The Educational Video Center logo.
A group of EVC’s young producers wielding cameras and microphones. Such images reinforce key aspects of EVC’s mode of production, including its emphasis on the handheld camera grounded in “authentic” urban space, youth-driven video practice, and the organization’s investment in minoritarian voices.
This ‘behind-the-scenes’ image draws attention to EVC’s emphasis on the expressivity of young subjects who speak directly to the camera. Note the spatial association of the videos with the streets as well as a cry for help.
A close-up of a child drawing directly onto a filmstrip in Children Make Movies (1961).
A medium shot of the children collectively producing a scratch film in Children Make Movies (1961).
A low angle shot of children performing for the camera and improvising a narrative involving building blocks in Children Make Movies (1961).
From NYSCA’s 1969-1970 annual report — three young boys gathered around what appears to be a Steenbeck console. Caption: “Young filmmakers at Albany South End workshop, sponsored by Upper Hudson Library Federation.”
Another image from NYSCA’s 1969-1970 annual report — three teenagers next to a film projector in a classroom. Caption: “High school students screen their own films in Yorktown.”
A final image from NYSCA’s 1969-1970 annual report —a teacher, Aldo Tambellini, hunched down with elementary school students in a television studio. On the opposite page are words from Tambellini emphasizing television’s association with expressivity: “We must consider that TV is audiovisual information at the speed of light. It is a light-sound instrument able to freely create and improvise its own forms. The immediacy of its audiovisual information makes possible spontaneous expression.”
Steven Goodman’s book, Teaching Youth Media: A Critical Guide to Literacy, Video Production, and Social Change.
On January 16, 2009, a short documentary entitled Journeys through the Red, White, and Blue was screened as part of “The People’s Inaugural,” an event held at The Historical Society of Washington D.C. designed to celebrate the efforts of grassroots organizers as well as the impact of the youth vote during the 2008 presidential election. The exhibition of Journeys on this particular day concluded what was a busy distribution schedule for the video throughout the previous fall. During the election the video was screened at countless festivals, high schools, and colleges and received a great deal of praise for promoting voting and civic participation among youth of color. Eschewing a traditional expository approach, this video was organized around three first-person segments featuring the voices and attitudes of a young Latino, African-American, and West African immigrant. The testimonies of these three subjects (also producers) all tell similar stories of alienated outsiders developing a healthy respect for the democratic process. This shared narrative dovetailed with the event’s theme — to honor the participation of those who traditionally felt disengaged from U.S. politics — as well as with the Inauguration and swearing in of Barack Obama as the United States’ first African-American President.
No doubt, part of this youth video’s success lies in its autobiographical approach, an approach that coincides with organizers’ belief that a self-inflected narrative resonates most powerfully with audiences. Susanna Egan has written about the power of certain autobiographical forms to undermine culturally ingrained “inevitabilities…such as hierarchies…among races or cultures or peoples” through “[r]esistant strategies that untrammel the subject from discursive helplessness [and] subvert established verities” (12-13). The autobiographical emphasis on the self can become oppositionally inflected when the self is situated in relation to a particular culture (“securely positioned in time and context”) and is presented as intrinsically counter-hegemonic by the “claim to be heard and recognized by voices either marginalized or silenced under old dispensations” (Egan 13). From this point of view, the self serves as the site for the initiation of political agency, even more so than the collective does; the self advocates on behalf of a communal situation with which his or her identity is intertwined. As a stage for the performance of a self usually denied agency, this particular mode of media production — and its embrace, in the case of Journeys, of an especially young and minoritarian self-expressivity — is often couched in the discourse of undoing a culture of silence.
In this paper, I will review the founding and principles of the youth media organization behind Journeys, a New York-based, nonprofit youth media organization called the Educational Video Center (EVC). In addition to discussing the various cultural and historical formations in which EVC is situated, I will look closely at two examples of its work: the above mentioned Journeys (2008) and one of EVC’s earliest documentaries, 2371 Second Avenue: An East Harlem Story (1986). This organization is one that has been promoting first-person documentary production for young people of color since 1984. In this time EVC has produced hundreds of documentary videos, many of which have made it into the programs of international film festivals and garnered awards as well as recognition from major media outlets and public institutions (http://www.evc.org).
Film and media studies, through the work of Dan Streible, Patricia Zimmerman, Deirdre Boyle, Rick Prelinger, Heide Solbrig and others, has broadened to include analyses of an array of ephemeral and orphan media that had previously been overlooked. In this light the work of community media organizations, such as EVC, can be seen as worthy of greater academic scrutiny and as an important participant in broader cultural and historical formations. Whereas the work of local cultural organizations — especially those promoting youth media — has been historically sidelined, perhaps because of a tendency to view these media works as somehow disposable, amateurish, and outside a public sphere of impactful cultural practices, a review of youth media can serve as a reminder to scholars to unsettle any easy divide between center and periphery, mainstream and grassroots. Most relevant to this study is the use of first-person documentary forms within disadvantaged communities, drawing on auto-ethnographic conventions to carve out a discursive space for repressed voices. With its presentation of young, racialized selves in autobiographical media forms, EVC’s work should be seen as both a product of and contributor to broader autobiographical currents in U.S. culture.
Just as significant, given its organizational work with minority youth, is EVC’s status as a leading facilitator of youth media and young self-expressivity. The history of youth media programs involving film and video is obviously extensive and includes DeeDee Halleck’s work in the early sixties. In 1961, Halleck — through her work with the Lillian Wald Recreation Rooms, a non-profit organization “located in a low-income housing project…on the Lower East Side of New York” — coordinated the production of a film entitled, Children Make Movies (Halleck 47). Shot on 16 millimeter, black and white film stock, the film is eight and a half minutes long and is segmented around an introduction by Halleck herself on the process behind the film’s production, the presentation of a “scratch film” made by the participating children (in which film leader is marked by pins, see Figures 1 and 2), and a second live-action film in which the children improvise a narrative involving themselves and a tower of building blocks (see Figure 3). Enthusiastically embraced by Marshall McLuhan — who screened the film at Fordham University — Children Make Movies suggests that the medium of film is one that can be highly participatory (Halleck, xvii). In the film, based both on what we see in the image and hear from Halleck’s commentary, we witness the children productively engaging the medium on their own terms, creating films based on their own expressive actions.
Halleck’s work with youth media continued as she founded the New York-based Henry Street Settlement Film Club in 1963 and went on to teach film production to incarcerated youth at the Otisville School for Boys (Otisville, New York), where the boys’ learning to make films on 16 mm, Super 8, and video was seen by the state as conducive to rehabilitation (Halleck, 44-45). Other youth media organizations developed in New York State throughout the 60s in part due to support from the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA, created in 1960). Rodger Larson, a teacher in a summer arts program in the Bronx, has argued during this period that “filmmaking meant more to many teen-agers than any of the creative arts being offered them” (Larson and Meade, 13). Larson went on to found the Film Club, which sponsored almost forty 16mm films by young people in Manhattan between the years of 1966 and 1969 (Larson and Meade, 13-14). The Film Club, supported by NYSCA, went on to organize “The Movie Bus,” a bus that would tour the boroughs of New York City and screen films produced by its participants and by those involved in similar programs, such as Channel of Soul (a 16mm filmmaking workshop based in Buffalo, New York; NYSCA Annual Report, 17). As Halleck puts it, these were “the days of the Great Society when such experimental, creative projects were given value by the federal government, and there were funds for equipment, supplies, and even my salary” (45).
The establishment of the Cambridge Community Art Center’s Teen Media Program in 1970 was another notable development in the history of youth media production. Additionally, as Brian Goldfarb writes in his book, Visual Pedagogy, the program was “just one example of a media education program that came into existence before the video wave” (68). As community interest in video education grew by the early 80s, drawing “inspiration from the broader community access television movement” in years prior, schools and an array of organizations drew on arguments that production skills were not only vocationally valuable but also when approached critically that they would instill greater analytical viewing habits in students (Goldfarb 68). Goldfarb reviews the work of several scholars and pedagogues from the late 70s to the late 80s who were committed to “critical vocationalism,” a concept which undermines the “long-standing class-based educational divide between vo-tech [vocational] and academic tracks” (70). The 90s, he continues, witnessed the rise of a “student-as-producer” discourse, which was able to accommodate vocational, critical, and expressive curricular goals for “even the most underfunded public schools” (69). Furthermore, as Nicole R. Fleetwood notes, an array of “media organizations [during the nineties] benefited from the rise in high-technology industries, specifically the development and proliferation of moderately priced digital video cameras and editing systems” (158). Such organizations sought to “bridge the ‘digital divide’…by equipping underrepresented groups with the tools of media production” (Fleetwood 158).
On the exhibition front and prior to the rise of the Internet as a platform for youth-produced videos, it was rare for these works to be shown publicly beyond an initial “premiere” event for students, family members, and the community at large. Those videos that did acquire some degree of distribution were typically seen “as portraits of ‘real’ experiences of urban youth” (Fleetwood 170). “During the mid-1990s,” Fleetwood writes, “youth-produced videos gained increasing circulation in museums, major film festivals, and other adult-oriented cultural events” (170). The videos’ amateurish or rough aesthetic generally signified and continues to signify “unmediated access to the mind and experiences of racialized youth” (Fleetwood 170). In this context, reality wasn’t tethered to simply any self but frequently to an injured self that was coded as young and other, outside of white middle-class experience. A critical review of EVC, then, and its propping up of young, racialized, expressive selves can tell us a great deal about the possibilities and problems associated with participatory youth media cultures. At its core, the experience of EVC — its ethos and its practice — illustrates many of the contradictions endemic to youth media. Too often the institutional terms of production for expressive texts are obscured (i.e. who provided the cameras and why), hidden behind a posture that purports to serve as a sounding board for young self-expressivity. Bringing the institutional and historical contexts into sharper focus in this analysis enables us to both emphasize the discursive nature of the texts under review here and recognize their potential for accommodating counter-hegemonic subject positions as well as their risk of working from a more limited therapeutic aesthetic of the self, one that lends itself to a fetishization of racialized angst abstracted from social context.
The first EVC documentary to be reviewed here, 2371 Second Avenue: An East Harlem Story (1986), is remarkable for its situation of its young author’s voice within a broader community and class structure. Foregrounding the vantage point of a Puerto Rican teenager, Millie Reyes, and her family’s experiences with their dilapidated living conditions and a delinquent landlord, this documentary highlights a repressed subject’s claim to be heard, as Egan puts it, and in a surprising reflexive turn acknowledges its own limitations as a text even as it presents the experiences depicted as metonymically tied to a much bigger problem. The second documentary, Journeys through the Red, White, and Blue (2008) is a critically acclaimed video focused on the 2008 Presidential election, presented from the point of view of three youth of color. As with the first video, Journeys privileges the expressivity of marginalized young subjects. Nevertheless, the self-consciously counter-hegemonic stance of 2371 Second Avenue is overturned in favor of a less radical contextualization of these voices within a romantic narrative of U.S. democracy.
It must be said that EVC has produced many hundreds of documentary videos and such a small sampling should in no way be seen as representative of the organization’s entire body of work. The aim here, instead, is to suggest a range of uses of the self in first-person documentary forms. In spite of some formal similarities, these two texts represent starkly different approaches in their approach to the self and its relation to social change. As we will see, Second Avenue is the more radical of the two texts as the subject draws our attention to a social problem that exceeds the ability of any media text to resolve. In this video, the protagonist uses the video to convey to the audience what it is like to live in housing conditions that deprive inhabitants of basic utilities and hopefully change the audience’s perception of how serious this problem is for many working-class and minority families. In contrast, in Journeys the three protagonists perform a narrative of personal growth as each learns the “value of the vote.” While it is a mistake to say that Journeys is not about an important social and political issue — voting and the need for political engagement on the part of youth more generally — the selves featured here are therapeutically constituted as they come to terms with their own apathy and proclaim a newly discovered civic identity. In the former video, the subject is not the one “growing,” although she undertakes certain actions and no doubt learns something in the process, but the emphasis is on her address to us, to challenge the audience to consider an entrenched humanitarian problem that is so everyday, it is easily overlooked. In the latter, the socio-political content is couched within an overall narrative of self-transformation and as a result fetishizes and prioritizes the performance of a racialized existential angst.
In order to delve further into these two documentaries it is important to give some sense of the history of the organization that sponsored their production. EVC has been largely shaped by founder Steven Goodman’s discourse of “critical literacy”; and its establishment in 1984 was part of a broader historical formation around “media literacy” that was emergent in the early eighties. The media literacy movement was and is an especially transnational phenomenon, and it set the stage for EVC’s practice and its insistence on providing minority youth with access to a particular cultural mode of production.
Community media, media literacy,
Carmen Luke has written that the 80s witnessed a deluge of references to “literate viewing,” “interactive viewing,” and “media literacy” (282). This “new educational rhetoric” was in some ways an outgrowth of the cognitivist turn in media research studies, in which the viewing subject is constituted as a mentally active participant in the construction of meaning (Luke 282). By re-writing the viewer as an adventurous producer of meaning with the televisual text, scholars could make the leap to the notion that reception was deserving of its own codification in order to regulate and give shape to the viewer’s use of and interactions with television. As a core theoretical supposition, this particular take on television viewership helped spawn the “surge during the 1980s of school-based, regional, and statewide media literacy curricula and the correlative establishment of media-studies curriculum and resource centers” (Luke 282). Robert W. Kubey concurs that this decade sparked a “worldwide movement in media literacy education,” although this transnational movement for media education and the promotion of a media-based “literacy” developed largely outside the United States and included fora sponsored by the British Film Institute and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (352).
The German Commission for UNESCO, in particular, circulated a key statement on media literacy that was unanimously supported by the nineteen member-states known as “The Grunwald Document,” but officially titled “The Challenge of Media Education.” The Grunwald Document was produced at the 1982 UNESCO International Symposium on Media Education in Grunwald, West Germany. This document forewarns of dangerous trends: “In some countries, for example, children already spend more time watching television than they do attending school.” The disarming recognition that the medium of television frequently trumps educational institutions is used to support a call for pedagogical practices directed at promoting “critical understanding of the phenomena of communication.” The three “symbolic systems of “images, words, and sounds” will require young people as well as adults to develop a new kind of literacy. Hence, the document makes the following recommendations:
The “omnipresence” of the media is recognized as a global one that requires international coordination to equip global citizens with the proper skills to navigate this new world (UNESCO).
While somewhat marginal to this international movement in the early 80s, the United States nevertheless was home to educational and community media groups basing their work on principles of social justice and media literacy. A form of “critical vocationalism” took shape in the 70s through the activities of a long line of left media collectives and community media centers, such as Downtown Community Television (DCTV) and Global Village. DCTV was founded in 1972 by Jon Alpert and Keiko Tsuno as both a media production and training center (London 254). Global Village was founded three years earlier by John Reilly, Ira Schneider, and Rudi Stern as a video collective, and it eventually evolved into a “media center devoted to independent video production with [an] emphasis on video documentary” (London 250). Both of these organizations sought to disseminate production skills to citizens not necessarily out of any desire to further careers in the film and television industries, but rather to promote a sense of democratic participation in the commercially-driven media of film and television.
Steven Goodman, the eventual founder of EVC, had been working as an independent documentary producer in the 70s in New York City with ties to the community media scene, which included groups such as DCTV. He had spent the bulk of the late 70s and early 80s producing a black-and-white video documentary about street gangs in the South Bronx, entitled Shotgun (1982). The film incorporated both original footage shot by Goodman as well as an array of found footage, including local news coverage of the gang. In the process of filming Shotgun, Goodman spent time “living with [a] particular gang [called “The Savage Riders”] and learning about why [these young people] were in a gang” in the first place. As an outsider, “a middle-class kid, who grew up in suburbia,” Goodman felt compelled to explore the reasons for gang formation and high dropout rates in the local schools. However, the urgency of his documentary became instantly exacerbated when one of the gang members, an eighteen-year-old male, suddenly confessed on-camera to killing two fourteen-year-old girls. The confession prompted Goodman to interview the gang member’s mother as well as the mother of one of the victims. Goodman’s documentary thus became a portrait of a community both before and after the murders.
In order to attract an audience for the film, Goodman and other members of the community literally screened the film “on the streets in the Bronx.” They attached “monitors to lamp posts…[and] had screenings and discussions” out in the streets where any member of the community could view the film and participate. Their success at initiating an open public forum where race, poverty, crime, and gender could be discussed eventually led to the film’s presentation in local schools where it prompted testimonies from students. His film’s exhibition in the streets and in the schools demonstrated to him a “really powerful way of sparking discussion about social issues, problems, and what kind of action people can take.” This experience encouraged Goodman to bring young people in closer contact with media hardware. He wanted to develop a mode of production in which young people are given the opportunity to represent themselves and their relations to their community. In the process, they might find an opportunity to find avenues of “action,” that is, of intervention into socio-economic conditions impacting local communities. This is what was at stake in EVC’s promotion of a particular brand of auto-ethnographic production. Such an emphasis on social action through media production also tied in with contemporaneous calls for a critical vocationalism, as discussed earlier. Goodman, like other producers in the New York-based community media scene, understood the value of a vocational education not simply in terms of bolstering media skills but rather in terms of building confidence in under-represented and oppressed teenagers to engage in productive cultures, to represent themselves and their communities in their own ways and in the process to constitute their own voices in a political climate that prefers their silence (Goodman 2006).
The radical participatory agenda suggested by Goodman and the work of groups such as Global Village, DCTV, Videofreex, and others dovetailed with the media literacy movement and notions of a critical pedagogy informed by the ideas of Paulo Freire as articulated in his foundational book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. At the heart of his book is the desire to overturn the conventions of a “narrative education” in which the dominant relationship “involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient, listening objects (the students)” (Freire 71). Premised upon a “banking concept of education,” traditional pedagogy implies that “knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing” (72). The problem with this arrangement is that it reproduces the “attitudes and practices…[of an] oppressive society as a whole” (73). In its place Freire proposes a “humanist and libertarian” pedagogy that engenders conscientização, a critical consciousness that overturns the dehumanizing effects of oppression “without reversing the terms of the contradiction” between being oppressor or oppressed but simply “man in the process of liberation” (Freire 54, 56). Put another way, Freire is characterizing a pedagogy that actively pursues the subjectification or “humanization” of students so that they may regain a sense of agency that rewrites the rules of oppressive hierarchies. A “pedagogy of the oppressed,” he writes, “must be forged with, not for, the oppressed…in the incessant struggle to regain their humanity” (Freire 48).
This desire to buttress the expressivity of oppressed classes, to discover or recover a collective “voice,” animates both media literacy practices aimed at strengthening the critical reception skills of viewers (as in the Grunwald Document) as well as the social justice movement to de-mystify the instruments of moving image production, including efforts by Global Village and DCTV to make media production training sessions part of their general practice (Goodman 2003). The founding of EVC was part of a historical and cultural formation that encompassed critical vocationalism, a first-person documentary ethos, and a school system seeking to provide troubled students with a technological skill base for life after graduation. Other youth media projects, in particular those that prioritized documentary video (such as The Mirror Project in Massachusetts and The Global Action Project in New York City), were similarly motivated to couch their work in terms of developing young people into both skilled workers and expressive citizens.