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Guerrilla video gives power to the people

'Film your issue' turns videocameras into tools of social change, part of a wave of influence from mini movies.

By Clayton CollinsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 21, 2006



Would-be provocateurs with Handycams, get ready for your close-ups.

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If you're 18 to 26 and have a strong point of view, an organization called Film Your Issue (filmyourissue.com) wants to see your best short-form video work - 30 to 60 seconds - on a social concern that winds you up.

Finalists win wide exposure including webcasts on MSNBC.com, film-festival appearances, and a shot at a major movie-studio internship. Deadline: May 21. But don't fold up your tripod at the thought of the feat; in this art form, raw is OK, as long as the message is potent. The 2005 winner took on high school budget cuts.

"There's just something visceral" about what we're looking for, says HeathCliff Rothman, the journalist turned social entrepreneur who founded Film Your Issue (FYI) in 2004. Last year, he says, "the judges kept coming back to the same [entries], and ultimately it had so much more to do with originality than it did with the gloss."

The FYI competition, backed by corporations, major media outlets, Hollywood heavyweight George Clooney, and groups ranging from the Humane Society to the United Nations, represents a rarity: a means by which no-budget auteurs - an expanding and increasingly influential crowd in the age of YouTube, eBaum's World, VideoBomb, and Google video - can be judged from perspectives other than those of their peers.

It also points to short film's lofty place in today's media landscape. Micro movies made by everyone from high school class clowns to Fortune 500 companies can go "viral" on the Internet and spread as fast as they can be uploaded, making them the new power player in global communication.

Take Current TV, the cable venture launched last summer by former Vice President Al Gore. "Kids can film their message, and upload it immediately to the Current site [www.current.tv], and basically it's put into rotation based on its popularity among other users," says Hillman Curtis, principal and chief creative officer at hillmancurtis.com, a digital design firm in New York. Winners are showcased on the cable TV channel.

Viral videos have been seeping into other areas of cable-TV programming as well. VH1 and Bravo both run shows centered around popular amateur video clips.

Even Hollywood has taken an interest in the high-impact web films. New Line Cinema, the studio behind the Antonio Banderas film "Take the Lead," has reportedly made bits of the movie available for amateurs to use in unofficial "mash-ups," or remixes. Until recently, such efforts had drawn the ire of industry lawyers.

Sophisticated amateurs are having an impact on all kinds of message-based media. Mr. Curtis says his ad-agency clients increasingly favor the natural, intimate feel that's common among kid-crafted video. He says he often finds himself shooting in digital video with no crew, using natural light and a single microphone. "My business has shifted from site design to doing shorts for clients," says Curtis.

Corporations have even tried enlisting the online community's help in creating consumer-generated ads - with mixed results. General Motors last month invited visitors to its site to adapt clips of its 2007 Tahoe SUV and make their own 30-second ads. Many users added stinging indictments of SUVs that were then passed around the Internet. (GM rolled with the development, maintaining that it knew an open forum would draw a mixed bag of responses.)

In fact, that kind of talent for cheeky conceptualization can take an amateur videographer far. It's a storyteller's art. "Just being able to point a camera and edit that material together doesn't guarantee a watchable film," says Emily James, a documentary filmmaker in London.

Among Ms. James's "issue" films: a free-trade explainer called "The Luckiest Nut in the World" that she made for Britain's Channel 4 in 2002. An eight-minute version was later picked up for use in classrooms - especially meaningful to James, whose career was inspired by an animated history film she saw in primary school. James hopes "Luckiest Nut" - an American peanut serves as narrator - has a similar effect.

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