Media Literacy
Rethinking the Message

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Students Practice Responsibility in Filmmaking

by Michael Brooks

We feel the influence of the cinema from a very early age -- when we check under the bed for monsters after seeing a horror movie, when we make life changes after seeing a drama, or when we boycott a certain product after viewing a hard-hitting documentary. The movie-going experience shapes each of our lives in different ways, and though we may not always be aware of this influence as viewers, it is our absolute responsiblity as filmmakers to not only be aware, but to approach this power with reverence.

As a student of the moving image arts with a concentration in screenwriting and directing, I am conscious of the equal influence of word, character and image working together. Somewhere in this magical combination lies the power to shape a whole culture and my fellow students and I often contemplate the magic we wield as we make decisions about concept and story, casting, interviewing and editing.

Know Your Message -- Own Your Message

Not knowing your intent, your message, is like firing a gun at random, not knowing if it shoots blanks or bullets. I feel that my first obligation as an artist working in this field, is to know my message - from the beginning - and to make sure it fits with my own personal value system. If I don't know my message, I certainly can't communicate it and am in danger of sending unintentional messages. Sebastian Puente, a filmmaker and sophomore at the College of Santa Fe, takes this very seriously. "We project a whole belief system onto the screen. I have to be accountable for who I am."

But not all media makers "own" what they put out there. Many subscribe to some divine right to entertain, thereby being absolved from accountability--after all, "it's only entertainment." In a course taught in the Moving Image Arts department, Mass Media & Society, students learn that there is no such thing as "only entertainment." Beware, there are bullets in that gun.

Challenge Sterotypes

As a relative newcomer to the field, I found myself developing my stories and characters by deduction by studying images that are prevalent in the mainstream media that do not depict the diversity of the world and all its citizens. Helpless female "fashion victims" portrayed ethnic and racial stereotypes perpetuated violent role models glorified in the cinema and after seeing enough of this, I began to formulate a strategy to replace these images with my own original and thoughtful ones. Why does the working class character have to be uneducated? Why does the woman "go to pieces" when the man leaves her? Why is the seedy gun dealer character an Hispanic male? If I find myself writing sterotypical characters, I change the sex of the character, the race, the socioeconomic status, etc., until I come up with an original character that may challenge another's view and certainly my own.

Though we are not obligated as media artists to deal head-on with these issues, Lynette Arellano seeks the opportunity. "I want to show a point of view that doesn't get shown in the mainstream, the minority point of view." She wants to make the standard media fare one of more substance and relevance for an audience beyond "white and middle class." "It's just to be fair. I know that life isn't fair, but we have the chance to equal out the scales."

Fairness in Documentary

Fairness is another concept that begins at a personal level, that cannot taught in an ethics course. Rather than seeing her ethical beliefs as separate from her director's vision, Elizabeth Curtain, a documentary-maker and graduating senior, sees responsible filmmaking as a natural extension of sensitivity to people. "Because I did a piece where I interviewed people, I felt a responsibility to them. And that responsibility was not to manipulate, not to try and shape them. I felt a huge responsibility to allow them to speak for themselves and not to be heavy-handed in the editing process."

In that almost all documentaries are approached with a certain slant in mind, many times footage is manipulated to fulfill the vision of the maker. More times than not interviews are broken up into such tiny fragments as to mold the meaning to fit the piece. It is that respect for the interviewees and the integrity of their intended message that epitomizes responsible filmmaking.

Provide Context

We are hit with a barrage of images on the nightly news, often strung together with nothing more than a desperate segue. It was decided, somewhere along the way that images need not be rooted in context to be juxtaposed - or, to be presented to the public for consumption. When a movie takes a violent act, a slice of history or a group of people out of context, we enter a dangerous zone of irrelativity.

Ethan Kauffman, a graduating senior who has already begun his own production company, has a penchant for capturing the daring of outdoor sports such as whitewater kayaking and skydiving. But Ethan does not present only the sensational. He believes strongly in stressing the training behind the sport and importance of respecting the environment which hosts it. He tries to show the many facets, in context , by demonstrating that none of these elements exists separately from the others.

Be True to Your Vision

With all these personally developed guidelines which could potentially make me hesitate as an artist, I recognize my final obligation: to not self-censor. I will never be an inspirational filmmaker if I am not honest, first with myself and then with my audience. Beyond the responsibility my colleagues and I feel toward the movie-going public, we also realize the unique opportunity we have as filmmakers to educate and raise consciousness. Granted this is optional as responsibilities go, but many of us are more than ready to take it on.

About the author: Michael is a student at the College of Santa Fe, screenwriter, image-maker & ballroom dancer who is currently plotting her escape from Santa Fe, New Mexico.