ‘Oh, we want to do it.’ ”Chris Bose
After the Community Digital Storytelling (CDS) workshop ends, the stories that have been co-created need to find their niche audience. Completing the work is a thrill, as is experiencing the community members’ reaction. Stories are usually screened at the end of a CDS workshop. The audience may be as small as the folks attending the workshop or as large as the local community, including friends, family and extended networks. Most CDS facilitators upload the completed digital story to Vimeo or YouTube and use a link to play it back on their website. Most use social media (especially Facebook and Instagram) to promote the work within and beyond the local community.
Finding your Audience
After fundraising, the great challenge facing independent filmmakers is to reach an audience. In the past, this meant showing work at festivals, finding a national and/or international distributor, attending screenings at festivals or community events, and building interest in their work. Lately, content creators have developed their audience online through social media followers, sometimes skipping festival screenings altogether. As Patrick Shannon points out:
“It seems like almost every young person I come across wants their own YouTube channel. They want to be YouTubers these days. Your Peter McKinnon, your Casey Neistat. All these people, they’re like the new Steven Spielbergs. It’s a completely different way of going about it, and now you have streaming platforms as well. Sometimes you just have to create content that gets out there. And with that, your career can just explode.”Patrick Shannon
One of the purposes behind our research was to build distribution capacity among CDS facilitators. Originally, we envisioned a large database with a collection of digital stories created during Canadian CDS workshops. After meeting, we realized that the logistics of a big database project would take too much of our time away from working with communities.
To increase the visibility of CDS stories, try these strategies:
1. List community digital storytelling short films on IMDb,
2. Use social media to promote work created during CDS workshops,
3. Provide backlinks to others in our network,
4. Maintain our own collection of stories co-created during workshops while building our capacity to optimize search engine results (SEO),
5. Curate festival packages of work from our network for online festival screenings, and
6. Promote high impact community-based work at festivals by identifying common characteristics like short duration, low budget, short production time frame, and community relevance.
In the following section, we’ll have a look at how community screenings have showcased digital stories locally, and then cover six suggestions to improve the visibility of Community Digital Storytelling that grew out of our Initiative. While community screenings build our connections locally, creating an online presence will increase our visibility nationally and internationally.
Our World Language
“I really truly wish more people could see the films that have been created. I feel privileged to get to visit these communities. It’s an opportunity many Canadians don’t have. Hearing Indigenous voices is especially important.”Lisa g. Nielsen, Our World Language
For Our World Language, a community screening is the most important one. Participants can celebrate immediately after the work has been completed. Mentors as well as community members acknowledge the filmmakers. When sharing their work with an audience, their friends give them a hug and new people come up and meet them. Each filmmaker receives a copy of their film on a USB stick.
“You can imagine that the mentors have worked with these young people for a week, and all their grannies and relatives and friends come and they say, ‘You made that!’ All of a sudden the youth are feeling pretty good.”Svend-Erik Eriksen
Every AMES media intensive program ends with an ‘in-house screening’. This is a chance for everyone involved to watch all of the freshly completed pieces, and for mentors to honour and highlight the various breakthroughs that each participant had over the CDS journey. When funding permits we host a public premier of the videos. Our recent “DisPLACEment” program–that engaged Indigenous, refugee and migrant youth in creating stories about displacement, discrimination and dispossession–culminated with a public screening, panel and catered reception at UBC Robson Square that was sponsored by “Fresh Voices” (a project of The Vancouver Foundation at that point).
“The participants loved the fact that their films were shown at UBC Robson Square. The venue and fancy food at the reception lent a certain amount of prestige to their creative accomplishments. They got all dressed up, and were publicly applauded by a large and deeply appreciative audience for the high impact videos they created. It was incredible, but that kind of event is rarely financially feasible”Deblekha Guin
Community Outreach Strategies
Even when a large-scale or fancy public screening isn’t in the cards, the videos and digital stories that are created continue to have an impactful public life through:
(1) small community screenings initiated by participants, or requested by community-based organizations that referred students to the program,
(2) the sharing of the videos on AMES website and on the participant’s social media platforms, and
(3) their incorporation into school-based workshops.
In 2003/2004 AMES sold licenses to the Ministry of Education so that the videos could be incorporated into the core curriculum. In the current absence of that centralized licensing body, we continue to distribute the work to educators online, and coordinate youth-facilitated workshops in schools that showcase the videos on a ‘by-donation’ basis.
“Working with AMES, I witnessed students developing empathy with each other, communicating openly and honestly, going to vulnerable places, trusting the value of their stories, and taking creative risks. What resulted were powerful videos and animations that are being utilized in public schools around the province, and helping to prompt courageous conversations about important issues.”Angela Brown, Equity and Diversity Educator
Since AMES began online dissemination, and peer-led workshops in schools, the videos have reached over 30,000 students and educators.
Working with Self-Advocates
An oral history and visual arts project, presented at Vancouver’s Roundhouse Community Centre, was the subject of the Yorkton Festival Golden Sheaf award-winning documentary From the Inside OUT! (2000). Lorna Boschman collaborated on the video project, produced by the Self-Advocacy Foundation of BC. Older self-advocates spent their childhoods locked up in institutions. In the film, they talk about those experiences. Younger self-advocates grew up in a society that encouraged them to feel part of the community and the oral history project reflects that history.
Community screenings are integral to elevating the status of storytellers in their own communities.
When Boschman worked with self-advocates at the Burnaby Centre for Community Inclusion (BACI), six self-advocates created short films about their social contributions (this ability, 2006). At BACI, the directors became filmmakers, rather than recipients of social services. BACI created a glamorous event inspired by awards ceremonies that honour professional filmmakers.
At this time, the threat of COVID-19 infection has put public screenings on hold. So, how can we share the work beyond our home communities? We have begun to develop digital strategies to distribute our work outside community screenings and beyond our own social media presence.
“A sense of satisfaction comes from empowering people. I continue to learn about myself. To learn about storytelling and different ways of storytelling. Different ways of knowing. And helping people find the confidence to share their stories and help them realize this has value. This is amazing. You need to tell this story. Helping them find that confidence is really rewarding. I love that participants have that breakthrough moment.”Chris Bose
Strategies to share community digital stories
1. IMDb Listings
The first strategy our group of CDS facilitators and mentors developed links into digital distribution. To begin a workshop, we screen previously created community digital stories, ones that we think will relate to the participants’ experiences. When we search online, Google does not rank Canadian community digital stories very highly. Our challenge begins with increasing the visibility of Canadian Community Digital Stories. When our CDS videos appear in a database like IMDb, they are more likely to appear in Google searches.
In reference to his work with the Canadian Association of Performing Arts Associations (CAPICOA), Jai Djwa talked about the importance of Open Graph protocol networks like IMDb:
“Because Google is the dominant way that people are finding shows, performing arts organizations have a challenge ahead of them to be found in a way that will be authentic and appropriate. If you search on Google for movies near me, you will get very rich data back with times, dates, and posters, very structured data. And it comes from IMDb.”
The task of entering the necessary data into IMDb is somewhat challenging and time consuming. To address this, Lorna Boschman created a short tutorial that encourages independent filmmakers including community digital storytellers to list their films with IMDb. If you have the time, send information about your film to the database for their editors’ approval. Your IMDb listing will be one of the top ones in a Google search for the title, adding status to the often overlooked short film form.
2. Social Media and Online Networks
In designing our social media strategy, CDS facilitators need to identify the audience for this kind of work. We reach our audience by a combination of facilitator and storyteller distribution strategies. Some workshop participants have their own networks through YouTube and on other social media platforms. Workshop facilitators usually upload the completed story to their site and share a digital copy with participants who can upload it to their own channels or share it with their wider community. The work is more likely to reach a wide audience if the participant and CDS facilitator are both promoting it.
For young filmmakers especially, the primary means of distribution is through social media. AMES uploads all films to their website. They also have Vimeo and YouTube sites, and participants share them widely. AMES and the filmmakers share ownership of the stories.
Our World Language
Our World budgets four days to promote the films created during their CDS workshops. They post the digital stories to their Facebook and Instagram accounts and submit films to festivals. Our World has also tried, (without success so far), to interest the Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN) in broadcasting the short films. Our World Language and the storytellers jointly own the films created during workshops. Participants generally promote their own films on their own YouTube and social media channels and tag community members to increase visibility.
grunt gallery workshops
After the grunt gallery afternoon workshops, the storytellers own their video and can submit it to festivals if they choose. They can sign a release during the workshop, agreeing to share their film on the Digital Stories Canada site. Storytellers share the page with their video and a short artist statement through social media, especially Facebook, to increase the audience. Digital stories are curated for inclusion on the Mount Pleasant Community Art Screen.
Sometimes the audience is very small. A digital story can be made for a family member who finds meaning that others may not. During the grunt gallery workshop, one participant wanted to make the story for her daughter so she could learn about her Cree heritage, and where she comes from. Facilitator Lorna Boschman commented:
“I leave it up to everyone in the workshop because some people might want to tell a story that’s only shared with their family members or only of interest to their family members. Like the woman who was exploring her father, grandfather and great grandfather, and how they were represented in their Indigenous language. We really love that one, but most people don’t connect to it. They don’t get it. And that’s okay.”
As the viewing public, when we like a community digital story we’ve watched, we want to learn more about the director. We ask: Who is the director and where are they from? Have they continued to make films? What is their background? Who funded the film? Is this someone from my community? Do we have mutual friends?
“Brainstorm with the participants what labels, hashtags, keywords that people would look up, in addition to digital storytelling.”Elisa Chee
Most of the individuals and organizations we spoke with maintain Facebook and/or Instagram accounts. In addition, CDS practitioners promote their work on Academia. edu, LinkedIn, and are currently exlporing TikTok.
3. Providing backlinks for our network
For CDS facilitators and administrators, developing SEO (Search Engine Optimization) strategy can seem intimidating. When we look at the big picture, we realize that our Google ranking as community digital storytelling practitioners is related to our popularity – how many other sites are linking back to us? In particular, how many high quality sites like educational or government institutions link to our sites?
We wrote this series of posts to share knowledge about our sector, Community Digital Storytelling. We hope that digital media programs at universities will link to our posts and tutorials, providing content for student discussions. By sharing this series of posts and links to each other’s sites, we hope to share knowledge, stimulate discussion, and in the process, rank higher (more visibly) in Google searches.
4. Maintain our own collection of digital stories
In the interviews, it was clear that the CDS facilitators are also the folks who maintain their collection of community digital stories. They generally have a small amount of funding for administrative work, including maintaining online copies of work created during their workshops. Through our research, it was clear that CDS facilitators require additional work in building capacity in relation to Search Engine Optimization strategies. For a quick overview of these collections, return to the first post in our series.
AMES (Deblekha Guin)
Our World Language (Lisa g. Nielsen)
Digital Stories Canada (Lorna Boschman)
InnoNative (Patrick Shannon)
5. Community Digital Stories & Festivals
“Young people are being raised on YouTube, not in cinemas.”Patrick Shannon
In the promotion of a film, festivals are not as important as they were 25 years ago.
“Festivals aren’t the best avenue for independent filmmakers. It is costly to submit films, and the audience is limited. It may be better to do a social media push.”Patrick Shannon
During his workshops, Shannon encourages storytellers to think about the big picture and what might happen with their film outside the workshop.
“And then towards the end, depending if we have more time, if it’s a 10 day workshop, we’ll talk about what it’s like to be a filmmaker in an industry. What does it look like to submit films to festivals? What about social or online distribution? So we start talking a little bit more about the next steps beyond just making it, how do we distribute it, how do we get people to see it? And it gets a little bit into marketing as well. So depending on the needs of the community, the program can take many different routes.”
Chris Bose advises people in his workshop to submit their work to festivals as student filmmakers.
“We’re not making commercial films here. We’re making student films. You’ve got to get into festivals with other students and other student organizations to promote your stuff. Keep making films and get into film school.”
After the community screening, the Our World facilitator creates a password-protected copy to send to film festivals. To submit films, and keep track of submissions, Our World uses FilmFreeway, an online film submission platform. However, the organization does not have sufficient funds to pay submission fees. If you approach festivals directly, submission fees for ‘student films’ may be waived. Following this approach, submissions are sent directly to the festival by email. This often makes it more time consuming to track individual titles. When a film is selected by one festival, others on the circuit tend to show more interest in that title. (This is the advantage to using FilmFreeway). In some years, Our World produces over 50 short films. The challenge is choosing which ones are most likely to be selected by festivals.
Aerlyn Weissman would like to see film festivals create a separate category for community-based storytelling:
“I think digital storytelling is really important. One thing that occured to me about bringing these stories to more people is to encourage film festivals to have a separate category for digital storytelling. Then it becomes its own genre.”
6. Curating programs of community digital stories
In the months to come, we will extend our research, asking additional CDS facilitators and mentors from across Canada to join our network and share their knowledge through a research interview. We’d especially like to discuss the effect of physical distancing on community digital storytelling workshops. We will also raise funds so that we can work with curators, folks who will compile and write about programs of work intended for online public viewing as well as classroom discussion. And we’d like to develop a deeper capacity to navigate online promotion, especially SEO.
Festivals are already responding to physical distancing requirements by showing work on digital platforms and raising money by collecting screening fees from viewers. For Netflix titles, a simultaneous viewing can be arranged using the Chrome browser app Netflix Party. This arrangement allows individual access to a communal experience, with the possibility of a group chat while watching together.
When we talked with others working in Community Digital Storytelling (CDS), we didn’t realize we were documenting the end of an era. From October 2019 to January 2020, we interviewed thirteen CDS practitioners working in British Columbia, Canada. In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic introduced us to the concept of physical distancing, altering how closely we sit together.
Our 2020 Initiative will develop and share digital knowledge in these key areas: Build digital capacity for rural and Indigenous artists, build digital capacity in Search Engine Optimization for artists, harnessing metadata for arts administrators, using data visualization to identify statistical trends, Zoom and other videoconferencing tools as collaborative tools for artists, and building capacity in digital distribution for artists and arts organizations. Our insights will be shared in a series of public podcasts.
To explore the current state of distribution in more depth, we suggest DOC NYC’s Digital Impact Screenings Resource Guide and New Strategies for Distribution as well as research documents created by the Documentary Organization of Canada (Roadmap to Creative Distribution and What Are Film Festivals For?).
If you are working with Indigenous communities, refer to the On-Screen Protocols and Pathways, A Media Production Guide to Working with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Communities, Cultures, Concepts and Stories, published by ImagineNATIVE.
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.