True stories from the heart

A community media organisation, Video Volunteers, gives voice to our society’s unheard voices and puts a face to the statistics about poverty and marginalisation

What’s the best way to portray the story of one community? The common answer to this would be by making a film or video, by documenting the issues faced by them.  But what if those belonging to the community are themselves behind the lens?

This is how ‘Video Volunteers’ – one of the world’s leading community media organisations — functions. Its mission is to enable people from marginalised backgrounds to tell their stories to the world. People from the community are themselves the storytellers, having power over the narrative and documentation process.

Some of the films at Change Chitra Festival // Credit:Video Volunteers

Started in 2007, Video Volunteers began uploading to YouTube video-stories produced by women, Dalits, adivasis and others living in India’s remote villages, which convey their needs and knowledge. In 2019, more than 1,500 videos were published on the channel.

More than 200 community correspondents, whom the organisation recruits and trains via NGOs working in remote parts of the country, are currently shooting, editing and uploading myriad videos on their critical issues. These videos are screened online, in their villages and via various mainstream media platforms in order to elevate the voice of the marginalised into the public discourse. Every year, hundreds of the videos that the community correspondents produce result in concrete, measurable change.

“We believe that it’s important for people to hear authentic, unmediated voices from a diverse community, who are rarely given a platform to express their vision for the future that helps us understand the world better. Plus, much of the content is fascinating to watch and unlike anything most people have seen,” says Video Volunteers’ founder Jessica Mayberry.

Their most recent work is the ChangeChitra Film Festival – documentary filmmaking for Social Activism — which was screened on their YouTube channel. The festival showcased 16 documentaries produced over the past 18 months by 60 aspiring filmmakers from 15 states across the country.

The films address a range of issues including gender, education, tribal issues, social inequality, trafficking, environment and others, all told from a unique youth perspective. Approximately five new films were released online each day for three consecutive days on 1-3 September.

This online festival follows on the heels of a successful travelling festival in February and March that brought the films to audiences in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Chennai. More than 700 people attended the screenings, which took place in 14 venues, including US embassies, villages and slums connected to the films, colleges and popular arts spaces across each city. The final leg of the tour was scheduled for late March in New Delhi, but unfortunately had to be cancelled due to the pandemic.

The films were produced by novice filmmakers aged 18-35 who participated in Video Volunteers’ ChangeChitra program. Each young filmmaker received nearly 15 days of in-person training over the course of three residential workshops that covered film pre-production, production, and post-production and virtual mentoring throughout 2019.

The Public Affairs Section of the US embassy in New Delhi provided support for the technical training in documentary filmmaking.  The selected participants comprised of various professionals from our society like artists, farmers, journalists, theater practitioners, writers, social workers, professional photographers and social entrepreneurs. There were more than 550 applications for the 60 places.

“The 16 ChangeChitra documentaries being published have already won several awards and will offer inspiration and a time for reflection in our particularly difficult present moment,” Mayberry further said.

The training was conducted by well-known documentary filmmakers from India and the United States. Marc Ostrick, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, producer, director and writer was the lead American trainer for this project.  Marc has pioneered projects for Discovery, National Geographic and others for the past 25 years.

He represented the US-based MyHero project, which was Video Volunteers’ training partner in the project. Commenting on the documentary film-making project, Marc said, “Documentary film is an incredible tool to promote social change, in India and anywhere in the world. The quality of work these young people produced after 15 days of training is quite amazing. I think we’ve developed a documentary curriculum that can be replicated by other organisations. People around the world now know how to make quick web videos, but it’s important, in the flood of content on the internet, to remember the special emotional power of a well-crafted short documentary.”

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