How do people co-create within communities, in-person? Includes a brief history of documentary practices, participatory media, and the rise of art collectives. Features an extended conversation between members of Detroit Narrative Agency.
Community-based methods are the most commonly identified forms of media co-creation. These are projects that put people with first-hand experience at the center of a practice rather than that of the artistic vision, or agenda, of an often professional media-maker. These types of co-creation spring from the sentiment, “nothing about us without us,” from the Latin phrase, nihil de nobis, sine nobis, an expression dating back to ancient Roman government, which insists that no policy should be created without the participation of the members of the groups affected by the decisions.
In documentary practice, we will illuminate the early work of John Grierson, who coined the word documentary in 1926 with reference to non-fiction filmmaking. This will be followed by a discussion of the kinds of artist/activist collectives that often arise when political conditions demand radical, joint, or sometimes anonymous responses. We note the unique distinction of practices within Indigenous communities, and observe the links between assertions of narratives of sovereignty to concepts of land-based sovereignty.
Next, we looks at overlapping co-creative practices, broadly called participatory media, that most often involves professional media-makers working with non-professionals. We also examine how interventionist media builds on this practice, through media-makers involving community earlier in the process.
Non-fiction filmmakers have often been at the forefront of innovation with emerging technology. More than 90 per cent of the films copyrighted in the first decade of cinema were documentaries. Some of the first color films, the first sound films, and the first uses of portable synchronous-sound technologies were documentary. So too, when cameras came off the tripods, and documentarians literally took the technology and ran with it, they followed life as it unfolded in front of the moving camera. These highly adaptable forms of innovation, we argue, are closely connected to extended circuitries of co-creation, yet are often attributed to single authors.
For much of the 20th century, the documentary field was heavily professionalized. Because equipment was expensive and cumbersome it encouraged specialization. The documentary field entrenched an inequitable power dynamic between the filmmaker and the film subject that formed the basis of extractive approaches to documentary. As Patricia Zimmermann, a documentary scholar, explained in our interview with her:
With the rise of industrial capital is the rise of professionalization, and professionalization means the division of labor. It means skills, not ideas. It means top-down control. It means individualism. I think that in the field of media, the really long, complex, international histories of collective, collaborative, co-creative work have been erased, just erased.
Yet challenges to top-down extractive tendencies in documentary occurred surprisingly early. As Mandy Rose, a British scholar and documentarian, noted, “The idea of the documentary subjects’ rights has surfaced notably alongside political movements through which those excluded from systems of power have fought for their voice to be heard.”1
The Scottish-born filmmaker, John Grierson, coined the term ‘documentary’ for non-fiction film in 1926 and quickly put the word into practice, first as a government film officer and later as a private producer. As such, Grierson, a founder of the National Film Board of Canada, began to make top-down, large-scale, industrial documentaries and wartime propaganda.
Grierson’s early efforts were soon challenged by his sister, Ruby Grierson, who worked as an assistant on the film that became Housing Problems (1935), documenting living conditions in London’s East End. “In a legendary incident, related by Grierson in his memoirs, [Ruby] invoked a do-it-yourself ethos, inviting the slum dwellers to tell their stories directly to camera.” noted Mandy Rose, documentary scholar and founder of i-docs.
Metaphorically handing over the recording equipment, she urged them to take the opportunity to state their case. “The camera is yours. The microphone is yours. Now tell the bastards exactly what it’s like to live in the slums.” […] It did the trick, and the East Enders’ direct, albeit self-conscious testimonies are still arresting and affecting today, speaking to us across the years.2
Documentary practice is often associated with anthropological studies, especially with early ethnographic film, and anthropology’s early and sustained complicity with colonialism and imperialism. Even in socially-engaged documentary forms, there remains the problem of the unidirectional gaze and inequitable power relations of maker and subject. Community-based co-creation in documentary aims to challenge the gaze of the professional documentary maker(s) and the construction and reproduction of the Other. “The anthropological approach is the dangerous assumption that the observer is superior,” said Heather Rae, a Cherokee independent documentary and fiction producer at a Ford Foundation Convening at the Sundance Festival in 2018.
In an attempt to address these power inequities, community-based documentarians and artists open up the process of media-making to include members of the community and movements across a wide spectrum of co-creation. “You can tell when a story is told from the outside,” said Lisa Jackson, an Anishinaabe filmmaker. Importantly, Tabitha Jackson, of the Sundance Institute, warns against an essentialism while considering notions of insider and outsider perspectives. She observed:
We're all outsiders in some way. It's a very blunt instrument in this kind of conversation and I think for me, it’s less about who is telling the stories than who isn't telling the stories. Being an English, mixed-race person, shouldn't necessarily preclude me or expect me to only tell the stories of English mixed-race people. For me it's about ethics. The underlying worry of what has been the power dynamic and so therefore what have been the narratives that have shaped our culture. It’s absolutely urgent to deal with.
There has been a long history of collectives of artists, filmmakers and activists that center around the voices of marginalized groups and political movements. These formations often emerge in time of political and economic crisis, with rapid response afforded by the power and anonymity of the collective. Written in the years immediately following the Russian Revolution (1917), when revolutionary promises were yet unbroken and a new aesthetic was fast taking form, Dziga Vertov’s manifestos have continued to inspire documentary makers. As Vertov wrote:
The textile worker ought to see the worker in a factory making a machine essential to the textile worker. The worker at the machine tool plant ought to see the miner who gives his factory its essential fuel, coal. The coal miner ought to see the peasant who produces the bread essential to him. […] Workers ought to see one another so that a close, indissoluble bond can be established among them. […] Kino-Eye pursues precisely this goal of establishing a visual bond between the workers of the whole world.3
Perhaps best known for his endeavor “to catch life unawares,” Vertov’s Kino-Eye group formed the genesis of the direct cinema and cinéma verité movements that blossomed forty years later. And by that time, the 1960s and 1970s, film/documentary collectives around the world also flourished, inextricably tied to many social and political upheavals, as well technological breakthroughs—eventually including portable video. The Third Cinema, a movement first named in Argentina in 1969, decried neocolonialism, echoed Vertov’s critique of capitalism and tyranny of Hollywood entertainment, and radically challenged the role of the author.
Bolivia’s Grupo Ukamau, formed in 1968 by Jorge Sanjinés, Oscar Soria, Antonio Eguino, and Ricardo Rada, among others, made their film, Blood of the Condor (Yalwar Mallku, 1969), with the help of Indigenous villagers who appeared in this recounting of the U.S. Peace Corps’ alleged secret sterilization of Quechua women under the guise of providing medical aid. Later, Ukamau members became critical of their own stylistic approach, and in their next major film, Courage of the People (El coraje del pueblo, 1971), took care to construct the film with the striking mining community that was the subject of the film, since they “had a good deal more right than us to decide how things should be done.” According to this blog. Grupo Ukamau also wrote a set of manifestos. In Problems of Form and Content in Revolutionary Cinema (1976) they wrote:
A film about the people made by an author is not the same as a film made by the people through an author. As the interpreter and translator of the people, such an author becomes their vehicle. When the relations of creation change, so does content and, in a parallel process, form.
In America, labor organizations such as International Workers of the World and Workers International Relief, and related groups such as The (Workers) Film and Photo League and NYKINO (in the 1930s), explored different types of community relations. In 1973, Third World Newsreel grew out of the New York City Newsreel in an attempt to strengthen its commitment to developing filmmakers and audiences of historically marginalized communities such as the black and Indigenous communities. The collective was on the ground with the anti-war movement, the Black Panthers, the women’s movement, and the American Indian Movement, filming and documenting their history. Third World Newsreel continues to operate, nourishing the archive, training, promoting emerging filmmakers, and continuing to produce film, as well as community-based workshops tailored for seniors and youth and held in public libraries.
With the emergence of portable video gear and the spread of cable television in the 1970s and 1980s came the launch of numerous video collectives.4 In the context of the UK’s unique Film Workshop Movement, the Black Audio Film Collective was formed in response to the massive economic and political upheavals taking place in the UK under Margaret Thatcher’s government. “The Collective’s artistic strategies pulled documentary away from its realist moorings into poetic representations critiquing racial imaginaries,”5 according to Helen de Michiel and Patricia Zimmermann.
Similar projects appeared and continue to thrive in North America—from the hills of Appalachia, to the canyons of New York City. These include: Appalshop, Downtown Community Television, Paper Tiger Television, and Deep Dish TV. “Deep Dish TV was the first non-profit organization to distribute programming via satellite [to air on the] local public-access channel,” according to Cynthia Lopez, a veteran documentary producer, POV commissioner, and former Film Commissioner of New York City. In the 1990s, when the global-justice movement was in full swing, a new wave of autonomous media groups responded. These include Mexico’s Chiapas Media Project, Brazil’s ISA, Instituto Socioambiental, the Inuit film collective, Arnait, and India’s Raqs Media Collective.
Sasha Costanza-Chock, who was part of the Independent Media Network video-production crew in the U.S., described it as a profoundly responsive and generative period for media-making and movements. Twenty years later, Costanza-Chock continues their work at the intersection of media and movements collective collaborations, but now with the tools of digital culture and design justice. This work is being done with new generations of media collectives such as Allied Media Conference (AMC) and Allied Media Projects (AMP), both of which work locally in Detroit and intersect social justice work with media-making. They hold an annual conference that creates a space for national and international organizations that is loosely defined around a central principle of media-based organizing (for more, see also Spotlight on Detroit Narrative Agency, a project of AMP).
Salome Asega, a Tech fellow at the Ford Foundation stated in our interview:
I love these newer collectives who are challenging institutional proximity, always asking their followers, people who engage with them, their communities to just be mindful of the ways museums and cultural spaces frame stories. Then they also invite people to produce events with them in said cultural spaces as a way to decolonize them.
One example would be the Chinatown Art Brigade, which co-creates large-scale outdoor projections, together with pan-Asian tenants’ rights and anti-eviction and anti-gentrification organizations in New York City’s Chinatown. But the contemporary media-collective formation is a global phenomenon. The Nest Collective in Nairobi was formed in 2012 by a group of twelve artists from diverse disciplines. Their first project, Stories of Our Lives, was a research project for which they travelled around the country and collected interviews with over 250 Kenyans who self-identified as queer. It resulted in a book and an award-winning film. Njoki Ngumi, a member of the collective stated in our interview:
These two works were the first that bore our identity as the Nest Collective, and they changed our lives. The success of the film … as well as the ensuing drama around the ban of the film by the Kenyan government, solidified our identity both as creators as well as a family. […] We take the idea of collective authorship very seriously, as a modern remixing of the fading communal approaches and division of labor practices of some of the people of Kenya. We write, produce, shoot, publish all our work ourselves, and work hard to eliminate industry-standard hierarchies in both our work and our internal structure.
In 2017, an Iranian collective of seven artists installed, with 2,000 citizens, a massive land art project called Land Art in the Noosh Abad desert. Each of the seven interconnected pieces of the work had a concept, and an inspiration, such as a book, film, or theme, all dealing with collectivity and the environment.
Documentary film and art collectives often emerge in dangerous times. According to Okwui Enwezor, a Nigerian artist, theorist and curator:
If we look back, historically collectives tend to emerge during periods of crisis; in moments of social upheaval and political uncertainty within society. Such crisis often forces reappraisals of conditions of production, reevaluation of the nature of artistic work, and reconfiguration of the position of the artist in relation to economic, social, and political institutions.
Some recent examples of this include Mosireen in Egypt and the Kafranbel Media Center in Syria.
Yasmin Elayat , a New-York-based, Egyptian-born new-media artist, spent several years in Cairo during the recent political upheavals. There she joined several art and media collectives that:
all formed literally after the revolution and during the revolution, and all died with the counter-revolution. It was a time when there was a vacuum and leadership [was] completely changing from one hand to the other, curfews, it was not a normal state to be living in in a country. And yet there was the most movement, culturally, artistically, it was almost like a golden era, even though we're talking just about three years. It was some of the most beautiful types of collaborations and art and expressions and initiatives and even organizations [that] were born during this time.
Meanwhile, a similar strategy is emerging in the U.S. in response to the polarized and volatile political landscape since the 2016 presidential election. While loose communities of documentarians have worked collegially for decades as independent auteurs, they have been organizing in new ways to band together in response to the climate of the Trump administration.
Grace Lee is at the core of a collective of veteran documentarians who have joined forces to document multiple women of historically marginalized communities who are running for various levels of office across the country. Lee has also recently helped found the Asian-American Documentary Network, or A-Doc, who are “co-creating a network movement with our peers to uplift and support other filmmakers who are Asian-American who are telling stories.” Lee stated: “We're very intentional in terms of reaching out to people and looking at the entire landscape.”
Another collective of documentarians is forming around the Sanctuary Movement, a group of hundreds of faith-based organizations in the United States protecting and standing with immigrants who face deportation. Eight documentary teams in different parts of the country decided to meet and pool resources rather than work in isolation and competing for the same resources. The groups convened in Detroit in 2018 to discuss media ethics, analysis, production partnerships, fundraising, and a shared impact strategy.
Meanwhile, Firelight Media is a film production and training company that has historically built close relationships with movements, often making connections and contacts at the rough-cut stage of a project. But now, the group have begun a co-creative process of a project before the medium has even been defined, and are planning to convene with over 30 social change movement leaders from Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, the National Women Farm Workers’ Alliance, the Rainforest Alliance, Dream Defenders and the New Florida Majority. According to Firelight Vice President, Loira Limbal in our interview:
We are trying to bring together a diverse as possible cross-segment of communities that have been historically targeted and marginalized … to create [narratives] that really contemplate the needs of all of us. Kind of like, all of us or none of us. How we could co-create a movement media alongside our organizational partners? What does that mean? What are the best practices that we need to be thinking about? How does that get funded?
Many of these movements call for equity in media representation, production and representation, with a foundational acknowledgment and accountability of historical wrongs.
But for at least one group, there is more to it than equity.
A new community-based framework, known as Indigenous narrative sovereignty, is being developed amongst Indigenous artists and media-makers around the world. This framework centers not only Indigenous stories but also the teams of decision-makers that make and own the work. Jesse Wente is the director of the newly created Indigenous Screen Office, an initiative supported by multiple commissioners, broadcasters, and funding bodies in Canada. In a keynote at the Hot Docs Film Festival, Wente commented: “Indigenous people are not seeking equity. We are seeking sovereignty.” In the Canadian context, this refers to a long-standing but burgeoning political movement related to land rights, treaties, and self-governance. But it also extends to sovereignty over Indigenous narratives.
While the Indigenous Screen Office interacts with industry-recognized production models, it foregrounds the importance of co-creating from within communities, respecting Indigenous protocols, collective authorities, and processes within Indigenous nations. As Anishinaabe filmmaker Lisa Jackson described the position of creators like herself:
We're always implicated, which is another word that I am using a lot. I think it's important that we feel implicated in what we do, and that we look at our relationships with our subjects in a long-term fashion, and we look at what it brings to them. […] Especially because in the wake of the  Truth and Reconciliation Commission [of Canada], there's been a huge interest in Indigenous stories, which is good on the one hand, but also challenging on the other hand. Because a lot of people feel like they have gotten a sense of the trauma of Indigenous people for the first time. They really feel the need to make sure everybody knows about it. Who does that benefit? Not the Native [peoples]. [...] We all know what is going on there. People are more interested in solutions, also strengths, also a way forward, also honoring historical wrongs like treaties.
For Indigenous peoples in particular, control over narrative is inextricably linked to control over the historical narrative, governance, land, and the future. In its multiple and diverse manifestations, the power of the collectives embody this core principle of co-creation.
Even among collective and Third Cinema practitioners, concerns about divisions between specialized artist-observers and their subjects, between professionals and non-professionals, led to further innovations in community-based practices that are often grouped together under the term ‘participatory media’ as much because it resonates with terms like participatory development also at play in the global South.
This is a wide and loose category that has undergone much semantic interrogation.
For the purposes of this study, we define participatory media, as projects in which the actual tools of production, most often the camera, are directly controlled and operated by community members. This practice accelerated in the 1960s and 1970s, when handheld cameras and then portable video made the technology more affordable and easier to operate. In more recent decades, this idea overlaps in complex ways with more widespread access to consumer electronics which have made possible a broader array of homemade, community, and online video projects available on platforms such as YouTube. This practice of co-creation aims to share the making of work by sharing resources and modes of production. The point of contention remains what role, if any, do participants play in the design of the project itself, as well as in the material eventually being edited, presented, and distributed.
One of the most notable, and early examples was developed in Canada, in a 13-year-long government sponsored program at the National Film Board of Canada called Challenge for Change. Headed by the legendary American documentarian George Stoney, the program experimented with a wide array of co-creative methods, including participatory media, to help historically marginalized communities tell their own stories. In an early Challenge for Change project called VTR St Jacques (1969), director Bonnie Sherr Klein explored the potential of participatory video when she put early video cameras and closed-circuit television into the hands of residents of a low-income Montreal neighborhood. The citizens then played back their footage to each other to identify common community issues.
Challenge for Change’s best-remembered project was made on Fogo Island, off the shores of Newfoundland. The Fogo process emerged through 27 documentaries supported by producers Colin Low and Donald Snowdon. The films were made not so much for the broader public as to communicate to government officials the Islanders’ reasons for resisting resettlement plans. As the NFB proposal for the project stated:
At all stages, the emphasis was to involve the community in the decisions to be made. The people selected the topics and they were involved in editing decisions when the films were played back; they also determined the extent of the distribution of the films, if in fact they decided the films should be seen by others.6
Jeff Webb, professor and Newfoundland historian, adds that:
Individuals and groups discussed their lives before the camera, the film was processed, cut roughly, and showed to people on the island to stimulate discussion. In a particularly interesting example, the films were shown to provincial government officials, whose reactions were filmed and that film shown to people in Fogo.7
Webb goes on to note that, while Low and Snowden’s contributions were important to the project, and ultimately swayed the Canadian government to keep the island running, scholars tend to neglect the contributions made by individuals of the Fogo Island Improvement Committee and the work of the other residents of the island. The formation of the Fogo Co-operative, for example, largely predated the arrival of the NFB crew. Webb’s injunction serves as a reminder that the old habits of top-down historiography sometimes impose themselves on processes that were robustly co-creative.
The BBC also experimented with co-creative techniques over nearly 30 years within the Community Programmes Unit (CPU), which brought repressed and marginalized communities’ points of view to primetime slots on BBC2 (television). The Open Door and Open Space series included for example, It Ain’t Half Racist, Mum, a critique of TV representation from the Campaign Against Racism in the Media, co-presented by Stuart Hall in 1979. The unit went on to launch the Video Diaries series in 1989, followed by the six-year-long project Video Nation, overseen by producers Chris Mohr and Mandy Rose. They gave camcorders and training to 50 diverse people around the UK to record aspects of everyday life that they wanted to share with television viewers during the course of a year. These recordings were then edited by the BBC team, with participants seeing and approving the finished product, and holding a contractual right of veto. While the work of the CPU was articulated as “Access TV,” Mandy Rose, former producer at Video Nation, has come to think that this term elided the involvement of the media professionals:
I [prefer] the term ‘co-creation,’ because it invites you to pay attention to the role of all the parties. […] It highlights that, and therefore allows it to be interrogated. It asks that you clarify … the terms of the relationship.
In Brazil in 1987, Vincent Carelli initiated Vídeo nas Aldeias (Video in the Villages), an effort that Patricia Zimmermann says:
provided video tools to Amazonian peoples belonging to over 200 distinct groups … and not only encouraged self-representation by people often filmed as ethnographic subjects, but facilitated intertribal communication as well.8
Vídeo nas Aldeias continues in evolving forms today.
Other current and ongoing projects that place production tools in the hands of citizens include Video Volunteers in India. This project develops a trained cadre of over 240 video correspondents across rural India who create reports and campaigns aimed at community development. Insight Share, based in the UK, is another example of a program that does projects across Latin America, Africa, and Asia, using “the best aspects of communications technology and participatory techniques” to support communities in devising their own solutions to local issues.
Participatory methods can involve layers of relationships and many forms of art. Since 2010, the Folk Memory Project in China has invited young filmmakers to participate with the collective, by encouraging students visiting their home rural communities to document the historical experiences of relatives and elders during the Great Famine of 1959 to 1961. This body of work is growing; the collection now includes over 1,400 interviews. The collective’s team co-creates with the students, who in turn co-create with their families in the villages. The methodology mixes documentary, oral history, dance, and theatre, and results in community performances, international tours, and most importantly, a reclamation of buried personal and collective histories.
Perhaps the most high-profile feature film illustrating participatory media is the 2004 Oscar-winning documentary Born into Brothels, in which British-born photographer and filmmaker Zana Briski and American co-director Ross Kauffman placed still cameras in the hands of children of sex workers living in Kolkata. The film was part of a much larger project managed by the non-profit organization Kids with Cameras, a broad coalition of organizations and community-centered and participatory interventions. As Lina Srivastava, the organization’s Executive Director at the time the film was in theatrical distribution, wrote in her blog: “The organization's work to scale its photography workshops to other locations inspired a number of other individuals and organizations to put cameras into the hands of children and affected populations around the world.”
The film itself, however, focused heavily on the filmmaker and her relationship with the children, at times appearing to center her work in the narrative over and above organizations on the ground. In this framing, handing over a camera can seem problematic, especially if it depicts a humanitarian-development framework that suffers from a lack of accountability and acknowledgements of both formal and informal power structures. While the community-facing work may have tried to tackle these questions, the film itself failed to address: How are the images circulated, what forms of agency are activated, and on whose terms? Pooja Rangan interrogates the film in her book about the humanitarian impulse in participatory models in documentary called Immediations.9 As documentarian and scholar Elizabeth Miller suggests:
Emergent documentary forms are encouraging many directors to embrace more participatory and polyvocal modes of production; yet there is still a wide range of interpretation of how much agency or involvement subjects or users have.10
Not all community-based, co-creative, documentary practices involve only participatory media methods. Many, including some mentioned above, situate their mandate within an interventionist approach. Interventionist media projects, by our definition, create inclusive and open design spaces where joint visioning and decision making can occur with partners. While the participatory projects tend to include participation once the project is designed, interventionist projects tend to include communities as equal partners in designing the project; this brings participants closer inside the co-creation ecosystem. These projects and programs may match skilled technicians and media or artist professionals with communities, and often include sharing tools, developing jointly-conceived platforms and campaigns that address community needs, and challenge systems of oppression.
One such early pioneering interventionist program involved handing over more than a camera; it was an initiative to hand over an entire broadcasting system. In 1969, George Stoney left the NFB’s Challenge for Change program and went to New York City to help establish public-access television, simultaneously working on the legal and theoretical framing of the idea for the Federal Communications Commission. It allowed for the general public to create content for television programs. A prototype of YouTube, perhaps, except that Stoney was not interested in making people famous — he was interested in civic engagement, “to celebrate the ordinary things people do to help one another.” Stoney recalled in a 2005 radio interview with Democracy Now:
We look on cable as a way of encouraging public action, not just access. It’s how people can get information to their neighbors, and their neighbors can get out on the streets to organize.
Subsequently, in 1993, Peter Gabriel and the Lawyers for Human Rights created the New York City-based organization, Witness, to arm global human-rights activists and their communities with the new, lightweight, digital camera tools of the time. The original intent was participatory in nature, as technically, Witness “hands over equipment,” but in a different context from participatory media. Witness’s methodologies intersect with fields of media, human rights, and technology. Members co-create training programs, grassroots campaigns, and targeted, political outcomes with participants. This gives a sharp interventionist focus to projects. The intent of Witness is less humanitarian and developmental, and more to collect community-based, visual evidence to fight human-rights cases in the public sphere, including with governments and the courts. Together with Peter Wintonick, Katerina Cizek co-directed an independently financed documentary television film about Witness, Seeing is Believing: Human Rights and the News (2002). Witness has continued to evolve over the years, with thoughtful explorations of the social and political transformations accompanying the changing landscape of media and technology. In their media lab, they are exploring the idea of co-presence. This involves live-streaming a distant witness into a dangerous situation in order to have a remote presence, offer advice, and act in solidarity with front-line activists. As Sam Gregory, the program director of Witness, explained:
Witnessing implies the obligation to watch and to act. What is it that we can do that involves bringing people into a live stream that makes them active agents in the narrative as it goes on, driven by the needs of the front-line activists? Not to tell people on the front lines what to do, but to do things that could change events, [either] by the support they provide in the moment, or [by] generating greater visibility around events as they happen. For example, by translating or adding context or sharing it rapidly. Or can they provide specific skills that might actually influence events as they happen, such as … a skill set as a legal observer?
Other organizations, connected to people’s movements have been grounded in similar principles. B’Tselem, based in Tel Aviv, provides and supports video technologies for Palestinian families and communities as a means for documenting the occupation and violence of the Israeli army. Videre, also a non-profit organization based in Tel Aviv, provides human-rights activists around the world with undercover technologies to record, and distribute, evidence of corruption, extortion, violence, oppression, and collusion by state and extra-judicial players.
Influenced and inspired by her experiences with Witness, Katerina Cizek sought to apply interventionist approaches when she was invited in 2004 to join the National Film Board of Canada, with a mandate to re-invent Challenge for Change for the digital age. The resulting five-year project, Filmmaker in Residence, was based at an inner-city Toronto hospital. There, Cizek sought to co-create mostly outside the walls of the hospital, to explore the potential of health-care and media methods in the community rather than within the institution. The project’s team jointly designed projects from the outset with community partners. Doctors, nurses, and health-care professionals were less interested in holding a camera to frame the image than with framing the concept and intentions of the work, the design of the research, the ethics of working with vulnerable people, and acting as accountable advocates and mediators for subjects in the filming process. From the beginning, they co-created and implemented strategies for impact, including successful campaigns to change policy at the hospital level, at both municipal and provincial government levels, as well as the local Police Board.
Drawn from group interviews and writings by, and with, Detroit Narrative Agency (DNA).
The late Detroit water warrior Charity Hicks helped popularize a lesson for organizing, saying: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
The stories told about a place form a kind of DNA, shaping what that place is and what it can become. For too long, the stories that circulate about Detroit have defined it as broken, violent, and in need of saving from itself. In recent years, and especially since Detroit’s emergence from bankruptcy in 2014, we see a new strand of stories about Detroit, particularly stories of resurgence led by white billionaires, scrappy entrepreneurs, and pioneering artists. Invisible from that narrative is the Detroit that was saving itself all along, the Detroit that is pushing back against marginalization and erasure, the Detroit that has a vision for a future based in liberation and justice. Black and brown Detroiters have not been at the table when it comes to narratives around the city’s so-called rebirth.
DNA is amplifying that Detroit, incubating quality and compelling films that will shift the dominant narratives about this place towards liberation and justice. DNA’s current fellowship program is supporting a cohort of filmmakers of color in Detroit to develop short films and accompanying community impact strategies DNA co-creates media from within communities, and the co-creation happens in multiple layers, in concentric circles. The process starts with deep listening rather than pre-set agendas.
“Our co-creation is two-fold,” says Alicia Diaz, a filmmaker in DNA’s first cohort. She continues:
It's the community work that we're doing on our projects, but I also think about the community that we have created as all being a part of this cohort. I never expected that … We're also laying a foundation for those who come after us.
DNA’s strategies come out of an immense historical legacy of activism and cultural production in Detroit. This includes two decades of what Allied Media Projects define as “media-based organizing” and over a decade of community-building and network cultivation. This context is important; these strategies and tools were developed out of a long-term commitment to radical organizing in Detroit.
As part of the co-creative research process with MIT, Allied Media Projects, DNA staff, and DNA fellows gathered around a microphone at the Allied Media Conference to hold a series of conversations and group interviews to reflect on their process, their origins, and how the work is unfolding. The following is an edited selection from those conversations.
paige watkins, Associate Director, Detroit Narrative Agency: What is media-based organizing?
Morgan Willis, Program Director, Allied Media Conference: We define media-based organizing as any collaborative process that uses media, art, or technology to address the roots of problems and advances holistic solutions towards a more just and creative world … The reality is that people are doing media-based organizing in so many different ways in their own lives, in their own work and in their communities, they just might not know that term. Or that term might not be the label that they apply to their work. […] In some ways I think the definition is aspirational, and the essential traits are aspirational, but it's always important to have a clear aspiration towards those things.
Jenny Lee, Executive Director, Allied Media Projects: Yeah and I wouldn't even go so far as to say there is an ideal that embodies all of these things because what's interesting is the way that projects that come into our orbit … resonate with different parts of this definition, but also bring new approaches and things that we're not already thinking about.
ill Weaver, Founding Director, DNA: DNA exists because it comes out of a legacy of media-based organizing that we have all participated in, in a multitude of ways — through Detroit Summer, through the Allied Media Conference, and through many other realms connected to the network that we're a part of. […] So that could be through my work with Complex Movements and Emergence Media; [Morgan], your work with Brooklyn Boihood; [paige], your work with Black Bottom Archives; [Jenny], your hand in a million different projects that you enact these values through. […] We were really maybe 15 years into doing this work by the time that Ford Just Films approached us, when Cara [Mertes] came up to us and was like, you know, I really wanna figure out how to work with y'all to support moving-image-based, narrative-shifting work. And then, based on that, I feel like there was some co-creation of what that could look like …
JL: It wasn't like, "Hey community, here's this opportunity, jump on." It was more like "hey, we have these resources, what should the priorities be? What should the process look like?" You know, this very deep, beginning by listening, back and forth deliberative thing. And now it's also translating into the process that you all are supporting the filmmakers through, where they're reaching out or connecting with community organizations working on their issues and not just coming with a singular artistic vision. So I think that spirit of collaboration is layered into the whole process from the beginning.
The first step for DNA was to create an advisory team that facilitated a process for over 200 Detroiters to help shape the narrative-shifting priorities of DNA. The advisory team also conducted an audit of existing moving-image media about Detroit. They were able to identify inequitable patterns, such as confirming a hunch that the majority of films made about Detroit — an 85 percent Black city — were being created by white filmmakers from outside Detroit.
PW: We collected a lot of feedback. What do the people of Detroit want to see less of, and what do they want to see more? That was a six-month process.
IW: Members of the community-advisory team then served as a panel to select ten projects. Those projects went through the first year of our programming. It included a seed grant of $6,000 support for each project, access to equipment, mentorship, training workshops, support to create a work sample and a pitch deck. They presented at the Allied Media Conference that year. We also took several folks on a trip to BlackStar Film Festival.
From there, we moved into this new phase, an incubator, or fellowship program. Five of the ten projects are now creating a short-film version of their project. This phase also includes developing an impact strategy: developing community partners that […] work with them as they create the project and once it's distributed, to make sure that it leverages a larger collaborative constellation of people who are shifting a similar narrative to their project.
The five projects in DNA’s fellowship include two fiction films and three documentaries.
Director Alicia Diaz is making a documentary and exhibition called Dangerous Times: Rebellious Responses. The sanctuary movement of the 1980s was a religious and political campaign to provide safe haven for Central American refugees fleeing civil conflict, a move driven by over 500 U.S. congregations across 11 denominations. Dangerous Times traces the movement’s rise in Detroit through the personal accounts of Esther Gálvez, a Latinx sanctuary advocate, and Sihanouk Mariona, whose family was amongst the most visible Salvadorian exiles in the US.
Alicia Diaz: Being Afro-Latina, and being othered, and understanding the life of being othered and also marginalized — this is helping me to give voice and give a little bit more insight that's unknown in the greater part of the city, especially when you're talking about our history and our immigrant past and present. It’s almost like a ghost whisperer, but no one's dead. […] My whole experience, even though I am American, I'm not a[n] immigrant … I still live like that, I still live within that community. And being Afro-Latina it's like I'm in two places at once. And through this film we're able to pull it out.
Director Ahya Simone is making a web-series called Femme Queen Chronicles. Chanel and her friends Eryka, Amirah, and Shevon all are just trying to make it through the day without getting clocked as trans women — or clocking someone else over the head on the way. Femme Queen Chronicles is about the lives of four Black trans women as they navigate love, life, trade, and shade in the city of Detroit. The series is written, directed, and brought to life by Black trans women themselves.
Ahya Simone: I'm expanding what it means to be a Detroiter. When you think about Detroit, you don't think about queer and trans people of Detroit. I think Femme Queen Chronicles kind of brings queerness and transness to the forefront in people's cultural associations of Detroit. So that we can imagine it as more than just the Motor City and Motown and cis-hetero people, and we can imagine the multitude of the types of folks that live here. I think it's shifting narratives about trans people in media, I think in a more humanizing and vulnerable and humorous way. By hiring an all trans cast and being a Black trans woman and writing and directing and telling the story, and also having interns who are trans on set and in front of the screen and behind the screen, it's something that's impactful for trans communities of color and trans women of color: to create more creative opportunities for the girls in Detroit.
Director Atieno Nyar Kasagam is making a documentary called Sidelots, a love story of Black land reclamation told in ritual between Detroit, Alabama, and Kenya. It follows one family on Detroit’s East Side as their story of urban farming unfolds into a spiritual journey of discovery, loss and re-Indigenization. By digging up familial and land roots across the diaspora, Sidelots illuminates all that is sacred in the land, and encourages a radical reconsideration of how we view the earth immediately below our feet.
Atieno Nyar Kasagam: We are shifting the narrative of vacancy. We are inviting people to see the abundance and the aliveness of side lots in the city of Detroit. We are inviting people to look at over twenty square miles of liberated land as fodder for the redesign, designing of a Black city, a just and equitable city that remembers that it is on great Indigenous land by the Great Lakes, that this land is alive and beautiful and we do not need to grow grass, and we need to end the grass supremacy in the culture. And, jokes aside, inviting people … to know that we have what we need. We have the most important resources that we need to take back power and freedom and agency.
Director Orlando Ford is making a documentary titled Take Me Home. A home-foreclosure crisis has gripped Detroit for over a decade. In this time, illegally inflated property taxes have caused more than 100,000 working families to lose their homes. While headlines read of the so-called rebirth of Motor City, many Detroit neighborhoods have been devastated, with African-American communities hit hardest of all. Take Me Home follows one family as they fight to save their home, and struggle to keep their neighborhoods and communities from being lost.
Orlando Ford: It's just ordinary people going through extraordinary things. […] I've been dovetailing back to the organization and saying okay, this is what I've done so far, what else can I do to help this process along, because I'm coming in at the tail end of this and some of these people have been doing this kind of work for years.
Director Bree Gant’s experimental fiction film and multimedia project, Riding with Aunt D. Dot, brings together personal narrative, radical imagination, experimental video, and the Detroit city bus. It tells the story of a disillusioned Detroit artist struggling to ground herself in reality, or in her dreams.
Bree Gant: I think one of the most valuable things I’ve learned is that there’s just so much culture on the bus … street culture and street fashion, especially. Noting how many trends — straight from the street — go to the runway. There isn’t that much room for even claiming inspiration because there are so many things that just get blatantly repeated on the runway and claimed as originality, when really it’s just that we aren’t aware when these people with power have excavated these cultural traditions from us … I really want the resources and the money that’s coming into the city to reach the bus, but I hope that gentrification never reaches the bus because there’s just so much culture and originality there.11