Friday, the 13th, 6.30 pm and for half an hour we’ve been waiting for the golden hour. Commercial advertisers, pro-photographers and filmmakers die for it; half an hour at most when the sun basks the earth with virtual gold. Catch it right and the wait is worth its weight in gold.
But as we work through its window (that’s me below, 2nd left, lining up my subjects), as the sun begins to set, I note it’s a metaphor for a more grand setting. It will take another six year for many others to see.
I’ve travelled to a location four hours drive from Aleppo at the instructions of a human right’s lawyer to train young Syrian filmmakers in a new story form. For several days, we will hear testimonies, review films of unspeakable atrocities, and use new narratives to turn events into sense-making and immersive watchable stories.
Grounded in deep research, and an integral form of my PhD work, we will later frame our purpose at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, and I will set out to train others in several other countries, such as Russia, China, Egypt, UK, India and Lebanon.
Narrative, as old as the hills, underpins how we share and understand events. It’s not universally understood and today comes at a price, commodified by largely a Western industry to make profit. Its stability depends on its form as replicable as genres which must be readily identifiable to sell newspaper “pyramidal-style” daily stories, the radio story package, the reporter or reporter less documentary and the television news “three-clip” package. In effect traditional western media’s narrative teaches us how tell stories.
But once every rare moon eclipse, something happens. Outliers break the media’s traditional discourse in such a powerful way that its subjects catch world attention. It requires a long view, rather than close inspection to reveal this new event horizon.
The simplest analogy I can give is the disruption to classic traditional art in the 19th century. Before the 1870s realistic depictions of events in representative proportions and perspective reigned supreme.
Whether it was Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps, Hogarth’s Rake or Native American sculptor, Edmonia Lewis’ work, if you wanted to show your work on the most illustrious stage, then you would be required to follow the rules of France’s powerful art body the Académie des Beaux-Arts.
Then in the 1870s a small group of artists would upend this. They would rather derogatorily be known as the Impressionist. They, Monet, Manet, Renoir, and Morisot, to name a few, would set a new creative style. There is a sting in this tale. The disruptors were themselves Westerners, though were not all monied.
My research indicates, that against the weight of traditional media, we’re at a similar 1870 moment.
In visual narrative schema my research shows these green shoots in the mind-blowing 2012 outlier film To Hell and Back Again; the incredible Travis Fox, a film journalist who uses DSLRs, Mobile and Drones to told stories for The Washington Post; and Citizen Four. Amongst some twenty-five creators I interviewed and studied their work, amongst a hundred executives I interviewed two characteristics surfaced:
- They were all award-winners. To Hell and Back’s director, Danfung Dennis was nominated for an Oscar. Citizen Four won an Oscar. Travis Fox has won many Emmys.
- They used cinema codes and aesthetics to tell their stories and openly talk about its influence. Lest we forget though there is no one form or essence of cinema.
The present film that achieves this feat in a monumental way is For Sama by Waad al-Kateab — a brutal, searing, empathetical, epic cinematic personalised essay. For Sama is tipped for an Oscar and I laid odds it will win.
For its maker, this breakthrough, will not be lost on her. Its content, finally, has caught global attention that politicians and mainly Western audiences have shown apathy, if not ignored. Its narrative will draw in any humanist. And as brilliant as any correspondent has been risking their lives covering Syria, this is a story by a Syrian, about Syria.
The group I meet near the Syrian border will be cheering the loudest.
Its success you hope should give a window of opportunity to others, like the Syrians I met. Its editing structure (Waad was joined by filmmaker Edward Watts) is sequential in the guise of the Hollywood film, so it will be familiar to viewers. The question is is this a blip in talent and after this, viewers should move on? No! Storytelling’s diverse richness should ensure many other Waads follow. That can happen if they are actively supported.
So how does this all frame how podcasts and AI are among this long view of upending old orders?
Simple. If you could disrupt radio, allow it its impressionist moment, then what would that sound like? And the winner is George the Poet. George the Poet the winner of the British Podcast Awards is like nothing you would get on radio. It’s like Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich”, with the cleverness of Victor Lewis Smith’s Saturday morning R4’s Loose Ends where he overlapped several voices. But its sicker!
The application of a disruptive view wasn’t lost on me when we applied similar cognitive thinking in my research to different media, such as podcasts eliciting this response from Apple. “Listeners to the media also subscribed to Newsnight, Today and From Our Own Correspondent”. Tomorrow, George the Poet would be the badge of honour.
And AI? Well simple again. The biggest threat to patterned media, the genre, is AI. Once deep learning configures a style, it becomes easily replicable. The result is the huge threat to work that traditional journalism render. This, in a few years, my latest research shows, will be overwhelmingly conducted by algorithms. It’s already started to creep. In Cardiff at Tramshed’s Tech hub, we’re seeing the emergence of AIs influence on narrative.
Creative cinema, whether it’s used in journalism, branding or history is difficult to mimic, because it’s so intensely personal. By its nature its disruptive. It’s down to many things, but key components include, plot content and persona.
January 21st. I’m working when I’m taken by a number of tweets
The first tweet illustrates a point between Joseph Appiah’s marriage and the Hollywood’s Sidney Poitier’s Look who’s coming to Dinner. Imagine though that film made without fictionalising the narrative.
Then the Ghanaian Laura who starts a Church movement in the US. And there are many more of these pioneers. It’s possible, you’ve heard of them. It’s beyond any equivocation the strength (content) of these events can be shaped into incredible cinema films.
Last year in Ghana, I covered a brief story that caught traction on Linkedin and Medium. How a former banker turned land the size of 600 pitches into one of Ghana’s biggest maize farms.
In March, we’re trying something with friend Marcus Ryder in the telling our own (epic) stories.
Which brings us full circle catching that golden moment. Stories matter. They shape how you think, act and perceive the world. Narrative is not universal, talent neither, but traditional media’s narrative form is slipping. It’s control, it may not seem like is waning. That’s not say it’ll be abandoned, but audiences love impressionism. It’s up to the new actors to shape this.
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is a creative technologist, International Award Winning Innovator in Journalism, award winning one-man band journalist and educator. A former artist in residence at the Southbank Centre, with a thirty year career which includes working for BBC, ABC News and Channel 4 News. He’s behind the International Award winning cinema journalism film, “8 Days”, how the UK newspapers revolutionised the media. He’s an advisor for the British Library’s 2021 News Exhibition. You can contact David here Gyimahd@cardiff.ac.uk