Envision educates and humanizes / by KirstenStudio

My Grandpa Al once said, "Nothing is more important than an education". I wish I would have given a little more heed to this idea. I would have acquired more of an academic history. I did get an education but not everyone has access to the same opportunities. It's not just a matter of applying one's self.

July 10th's Envision event, brought to us by the Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP) and the United Nations Department of Public Information was a day long panel discussion and film screenings. Saturday was intended to unite leaders from the international filmmaking community with prominent representatives from the UN, civil society organizations, entrepreneurs, activists, journalists, economists, public policy makers and NGOs to address global issues through the international shared language of filmed documentaries.

There were two films shown and three panel discussions.  The morning started with opening remarks by IFP's Executive Director, Joanna Vicente and Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information at the United Nations, Kiyo Akasaka.  The eloquent Harry Belafonte gave an amazing keynote speech about his work in Kenya (where the first documentary takes place), with UNICEF (where he serves as International Goodwill Ambassador of UNICEF) and his friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt as a young man (The First Lady chaired the UN commission that drafted and approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948).  Mr. Belafonte also told the story of how a young Barack Obama Sr. initially came to America on a scholarship for promising African students through a program Harry Belafonte was involved with.

Envision's focus this year was education, both internationally and domestically.  The event addressed how documentary can raise awareness and advocate for educational needs worldwide by bringing powerful, personal stories to wide audiences.

A Small Act by filmmaker Jennifer Arnold is something special and I highly recommend watching its premiere on HBO tomorrow night.  If you're like me, you sponsor a couple children in far off places but the truth is you never really know for sure whether your contribution has any impact.  Some organizations are bogus of course, but the foundation highlighted in Ms. Arnold's documentary film isn't. A Small Act reveals the power of one gesture.  I'll leave at that because everyone should see this documentary for themselves.

The panel that followed was something special as well. It was probably one of the best social issue film panels I've ever attended. Education obstacles & Solutions in Africa: The Power of One. It was moderated by Stephane Dujarric who is the Senior Advisor and Spokesperson at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

Panelists included:

Chris Mburu, Chief, Anti-discrimination Section, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations. He was in A Small Act.

Penny Abeywardena, Senior Manager of Education/Girls and Women at Clinton Global Initiative.

Allison Anderson, Scholar at Center for Universal Education at Brookings Institution.

Michael Gibbons, Education Partnership for Children on Conflict at the Council on Foreign Relations and International Training and Education Program at American University.

Heather Simpson, Senior Director, Education and Child Development at Save the Children.

The education discussion centered mainly around the problems, such as when the Kenyan government decided to offer free schooling, but the system was unprepared. The schools were inundated with new anxious to learn children. They literally didn't have enough room, teachers or other resources to accommodate so many kids.  There has also been a mushrooming of private schools in Kenya that good teachers are seduced by with a promise of premium pay and supplies they wouldn't have in the public arena. Educational solutions were addressed, but they are complicated because the circumstances are.  Some solutions offered included holding government accountable but not relying completely on the government to take care of everything. Everyone seemed to agree that small NGO partnerships can create successful educational programs.  Collaborations develop ideas otherwise missed. We shouldn't underestimate the power of convening.

There was some talk about gender too.  One panelist said that everyone is talking about educating the girl child but it's also important to educate boys so they aren't isolated.  Uneducated boys are more easily solicited for going to war. As Mr. Gibbons mentioned, we need to look at both boys and girls needs.  You don't want to just educate girls. It's important for genders to be allies. Mr. Gibbons also reminded us the term "gender" refers to social and cultural relationships and their dynamics, where as "sex" is a biological fact. That is a distinction to consider when trouble-shooting gender issues.

A couple of things arose that were directly related to films around social issues I found uplifting. Mr. Mburu said the screening of A Small Act at Sundance generated such an incredible increase in donations that is his organization has expanded to help a significant larger number of children now. It has also allowed the organization (Hilde Back Education Fund) to start a couple pilot programs.  The other film and activism thought came from Michael Gibbons when he spoke about how film has the unique ability to help audiences understand complex variables and it humanizes in ways that other mediums don't, as effectively at least.  Not surprisingly I couldn't agree more.

The panel that followed lunch was Telling Their Own Stories: The Individual as Documentarian and The Impact of User-Generated Media. The moderator was Dan Cogan, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Impact Partners.

Panelists were:

Karen Cirillo, Executive Producer, Children's Broadcasting Initiatives, UNICEF.

Mallika Dutt, Founder and Executive Director, Breakthrough.

John Kennedy, Executive Producer, World Without Walls.

Jessica Mayberry, Founding Director, Video Volunteers.

Ryan Schlief, Asia Program Manager, WITNESS.

Each representative of these organizations showed examples of their user-generated videos. Karen Cirillo joined by video recording and what followed were clips of youth created video through the UNICEF program.  These were lovely and I can see how they would change the lives of the kids who made them and bring insight to their audience.  There was one video in particular that stood out for me It was titled "Focus”. It was a short segment with continuous shot of a young man walking to school. As he walks he is approached by various distractions, but he stays on his path.

All the videos clips from each organization were good and I really believe in the concept of participatory video and other art.  My only question that one audience member slightly addressed but it didn't get answered directly is whether there is an audience for the sheer number of videos out there.  Stats show internet users don't have a lot of attention span for videos, so if there isn't an audience for all this content, is there any resulting impact other than how it enriches its generators.  This is not a new question in the film industry of course, but an important one.  This is not to discount these organizations on the panel in any way either.  They're all amazing.

That being said, I know the videos aren’t exclusively created for online venues.  Many are shown in local communities for the purpose of open discussion, awareness and activism.  I can see how videos made by the communities they’re about inspire critical thinking and action.

The second film screened at Envision was Waiting for Superman.  A beautiful, eye-opening and entertaining story about American schools by David Guggenheim. Mr. Guggenheim takes an in-depth look at our public school system and it isn't too impressive with is of no surprise to most, unfortunately.  So much for No Child Left Behind.  The good news is that Mr. Guggenheim did find some hope.  Waiting for Superman gets a release this fall.

The last panel was Public Education Examining the Old Model and Probing The New and I totally admit I cut out early.  Not because I was anxious to get out of there, but because I had another obligation. Envision was a very worthy event and highly informative for people in the non-profit documentary filmmaking community.  I felt inspired and I left with new ideas.  That’s half the battle. Real impact is the other.