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.

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

If you're 18 to 26 and have a strong point of view, an organization called Film Your Issue ( 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, 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 [], and basically it's put into rotation based on its popularity among other users," says Hillman Curtis, principal and chief creative officer at, 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.

"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.

Guerrilla filmmaking in its most extreme forms could also benefit from high-speed dissemination. Witness (, 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,, 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. 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. 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 ( A cleanly designed site with (when we last checked) a fair quotient of edgy issue shorts. Users tag favorites, which rise to prominence. A hodgepodge of (sometimes offensive) games and video clips, this site can skew toward the crass.

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