The Power of People and Story

What do a cheese monger with Asperger’s syndrome, a globetrotting photographer and an author experimenting with acupuncture have in common? They’re all great characters whose individual stories can tell us a lot about our world.

That was the premise of Advanced Multimedia Storytelling: People and Story, the course I co-taught with Sarah Stuteville this past quarter; that a short film focused on an individual character’s experience is an extremely effective means to communicate a message, whether it’s about a product, a service or a broader trend in society.

The eight students in the class produced some powerful work, and sometimes got more than they bargained for:

Erika Takeuchi set out to produce a lighthearted profile of guide dog trainers, but when she met a trainer named Joseph Skillings, things took a turn for the serious. Joseph suffered severe head trauma a few years ago after trying to help a women being harassed at a bus stop. He took up puppy training as a way to deal with the lasting impacts of his accident.

Erika’s video became a story about Joseph’s use of guide dog training as a substitute for the elementary school teaching that he could no longer do, underscoring the message that guide puppy trainers get back as much as they give.

The resulting story Defining Honor got the attention of King 5 news, which aired the story as part of their evening broadcast on Saturday.

Dominique Barni had a similar experience. Setting out to profile a local cheese monger in a promotional video for a restaurant owned by friends of hers, she soon found out her character has Asperger’s syndrome. The completed video is as much about a person learning to take advantage of what others might see as a disadvantage, as it is about cheese.

The class drew inspiration from some great character-driven documentaries of past decades, from 1972 Academy Award winner Marjoe, to 1994 classic Hoop Dreams, to this year’s Sundance Hit Buck.

The philosophy that focusing on just one person’s experience is often the best way to communicate a broader issue has been central to the international journalism we’ve done at the Common Language Project for the past 6 years. It just seemed instinctive that digging deep into the individual story of a girl struggling to access education in Pakistan or a single refugee who fled violence in Iraq would have more impact than hearing the voices of experts or superlative statistics.

A guest speaker in the class, Joy Portella, Communications Director at Mercy Corps, pointed out that this seemingly innate truth has recently been tested and confirmed by psychologists; in international aid campaigns, people are exponentially more likely to donate if the appeal they hear is about just one person they could be helping, than about two or three or ten thousand.

In “Rainy city girl and a global water problem” Rachel Boyer took this idea one step further. She focused her story about water access in Africa on her co-worker Abby, who traveled with her to Kenya mid-quarter to document the programs run by their employer World Vision.

By contrasting Abby’s daily routine in rainy Seattle with her experience in Africa, Rachel brought the issue home for viewers who might have had trouble relating to problems half a world away.

The class produced five other impressive videos which are embedded below, including Cathy Britt’s web documentary for KCTS 9 about acupuncture as an alternative to prescription pain medication, Gerrit Vyn’s video for the Cornell University newsletter about an alumni researching migratory shorebirds, Lara Underhill’s promotional video for local nonprofit Powerful Voices, Corey Murata’s film for the Shoreline Community College Library and Liz Hunter’s investigation into drug abuse among soldiers that will be used to promote a UW research project.

Sarah and I are looking forward to exploring the interactions between People and Story even further (and hopefully fostering a whole new batch of great projects) when we teach the class again next Fall.





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