Tuesday, August 23, 2016

I’m talking to you but you’re not listening  - from Chicago, Cairo to China with Stories

The queue (or line) was six people deep. It was a hot day stepping into a store, somewhere south of Austin Texas.
Can I have some water please?
What?, says the sale assistant.
Water! Can I have some water please?
What ?, she jerks her head back perhaps wondering “What the hell is ‘water’?”
Then a man pushes from the back of the queue towards the cashier. ‘For Christ sake give the man some water!’, except water emerges as ‘waarler’ to supposedly my pronunciation, ‘worter’ which presumably sounds like a wild pig. And yes what would a wild pig be doing in a convenience store?
There must be nothing more disconcerting than to have a black man speak English, sounding like he works for the BBC World Service in the 1990s. I know. Back in 1992 a couple of South African farmers I was interviewing thought my accent highly amusing, before they turned on me stating I was responsible for concentration camps in the South African (Boer) war.
However this isn’t about accents. In India, I’d been walked to my hotel room. It was nothing I’d ever seen; sumptuous, dripping in the recreation of 18th or is that 19th century stately opulence. My accomplice had noted my starry eyed look and so went for the complimentary-feedback comment.
So how do you like your room sir?
Without a heart beat between his ‘Sir” and my response, I replied.
I hadn’t noticed but a day later I was told he was crestfallen and had reported to the hotel management that I was mortified. It would take several evenings and the help of others to explain that Brits have a habit of being deprecating saying the opposite of what they generally mean. Yes, it’s baffling to many people too.
My Chinese host in Chongqing was clear, even though, er, I don’t drink. We will have Sake this evening followed by singing (karaoke) but first my manager will extend his hospitality by us visiting a foot masseur. He will give you his card. Please study it.
I did. For roughly I minute I held the card between the pincers of both thumbs and index finger making observations about the typeface and my host’s name before placing it delicately in my wallet. I then gave him mine. He did the same.
Very good said my translator later. The evening was a success too. Except for the bit when I screamed with laughter because I felt the masseur was tickling me. Muppet! In singing, with alcohol in you, the true nature of a person is often revealed via Dutch courage and the feeling of being uninhibited.
Call these mannerisms, cultural exchanges, societal foibles, national characteristics, each one of these experiences and I’m sure you have your own constitute scenes, incidences, that build into narratives and stories.
The number of Chinese king fu films I watched growing up where the hero drinks Sake. Imagine Sherlock Holmes having a cup of tea every time he’s spoiling for a fight? Come to think if it. Or like you I marvel at Woody Allen’s piquant lens examination of Manhattan — its cultural references and romanticism. And for the aficionados of comedy, Benny Hill huh!
‘Hey I love Benny Hill’, he said. That was in Lebanon and a few other countries. ‘Yes’, I muffled a response, ‘he’s funny’, with a mock smile knowing I wouldn’t have the time to talk about how out-of-date his slapstick is but, yes, Hill was a national hero until a different form of comedy bereft of bikini-clad women emerged.
Jeez what would it be like if we were all the same? By observation alone, when I scour my in-medium list, if the post is not generally related to America — usually a nod or reference in the title, and of course written to a high standard of storytelling, medium staff appear to give their recommendations a wide berth. By the way, just asking, but are their Medium staff in other countries curating feeds?
Like you, I love stories — a somewhat naive comment as whether I like them or not story telling is at the heart of our very existence. We talk, share, advise, fall in and out of love, stop and start wars because of stories — and, AND how we interpret them. France’s Trollope’s coruscating pen exploited the schisms and mannerism of American through her cornea in her populist 19th century novel Domestic Manners of the Americans. Today, Brit John Oliver is doing the same, with a wit which puts the barmy brigade in his cross fire.
Some people though have a gift for storytelling — a mathematical, mellifluous and artistic way of shaping words and images that resonate with large groups of people. How do they do it?

Stories, from Chicago, Cairo to Chongqing and Syrian border.

Did I tell you I like stories, and teach it, the video kind, the one we call news? I spent a good many years telling it directly or indirectly on television and radio. I’d think, amongst other things, why does the news all seem the same? Why’s my editor telling me how to produce this, when on the ground I know better? And why, for instance, does one group search out a particular narrative about another - that moment in Fergusson when a protestor confronts Geraldo about Fox News coverage of Baltimore. And why is News generally now so decrepit.
That’s not to say there aren’t a great many orators and artists-as-reporters telling news stories, such as the crew from 60 minutes, Channel 4 News, and within the BBC but it’s to say the construct of news making is looking tired.
Why else would there be a panoply of video styles within the last ten years pulling viewers away from traditional news networks. And just so you know, the decline in news viewership in the UK started in the mid 1990s before the Net took hold. We, the audience were becoming a little weary then.
We’ve been doing that over the years since film begun. We started with short clips, then in an Edwin Porter’s Life of an American Fireman (1903) the audience would be introduced to a scene shot from two different angles running consecutively. They soon tired and inter cutting or parallel cutting between two scenes became the norm. As each generation became more adept at film grammar, they spoke through box office receipts what worked and what didn’t.
Then TV News came along; broke, clumsy, trying to find itself. It asked how do we tell what’s happened, when it’s already happened? And who’s doing the telling? What’s their background? They toiled and laboured, really, before the gave birth to Television New. An elite squad (people from the same schools, with almost the same politics) got hold of a machine, which could teleport people and their views into your living room. To many, politicians and advertisers, that was enough.
News became a new religion; anchors our priests, and we the dutiful congregation sucked up the sermons. Events were relayed as inevitable, indubitable truths, when all stories are constructs. We literally make them up, build them from memory and myths, but with the caveat they’re our truths.
There’s a moment in the past when TV News from NBC, CBS and overseas the BBC and then ITV comes together. They figure it out. They invent guidelines and so called ‘rules’. and set out to paradoxically ‘give the audience what they want’. Except they know better. Social networks, before Net social networks are formed.
Does where you’re from influence the way you tell stories. US Professor, Michael Schudson captures it eloquently. Journalism is cultural construct fashioned by societal and literary frameworks. You might as well be talking about another story form, Cinema because journalism practice purports to be different but really tries to homogenise its methods, strafe any cultural idiosyncrasies, deny there are alternatives. It’s the reason why all newscasts whether its China or Chicago look the same, though commerce of curmudgeon governments can alter news’ reality.
But what if there was no such thing as television news, or better still, given the audiences’ penchant for change where would video storytelling go next? Having travelled across the globe — from Chicago, Cairo to China asking that question, what did I find.
To a place where stories are unencumbered, where myths and cultures, and difference are respected and often expected.
My Chinese host told me a story. When a group of Chinese students had completed a one week trip to the US, they were asked of a memorable event to take back. A student replied, the Americans have odd looking eyes.
To stories where we marvel but do not feel threatened, but even then. To a language purportedly hidden in our junk DNA, where dreams and collective memories fashion choruses in our heads as monomyths. That as Leonard Shlain writes in Art and Physics stories imbued with allegorical meaning giving rise to different levels of interpretation. There is a dawn breaking silently and slowly in this realm and a group I have come to know engaged in it call it cinema journalism.
Strange huh. Now then can I have some water?

Branded content then (1930) and now - How brands are telling stories

When it was first shown, critics exhorted it as a new form of cinema. Ordinary working class people were for the first time talking to the screen expressing their disgust at their rat-infested slum living conditions.
Housing Problems made in the UK in 1935 today persists as a seminal film — a must watch — in the evolving problematic story form that would be called documentary but it also heralded an early identifiable class of what we know today as branded content.
Its progenitor the great John Grierson relied on funds from the British Commercial Gas Association (BCGA) which would have come as a surprise to the funders that there was not an interview or a shot of BCGA member in sight.
Segue today to branded content about a DNA Journey as men and women in a talking heads format face the prospect of where they’re really form. This populist film reveals its backers only at the end when the credits sayMomondo: Letsopenourworld.com
Vimeo award winning filmmaker Elliot Rausch’s tear-jerking uplifting Star Bucks-backed film includes interviews from the brand but the stars are the people and the filmmaking. The brand’s presence is measured.
The fuzzy blurred line between advertising, propaganda, documentary, news and branded content is a deep seated one. In the 1990s as a reporter for London’s ITV News reporting on Virgin’s move into hosting concerts, one of my interviewers was clear from his research, young people know when they’re being fed advertising gumf.
It was true then and is true now. Note however that in this news piece, the overall style of production is that we readily identify now as news. John Grierson’s innovative form of the 1930s would have elements lifted into news journalism. Today, however, films, including documentary veer towards a cinema (expressively performative) when talking to audiences.

From Indian to Brazil with Love

July, 8th. I’d just arrived back from India from contributing to a conference/project that featured Gerald Ryle (Panama Papers), Nick Davies and Raju Narisetti of News Corp when a colleague asked if I wanted to head to Brazil, Olympic City and Ginga football epicentre, to participate in an event on branded video organised by Fernanda Menegotto of Vbrand — one of the country’s innovative agencies.
The visit would include space sharing with Andre Barrence, the Head of Google Campus SP, as well as Brazil’s entrepreneurial community to look at the importance of video towards their businesses.
I couldn’t go. Prior commitments.
The recommendation, however from our university’s head of International Student Affairs Geoffrey Davies was well received. I have had enjoyable exchanges with Brazilian videojournalists over the years and as cinema journalism styles go, there’s an exciting timeline between Grierson’s documentaries, Cinema Novo and New Brazilian Cinema that feed into branded content.
In the 1930s Brazilian born filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti became an integral part of Grierson’s team bringing innovative sound and editing skills to the group. His influences include Coal Face (1935) and Night Mail (1936).
Looking back on these films it’s easy to deride their style but their innovation then is mirrored by the blend of international cinema style and social cultural cinema, that is language and myths, that excite audiences’ collective and prosthetic memories today.
In India it’s films like Sholay (1975); In Brazil favourites include: Filhos de Francisco (Two Sons of Francisco, 2005) and to an international audience Cidade de Deus (City of God, 2002).
The significant evolutionary changes to storytelling (I document in a forthcoming book) specifically in the last ten years have been the number and nature of constituents telling their stories. YouTube has spawned millions of millennial stations and new stars, and commercial businesses and NGOs e.g. Greenpeace no longer need to rely on their video press release and the largesse of television news for oxygen.
A related development has been the myriad production tools and platforms now available, from the once populist Flash and its pioneers Brendan Dawes, Yugo Nakumura, Eric Natzke, Hillman Curtis (R.I.P) and the Holo group; HTML 5/ Java scripting; Klynt for interactive factuals and Unity for VR.
Yet the growth of video continues unabated, buoyed by increasing mobile phone usage and its indefatigable association with social media platforms, and to cite the seminal Did You Know video circa 2008 there are applications that will include video that have not yet been invented.
There’s a sound argument to equate the creativity of modern video with the birth of film in 1900s. Back in the 1900s cats boxing, and a train arriving at a station amount to today’s viral one-scene videos. Back then as now, the craving for narrative from the audience extended the vocabulary of film.
That’s happening now with some caveats. This decade has seen a crystalisation of a new market place for creatives. For instance:
  1. The nimble adaptive agencies to help brands tell stories such as my friend’s Sabba Quao’s Newsroom.
  2. The exciting directors, such as the brilliant the Rob Chiu and Elliot Rausch
  3. Existing agencies setting up responsive media production wings to help brands tell stories. In the late 1990s, Jon Staton, a former head of TV at Saatchis, set up Re-active, which a colleague and I headed. We created a number of stories for the brands such as Channel 4 and Lennox Lewis
Despite these, client-focused work can still seem choppy. In part because CEOs and FCOs can be wedded to legacy practices of story telling that use:
a) traditional account management — agency-producer-client relationships.
b) production techniques for brands derived from TV production tropes.
b) traditional pricing structures.