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Video Storytelling: Visual Primacy and the Hero’s Quest

I’m a lucky man. Yesterday, I got to talk about my two passions–documentary filmmaking and international development–as one of four panelists at the Society for International Development’s (SID) “Storytelling with Data” event in Washington, D.C.

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SID’s DC chapter aims to be a “global town square” by convening development professionals from across the spectrum. Since I make videos for international development organizations, they invited me.

 

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Left to right: moderator Elizabeth Corley, Dani Clark, Kunle Badmus, Allen Caroll, and me

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I kicked things off by asking people about their favorite documentaries, just to signal that my talk would be interactive (People mentioned the documentaries of Jeff Orlowski, Jenifer Siebel Newsom, and Michael Moore).

Then I showed them the Dorst MediaWorks reel. I wanted us all on the same page about what I do: documentary-style videos, with a focus on beneficiaries whose lives are improving–who most often tell the story through their own voices.

 

After we watched the reel, I wanted people to walk a mile in my shoes. What’s my approach to telling stories?

So I introduced a USAID project, Lebanese Investment in Microfinance (LIM), that I was hired to make some videos about in 2014.

 

When the Sky’s the Limit, Where Do You Start?

In five years, LIM awarded about $10 million in grants to nine microfinance partners in Lebanon, who then made 14,000 micro-loans totaling more than $30 million to thousands of rural entrepreneurs across the country.

“So, if you’re in Lebanon to tell this story, where do you start?” I asked. I paused. Nothing. Talk about drowning in data! 14,000 loans?

“What do you film? Where do you start?” I smiled.

If you remember one thing, take this with you: In your storytelling, first establish the person and passion, then the problem. Otherwise, nobody cares.

And then people began lobbing up ideas. “Successes and failures of the project,” one man offered. “Challenges the entrepreneurs faced,” said a woman up front. “Lives changed,” shouted somebody from the back.

Yes! For me, telling the Lebanese microfinance story meant that I needed to identify individuals who struggled against great odds and succeeded. I wanted to tell a character-based story that would show the benefits of the LIM program.

I spoke with Beirut-based program officers for IESC, USAID’s implementer. They helped me identify some possibilities and we narrowed it down from there.

Ultimately, I made three videos, about Hala’s Flower Shop, Sameer’s Cattle Business, and Rabih’s Fishing Business.

 

Rabbi’s Fishing Business

We watched the first minute of Rabih’s Fishing Business together. I wanted people to see how I approached the storytelling.

 

 

“What did you notice about the first minute of the video?” I asked.

One guy up front piped up immediately: “There’s nothing about microfinance or the project at all in the first minute.”

Exactly!

Then, we talked about two important storytelling pillars: The primacy of the visual and the importance of a hero’s quest.

 

Visual Primacy

I read somewhere that when we watch videos, what we take away is 80% visual.

Think about it: so many videomakers labor endlessly on crafting just the right narration or interview sound bites, but then fail to exercise such care when their editor slaps up some moderately relevant b-roll footage (a term I hate by the way).

As a result, viewers respond a thousand different ways, jumping to whatever vague or unrelated connotations these visuals inspire.

Because of substandard visuals, viewers do not have the reaction that the producer wanted.

And this helps explain why so many short videos, particularly those cobbled together — without strong visual stories — make no impact. They are a waste of time and resources.

So back to Rabih. Who is he? Rabih is a fisherman who’s having trouble making ends meet, because he doesn’t own a boat and has to pay a lot to rent one. He gets a loan to buy a boat, then increases his income, which helps his family.

There were a lot of ideas from the extended project team about what I should shoot to tell this story: the microfinance institution, the training conferences that the microfinance lenders attended, and even the association of microfinance organizations that the project established.

I resisted.

I wanted a hero shot of Rabih and his boat to start the film. And that’s what I got.

For the first 10 seconds, there are no words. This is by design.

 

Rabih-Hero-Shot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My opening here is a poor-man’s version of the kind of thing Alejandro Innárritu achieves to great effect in The Revenant. In one of these long takes, Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki follows Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) into a natural cave, into the water, with the camera floating around him, gradually revealing his surroundings, a frightening perspective.  (See the New York Times Anatomy of a Scene)

If I was making a feature with Rabih, I’d choreograph his departure to play out in one take. But this is low-budget documentary-style video and Rabih really is fishing and he’s in a hurry. So, I started behind Rabih’s head to get his point of view, so the viewer could inhabit his world, if only for a moment.

When I’m editing, I like to turn down the volume and see if the video is telling the story visually. That’s the ultimate test. This opening passes that test.

 

A Hero’s Quest

We connect with people with authentic passion.

I didn’t understand a word of Rabih’s interview, because it was in Arabic. But when I got the translated transcript a few days after meeting him, I absolutely loved what he said: “Since I was 10 years old, I’ve been a son of the sea … I saw fishermen and discovered my passion.”

These words vibed 100% with the commitment, agency, and persistence that I witnessed through my camera lens.

Who’s not immediately intrigued by an individual who is so passionate about what they do?

Then the whammy. A text block: “Today, Rabih will pay more than half his earnings to the boat owner.”

This is a BIG problem in need of a solution.

Voila! This explains why USAID established the microfinance project in the first place.

If you remember one thing, take this with you: In your storytelling, first establish the person and passion, then the problem. Otherwise, nobody cares.

Viewers can try to care. We all try to care about issues and their resolution. Rural poverty in Lebanon is an important issue. Yes.

But here, in a minute, is the power of story. The sort that goes straight to the heart, not the head.

We meet Rabih pre-dawn. We join him on his boat and learn of his lifelong passion to be a successful fisherman. We don’t have to try to care. We care, instinctively. Call it empathy. But its the storytelling gene built into us, refined over millennia.

As a result,  we’re invested in a solution.

As the video unfolds, we meet Rabih’s microfinance loan officer and Rabih’s family. We see Rabih sell his fish at the market. His world gets a big bigger and we understand it a bit more. By the end, as Rabih is tidying up his boat at dusk, we learn that his dream is to buy a larger boat and grow his business.

His life is improving and the USAID project is part of it.

This is the hope and the promise of international development. Rabih embodies this success story. Strong visuals and Rabih’s passionate quest to succeed help us care.

 

Also on the Panel …

Dani Clark works in communications at the World Bank. Turns out Dani also blogs at Medium, where she’s currently writing a gripping true-crime serial about a Texas man on death row. I started the first one last night and couldn’t stop until I’d read them all.

Kunle Badmus owns Kowree, a start-up technology firm aimed at helping African governments and businesses access opinions of their citizens and customers. Its’ true innovation is simplifying the feedback loop for improved communications and performance.

Allen Carrol gave a riveting introduction to Story Maps, a browser-based interactive storytelling platform that lets you combine authoritative maps with narrative text, images, and multimedia content. For a visual person like me—who’s always looking for new and better ways to distribute video—I’m excited about the insane potential of Story Maps and can’t wait to start using it.

Thanks to Kenlee Ray and Riccardo de Marchi Trevisan for organizing the event (check out the Society for International Development’s DC chapter on Facebook). Stimulating event. Good times.

From Ryan Lochte to Ashton Eaton: 8 Things I Learned at the Olympics

Until last month, my best Olympic memory was this: While in college in 1992 I traveled across Europe for a summer. In Barcelona, I splurged on Olympic track and field tickets for my 21st birthday. Sunshine, world-class runners, and … Evander Holyfield? What was he doing in the cheap seats? I have this enduring memory of sitting behind the boxing champ all day, surprised he had itty-bitty calves in comparison to his hulking upper body.

Then Rio happened.

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Self-portrait, Ipanema Beach

In my opinion, Brazil pulled it off. I had one of the best weeks of my life. Rio buzzed with Olympic spirit, and I saw Neymar, Simone Biles, Matthew Centrowitz and hundreds of other elite athletes doing what they do best.

The experience made me realize a few things along the way:

1. Make Up Your Own Mind

I arrived on high alert. How could I not? The negative news was relentless. I mean, just type “Rio Olympic problems” into Google and you get 26 million results: Zika, unsafe water, crime, corruption. Sure, Brazil was going through an unprecedented political crisis and their worst recession in a century. But, during my week in Rio, the Olympics went off great. Transportation was excellent. The metro was cleaner and faster than the DC metro in some cases. Volunteers were all over the place, affable and helpful. Crime wasn’t an issue, for me. Oh yeah, and nobody got Zika. Oops! Makes me wonder why our media was so down on Brazil. For me, it verged on some sort of implicit editorial prejudice against a poorer country. Journalists simply didn’t get the green light to expose London’s pockets of squalor and rampant inequality in 2012. But this year, they had free reign to hate on Rio. My take-away: be skeptical of what you read. And then make up your own mind.

 

2. Choose Your Corner: Lochte, Trump … or Not

On a daily basis, people wanted to engage with m on Trump. Not just Brazilians. Everybody. I don’t blame them. He’s fascinating, a Narcissistic blowhard without a censor mechanism. This was different than the years of Bush Junior, whom I felt I needed to defend to some degree, since dismissing him outright felt like dismissing American Democracy (since we voted him in twice and our Congress authorized the Iraq invasion). Trump ain’t elected. Yes, the Republican Party is broken for selecting him. No, he won’t be elected. No, he doesn’t represent America, our policies, our values. That felt great to say. Liberating. Now let’s go drink a beer.

But then Ryan Lochte happened. My first instinct was guilt. An American Abroad Behaving Badly. But then I had a Liberating Trump Moment. I don’t know Ryan Lochte. He doesn’t stand for me. In fact, he’s not representative of Americans abroad or American athletes at all. He’s one guy (here’s a complete timeline of Locate’s imaginative story). But he does have a supreme talent for accidental humor.

 

3. Fresh is Best: Açai!

img_7670If I could snap my fingers and import one thing from Rio today, it would be Brazil’s culture of fresh fruit juice. Every morning, I bought an açai bowl from one of my favorite corner juice joints in Ipanema: Polis Sucos or Big Nectar. My favorite: acai, with banana, strawberry, and granola mixed in. Yes, the food was great. And I was fortunate to have several friends who live in Rio who took me to their favorite places and introduced me to all the local delights—churrasco, feijoada, moqueca do camarao—but my favorite: açai and the fruit juices!

 

4. Even Elites Seek Mentors

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Ashton Eaton walks to the stands to talk with his coach

At track and field, we had tickets up top. But the Brazilians weren’t checking tickets, so we wasted no time boogying down to ground level … about 10 rows behind a group of Olympic coaches. The men’s decathlon was in full swing, namely the discus. When
defending Gold Medalist Ashton Eaton walked over to us the first time, I could almost hear his conversation with Coach Harry Marra. Eaton listened intently. It was impressive. Here was the best athlete in the world—maybe the best decathlete in history—and he could have relied solely on experience, technique, or mental focus. But he chose to connect with his coach after every throw. It made him stronger.

 

 

5. Know the Rules of Your Game

That same morning, my heart sunk during the qualifying round of the Women’s 4x100m relay when Allyson Felix dropped the baton. Disqualified! I was crushed. What I didn’t know—and wouldn’t learn until dinner with friends later that night—was that she had been bumped by the Brazilian runner next to her. The team filed an appeal with the IAAF and got a second chance, qualifying for a chance to win the gold, which it did. Great summary here.

 

6. Stay Determined

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This street performer hammed it up for loose change. That was cool, until he kissed me on the cheek. Here I am, seconds after …

This one is more Brazil and less Olympics. Everywhere you go, commerce comes to you: on the beach, in the metro, at red lights. Men and women selling everything from candy bars to drinks to clothes—and all manner of random chochkies. Having lived in Cameroon, I got used to this sort of thing long ago. Here in Rio, the traveling salesmen weren’t aggressive. Yeah, there’s a lot of poverty in Brazil, but these people were doing their best to get ahead. They deserved as much respect as the guy with the desk job or the woman driving a bus. Did I want a tablecloth at the beach? No. But was I known to buy Kit Kats on the metro en route to Olympic events. Yes!

 

 

7. Golf no Bueno

Golf is an Olympic newcomer. But apparently, golf’s elite didn’t get the memo. The top-4 golfers in the world—Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, and Dustin Johnson didn’t go. And 8 of the top-20 golfers in the world didn’t think it was worth their time. Most cited img_3671the “threat” of zika, but it was clear they didn’t respect the Olympics. Why should they? They get more money and prestige winning any number of other tournaments around the world: the British Open, the Masters, the US Open, and so on. At last May’s Players Championship, a golfer named Retief Goosen placed 15th and still earned $212,625. I propose that sports with mature, commercialized, global leagues—such as golf and tennis—take their Olympic cue from Men’s Soccer, which is largely an under-23 endeavor. That way, the Olympics can maintain its self-respect in every sport it allows in. The LA Times disagrees, but it doesn’t seem right when the best don’t come to play.

8. Run Your Own Race

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Centrowitz, moments after his gold-medal run.

It was a cool Saturday evening at the Olympic Stadium and I didn’t hold out much hope for Matthew Centrowitz. Sure, I saw the American 1,500m runner qualify during our Olympic Trials and vaguely knew he grew up somewhere near Washington, D.C. But Americans don’t win distance events, right? An American hadn’t won gold in the 1,500m since 1908. Yes, Centrowitz got 4th in London, but at the starting line Ethiopian and Kenya runners predominated, including Kenya’s Asbel Kiprop, the 2008 Olympic winner and Algeria’s Taoufik Makhloufi, the 2012 Olympic winner. The gun fires! The first lap is slow at 66 seconds. And the second lap is even slower at 70 seconds. It is the pace of a high-school mile! Centrowitz, in the lead, seems to be conserving his energy for the final sprint, and nobody is calling his bluff. At the bell lap, with the runners still in a tight pack, the pace ratchets up, and Kiprop finds himself in 9th place with no choice but to sprint up the outside—burning a lot of matches just to make it up to Centrowitz’s shoulder. Watch the last lap: it’s incredible. It’s more like a battle—elbows flying, runners tripping, all fighting for position since position means victory. In the lead, Centrowitz is protected from all that. It’s like he’s running in a vacuum. His own race. At no point does he appear to “start a sprint,” or look around, or even alter his exquisite form in any way. On the homestretch, he maintains form all the way, and amidst an absolutely insane crowd screaming bloody murder—including me—he’s the first to cross the line. Gold! Centrowitz’s last lap is a sprinter’s pace—50 seconds. He looked around as if utterly shocked. His father, in the stands, literally loses his mind! After the victory, Centrowitz the Younger says: “I came into this championships with a different mind-set. Thought to myself, I’m in great shape. Just run to my capability . . . It was about being the best I could be on this day.” Centrowitz never let the chaos behind him dictate his strategy. He ran, and won, his own race.