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Friday, April 30, 2010

How We Tell Our Stories

The other day I ran across a striking two-part video series looking at runaway kids, called "When No One's Looking" It's an intimate view of how runaway kids try to survive on the streets and the threats to their safety. Their story is told in two short news-style documentaries that have become typical of what the NYT is offering on their Lens Site. And while I applaud what they are doing, I'm also reminded that this is not something they've just discovered. Years ago there was a landmark documentary, "Streetwise" centered in Seattle by Mary Ellen Marks, Cheryl McCall and Martin Bell. That was back in 1984, when street kids were first made visible by the Academy Award nominated documentary. You can watch it in segments on YouTube.

I'd like to talk about these two projects, a little bit. And about why, even as they deal with similar content, they create two quite different experiences.

The goal of the NYT documentaries is news. The story is told primarily by the journalist, Ian Urbina, and likely motivated by a government report describing an increase in juvenile runaways. The point of the story is information and we are always looking at the kids from a distant perspective. In the two seven-minute pieces we spend very little time with any one kid, so, as typical in news, they become illustrative models for the story's content. Their plight is made more compelling because their story is told in video and video puts a human face on an abstract issue. Several faces,actually. But by the end of the piece we are ready to move on, left with the sad understanding that these kids have essentially become invisible people. This is what can happen when no one's looking out for them.

"Streetwise" is a riveting example of a feature documentary. The story is told as captured moments from the lives of of real kids. You never hear from the filmmakers but they have clearly won the trust of the kids as they invite you into their lives on the street. I remember the film as having no narration other than the words of the kids. And we're able to spend a fair amount of time with each of them, which helps us get to know them as people. That is really important and is what makes the movie so powerful. We see the counterpoint between their playfulness (after all, they are still kids) and the tough life they've found thrust upon them once they'v run away from home. We also see how, living in a world without adults, they try to help each other.

In both environments there is an older, more streetwise kid who tries to help the younger ones. And in both cases, the kids often feel they have no where else to go. But by the time the "Streetwise" documentary is over, you're rooting for all of them, hoping they'll find a way to build a life for themselves. And you feel a connection to them, for through the film you feel as if they've become part of your world. If you go to YouTube to watch it, you'll see comments from people talking about that sense of connection and wondering what happened to the kids. Even though it was 26 years ago...

Creating work to include that human connection is what makes video most compelling and most effective. The key is how you package the content. When I used to work on PBS documentaries or on political campaigns that's what I went for: to let the human side shine through. And when I work on projects for clients, whenever possible, that's what I go for. Because what you include and how you present it is just as important as what you're trying to say. So I look for that telling moment, that gesture or look or interaction that makes the viewer feel the human connection. And I try to find a way to use images to enhance the emotion of what we're trying to communicate. And use those visual moments as the vehicle to drive home the content.

"Streetwise opens with one of the kids talking about how much he likes to "fly" And then we see him jump off a bridge into the water below. And in a way that strong visual is a metaphor for the whole film. Kids living on the edge... plunging the depths... trying to survive. And you know, instinctively from that opening visual, that what you're about to see will be very different from what you know about the world you live in.

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