Amanpour, Safak, Bhutto and Chadha on visual storytelling

Last Thursday I found myself in a cozy amphitheatre with an amazing line-up of speakers talking about the Power of Film and Moving image — an event organised by the 5×15 initiative in London.

Just because of the focus of this blog, I’m going to edit down and talk about what I heard that directly relates to storytelling in journalism and media in development. (But there’s lots more worth listening to — a webcast is to be uploaded to the site so check it out.)

Let me start with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, who I’m guessing needs no introduction. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the issue of fake news came up in a Q&A with the audience. Her take is that the fragmentation of information is one issue here: when people watch the same video there’s a sense of absorbing and talking about it together; but this now happens less and less.

So what’s the solution to this crisis of truth, someone asked. Amanpour’s answer: much more storytelling and less of talking heads. Storytelling is what our civilisation is based on, she said, but in the news business it’s not as prevalent as it used to be because of the costs involved. Having more of it will help take journalists and viewers back to the centre of the action, where they can see what’s happening on the ground.

And, as author Elif Safak said in her eloquent talk, what stories do is rehumanise the other — the antidote to extremist movements that dehumanise the other. Stories question, and questions matter more than answers.

Once we accept the need for more storytelling comes the question that poet and writer Fatima Bhutto posed in a caustically amusing talk about cinema and propaganda: “Who exactly are our storytellers?”

Bhutto started with the premise that cinema isn’t innocent; that it’s precisely the power of traits like nuance and emotion that makes it so powerful for propaganda. She cited Rambo as ‘warnography’, 1940s’ Disney films showing the Nazis in positive light, and what she called a vast culture of Islamophobic entertainment with shows like Homeland.

There’s every right to produce this work, said Bhutto; but we, the public, need to know who the messenger is — we need to ask the same things of our entertainment that we do of our news.

And I would add we need to ask the same of visual storytelling in science and development media: who tells the stories; who has the technology and the information; who gets to frame the issues?

This question was echoed by the first speaker of the day, film director Gurinder Chadha of Bend it Like Beckham fame. Her new production Viceroy’s House, about the partition of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan, is out in cinemas soon. In thinking of making this film and others, she said, I think of how history is written by the victors and what I want to do is put ordinary people at the centre of the frame. But it’s still difficult to do a film that tells a story about a protagonist of colour.

So how to turn things around and give more platforms to under-represented groups? The event didn’t really touch on this. Though we did hear the inspiring story of someone who took storytelling in their own hands: Hassan Akkad, a Syrian refugee who became known for filming his 87-day journey from Damascus (the film, Exodus was released by the BBC).

The exception that proves the rule? (Akkad told the audience how his film made it to the big screen through pure luck, by bumping into BBC filmmakers on a cigarette break during his time in the Calais Jungle.) Or are there other good examples? Away from the mainstream, I came across this very recently: documentary photography agency Native, which was founded last year to focus on supporting visual storytellers from Africa and Latin America.

Dominant narratives are slow to change, but the small steps that build momentum deserve support.