Future of Storytelling — from London’s leading media club, the Frontline Club

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It was a !#%! moment that changed everything. Freelance photographer? Seasoned content maker? Amateur filmmaker? The impact was profound in ways still unfolding.

AI’s IBM Watson was challenged to cut a movie trailer and did so successfully. Creativity just became automised. In China, the future sees people physically walk into the Internet in a holographic experience. Then there’s films whose plot changes according to human facial gestures, but these are just a part of the future.

At each tech-socio-creative turn, journalism, an industry that carnivorously assimilates every new new thing to maintain its elitist relevance, shows its deficiencies. Enough! Humpty Dumpty is broken. The cracks got severe when this happened.

An award winning photographer Vincent Laforet borrows a new Cannon camera to use over the space of a weekend. What emerges tantalises filmmakers across the world and spawns a new movement. If the media perception before that point was a televisual style, that day anyone with a $1500 camera could mimic the look and feel of a Hollywood Transformer or James Bond film.

Though that was about a decade ago when cinematic storytelling with its new practitioners begun to divorce us from yesterday’s ageing TV realism, little did we realise what was yet to come. Those cineists included:

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Former Guardian shooter Dan Chung @chungmedia, Duck Rabbit @duckrabbitblog, Bombay Flying Club @BombayFC, Media Storm MediaStorm, Raúl Gallego Abellán @raulgaab, Inigo Gilmore @InigoGilmore, Adam Westbrook @AdamWestbrook and who could forget Danfung Dennis @Danfung .

Dennis, armed with his 5D came within a whisker of losing his life in Afghanistan and winning an Oscar for his brutal, uncompromising poetic film, Hell and Back Again.

These were frenetic times in which I travelled the globe: China, India, Cairo, Syrian border, South Africa and Ghana and spent months in the British library and archives trying to understand what was going on. Sure a DSLR camera was wowing everyone but what else? This interest stemmed from my own personal experience, growing up in the UK and Ghana, and in 2005 I making a film about the first UK regional journalists to learn video.

The UK’s Press Association had hired me to teach regional journalists around the country my art form of vidojournalism.“8 Days” was described by jurors in Berlin as cinema. “Cinema?” I thought. “If I’m doing it, who else is at it?”

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If this all sounds familiar forgive me. In a lecture four years ago, a young wannabe journalist was unfamiliar with 9/11. How much more this quaint filmic moment, magnified by aficionados?

BAT POO CRAZY MOMENT

A couple of things to take away from this moment. Firstly, that whilst the industry went bat poo crazy with every media conference emblazoning their brochure with cinematic offerings, a not-all-together-true message was being pushed — presumably through ignorance and commerce.

That is the DSLR’s shallow depth of field made media cinematic. Nonsense! it no more constituted cinematic than filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Accattone Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, or Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane which used deep focus i.e. everything was in shot.

Secondly, that the idea of photojournalists becoming multi-skilled by either lugging several cameras around their necks or for the first time turning to films to expand their repertoire is a myth as old as the hills.

Fashion photographer Tom Ford director of Nocturnal Animals (2016) follows in the footsteps of Stanley Kubrick; Skate boarder and photographer Spike Jonze turned out Beastie Boy videos, Ridely Scott was an artist/ designer and amateur photographer who worked with and was influenced by Robert Drew. If you’re a videojournalist or mojo, this last fact should set you ears ringing.

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To cite then actor Mr T’s oft repeated remarks for a chocolate advert, “Quit your jibber jabber”. It appears to be generational. Just as it’s easy to believe only a bokeh shot yields the cinematic, so it is that photojournalists are led to believe that becoming filmmakers is revolutionary, or that the iPhone was behind the selfie. This photo on the left says otherwise. Photojournalism has been nothing short of innovative since its birth.

Laforet’s film revealed something else hidden in plain sight, a distinguishing feature that renders the cinematic into something more longer lasting to audiences.

It shouted there’s a plot to this story, which many people couldn’t quite get. Plot? Yes the way you tell a story quite separate from what the story is. It’s not that I’m out to split hairs between what is cinematic and what is cinema — frankly who cares.

But it’s how by playing about with the technical features of film e.g. frame, composition, space (architecture)etc., structure (the plot), characterisation and dialogue, that audiences finish consuming a piece of media with the perception that it lends itself to good cinema.

That is it’s memorable and possesses a visual and narrative schema that is different from TV’s construct or News. Dennis’ Hell and Back Again is the poster boy. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk which I wrote about in a previous post shows a canny future for news storytellers.

GRAB ATTENTION AND HOLD IT

In this attention seeking economy we may feel the need to frame our own love affair with photography; how for instance I started dabbling in film when I was knee high to a grasshopper. Hence, I showed this image to the Front Line Club audience. Thirty five years ago, in Ghana, my visiting mother brought me an Instamatic camera.

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Photo Mr and my mother; and South Africa and the election bomb a day before the election.

Years later, in Apartheid South Africa, as a freelance reporter, television producer and journalist, I would rely on my upbringing to make sense of the world, and herein lies a fundamental rub that impacts storytelling news execs would paradoxically like to think is inconsequential.

Where you’re from and who you are matter in storytelling. Your values as working class or class migrant differ to those of the middle class and elite who invariably make up the bulk of the television news’ work force.

These differences in class structure is eloquently mapped out in Joan C. Williams’ White Working Class. Cultural traits also characterise different levels of storytelling. Hence African and Asian storytelling can revolve around multiple storylines as seen in their mythologies while the West and European often seek singular narratives.

If 2008 was the perceived year of cinematic, it was in fact the year of reviving factual cinema. That revival emerges from 1994 as this film I made on pioneering videojournalists, in which I was a part of, explains.

And then it goes further back. Factual Cinema arose in the 1960s with the doyens of Cinéma vérité and a figure mentioned earlier Robert Drew — a factual cinema maker and former Life magazine photographic editor.

Drew re-found cinema in life. Staging in fictional cinema was out of the question and his impact on filmmakers and burgeoning talent like Ridley Scott was wide. Drew, like his the french factual cinema makers took their cues from 1930s photojournalists and Russian factual cinema.

And as if to labour the point, factual, not fictional cinema, is the beginning of the moving image. Nothing you see is new. It’s all generational. To cite one US film scholar, the new is the 1920s all over again.

But that wasn’t the reveal for the talk. My host ex- BBC Journalism College executive David Hayward had set me four tasks for attendants.

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  • How videojournlism and filmmaking are developing through tech and creative innovation?
  • What are the latest styles and technique?
  • What the most inventive videos being produced?
  • And what’s the future of the industry?

These are big themes and I wouldn’t for a moment claim to be able to slay them, but some interesting observations arise. In my presentation I spoke about the brilliance of TV news as an engineering feat, but that having taught the audience how to decode news, just like neoliberalism its singular approach reveals flaws that would soon be exposed.

TV News short changed storytelling from the onset, for good reason, with an illusion of objectivity in which elites of a particular pedigree were deigned the only producers. I’m not saying that there is no such thing as brilliant television now, or practitioners, but that the craft of storytelling resides as much in the Descartian quality of who we are and where we’re from.

News revealed reality cheaply, but adequately (what you don’t see you don’t miss) through the availability of one camera that radio stations begrudgingly supplied to TV people. And it made entertainment value in cut suits, re-thinking via interviews what they wanted to tell audiences in formatted interviews.

It was only a matter of time for the working class and middle class to feel they weren’t being represented. Brexit and Trumpism emerges as much from journalism’s oversight and stubbornness as the political system it operates in.

In my next post — how the world was forced to accept the West’s model of news storytelling, and Storytelling Vs Journalism and how storytelling wins.

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Photo by David Hayward

Dr David Dunkley Gyimah was giving a key note at the FrontLine Club in London. For more on David’s work go to www.viewmagazine.tv

Written by

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

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