Creating Epic Cinema, as Journalism, on Mobiles — The Revolution Master Class
In their expansive timely book Reimagining Journalism in a Post-Truth World, journalist-professor Ed Madison and Ben DeJarnette say “Trailblazer David Dunkley Gyimah (me) calls himself a cinema journalist”. I’m honoured for the mention, Ed and Ben. Here, I thought I would expand upon cinema journalism.
It started with cinema. Then execs in the digital era could no longer maintain the illusion. Today, we’re returning to cinema — the greatest expressive storytelling form there is — but with the sweetest of caveats. I’ll mention three here.
Firstly, we’re returning to cinema’s roots as journalism. That’s right when cinema was born it was proto journalism, documentaries and news. Even when Hollywood in the early 1900s switched to fictional, maestros such as Russian Dziga Vertov still maintained cinema journalism’s earlier form.
In the 1960s, the French and Canadians revived cinema journalism with Cinéma vérité, and the Americans as Direct Cinema. The father of the form in the US was the great late Robert Drew, whom I had the enormous privilege to interview.
For a while Drew et al were ignored, then honoured. Their approach and style would be used by television news, but they were not given the accolades they richly deserved. In this short film I created from an hour interview with Drew he told me how news people had taken his camera and techniques but did not apply them in ways that worked for his brand of cinema journalism.
Drew and his colleagues, Leacock, Maysles and Pennebaker, and in France Rouch, Morin and Brault, are the reason why the camera you’re holding today is compact and mobile. Or that you’re using a mobile phone to film. They proved what could be done, effectively laying down the gauntlet for others.
Secondly, that journalism, indeed cinema journalism, can be created with epic attributes on nothing more than an $800 iPhone or Android, has some mystery about it, but not the obvious ones. There’s a long history of tech and news using miniature cameras. This, the EM Ken Richter from the 1970s, was the size of a mobile phone.
However, invariably manufacturers sought to keep admirable profit margins selling the next piece of tech, so big was preferred over smaller units. What’s really quite an impact is when filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh produce a feature film, Unsane, on a mobile phone. That would be the equivalent of the BBC, or CNN committing to shoot its ‘big budget’ docs t on mobiles.
And thirdly, Cinema journalism is not a one-size fits all. It is not the super model adopted by television called the package, which can find itself constrained in these times. It differs like its fictional form across territories and personnel. There is no essence of cinema. And I’m not suggesting too that cinema journalism is better then television journalism.
I have been a video journalist first for twenty five years; in fact I was amongst the first thirty union-recognised in the UK. Before that I was a bi-media journalist reporting from Apartheid South Africa on radio, and reporting on BBC 2 current affair programmes.
After 2000 I wrote my doctorate thesis capturing the cinema journalism movement, and building a persuasive argument for its re-emergence and what it represents.That argument included interviews and multiple analysis of practitioners’ work around the world. My former colleague Dimitri Doganis, who was one of the first thirty, has pushed his craft into a hybrid style of docs and cinema. With this film below, he was nominated for an Oscar.
Unfortunately many practitioners who teach mobile journalism or video journalism come from television’s traditions of style and narrative, which were largely adopted by UK regional newspaper journalists.
I know this because in the UK, I was hired by Britain’s Press Association to launch master classes to teach Britain’s regional newspapers to become video makers. There’s nothing inherently wrong with traditional forms, but conventional broadcast journalism’s approach is often a politician’s dream.
Cinema journalism’s impetus derived from the standardisation of video journalism. And videojournalism too turned out to be a misnomer. It no more meant making video pieces than understanding a spectrum of genres that included cinema tropes and cues, and that one person could work the seams.
When broadcasters got hold of the videojournalism in early 2000s they did what they once did to Drew — cherry picked what would serve the TV model.
But that’s changing and there is a momentum to realise a different way of storytelling. In part, social-politics has been one of several catalysts. At the point where traditional reportage feels anaemic in reporting events, embattled by PRs, spin doctors and new forms of pugilist governments, then one way around that is an expressive, purposeful style of meaning-making.
The storyteller finds ways to poignantly illustrate events, and attempts to thwart hurdles pushed their way. The knowledge and skills are as much about understanding the visual affects of film on the viewer as how a message is communicated and received. It’s an insight into behaviour and individual and group behaviour.
Infinite choices (learned) buoyed by history, and evolving techniques, seek to attempt to tell a story that will resonate with viewers.
It cannot simply be that tropes and styles, say, exercised by spins an marketeers, are observed at a distance. For every Darth Vader, there is a Luke Skywalker with skills — that journalism would easily defer to neuroscience and nudge theory.
That was then, but times are changing. In the coming weeks I’m going to setup some Master classes in cinema journalism, similar to those conducted in Vancouver on my Asper Visiting Professors programme. I also intend on writing up a new course in cinema Journalism to incorporate my other passions in innovation in VR, coding, podcasts and AI.
Feedback from presenting at SXSW
Feedback from ONA
Background pieces on Cinema Journalism