Documentary in the classroom

From Screen to Classroom: Creating Digital Curriculum for Documentary Films is a new report focusing on best practices, costs, partnerships and strategies to help documentary films increase their use and impact in classrooms across North America.

Report: Creating Digital Curricula for Documentary Films

I helped develop the report in my role as Web & Engagement Director for Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein’s upcoming book / documentary / outreach project, The Message.  We created it as part of our development research, and decided to release a version of it publicly for other documentary producers who were in the same boat. From my introduction:

The main goal of this work is to help documentary producers better understand what teachers want and need when integrating documentary content into their classrooms. In the following pages, you’ll find a selection of examples of some of the best study guide materials available online today, paired with descriptions of what makes them ‘work’ for teachers. We’ve also included a list of key characteristics of high-quality lesson plans, suggestions on how outreach partnerships can enhance the salience and impact of your curriculum, and a list of the key questions documentary producers should ask themselves and their teams during the development of their educational plan.

The report is filled with practical advice and great curriculum examples from across the web, including my favourite, Teaching A People’s History (pictured below), based on Howard Zinn’s alternative U.S. history (later made into a documentary), with curriculum materials by Rethinking Schools.

The report was prepared by Simone Bloom Nathan, a veteran of documentary curriculum development, with design and layout by the awesome Toronto talent Kate Hudson.

You can download a copy here.

Let’s stop dumbing down humanitarian work

Public perception and understanding of humanitarian emergencies is at a dangerous level.

Aid agencies and governments have gotten in the bad habit of creating media, educational and fundraising content that over-simplifies the reality on the ground, creates public expectations about humanitarian work which simply can’t be fulfilled, and will inevitably come back to haunt us.

This was the framing argument of my presentation last week to the 2011 World Conference on Humanitarian Studies, as part of the Media and Information Technology in Humanitarian Action panel.

I was at the conference to talk about Inside Disaster Haiti, the educational website and “serious game” about the response to the Haiti earthquake that I helped produce last year, as part of the PTV Productions team.

I presented Inside Disaster as an example of what I called “strategic complication” — letting the public in on some of the messy but fascinating realities and contradictions of humanitarian work.

Simplification is inevitable… but dumbing down isn’t

Humanitarian emergencies and the organized response to them are really, really complicated.  Forces of nature collide with a volatile human mixture of historical, political, economic, cultural, and power dynamics.

That makes them hard to understand, especially for people experiencing them as filtered through media, on the other side of the world.  The interesting thing is, this is not a new problem.  Here’s Walter Lippman struggling with the same issue in 1922:

For the real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance. We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety … to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage with it. – From Public Opinion

Today we still face the same quandary that Lippman was writing about 90 years ago — but exacerbated by our 24-hour fire hose of information from around the globe.

So to even process, let alone understand what’s happening around us, some kind of simplification is inevitable. In talking about humanitarian emergencies, I argue that we’ve done it in two key ways: the Big Picture perspective, and the close-up.

the close-up

The close-up delivers just one story: someone is suffering, and someone is alleviating that suffering.

Smart bloggers like Alanna Shaikh have already pointed out that these images do work, but in a very problematic way.  They’re usually presented through perspective of journalists and aid workers, and frame the beneficiaries as passive problems to be dealt with.

the big picture

Giving the public the key bullet points of an event through a “Big Picture” view is also very standard practice, both in journalism and in the kind of new media education work that I do.

As an example, check out Stop Disasters!, created by the UN-ISDR, which gives you what I call the “God’s-eye view” of a humanitarian challenge — in this case, that a town full of people will be swept away when a tsunami comes.  The game gives you all the information you need to make a decision, in the sidebar, and infinite power to make everyone do what you tell them to. Just like in real life!

Another “big picture” view is the much-maligned Facebook game The City That Shouldn’t Exist.  In his one you’re a white muscular humanitarian hero who gets woken from his bed in Brussels at 3am with the news that “refugees are on the move”.

You sit down at your computer and up comes your “Resource Channel” on the left, and a link to the the camp on the right:

And through your screen, you begin to literally grab refugees from outside the camp and drag them inside, then throw food, water and medicine at them — which they voraciously consume.  And if you don’t do it fast enough, they get reduced to piles of bones.

So this was problematic in a few ways.

These kinds of “big picture” educational games create the impression that humanitarian agencies are all-powerful beings, who can control things which, in reality, are not actually under their control.

And when we raise expectations that people and resources can be moved around as easily as on a laptop screen, that makes it very hard for the public to understand why aid delivery is so slow in chaotic, messy environments like Haiti.

Piles of garbage and debris spill onto the street


Both the big-picture and close-up perspectives make promises which are extremely difficult, if not impossible to deliver in the real world.

When an organization implies it will alleviate the suffering in Haiti I’m seeing on my television screen, and I give it money to fulfill that promise, and then two years later I’m still seeing that suffering —  there’s a credibility gap that gets created.

Shallow, disingenuous communication about the reality of humanitarian work may be effective in the short term, but I think it will lead to pubic blowback for fundraisers and governments in the long term.

Inside Disaster & “Strategic Complication”

Inside Disaster was a multi-platform documentary storytelling project about the Haiti earthquake and humanitarian work that tried to do things differently.  The project had four key components:

  1. A multimedia blog from Haiti that launched the same day as the quake;
  2. A three-part documentary series following the IFRC response in Haiti;
  3. An educational website for people who want to know more about the past and present of humanitarian work, and how it was applied in Haiti;
  4. A first-person simulation that allows users to make decisions in the aftermath of the earthquake from the perspective of a journalist, survivor, or aid worker.

The combination of incredible documentary material, a solid budget, long timeline, smart advisors and a great production team gave us the chance to create “strategically complicated” media that would help users understand some of the real-world challenges and complexity of the Haiti operation…

…. including some of the political and economic context that exacerbated this “natural disaster”:

… give advice to people on how to be effective donors:

… … and how not to be, from the “Donations Hall of Shame“:

Over 20 people in Canada, Haiti, and Europe worked directly on this project, in addition to the hundreds of academics and journalists whose work we drew on for every aspect of the site (for an example look here).

The project took a year to produce, and cost close to half a million dollars, which was mostly from public funding in Canada.  So this is not a realistic standard for humanitarian agencies on a fundraising drive to compare themselves to, but I hope it will provide an example of the kinds of big picture, messy and very interesting conversations about humanitarian work that I sincerely believe the public is ready to have.

Learning on the job with Inside Disaster Haiti

International Support


Toronto – My behind-the-scenes article on the production of Inside Disaster Haiti is published in this month’s POV Magazine (use password POVdigitalsub to read the digital edition — then subscribe!).

The magazine’s interactive issue is packed with great content, including articles on Kat Cizek’s Highrise, and the exciting work going on at Mozilla Drumbeat’s Web Made Movies.

I tried to use the article to provide a big-picture of view of how the project came together, the great team and advisory board behind it, and some of the lessons I learned along the way.  Among them:

  1. It’s better to be relevant than to be perfect — get your website up at the beginning of production, not the end.
  2. Sharing your content through a Creative Commons license can lead to surprising and beautiful outcomes (all our Haiti photos are available through a CC license).
  3. Love and cherish your documentary film collaborators; their work makes your work possible.

UN soldiers ordering the crowd to sit down

Here’s the introduction to the article; you can check out the full piece here:

Five hours after a massive earthquake devastated Haiti on January 12, 2010, the email arrived in my inbox.  The subject line was short and to the point: “We’re going.”

This was day one of Inside Disaster Haiti, an ambitious multi-platform documentary project about humanitarian relief in disaster zones.  As the project’s Interactive Producer, my job was to launch the Inside Disaster website and prepare for incoming reports from our website’s Field Director, Nicolas Jolliet, who would be working alongside the documentary crew in Haiti.

The documentary’s director and producer, Nadine Pequeneza, had spent over a year negotiating unprecedented access to the International Red Cross’ Field Assessment and Coordination Teams (FACT), elite disaster managers drawn from over 70 countries with experience in relief, logistics, health, sanitation, and more.

With producers PTV Productions and lead broadcaster TVO on board, the film had been green-lit in September 2009, with the understanding that the documentary and web crew would be following the Red Cross FACT on their next major natural disaster response.  On January 12th, after four months of waiting, planning, and false alarms, that day had arrived.

Launching the Haiti blog was the first big step in creating the interactive component of Inside Disaster Haiti, which would eventually include a wide-ranging educational website about humanitarian work and the earthquake, as well as a first-person simulation that used documentary footage to allow users to “experience” the disaster’s aftermath from the point of view of a journalist, survivor, or aid worker.

For me, it would become the opportunity of a lifetime, combining my love of research, storytelling, global issues, technology, team-building, and social activism.  By the time it launched, the Inside Disaster interactive project would involve over thirty collaborators from Canada and Haiti, cost close to half a million dollars, and win multiple educational and gaming awards.

But that wouldn’t happen for a long, long time.  On January 12, 2010, I was as close as you could come to having no idea what I was doing.

Interview 1