The Ecologist guide to video activism

The video camera is the weapon of choice for activists and campaigners around the world, with campaign films an effective way to get a message across and fight back against mainstream media bias. Here's our guide to taking your stand...

In the multimedia age, amid a bewildering multiplicity of viewpoints, how do campaigners and activists get their points and perspectives across effectively?

One hard-hitting solution is through video activism. It allows anyone with a camera to tell their own story, the kind you won’t necessarily hear about on the radio, see on the evening news or read in the broadsheets or tabloids.

In tandem with the steady encroachment into our lives of surveillance technologies such as CCTV – and perhaps as an antidote to it – the means of film production has increasingly fallen into the hands of the people. Cameras are becoming smaller, more affordable and easier to use, while the internet simultaneously provides a means of distribution and a global audience.

From the road protests of the 1990s to this year’s most recent Climate Rush, campaign and activist films are about challenging mainstream narratives, presenting alternative views, opening up minds and public debate about issues that are often overlooked, ignored or wilfully misrepresented. So where do you start if you want to get involved...?

First things first

Perhaps the most important weapon in the video activist’s armoury is the desire to help and the passion to educate in the first place.

‘Passion will drive you to seek out the story and to find the people who need to tell it,’ says filmmaker Helen Iles of Undercurrents. ‘Passion will keep you going when the camera fogs up in the rain, when the computer you are editing with crashes and when you need some extra balls for that tricky interview/doorstep/action. Passion can be driven by enthusiasm, a sense of injustice or by anger. It is best driven by love. So if you love people, love the planet, love your community, love the environment, love yourself, then this is your best resource.’

Issues-based documentary films – slower-paced but no less activist – require equal dedication but also time, she adds. Getting acquainted with the issues and the people involved, finding out their side of the story in order to be able to tell it in an engaging way is a vital part of the process, as well as dealing with obstacles such as landowners, factory bosses, police and protesters.

Tell me a story…

Impartiality is much-lauded but often missing from traditional journalism – as Iles explains, there will always be hidden (and not so hidden) biases, generally towards the rich and powerful. She says the aim of video activism is often to redress the balance, ‘explaining things from the campaigners’ point of view, telling the stories of the marginalised, the disaffected and the poor’.

Last year’s April Fool’s Day G20 demonstrations are a case in point. London has almost 8,000 CCTV cameras, yet police in the capital could find none to provide footage of the moment riot officers pushed newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson to the ground as he walked home from work, triggering a fatal heart attack. It was left to amateur footage to reveal what had happened.

‘The primary reason for me coming forward is that it was clear the family were not getting any answers,’ said the man responsible for the film – a New York fund manager in London on business – proving that video activism is not always planned, nor does it necessarily stem from the quarters one might expect.

Power to the people

Batteries, batteries, batteries... For all that recording equipment has become more advanced, more portable, more accessible and available as a range of devices, from cameras to mobile phones, the last thing you want is your hi-tech gadgetry cutting out at a vital moment. Recharge before leaving the house. Ensure you have enough memory to capture whatever you’re filming; if you’re using old-school film then be sure you have enough space left on the cassette/disc. Especially relevant if you’re covering an action or a protest, make sure that the date and time are accurate on your video equipment to confirm what takes place when. This will be important in the event that something you’ve filmed is used as evidence in court.

In terms of the filming itself, make sure you have enough light, that you hold the camera steady and that you get as close to your subject as possible. Use a range of shots to add texture to the final film – crowd shots for protests and demonstrations, interviews with those taking part, as documenting what's going on first-hand.

Human rights campaign group Witness has created an excellent series of shorts about creating ‘advocacy videos’, including things to think about while getting ready to make a film, using audio and mobile phones, protecting the identity of interviewees, and editing and distribution. ‘To have the most impact, focus on two things,’ it advises. ‘Do you have a clear, specific goal for change, and a defined audience that can help you achieve it?’

Based in Australia, The Activist Toolkit wiki provides general information and advice for activists, as well as specifics on video activism. There are practical tips on using digital cameras, using monopods or unipods to stabilise shots, recording audio and compressing video for the internet.

Spread the word

The arrival of the internet has transformed the distribution of activist footage: film that exposes wrongdoing, sets the record straight or shames authorities into action can circumnavigate the globe quicker than the time it took to record, avoiding censorship by circumventing the traditional corporate-owned channels of distribution (generally closed to activist media anyway, since marginal issues means limited capital).

Now, however, networking sites such as Facebook and video-uploading sites such as YouTube and Google Video are rapidly becoming the loci of accountability, with individuals, businesses and governments no longer simply responding to films but changing their behaviours based on the mere presence of cameras. Remember though that it’s always better to embed your media in your own or your campaign’s web page or blog, if you can, rather than direct viewers to external publishing sites.

Social change online video project Clearer Channel helps viewers download and transmit videos, filmmakers distribute their footage, and offers training in citizenship journalism.

Setting up a screening

Whether you’re covering a community project or supporting a campaign, the people whose story you’re telling will probably want to see the end product. It’s also important to educate those on the other side of the fence about what’s going on, explaining the background, putting counterarguments and correcting misapprehension, and hopefully changing minds.

VisionOnTV has information on how to set up a screening in your local area, including a detailed countdown of what to do in the weeks before the big day, such as writing press releases, posting on the internet and by email, and designing and distributing flyers.

‘Armed with a projector, laptop and set of speakers, video activists can make any community hall an impromptu cinema, broadcasting their news to local people in an engaging, convivial and active way, encouraging discussion and debate among the audience and often inviting speakers from the campaign group to answer questions,’ says Helen Iles.

Eifion Rees is the Ecologist's acting Green Living Editor


Video for Change: A Guide for Advocacy and Activism (Pluto, £14.99)
The Video Activist Handbook
by Thomas Harding (Undercurrents, £7.99)
IndyMedia UK
is a network of individuals, independent and alternative media activists and organisations, offering grassroots, non-corporate, non-commercial coverage of important social and political issues.
Citizen Journalist Network
(‘Put your camcorder to good use’) is an Undercurrents project to train people in filmmaking to support their local community and campaign groups, offering workshops and online resources for budding video activists.
Just Vision
uses documentary film and multimedia to tell the unreported stories of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

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