Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What I see is what you get

At a conference of 'community video producers', Yasho and Bipin were invited on stage to share their love story. If you didn't know that they were from slums, you could be fooled into believing they were high-powered executives who met at a business conference. In a way, they did. Yasho and Bipin are both 'community video producers'. Yasho is from Maharashtra, and Bipin from Gujarat. They met a few times at community training camps. Bipin was quite bold, he told us, and called Yasho and said "I love you". She, in turn, lectured him about how they couldn't get married. But he persisted, and they did! As people congratulated them, Yasho took the microphone to make a speech. "It is not easy to do this," she warned, "you have to fight for your marriage. Remember you will need a lot of strength to fight for a love marriage." Her husband agreed. This is why they remain deeply involved in community media. To change not just their own lives, but those of the others.

For Yasho, if she hadn't joined the local NGO that was offering to train locals in camera work and editing, she would have never married a man of her choice. It is a fact. She is the oldest of seven sisters and was stuck at home taking care of them. Venturing out of the house was a challenge, but she fought for it. Her new team, called Apna TV was a motley crew of people, some of whom had been mechanics and housewives. Akshara, a NGO for women, sponsored their training, which continues to this day. At first, when they went out into the locality with a camera, people were sceptical. But when they screened their first movie, people changed. They congratulated her father on what a smart girl she had grown up to be. People were eager to help them make the next movie and the next time even more came to the screenings. And in the end, when she finally told her parents she wanted to marry a Gujarati boy, they told her they had complete faith in her judgment.

Bipin too changed during his tenure as a community media producer. He used to hit the young girls in his family, if they made a mistake. He didn't think about it. Now, he says with a chuckle, they beat me up! Although his family is conservative, he doesn't mind that Yasho will not wear her 'mangalsutra' ("why should she have to if I don't?") and likes having an intelligent working wife. In fact, he still lives in Gujarat while Yasho lives in Maharashtra, and they meet about twice in a month. The work they do is larger than their story alone, so they don't mind.

So, what exactly is community media? Democratic to its core, it is media 'by the people, for the people, of the people'. While mainstream media concentrates on national issues and the big cities, the poorest in India get left in the dark. Community media aims to give them their own media industry. The New York based NGO, Video Volunteers, is spearheading this movement across India. Under the leadership of Jessica Mayberry, a former journalist in the US and Stalin K. Padma, a social activist, community video outfits are being set up in many different parts of the country, under VV India. First, interested NGOs tie up with Video Volunteers. They make the initial investment that buys the equipment and pays the salary of the local producers. Video Volunteers provides in-depth technical training for the next few years, free of cost. Together, a team of journalists emerges at the local level. These are journalists who make surprisingly great quality video stories on social issues including domestic violence, migration and infrastructure needs. But, the story doesn't end there. The main aim of the entire exercise is to induce action from the people watching. People normally left out of the great debate about the future of this country find themselves empowered with information. They understand how they can take action to get positive results.

Manjibhai, a popular community video coordinator from Gujarat -- Apna Malak Ma -- is a Dalit. During his video screenings, non-Dalits come, but sit on chairs while Dalits sit on the ground. He hopes this will change over time. What has changed, though, is amount of wages being paid to Dalits in the area. In an interview with a local upper caste businessman, it became clear that before he watched the film, he had never ever considered, even for a moment, the plight of a Dalit who needed to feed his family. Enlightened, he now pays minimum wage.

In a workshop in Goa, Manjibhai, Yasho, Bipin, Jessica, Stalin and countless others came to celebrate and assess community media today. Stepping away from the romance and nobility of it all, the simple truth is that unless these community video outfits operate as independent self- sustaining entities, in the end, they will not be truly empowered. Presently, NGOs like Akshara pump in money for the purchase of equipment (about Rs.14 lakhs in the first year) to set them up, in addition to another Rs 3 lakhs per annum towards running expense. The producers are employed as full-time staff, because otherwise productivity of the project is compromised. This also allows the newly employed ‘producers’ to change their own paradigm from manual labour to blue collared work. It gives them the respect they deserve and fuels their ambition further.

The aim is to allow for a workable entity that is financially self- sustaining. Only when the new unit becomes a profit centre, will the transformation will be complete. To this end, two CVUs (or community video units) may have paved the way. The first, Chetana TV from Andhra Pradesh has secured government funding and a contract to provide their content to four local regional channels. Of all the CVUs assembled in Goa, they had the fastest turnout rate for social impact movies. The other CVU, Samvad, is Gujarat based. They record marriages and other events around Ahmedabad, which provides a source of income.

In a world where content is plenty, pouring out of every cell phone in every corner, the larger question is to ask is: will community media content sell outside its reach of influence? Would a mainstream channel, really, honestly, want to buy hours of footage about dowry in Gujarat from a local CVU? If yes, then problem solved. If no, then CVUs need to get innovative about packaging content. The other question which Samvad will have to grapple with soon is: should CVUs ultimately become production houses or should they remain forever the agents for social change? The first option is tempting and easier. The second is not. To remain true to the primary purpose of the CVU, those involved with the movement will have to abide by the strictest definition of its core values and aim.

In its ultimate ambition, community video volunteers want to make big changes. But in order to get there, they need to continue the little changes. Sofia, a producer with Samvad, has a 9 year old son, Aftab, who has watched his mother work for the past three years. Not as a maid, but as a community leader. Her son, she says, will know the clear difference between right and wrong. He will go to college. Her resolve is amazing as it is firm, considering that the first time she left home to attend a workshop, her husband beat up when she returned home.

Today, Sofia helps make movies that expose domestic violence.