“A participatory documentary tells a story about a community using the community’s own words. That story is disseminated back to that community via social media.”
As I began brainstorming ideas for my tactical media/participatory documentary, I initially wanted to go to an LGBT homeless shelter in Atlanta. As Atlanta is one of the most liberal cities in the South, it has become a hub for young queer people looking to start a new life. Many of them end up on the streets due to family abandonment, and physical and mental abuse. Unfortunately, the first place I found in Atlanta did not return my call. I arranged for a brief interview at another LGBT homeless shelter in New York, however, my contact did not respond when we were supposed to meet. This led me to re-brainstorm the idea of reciting a story about a community using the community’s own words. I decided that I would retell the story of an LGBT teenager who couldn’t go home for the holiday season. This story was posted on the Ali Forney (another NYC based LGBT homeless resource) website, so I’m inclined to believe that its free game to repeat the words of as long as credit is given where due. The idea would be to read aloud the story while outside in the cold, and if you couldn’t make it through the story, you would have to donate a certain amount to the cause.
“Participatory documentaries bring with them their own ethical and political conundrums which each producer must face.”
“I speak about them to you”
“It speaks about them or it to us”
“I or We speak about us to you”
Immediately after the idea popped in my head, the ethical and political conundrums followed suit. What kind of media am I creating? Am I a part of the community that I am addressing? As a member of the LGBT community, this issue is important to me, but the conditions that these youth face are quite estranged from my own. Is it wrong to assume the experience of another or is it one’s obligation to do so. Just as the seemingly innocuous “ice bucket challenge” brought its own conundrum of massive water waste (especially in California which is in a drought), I was unsure whether reading the story of someone else’s assault was diminishing or revering the experience. Ultimately, I settled with myself that I was creating a blend of “I speak about them to you” and “We speak about us to you”. There really should be another category for this role as it seems to cause contention where ever it crops up. If you are a white person who is passionate about social justice, is it your place to speak to the experience of more oppressed people, or to magnify the volume of their message? This well intentioned standing has its drawbacks, as at the end of the video I get to go back inside to the warmth, while the cold remains a reality for many people queer or not. With that in mind, I grimaced as I set up my tripod and DSLR camera to capture me sitting on the ground pretending to be homeless, when an actual homeless person tossed and turned on the other side of the street.
“The documentary is engaged with the community, and has an ethical responsibility towards it. It is dealing with an issue that the community is involved with, and therefore the community is vitally interested in the resulting work”
As social media is brought in, the stakes are higher as anything can go viral over night. I examined my digital circle and thought about how something like this would spread. First off, I’d need to take a few more tips from shooting documentary tips that are included in the “cookbook”. I’d want to diversify camera angles and lighting, and show closer face shots to evoke the gravity of the story. Then, after the production is complete, the package needs to be tied with an attractive hashtag, such as #unhappyholidays or #saveouryouth. This participatory/tactical media would be ready to enter the digital sphere in my echo chamber, but may not be so well received in others.