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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.

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"It's great for young people, not just people with expensive 16-millimeter cameras, to be in a position where they can go out and make stuff," she says.

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Guerrilla filmmaking in its most extreme forms could also benefit from high-speed dissemination. Witness (witness.org), a program founded in 1992 by activist rocker Peter Gabriel, arms individuals in conflict zones with videocameras so that they can record and expose human rights abuses. The program's primary aim is to influence decisionmakers, says Suvasini Patel, a spokeswoman. But it also recognizes the bottom-up impact of sharing visual evidence with a broad public prone to pass-along.

"Because of the rise of video-enabled cellphones and participatory media, we're looking at launching a human rights Web hub," she says. "People anywhere can upload any video content of a human rights violation they witness."

For most people who end up behind a lens, issues will probably be closer to home. Jack Litka was a student at the University of Wisconsin last year when he and co-filmmakers Nate Weber and Katy Wild developed "The Slasher," a short about federal budget cuts affecting education, to submit to FYI.

"The three of us were discussing issues that were affecting us as students ... [and] we began looking into education funding." Mr. Litka says. "My mother is a teacher. And I called and asked her and other teachers what their concerns were."

His team's Macintosh-edited short features a man in a suit snatching instruments and sports equipment out of students' hands, and smashing a computer keyboard with a bat. It landed top honors among the 200 or so entries, and got Litka - who calls the contest a "life-changing event" - a paid internship at Paramount Pictures. (This year, a post at Walt Disney Studios is the prize.) Litka is now editing a documentary on native American codebreakers that will eventually air on PBS.

"['Slasher'] resonated for Paramount because it was cinematic," says FYI's Rothman. "But it was [also] rough; I mean, you could see it was video. Budget, zero.... It's the process that makes the difference, engaging the [filmmakers] to actually think about issues," says Rothman. "The act of making a film at a condensed length forces a kind of clarity."

Online, it can do more. "It gives people the opportunity to present their experience of the world," says Curtis, "and that experience might differ vastly from what the media or our government is putting out. I think that's a powerful basis for grass-roots social change."

Where to find 'viral' video

Film Your Issue is building a showcase at its site, filmyourissue.com, for its winners.

For a broad video sampler of the world youth zeitgeist, just aim your browser at any of a number of short-video aggregators online. From pranks to pet tricks to point of view, these sites flaunt the creativity - and the unifying sensibilities - of young people wielding camcorders.

YouTube.com A wealth of amateur video, intelligently organized. The freshest entries headline the site, with elapsed time (sometimes minutes) since they were uploaded. Users can sort by most viewed and most downloaded. Robust search capability.

video.google.com The search-engine goliath's offering. Tucked under a video "store" with links to TV network and other offerings, amateur shorts are arranged by popularity and in a "random" category. Yahoo offers a similar site (video.yahoo.com).

videobomb.com A cleanly designed site with (when we last checked) a fair quotient of edgy issue shorts. Users tag favorites, which rise to prominence.

eBaumsWorld.com A hodgepodge of (sometimes offensive) games and video clips, this site can skew toward the crass.

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