Art and Narrative Research in Humanitarianism, Development, and the Study of Complex Systems: Sabbatical Study for 2015-16

Ghana DOC Visual Communications Training Log


This is a brief, informal journal of preparation and performance of a 4 day seminar to train USAID DOCs (Development Outreach Coordinators) in video field production and visual storytelling techniques, being held between Oct 24 and Oct 31, in Accra and Tamale, Ghana.

            This teaching exercise is a component of a larger ongoing exploration of how artists can productively engage in advancing work in complex humanitarian, scientific, development, and social systems issues. 

Prep for Ghana

            USAID requested a short intensive seminar to train their senior communications officers in developing media pieces that effectively communicate the challenges and successes of each unique mission's portfolio of projects.  The seminars were meant to have two components - a technical component to improve methods of production under resource-poor conditions and to provide standards and guidelines for effective communication through moving image media; and a conceptual component to address theoretical concerns with visual communications, and in particular intercultural visual communication, where media is produced in a unique cultural context but may need to communicate most directly with another.  OR, this media is being produced by individuals from outside the cultural context in which they find themselves - as this outsider status is virtually always evident in the final piece, and undermines the credibility of the media altogether.

            As is evident, much of the challenge of the theoretical side of this training comes from understanding and establishing a relationship to the audience of a piece of media, almost as much as having an established relationship to the subject.  Without knowing the cultural codes of communication by which a piece of video is being interpreted, we cannot shape an intelligible message (I use the term 'message' in its most general sense, that is, of a sequence of signs that can be read together as having a collective meaning).

            It is intended to be a 4-day 'film school for development officers' and the base skill and exposure level of the participants seems to vary widely and is essentially unknown going in.  Also, concerning the intercultural problem, some of the participants are Americans doing overseas development work, and others are 'foreign service nationals,' that is, natives of the local nations wherein they work for the USAID mission.  Thus, the trainees will be approaching visual communications with very different sets of codes and backgrounds.

            The first challenge is articulating my own approaches to making commissioned media about humanitarian and development work; and then translating that into a curriculum that allows and encourages flexibility and new approaches that are perhaps more appropriate in other contexts, for other audiences, or being made by other individuals.  I am also digesting years of teaching experience for the fine artists and designers at RISD for useful nuggets of information that might make sense to non-artists.  And then distilling the better part of a year's worth of academic study, built for the studios and editing rooms of a well-equipped film program, down into four days of intensive experience-based learning in a small city in the arid north of Ghana.  The whole project certainly seems destined to fail, but it will probably fail in really interesting and informative ways, and of course the hope is that it's interesting and informative enough for all of us involved that we might try and do it again some day.


            Prior to arrival in Ghana, there was much work done to structure the approach to the course.  Most of my commissioned work with USAID has been done with Sarosh Hussain, Communications Lead for the USAID Global Development Lab in Washington DC.  He and I have traveled extensively creating media pieces that tell the story or document in some form numerous development or humanitarian projects being supported by USAID.  He's been supportive of my critique of most 'development media' as being sentimental, patronizing, or simply unclear, and in building a different set of approaches to making this kind of work.  Naturally there are compromises because USAID has no clear-cut audience to speak to but rather many divergent ones, and thus reviews of our work often pull in multiple directions.  It's apparent to me that this inevitable effort to please multiple and often conflicting constituencies with single pieces of communications is usually bound to result in mediocre work.  However in my commissioned work thus far, knowing there is a strong base of support in the agency for new ways of constructing video work, we've succeeded somewhat in making pieces that push at the usual forms while also meeting pragmatic compromises with the other concerned parties in Washington and beyond.

            This is why I feel it's important that any course I lead not merely be a paint-by-numbers guide to recreating the work we've already done, but is actually a stimulus to new thinking about how to tell these kinds of stories around the world.  However, while teaching at RISD is almost entirely about helping students learn how to think through the act of making, my experience outside of RISD, including in working with the government, is that people much prefer to more simply be shown how to make something that they already recognize.
            The structure of the 4 days would be based on developing a piece of media about 1 specific project: an agriculture initiative in the northern region of Ghana, where a 30 year old damming/irrigation scheme has begun to drastically lose productivity for the rice farmers working plots there. 

            On day 1 we would begin with classroom work and introductions to core concepts in visual communications, time-based storytelling, scriptwriting, and some of the production equipment we'd be using.  The goal was to introduce the project to the trainees in briefing form, and get them to turn around a script and shotlist by day's end for a video which would be targeted at a local audience, but also to generate an inquiry-based approach to filmmaking that would remain flexible in the face of new information gathered once visiting the farms themselves.  This replicates the real-world situation faced by a producer charged with writing a script about a complex and dynamic piece of development work without ever visiting the project or speaking to anyone with firsthand knowledge of it. 

            Day 2 would be a field production day, visiting the irrigation scheme and a few of the rice farms now using new fertilizer technologies and new labor-force practices, shooting to the script and shotlist created on Day 1, but also observing and documenting the actuality of the project and adapting those blind-written documents to what we see and hear there.  The goal for the day would be to provide hands-on technical training in nonfiction filmmaking practices while also shooting out the script and shotlist.  At the end of the day we would re-evaluate the script in light of actual experience, and create a pick-up list for the following day to provide coverage and new direction for a potential edit.

            Day 3 would be another production day, with a priority on pick-ups of items missed on Day 2, as well as new items added to the list during the story re-evaluation.  This would be a shorter day because we were also scheduled to fly back to Accra from Tamale in the evening.

            And finally day 4 was to take place in Accra, a full day focused on post-production techniques and editing.  We would be at the Labadi Beach Hotel Conference Center for this final day.
            The night prior to the start of class I landed in Tamale, Ghana along with an assistant, Denali Tiller (also a former student), co-trainer Sarosh Hussain, and the USAID team: 10 DOCs (our trainees) from various overseas missions as well as 7 others in observer and coordinator roles from various USAID offices.  That evening we checked in to the hotel, prepped the equipment and the conference room we'd be using for class, and I met briefly with the project implementer for the project we were focused on. 

            The idea was that the trainers should know some firsthand 'correct' information about the project and its mechanisms, so we could more accurately guide the group to a good and reasonably on-target story, without giving them more information than they might otherwise get in their regular work, as they go in to document a development project.  We met Shaibu, from the Agriculture Technology Transfer (ATT) project which is supported by USAID.  He described how the yields from the Botanga Irrigation Scheme - first constructed in 1983 - have been dwindling.  ATT responded by introducing and encouraging UDP (Urea Deep Placement) practices among the Botanga farmers.  He went through the mechanisms of the project, the science and practice, the results and repercussions, and how it affects the local farming community both in economic terms and social terms (it has created new labor and organizing opportunities for rural women).

            This all served to give us a good background for understanding the complex project that we most certainly did not get from the one-page USAID briefing which til then had been the extent of the information we were working with.  We also specced out the conference room and went over my class plan for the day. 

DAY 1: Modern City Hotel - Tamale, Ghana

            Day 1 was focused on classroom work, and was a long, intensive day.  We had 10 participants from numerous countries' USAID missions, from Afghanistan to Madagascar to Thailand to Ghana, where we were based.
            We met in a conference room of a little outdated hotel in Tamale, Ghana, battling the heat and the roar of the ceiling fans.  We began with introductions of the participants - all the USAID DOCs and which mission they were coming from, the observers from the US, and of course the trainers: myself, Sarosh, and Denali.  We went over some of the logistics and goals for the week, and then began with an entry into the methods of visual storytelling, story structure, and pre-production practices. 

            Borrowing from a workshop I've conducted before in my screenwriting classes at RISD, I laid out a set of questions designed to point us to the structure and meaning of a story, and then screened "Bread and Alley," a short film from 1975 written and directed by Abbas Kiarostami for Iran's then-governmental agency, the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Chidren.  It's a simple, wordless 10-minute film made for classroom screenings which subtly but effectively reinforces the value of self-reliance in an individual; the film also lends itself very well to story breakdown and analysis for students at any level. 

            Following this lecture and discussion, we finished with discussions of story, structure, and the cinematic language, and then transitioned to an analysis of the ATT/Botanga Irrigation Scheme UDP project and tried to formulate narrative structures from the limited pieces of information we had at hand.

            Following lunch, we then divided the class into 3 groups:
            Group 1 worked with Denali in writing a 3-column script about the ATT/UDP project.  The group focused on the importance of rice, and imagined a farmer's family struggling to feed themselves, and comparing it with the family of a farmer utilizing the UDP technology to increase his yields.  Denali was charged with keeping the group thinking in visual terms, and not allowing them to resort to simple devices like voiceover or text which create specificity, and therefore limitations, within the video.
            Group 2 was working with Sarosh at a large table where we had laid out a variety of video and audio equipment.  This was a bare-bones and hands-on demonstration of basic camera, sound, and lighting concepts.
            Group 3 sat with me, where we held discussion around what I called 'technique meets meaning'.   I worked through a bulleted list of technical considerations in videomaking, and how those affected a viewer's perception of story and meaning - such as rules of composition, perception of recorded audio, connotations of color, making images that belong to a sequence, and much more.  As I ran through these bullets, I turned the conversation back to the trainees to learn more about their specific concerns as regards producing visual media in their respective countries.  This was the beginning of hopefully ongoing one-on-one consultations with each participant as the week goes on.  And each of the DOCs had extremely specific and interesting challenges in their work; for example, how to make a video in Afghanistan, for a local population, about female entrepeneurs, without visually showing any women?  Each of the 10 DOCs was able to present some unique, and difficult problem that they face in designing visual communications in their respective contexts.

            I also got to learn much more about the trainees, and their various levels of experience.  A large number of them previously worked in journalism, and so came with a small degree of production knowledge, but a better sense of how to pursue a narrative strand through a potentially complex system - so they took quite well to the requirements of scriptwriting based on a project narrative.  However maintaining their focus on visual communication was a challenge, as they were all much more comfortable with communicating through spoken or written language.  They were intrigued by the problem of cultural specificity that language presented, and excited by the challenge of circumventing that using visuals.

            These three groups rotated through each of the stations after 45 minutes or an hour.  This was an attempt to balance everybody's exposure to the different workshops, and was reasonably successful, though more time in each would have been ideal, along with a bit more spacing between the sessions to recuperate a bit (for the trainers, as well).   It was still very hot-

            USAID had expressed a desire for two outcomes to the seminar: 1.) training of the DOCs in a wide spectrum of visual communications and storytelling problems and 2.) actual collaborative production of a sample video telling the story of the Botanga Irrigation Scheme's adoption of UDP farming.  Because of this our workshops were focusing as much as possible on prepping the collaboratively-produced video: understanding the story of the project, writing a script that could compellingly express that story, developing a storyboard and shotlist, and developing a logistical production plan for the following two days.  This gave some specificity and urgency to the basic mechanics of preproduction on this day - even as the list of ambitions was obviously unrealistic (a fact I emphasized early on - that we would be compressing weeks, even months, of production work into 4 days for the benefit of hands-on training).  By the end of the rotations we had about 85% of a finished script, but had not even broached the storyboarding phase or the logistics of going out to shoot.  We therefore had to direct, as trainers, the logistics and informed everyone that we'd be leaving before dawn the next morning for filming, and that we'd pick up the logistics and visual training then.

            The USAID coordinators were keen to finish the day by 5 pm, though I mentioned that put a challenging limitation on what we might accomplish, and was also not exactly 'authentic' to the hours kept during production of a media piece.  And the observers were desirous of an end-of-day feedback session, which was not a bad idea, but also ate into the time we had available.  Thus we concluded the day with feedback on the workshop, which I felt was premature considering we had not had the opportunity to really put any of the concepts to work yet.  However the feedback was very positive, and the group seemed very excited to get out into the field the following morning for filming.

            After dismissal, of course, there remained a huge amount of work at hand, both in clearing the conference room and repacking the equipment, but also to finish the script, derive a workable shotlist from it, and work on logistics for the following morning.   We worked on this until the group was set to depart the hotel for a local restaurant, and then brought our work with us while we ate-

DAY 2: Botanga Irrigation Scheme/ Rice field farming/ Village visit

            We departed the hotel around 4:15 am, well before the 5:30 sunrise, as we had between 20-50 minutes of driving to the dam and the farms (the drivers and locals kept giving wildly divergent travel estimates, so we were conservative).

            The drive out was an obstacle course of sleeping goats splayed across the dark, basic roads, but with a big bright full moon still overhead.  About 45 minutes later, just as the sky was lightening in the East, we drove out onto a long straight dirt track which turned to be the causeway atop the Botanga Dam.  On one side of the road a vast shimmering lake, on the other, a wide, flat green and reddish-brown plain, which would be where the extensive rice farms were located.

            In the course of this sort of production we typically work with a very small set of equipment - for ease of travel, cost, and also sensitivity to local contexts - and so most often we are filming with only available light, other than a few small LED panels which can add fill or highlights to a sun-lit or practical-lit image.   Because of this limitation of light, it's something of a tradition to be on site before dawn and ready to film with every last minute of sunlight.  Being out for dawn was also a good opportunity to do some technical training on the cameras to film the sunrise and work directly with the cameras in composing, white balancing, focusing, and using alternate means of image acquisition such as time-lapse.  Traveling in 4 vehicles, the group got out and we all set immediately to work dropping tripods, powering up cameras, and having everybody filming as the sun rose over the dam-lake.  This lasted for about an hour, and was very productive, beautiful to see, and got everyon warmed up to the pace and method of the day ahead.

            From there we drove along a dirt track into the irrigated region until we reached a small, simple covered shelter on a cement foundation, where rice is typically stored for transport.  Breakfast and instant coffee was set out on the ground and we ate and drank, while discussing the script, and the shotlist I had prepared from it.  At this point it was emphasized that our process of responsive narrative inquiry would start from the script and shotlist, but that we should be attentive to where the reality of our discovery in the field needed to override possible misconceptions or poorly illustrated ideas in the script - which, of course, had been prepared 'blind' without ever having set foot at the project.  This is a typical workflow for development video, where budgets are low, travel is expensive, systems are complex, and misunderstanding is rife: we develop a story about a project from 6000 miles away, and need to be prepared to adapt it rapidly when at last we arrive and learn, firsthand, from the people doing the real work.

            We were scheduled to meet at the shelter with the ATT project implementor, Shaibu, who would be our main contact to the farmers, the villagers, and also provide background and guidance to our understanding of the project's operations.  Shaibu was unable to make it however, because his computer was stolen from his house the night before, and had to spend the day at the police station.  His deputy, Albert, was helpful in describing to the group the mechanism of the UDP farming methods, while we drank coffee under the rising sun.  Shaibu's absence was a further complication, however, because we had anticipated beginning the day with an on-camera interview with him, to be a hands-on workshop in video interview technique.  Therefore we modified the schedule and filmed with a local farmer who was using the UDP technique in his field, and his wife who now also farmed a plot using UDP.  We were fortunate that this farmer, Hassan, was a respected village elder and was a prominent local proponent of UDP farming, and a close partner with ATT.

            We spent some hours filming with Hassan and then his wife in a nearby plot - doing quick standup interviews and documentation of the methods of farming rice using UDP technology - the measuring of fertilizer placement, the manual placement of the fertilizer tablet (by local women's working groups), the transplanting of seedlings, etc.  It was very hot but the opportunity to work in bare feet in the mud of the rice paddy was a welcome way to keep reasonably cool, if a little sloppy and hard to maneuver.

            At the same time a small group of USAID observers went into the village to make introductions to the chief, in the hopes of being able to speak with him later in the day.  They also stopped at a village school and saw the grown rice being used as a staple of the schoolchildren's diet - a link in the story that was essential to capture.

            During this period my assistant trainer Denali was roving with the group of DOC trainees who had stayed with us at the rice plot, helping them compose shots and getting to know their cameras.  I found myself doubly occupied by the need to capture the footage of the farming process, which was meticulous and detailed, and which I knew, were we to try and edit the video, we would need significant coverage of; as well as the charge to be a trainer and guide the students in their own image-making and question-asking.  This bifurcated priority I'd later realize was a problem in the structure of the training - either we could film the farming process with an eye toward an edit, or we could conduct hands-on training, but I couldn't adequately do both.  The presence of an assistant trainer here was essential, but it was still a difficult section of the day - I was attempting to 'train by example' and demonstrate where I was putting the camera to create specifically meaningful images, but the women doing the rice farming, transplanting, fertilizing, etc, weren't quite prepared to move as slowly as necessary to offer much training.  One or two of the trainees got into the water with me, but most stood by on the banks making images that we knew wouldn't be especially useful for the video because of their distanced detachment.

            We also visited Hassan's wife's rice plot, where the plants were fully mature and nearly ready for the harvest.  It was remarkable to see how dense the growth was where the UDP fertilization techniques were being employed, compared to neighboring plots which were much thinner, uneven, with smaller plants.  Hassan's wife's rice plants were up to my neck, and a person walking through the plants could easily disappear in the bright green stems.  It was also a notable scenario, in the relatively conservative and predominantly Muslim North of Ghana to find a woman owning, outright, a plot of farmland and making an income from it; as well, of course, as the organized women's labor cooperatives who had been organized to work the increasingly bountiful farms.

            After this long start to the day, we had a lunch break in the same covered platform while Sarosh and I worked on a production plan for the second half of the day.  Everyone ate jollof rice and chicken accompanied by plenty of water, and reviewed the shotlist and script-

            From there we went into the village, having secured an opportunity to speak with the chief of the community in his 'palace' - a compound of 4 or 5 thatched roof mud huts in the traditional style.  We met him in the largest of these huts, dark and cool inside.  The chief was in his 90s, seated in an old designer lounge chair, surrounded by presumable a few sons and advisers.  Behind him rose enormous mounds of rice, piled on the floor: his tribute from the community's farms, a demonstration of his power, and also a village food reserve.  The entire group came in to meet him, and then Sarosh, Denali, our Ghana-based DOC, Yooku, and I stayed on to set up an conduct an on-camera interview with the chief.

            We also were seeking views in the village of rice preparation and selling, all to fulfill the needs of the script and based on our growing understanding of the economics of the rice markets and labor structure in the region.  Whenever possibly we'd accompany these pursuits of specific images with inquiry-driven interviews to keep developing our understanding of the system we were aiming to elucidate narratively.  To tell the story of the ATT/ Botanga Irrigation project, we needed to illustrate the far reach of the benefits to improving the rice harvests - labor, sustenance, education, economics, gender equality, all of these things were affected by the introduction of the UDP techniques.

            The group spent some time touring through the village, though without finding much in the way of the specific images we needed; again it became essential, for the sake of the eventual edit, that Denali and I broke off to quickly find the images and speak with a few of the rice-sellers in town.

            At last we made our way back to the rice farms in the hope we'd catch a late-day group doing some harvesting or other process-  However no one was out at that time, their work for the day being done.  Rather we settled along the roadside and while the sun began to set, had a day-end feedback session.  Once the sun was gone, we headed back to Tamale for dinner at a local bar/restaurant.  This was also going to serve - as it usually does in the course of field production - as a media offloading time.

            We ordered our food and drinks and set up the computer and hard drives to offload all the memory cards, and in small groups I provided demonstrations of media management techniques and offloading methods.  While this was an important lesson to prospective producers, it was made challenging by a long, steady, and utterly torrential rain which hammered so loudly on the corrugated tin roof of the bar that even shouting at the top of my lungs, it was difficult to make myself heard.  I was surprised when, the rain finally stopping after an hour or so, I was hoarse just from showing people how to unload memory cards-

            While there we also coordinated the production plans for the following day.  We decided that for Day 2 we'd work in smaller, focused groups, and asked the participants to sign up for 2 out of 3 shooting workshops we planned, again with an eye both on fulfilling the shotlist and providing a broad set of hands-on instruction.  The three workshops would be: 1.) early morning camera workshop, reinforcing some of the image-making and technical concerns we handled during the sunrise shoot; 2.) conducting and shooting a traditional on-camera interview, with technical training in audio recording with wireless and other microphones.  The interview would be the one we had planned for this morning, with Shaibu of ATT, walking us through the mechanism and effects of the UDP rice farming process.  It would also be important to conduct training on how to structure on-camera conversations so they yield usable footage, as well as clearer understanding and new directions of inquiry for the interviewer; and 3.) process-shooting and b-roll: with more camera and image-making training involved, this is also a social exercise about how to capture a dynamic process in video so that it can be effectively and instructively edited into a seamless sequence: master shots, medium, close-ups, as well as handling the challenge of participating in a process while also documenting it.  In this case we would aim to go into the village and visit a school during a meal break, and make scenes of the children eating the rice that had been raised in the fields nearby.

            All of this would:
            -fulfill the footage needs of the prospective video we'd be editing
            -complete a reasonably broad set of technical training workshops for documentary field production
            -address the seminar's structural issues by reducing the effective 'class size' by breaking up the group into smaller teams, as well as reducing the stress of extremely long production days on the whole group

DAY 3: 2nd Production Day: Sunrise/ b-roll-process shooting/ interviews - Travel back to Accra

            The trainers and 5 trainees drove out before dawn (it was a short night's rest!) to the rice fields where we'd worked the day before, and resumed hands-on camera-use exercises as the sun prepared to rise.  Unfortunately the sky was partly overcast so we didn't have the same remarkable luminous disk that we'd captured the morning before, but it was still a fruitful training session with experimentation in the use of tripods and other stabilizing equipment, and creating compositions (especially challenging in the flat landscape, where barely a tree broke up the expanses of rice and grassland), and color and exposure.  Even in this rather academic, technical training, we were constantly emphasizing the importance of making images that can be read in a particular way, as desired by the filmmaker.  The height of the camera, the composition, and the elements within are all contributing to a matrix of understanding in the audience's mind, and the producer must be as conscious as possible of those meanings for effective visual communication.  We discussed, for example, the meaning of the sun as a symbol and metaphor, and how it varied, or didn't, across different cultures (it was useful to have participants coming from all over the world in these conversations, who could provide interesting cultural insights about such a topic).  And once we established the matrix of possible meanings of the thing (the sun, for example), we would alter the composition, the scale, the angle, and discuss how these syntactical variations altered the reception of the meaning.  Those familiar with film and visual theory would recognize this as a film-syntax study, but such analysis was new and seemed of great interest to the participants.  My feeling is that their work is so entangled with cultural, political, and social complexity that a persepctive on universal or culturally-specific 'reading' of images was especially useful and important.  Thre is great urgency in so much of their communications work, and nothing could be more frustrating than having one's intent as an image-maker misinterpreted simply because this kind of visual literacy wasn't fully considered.

            It was a warm, damp morning and dewdrops on rice fronds provided picturesque elements for image making. 

Thousands and thousands of tiny frogs and newts hopped around in the mud and water of the rice paddies.  We shook the mud from our shoes and headed to the roadway atop the Botanga earthen dam where we met the second contingent of trainees for the interview shoot.  Shaibu, the project implementor from ATT was also there, returned from his difficult previous day.  His interview had been intended to be the baseline technical narrative about the Botanga UDP project, around which we could build the rest of the video; because of the altered schedule, and the productive interviews we ended up conducting with the rice farmer Hassan, now Shaibu's main role in the evolving script would be to provide only some technical overview about how UDP fertilizer is applied and the project's history.  The more compelling story about the beneficial effects of this technology introduction is explained and illustrated in the footage of Hassan and his wife and the laborers working their fields.

            The stand-up field interview is a frequently relied-upon standard in the type of production the DOCs often do, and so we were working on refining a fairly clear-cut methodology for this type of shot - 3/4 profile, head-and-shoulders composition, etc etc.  We used the setup of the interview to talk about light, especially shooting with available light; we also emphasized microphone placement techniques and sound recording.  Then participants took turns developing questions and conducting the on-camera inquiry with Shaibu.

            After the interview training section of the day, the third workshop was focused on what I'm calling 'process shooting' which is essentially immersive documentary shooting with an emphasis on sequencing and editability - filming a 'process' as it unfolds naturally, making sure to shoot coverage, detail, and context so it can be cut into seamless sequences.  We were invited to the village school again to film during the midday meal break.  This would be a good sequence to cover - cooking, serving, eating, and the subsequent social and emotional events we might capture - and it would also present  what I thought a useful challenge to the trainees: doing productive, focused work in the midst of the typically cheerful, noisy, crowded, chaotic reception that Ghanaian village children give to any visitors. 

            It's a frequent experience to foreign visitors in Africa that the children are the most curious, excited, gregarious members of any welcome party, and they never relent.  The visitor steps out of the vehicle and is immediately surrounded by inquisitive kids, trying out their English words, asking about cameras and clothing and hair, and holding hands to welcome their new friends.

            It is normal and natural to want to participate in the social atmosphere of such a moment, and the kids are overwhelming in their insistence, both through the sincerity and emotion of their desire for connection and because of their untimid physical placement.  It's extremely difficult as a filmmaker to be dropped into these situations, as they are cultivated by development agencies and NGOs, and expect to come away with any editable footage.  (We've all been subjected to enough video of African village children crowding around camera lens, and usually this festive atmosphere is misrepresented in the edited media.)

            It generally takes time to cultivate a relationship with a subject and allow them to 'forget', somewhat, the presence of the camera so they aren't acting quite so much, and allow you to see a bit of what an ordinary moment might be like.  In one day, with a high profile arrival, unusual clothes, languages, equipment, and everything else, it's only natural that it will be festive, noisy, and interesting. But in many cases this is the only kind of visit we are able to make, so training the DOCs how to conduct such a visit and still make good, dignified images while also cultivating new relationships, being diplomatic and courteous and also enjoying the hospitality offered was a valuable lesson.

            With so many newcomers descending at once the village school it was possible to conduct small hands-on instruction with 1 or 2 trainees at a time while the rest of the group made their own discoveries and helped distract some of the excitement and attention.  After setting these small groups or individuals back to work, I could move on to others to provide the same instruction.  Overall it was a successful teaching period, and being present for one or two DOCs at a time while they were composing their images and finding their way through a sequence (master, mid, close, reverse, etc) was perhaps the most effective moment of concrete learning we experienced during the workshop.

            We concluded this day by midafternoon, due to catch a flight back to Accra in the evening.  Packing the equipment, wrapping up the media and the luggage and getting into and through the Tamale airport was an effort in itself, but somehow, by 7 pm, we were settling back into the Labadi Beach Hotel in Accra.

            My assistant and I worked further into the evening offloading media and prepping edit sessions and workshops for the upcoming postproduction day.  Here was another moment where more time for transition and preparation would be welcome - the postproduction day was bound to be overfull with material to cover, and it also required effectively setting up a 3-station postproduction facility in the hotel conference room.  By 9 am the next morning we would be starting the workshops - there was a lot to do, and we were still covered in village dust late into the night.

Day 4: Accra/ Labadi Beach Hotel Conference center - Postproduction/editing/ 1-on-1 consults

The morning began early by getting in to the large conference room at Labadi Beach Hotel and setting tables and equipment.  Our design for the postproduction day of the workshop was to be a three-station setup, each running a full 'suite' of editing software (Adobe Premiere) and using mirrored hard drives containing all the media.  Just duplicating these drives was itself a time-consuming process, which we began the night before and were still rushing to complete in the morning, through breakfast, and into the introductory comments.

            We were unable to secure three fully compatible computer workstations, however, (we didn't discover this completely until this morning) and so we were forced to improvise at the last minute a curriculum structure using just two laptops/media sets.  The new plan would maintain the 3-station plan, and then phase each station 3 times throughout the day.  At first the 2 laptop stations would be redundant and provide lessons in media management, logging, and stringing out and cutting down large quantities of media.  The third 'station' would be an ongoing series of 1-on-1 consultation sessions with me, focused on project-specific problems that each of the DOCs might be working on in their own practice.  As the day unfolded I would watch some of their productions and offer specific critique, discuss larger communications problems, or offer examples from my own work of how certain communications problems might be creatively solved.  From these sessions, it felt as if a number of opportunities arose for continuing critical conversations between RISD (students and faculty) and the DOCs, and I'm hopeful some of these may yet come to fruition.

            As one tantalizing example, the USAID DOC working in the Afghanistan mission is faced with the problem of wanting to tell several visual stories about successful development interventions with local women.  However he is restricted, both by cultural conventions and by security concerns, from actually visually showing any women.  We had a long and productive conversation about different strategies, but at the end of it I couldn't help but imagine what a productive problem-specific curricular structure this question could provide to a dedicated group of RISD students and faculty.  It got me thinking about a kind of 'task-force' model that might be employable during RISD's Wintersession, or a continuing critical-feedback network that could be maintained between RISD and participating USAID officers.

            The second and third phases of the technical day would include a demonstration of fine-cutting out of the logged and selected media, and a demonstration of some basic concepts in motion graphics, color correction, and audio postproduction.  It was an ambitious day and the conflict remained between making any significant headway on the sample project about the UDP/Botanga Irrigation Scheme, and focusing on training, demonstration, and trainee participation.  A typical edit on a project like this is a weeks-long process, so doing anything demonstrable in the course of a day would be challenging in any context.  All we could hope for was to get enough done, in each of the main stages of a typical postproduction process, that the basic structure of a production and some of the methodologies used to good effect might stay with the participants after they return to their missions.  Furthermore, I was hopeful that we might be able to cultivate continuing relationships with the DOCs so as to help them maintain a uniform high standard in their work and provide an outlet for their future questions.

            While I held small group consultations, my assistant Denali Tiller led demonstrations on preliminary editing methodologies such as creating project, stringouts, logging, and selecting/cutting down.  After the initial demonstrations, Sarosh Hussain supervised these same processes at the second edit station, so we had two small groups of trainees working their way through the footage to discover usable pieces for an assembly.

            This became a valuable lesson in visual and narrative literacy, as the trainees had before them the script they had written, and now a large selection of media to try and match to written portions of the script.  This matching between image and meaning is an exercise in these literacies - for example the discovery some trainees made that a scripted scene which called for shots of the dam and demonstrations of the irrigation could be satisfied, visually, with a fairly simple but elegantly framed image of a man turning the wheel which released the waters into the irrigation channels, followed by an image of those channels running with water.  What had seemed, in the script, to be an involved sequence of images and descriptions was visually accomplsihed in just two brief images, lasting less than 3 seconds total.  This is the sort of literacy that editors are proficient in, and to have made a few of these discoveries during the workshops was good progress indeed.

            Working through all the media we had shot from the previous two days was a time consuming process - 9 cameras rolling approximately 2-3 hours of video each day, leaving us with about 27 hours of media.  In any editing process, someone has to watch all of that, in order to cut it down to its essential usable pieces, and hand it over to an editor for sequencing and assembly.  We assigned each group of our trainees a chunk of approximately 12 hours of media, which they had just 3-4 hours to get through.  Obviously we wouldn't accomplish much toward an edit today, but we felt it was essential that they get a real sense of the time commitment required to work with this much material - either to inform them as they scheduled future projects, set into their own edits, or negotiated with outside producers knowledgeably about the time and costs of such work.

            This went on throughout the morning, while individual trainees broke off from the editing stations to sit with me doing consults.  The plan was that after a lunch break, we would then transition one of the groups to assembly and fine-cutting (of whatever portion of the media they had gotten through) and the other would begin to look at some basic concepts in graphics, design, audio, and color, led by Denali Tiller.  USAID/LPA (Legislative and Public Affairs) reps would also oversee this demonstration to help inform the trainees about branding and stylistic consistency across all the agency's media - an initiative that has been hard to achieve with such widespread productions by such a diverse group of practitioners.  This pilot training program was partly launched to help establish just this sort of consistency across all agency media productions.

            When we reconvened after the lunch break, the two editing groups resumed poring through the media, however now with a slightly more focused approach - picking their way through 'scenes' that they knew would be needed in a final video.  This was kind of like an accelerated process of cutdown/selecting, which would typically come after a thorough logging of all the media.  In this case, trainees focused on scenes at the village school, as well as the irrigation/damming scenes.  To a more limited extent, they also worked on cutting down the formal interview with Shaibu, the ATT project implementer, which would be essential for building a story spine out of voiceover-  Again, this is a hugely time-consuming process - the interview itself was almost an hour long, so for new editing trainees to dig into that, watch it through, log the usable parts of his answers, etc, was not practically possible in the timeframe we had.  By 3:30 pm, with an hour and a half remaining in the scheduled day (we were constrained to a 5 o'clock wrap by other logistics), we had to stop this process midway through and transition to an intensive pair of workshops on sequencing and fine cutting, and GFX/audio/color.

            I led the sequencing/finecutting demo, and spent about 40 minutes demonstrating (unfortunately we were now too short on time to allow for hands-on time for each of the trainees in the group) how to begin with a spine of voiceover audio culled from an interview -  in this case a couple of lines from Shaibu about the Botanga irrigation system - and then cut in rough visual sequences over this audio to complement and illustrate it.  There were at least three important points I made an effort to demonstrate:
            -the visuals should not simply illustrate exactly what is being spoken about, but rather act in complement or counterpoint, and mutually build meaning with each other
            -visual information is communicated to an audience extremely efficiently and so we looked at how to find only the most essential portion of a shot and not use any more or less of it than absolutely necessary
            -the whole process is reductive, in that more media should be added to the sequence and then reduced and reduced through iterative readings and evaluations of the content, and that nothing can replace time and repetition in the act of distilling a media edit down to its most essential, efficient form

            The GFX/ audio/ color demonstration was a basic overview of the titling tools alongisde some theoretical support about composition, legibility, design with context, etc.  This was paired with advice from the USAID LPA reps present about working within the agencies branding guidelines.  While they emphasized branding, we kept returning to the importance of context and responsive design, two concepts which are sometimes at odds.  Hopefully between pull of the two approaches, the trainees took away a usable idea of how to proceed when designing their communications media.

            We did succeed, in some sense, in creating about 20 seconds of crisply-edited sequence backed by relevant content audio, and in this the trainees did get a glimpse of how the time consuming process of editing can, through reduction, distill a large mass of media into a coherent, efficient, narratively-driven piece of media.  It was a frenetic finish, but with just three or 4 good working edits they saw the footage they had shot and logged turned into a piece of video that was recognizable to them as 'finished' at a professional standard.  We couldn't have hoped for much more, under the extremely pressed timeframe of the workshop.

            We made some conclusive remarks, thanked the participants and took questions, and then opened the floor to written and spoken evaluations.  As this program was a pilot initiative, USAID's evaluations were a critical part of the process, to see if and how the training could be improved and repeated.  I was grateful that while the DOCs wrote out their evaluations and began to recount their critical feedback someone handed me a glass of wine - listening to critique of one's work is always tough, and it had been a long, grueling week of work, so the refreshment was welcome.  Also, we never get wine during crits at RISD.


            The evaluations received on the final day were extremely positive about the DOC Training.  The program was graded on a scale of 5 and we received, from the DOC trainees themselves, full 5s across the board, indicating strong satisfaction with the content, curriculum, and execution.

            The critical notes voiced had to do mainly with organizational issues, which we indeed struggled with.  Perception of possible disorganization was added to by our project implementor's suddent schedule disruption on our first field day.  On the one hand, this is the sort of thing field producers should learn to grapple with and adapt to; on the other, we werent nimble enough in that instance to have a good PLan B in place, and some instruction time was lost.  We also had logistical snafus in the travel to and from Tamale; and in the equipping of the postproduction workshop days - both of which were the result of miscommications and oversights amongst several of the many parties involved in organizing and implementing the training.  Nothing that shouldn't be expected in the course of such an elaborate endeavor involving so many people, but it did tend to increase the perception that the training itself might not be completely well organized.

            Still this one critical note was in the great minority, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, including DOCs describing this as the best and most informative USAID training session they've ever attended.  Very good to hear.

            My own conclusions also are that overall the training went well, with a few exceptions and with a wishlist for any potential future reiteration.  First and foremost it was clear that the timeframe was too compressed to accommodate the amount of information USAID had hoped to cover, or at least in the form we were using to cover it.   By working around a 'sample' project - the Botanga Irrigation scheme/UDP project - the training's focus was bifurcated between satisfactory completion of that work and specific training for the attendees.  Besides adding time to the seminar, I would in the next iteration scale back the ambition for the sample project and focus more on the training of individual DOCs, including giving time to review and critique their previous and current works in progress.  This sort of direct personalized feedback would help serve the great variation in each mission's problem set (what Afghanistan is faced with, from a communications standpoint, is very different from what Southeast Asia (ASEAN) faces) as well as the DOCs' own variation in expertise, experience, and needs.

            In more general terms, as this training was still coming together I was learning only piecemeal about the goals and responsibilities of the USAID DOC program; the seminar was pitched first and foremost as a video production training for USAID overseas communications officers.  This provided a useful concrete and specific framework for the curriculum.  Only after beginning to develop the course and hold discussions with the DOC administrators in Washington, however, did I begin to get a sense of the broader reponsibilities of the DOCs beyond just video production - encompassing all kinds of outreach and facing extremely difficult institutional, logistical, and perceptual challenges.  The DOCs are communications diplomats, storytellers, and often the public face - internationally and locally - of their respective missions.  When making videos, as often as not they are acting as producers and contracting the production out to local technicians.  Therefore as much as knowing how to make their own productions, it is important they know how to communicate a vision to others, know how to maintain technical standards, and what can be expected of a video production both logistically, practically, economically, and aesthetically.  We only touched on these aspects in our training, but we had not set aside particular discussions or demonstrations for them - something I would alter in a future iteration.

            Additionally I am more interested in expanding the scope of the training to better reflect what I, and RISD (particularly the Dept of Film, Animation, and Video) are able to bring to the DOCs by way of training support.  It goes well beyond just technical training, and even beyond the critical capacities we can bring to the DOCs work in progress.  In other work with USAID I have explored the potential of diplomacy and communications through artist residencies, collaborative and community-based art-making; partnership with local art educators and local professional artists, and more.  By training the DOCs to connect with and collaborate with the artist communities in their local venues, I think we could also multiply their reach and greatly refine their sensitivity and relevance.  Having them become better technical producers of work in their own right is clearly of great value; and in the course of this instruction they've gained a lot of insight into aesthetic thinking, visual and narrative literacy, and much of the holistic critical thinking that goes into all forms of art-making.  If we expanded this outward to all forms of relevant outreach that the DOCs are engaged in, I think we could vastly expand the usefuleness of these types of training seminars, and perhaps cultivate another functioning model for broad, multidisciplinary collaboration between artists, designers, and culture producers from RISD, and USAID and affiliated humanitarian and development organizations.
password for this video is USA1D

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