The PhD Cinema Journalist who sees the World through Cinema

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It’s not this that will end you, but the panic that follows.

Forty metres below the sea is not where you want to run out of air, but at that moment I slammed against unexploded bombs I had a flash back. It was to South Africa, another trouble spot.

“If you hear gun fire, don’t move” says our guide. “Your instincts will be to move, but please stand still”. Two weeks ago a group of people paid him no mind and were picked off by snipers. Stand still? Flash forward.

I’m in a room with former head of the CIA, James Woolsey interviewing him. ….. washing line, a washing line? I’m outside putting out the washing!!!! I can hear myself breathing, consciously forcing myself to be calm and in control. It’s not this that will end you, but the panic that follows.

Breathe. 1.2.3. Breath. 1.2.3. Time has slowed down to seconds seemingly like days. I peak at my air tank. It’s on red; I have been hyperventilating. I need oxygen I don’t have to to deco (get nitrogen out of my system to bends). Now what?

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Lectures at Cardiff School of Journalism; I’m telling this story to my students. The BBC will take the report, but isn’t interested in the drama behind it. A drama that in recalling requires no optics, or props, but the power and structure of words to evoke imagery and emotions, particularly fear that we lock onto.

That’s cinema and there is no essence. It exists out there, captured and recalibrated into forms that synch with our varied cultural cognition, expectancy, and a utility that is valued by audiences for knowledge, entertainment or other means.

The President of the United States and UK Prime Minister treat the world like it’s cinema; characters, plots, arcs, and the power of visuals shape their narrative for the tv cameras. A friend tells me of a presentation 45 wanted to review in the control room, asking the producers if he could watch it back with the sound off.

Nobody’s quite bothered about the lies, because it’s all about the histrionics, the entertainment of it all, the peak-end rule — how people judge an experience based on the height of emotion. A lovable rogue, ala Laurel and Hardy is how a non supporter in a focus group by Channel 4 News calls the UK Prime Minister.

Modern journalists are not trained to fully understand this. Vladislav Surkov who advises Russia’s premier comes from surrealism theatre. And why would they understand? One of the founders of Television news Grace Wyndham Goldie in her biography Facing the Nation borrowed news’ langue from many sources, such as the Cinema Newsreel and cinema, but she wanted nothing to do with its standards. So we’re here now!

Inside the mind of a cinema journalist

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“So you write about cinema, cuz you say you’re a cinema journalist”, I get asked a lot. “No, whilst I like to write about cinema, that’s not what makes me a cinema journalist”, I respond. So the obvious questions is what is it and why should you care?

All the world is stage; he wasn’t kidding. It’s a set and the constructs that we put together, that we remember: a financial report, an event, a song, a news report, can be explained as good cinema. But you have to find them, or thast the architects comprehend the symbolism, metonyms and philosophies of cinema.

Please note there was cinema before it was physically captured for the screen. Plato’s cave analogy features shackled prisoners observing the magnified shadows of people walking by 2500 years ago. The famous film essayist Andre Bazin in What Is Cinema? articulates how cinema existed before its physical components allowed it to be screen-based.

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We could ascribe events as cinema, or cinematic e.g. Niagra Falls. Or words on a page, for example, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1890) by Ambrose Bierce. The expanded story takes place over the contracted time it takes for a man to fall from a noose, a hanging during the civil. In Under the Volcano by English writer Malcolm Lowry (1909–1957) and James Ellroy’s 1990's novel LA Confidential screen writers extol the text as a cinema screen play.

So, what then if cinema existed before the screen, and…?

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I grew up in Ghana where in college we had a make-shift tradition, that if one of the boys sneaked off to watch a film, he would come back and give us a blow by blow account. It was magic. You really felt you were there.

In my conference sessions I regularly ask delegates to name something memorable. Few ever reference a traditional news piece and the docs they might mention are ripe with cinemacity. Michael Moore tends to feature a lot and he is overwhelmingly credited as reviving documentary in the cinema, Or what today we call the documentary-cinema. You might call it a a doc. Moore calls it a film, cinema in his 13 rules on Indie wire

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Television Journalism, news, is a construct. It emerged from the bowels of other forms including a constrained grammar of cinema. As it was being birthed in the 1950s it coated over an error to provide gravitas and preserve this new form. There would be rules and defined ways of making television journalism. It was a western model of interpretation that was exported the world over, bringing in a tidy sum for its progenitors, not unlike the export of Western fictional cinema to France, Italy and Germany to name a few during the first world war.

News told stories and good ones too but that didn’t address the flaw. An event can be cinematic, and merely capturing it with any camera yields a swell of emotions. In the 1960s separate group of friends on different sides of the Atlantic, France and the US, spotted one of journalism’s major achilles and sought to address it.

Cameras were miniaturised, sound for the first time could be captured on tape in synch, mobility allowed for new visual expressions and for the American crew, driven by Robert Drew, cinema was unencumbered events, edited together to create characters, tensions, just like a fictional Hollywood movie did. They called it Direct Cinema. The French, with their different approach called it Cinéma vérité

Cinema had re-entered the lexicon of factual film. Before then Russian Dziga Vertov referred to his films as cinema. But even then the film industry says Robert Drew speaking to me, wanted nothing to do with it.

Today traditional journalism struggles to report the world, to be memorable, to be creative ( small “C”) to shift the dial in how we might think. Whilst all other forms, such as literature, law and art absorb and update to meet cultural, political and sociological changes, journalism remains steadfastly resolute in its rules: one camera, rule of thirds, interview style, B-roll or GVs, etc.

Around 2005 I started coming across award winning news makers, whom would openly tell me they were adopting cinema standards from fictional films to tell their stories. This didn’t mean they were fictionalising. It meant they were being more critical, artistic, and freer about interpreting events and how to avoid being gamed by politicians. I would call them cinema journalist and adjunct to the videojournalist. They approached a story as a director approaches fictional cinema, looking to solves problems to tell a story the audience will remember.

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In the last two decades we’ve witnessed any number of different genres of journalism which have stimulated storytelling e.g. mobile, solutions, immersive — but all these come from the philosophies and machinations of cinema, be it factual of fictional.

Cinema is immersive. It features resolutions. It uses an array of cameras and is mobile. Scorsese says he sees no difference between factual storytelling e.g. docs and its fictional form cinema. They’re all constructs. One is fiction, the other is fact, but he’s using the same cinema elements.

We’re entering an AI age, a post-cinema era (note we’re still using the word “cinema”), an age where factual storytelling, aided by fictional auters is challenging norms. The new kid on the block is Tik Tok, except its style is not so new if you’ve watched Scott Pilgrim Vs The World.

It’s high time we taught generations cinema and its confluence with journalism. It just might provide a better understanding of things than the status quo.

Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is at Jomec, Cardiff School of journalism where he specialises in Foreign news reporting and emerging storytelling and journalism. For more on his background go here

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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