Video as Storytelling

My job is Storyteller. My medium is video. Whether we are producing a documentary, an investor relations or recruitment video, a marketing piece, or simple video web clips, we are always telling stories. I think that is why I so enjoy my work as a producer and writer. I love listening to people’s stories, asking unlimited numbers of questions, trying to get in the middle of their feelings, and then translating the whole experience into stories that resonate with the folks who watch them.

Everyone has stories. When we work for a private equity firm on an IR video and visit various companies around the globe within the same portfolio, we hear similar reactions to the values and culture of the PE company but completely different stories about the substance of the work, the reasons for the sale, and how the PE company is helping  growth. When we produce web clips of 60 seconds or less at one firm and interview an array of employees who speak to the nature of the work they do, each one tells different stories about his or her experiences. And even when we produce a major documentary about a particular topic, the individuals who fill the story each come to it from different places, their own thoughts and experiences in tow. The most exciting, challenging and rewarding part of my job is developing a level of trust with each new person I interview that will prompt them to open up and reveal their stories.

Often the most painful part of the editing process is cutting down the total time of a production.  The consequence is that some really good stories land on the old “cutting room floor.” But in this new world of blogging and vlogging, these stories often find an opportunity in life after death — if time permits. I was thinking about this today because we were in the final days of post-production on a documentary on which we’ve been working for several years entitled “Delicious Peace Grows in a Ugandan Coffee Bean.” We’re making the last cuts and bidding farewell to a few stories to which we were very attached but which were weighing down the production. I’ll share one here:

AK (not real name) is a member of Delicious Peace Coffee Co-op in Mbale, Uganda. The farmers are Christian, Jewish and Muslim and formed the co-op to enhance peaceful relationships and economic development. AK is Muslim. He is also a musician, singing a kind of rap music in Luganda language accompanied by his group — several additional musicians melodically hammering away on an oversized wood-carved xylophone. When we first went to Uganda, AK introduced us to his two children and said he did not want any others, distinguishing himself from most of his fellow farmers who have huge families. He wants to break through the poverty cycle and provide educational opportunities for his children. But when we returned the following year his family had grown; he had welcomed in a new child, who I guessed to be about eight years old. Her parents had passed away from AIDs. AK and his wife had been friends with the parents, so they adopted the girl without question or formality. She was quiet and distant, but she followed us around AK’s large and beautiful garden as we videotaped. She didn’t speak a word of English, and I was not going to bother her by a conversation through a translator. Instead we spoke in a universal speechless language, exchanging picked flowers and smiles.

I don’t write this story to give a dramatic or philosophical ending. The lives of AK, his wife, two natural children and adopted daughter will continue to unfold. They touched me deeply, and I felt privileged that they allowed me to record this little moment in their collective lives. Hopefully it will appear on a website-under-construction alongside many others.

Tomorrow it’s off to another story about a supportive housing residence in an inner city filled with people who served time and are looking to re-start their lives. Next week we will videotape web clips highlighting partners in a medium-sized national law firm. In between are a few stories still in development on completely different topics.

I love my job.

2 Responses to “Video as Storytelling”

  1. Greg Branch Says:

    Enjoyed your blog Ellen! You are quite right about the joys and pangs of being a video storyteller and the options that blogging provides. I like your “life after death” scenario, may have to use that one (with appropriate attribution, of course 🙂

    As a healthcare journalist, I can attest to the devastation of HIV/AIDS in Uganda. However, to give credit where its due – Uganda is one of about 2 nations that has managed to substantially lower its HIV infection rate and continues to work to combat future infection by educating its people.

    I hope and am sure, that you will keep in touch with AK. This another pang for me as a journalist and storyteller…leaping into and out of people’s lives. Though I can not possibly stay in touch with everybody I meet, some remain connected and I remain in contact.

  2. ellenfriedland Says:

    Thx Greg for taking the time to read and comment!
    Yes, I also often think about my relationships with the folks I meet out on the road. For a brief period of time they often become extremely significant partners with whom we share life-altering moments. And then it’s onto the next story, as if feelings can evaporate as quickly as airplanes fly us to every continent. At the same time, it’s simply impossible to maintain close friendships with so many people we meet and learn to really care about. Therein lies the dilemma…
    For a number of years Curt and I worked in Poland, and because of the number of times we returned — sometimes four times a year over a period of years — we developed such close friendships that we went back for weddings and other events. This summer we’ll be there working on a job, and we’ve made plans to meet the new baby of a good friend. But Poland is Europe, which is easily accessible. It was harder when we departed from Kosova in 2002 for our last shoot on a documentary; I couldn’t imagine when we’d return, and in fact we haven’t. But we did take one of the refugees into our home for a few years and help him get off the ground, and we’re still the “American parents” to two others, now in their early 30s.
    Re Uganda, a few of our friends get to come here from time to time because of the coffee company’s promotional efforts. That’s been great — we can open up our home and our lives to them here. But it’s hard for us to get there, just on the basis of time and cost, unless justified by a work project. I know our friends are sometimes disappointed by that — they let us know via their emails. I am hoping the documentary will be successful so we can all share its rewards together, and we can bring a group of interfaith folks from here to a premiere in Mbale. For the moment, the plan has to stay on the wish list. And even if it’s realized, the continuity of friendships in the aftermath will not be easy to maintain. I’m just glad their co-op is developing and they’re building an office that will get electricity — and therefore email!

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