Few pieces of journalism today irrevocably grip you like the Oscar nominated For Sama, a young journalist and mother’s tale over five years detailing herself, young family, and friends’ sufferings in Aleppo. Everyone’s talking about it, but have you noticed why it’s so unique? I answer that question for delegates and students.
It’s cinema wrapped in journalism, trading on the essay tradition experts may associate with Forough Farrokhzad’s “The House Is Black” in 1962 or “Night and Fog” by French director Alain Resnais.
When I meet the filmmaker Waad Al-Khateab , I congratulate her on her success. That was before her multiple wins and Oscar nominations. She’d already amassed awards for cinematography at the Royal Television Society (UK’s equivalent of Emmys), where I was a judge.
Waad smiles at the poster I show her; a film I made near the Syrian border with young Syrian filmmakers and documentarians she knows very well. They too are using their cameras to document life inside Syrian.
In the audience that day is another filmmaker who compellingly drives home the narrative of journalism and storytelling’s “Impressionism moment”. Nasma is one of my former MA supervised students.
A former pharmacists grad from Syria, she’s swapped test tubes for testing journalism, looking for ways to engage her target audience. Her answer for her final project, a captivating theatrical animation, The Journey, (gaming meets journalism) translated from hours of research and traditional journalistic interviews.
Whilst television journalism still reigns supreme and often harbours the strongest draw for burgeoning young journalists, radical technological changes in the last decade have yielded a spectrum of journalistic forms e.g. slow journalism.
Yet young people can generally be ambivalent to these. Who can blame them as I’ve discovered working with international students and journalists over more than two decades?
Quite often in a bid to retain its traditional identity for commercial reasons, TV execs will often ignore or seek to distance new disciplines, effectively being the catalyst for a them and us (creating new labels). It’s not helpful, but it has its advantages in promulgating new specialisms. But as a thought experiment, imagine a General Practitioner doctor intentionally ignoring new practices, because well, they work, but they’re new.
I’ve abandoned that approach and by employing a progressive learning program give cohorts an opportunity to experience a widely differing diet of old, new journalism forms and the nirvana, AI. The latter lifts off too in a program at Cardiff University where I’m based.
The methodology goes beyond the rigours and conventions of classical journalism, as good as they still are which I’m a by-product of having worked for the BBC. No, it’s about giving audiences something fresh, curious-inducing and creative like Nasma’s The Journey that will provide cognitive traction on an issue. Would For Sama be so memorable if it employed traditional reportage?
To get here we’ve developed several new approaches that range from design and systems thinking; how the audience’s behaviours are affected by story; neuroscience and how emotions and brain narrative works; to using games in teaching and having mentors coach new journalists.
These below are just some of the feedback I’ve received over the years…
Have you noticed why most stories in journalism can be the same replicated across networks, but that in cinema invariably stories differ? All communities have a habit of staying in their lane. TV Networks feed off each other. I know this well enough watching five monitors when I was a producer at one of the world’s biggest TV News agencies, WTN.
Diversity of stories and form emerge from a diversity of ideas, and there’s often a corollary between the storyteller’s origins and where they’ve grown up. The trick is to give people the confidence and space to adopt their own storytelling grammar, which resides in different cultures.
The starkest example I can give is between Western and Eastern Storytelling where visual grammar e.g. the rule of thirds versus symmetry is on display, and philosophies in language can lead to misunderstanding.
There was a moment filming and mentoring Liu a Chinese student in Chongqing when she nervously approached me to say her interviewees are saying something that contradicts our research and assumptions.
Marvellous, I said, as journalists we should work by induction, impose critical thinking and be mindful of confirmation bias. If what our interviewee says about them not resenting the wealth of uptown Chongqing because it will soon filter downtown, I said, that’s to be taken seriously.
Different people have different perspectives and interpretations, which can add that richness and bring a hitherto unknowingness to a story. Over the years, it’s been my goal to support this, whilst also diversifying journalism in storytelling so new forms, such as AI, VR or mobile, aren’t seen necessarily as adjuncts, but ways in which you might use them as tools to better tell a story.
In Cinema journalism, we take the view that just as a cinema director will use an array of cameras and forms to tell a story, so too should journalists. Mobile journalism, data or AI therefore shouldn’t be viewed as exclusive forms, but an ecosystem where modern storytellers can collapse different styles, where appropriate into the story telling. The biggest change, in AI, is yet to come.
That impressionism moment? When a swathe of artists broke free from the controlling body of classical art and spawned a litany of new forms. We’ve been here before. No reason why this scenario won’t be repeated.
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah was voted one of the top 40 influential Ghanaians in the UK’s Ghana Abroad. He is the first Brit to win the coveted Knight Batten Award for Innovation in Journalism. A former broadcaster for the BBC, Channel4 News and ABC, he’s an academic specialising in Tech, storytelling science. He leads Emerging Journalism at Cardiff University and has worked or consulted in Lebanon, Tunisia, China, Russia, Egypt, India, South Africa, America etc. More on him here