Mine is shorter than yours…yipeee!

In the topsy turvy media world, ‘conventional wisdom’ about film-making is being rapidly undone by the march of what is now known as ‘Digital Natives‘ — those currently under 30 years, who have grown up taking Internet, mobile phones and video games completely for granted.

These Digital Natives are not inclined to watch long duration documentaries. Five minutes is about right. With effort, we can get them to sit through an offering of 10 to 15 minutes. Half an hour is ‘really long’. One hour or 90 minute films — just forget it.

The sooner we face up to this reality, the better. We may not like it, but it’s not the end of the world.

In fact, it challenges us in the media to strive for greater economy of words and time.

As anyone who has worked in television news will confirm, it is indeed possible to tell a story in 100 seconds, if we package it well and carefully. Purists might call it dumbing down of television. Pragmatists would see it as customising to suit new audience realities. I go along with the latter view.

TVE Asia Pacific is not a broadcaster on its own. We produce and distribute content to over three dozen TV channels and networks spread across the Asia Pacific, now home to the world’s largest television audience. It’s through these ‘Emperors of Eyeballs’ (as I like to call them!) that we reach out.

Our broadcast partners have a good idea what their audiences want. Channel after channel tells us that the preference is for shorter, more compact programming. It would be naive to ignore this feedback and market intelligence.

The truth is: we can communicate ‘serious’ content — as long as the packaging and duration are to suit the audience realities.
That’s why TVE Asia Pacific’s recent productions have mostly followed the 5 minute format: we begin, tell and end a self-contained story in just 300 seconds.

Our recent series are examples: The Greenbelt Reports, Digits4Change and Living Labs.

The Greenbelt Reports by TVE Asia Pacific

And that’s a lot of time on screen. We have covered complex issues in exactly five minutes: for example, combating soil salinity with low cost methods; building ‘bio-shields’ of mangroves against the sea’s ravages; and using webcams and satellite links for tele-health.

These and other films continue to be broadcast and used in a range of education, advocacy and awareness efforts across the Asia Pacific and beyond.

No one has really complained about them being too short — except for some film-makers. Some have dismissed our efforts as ‘tabloid television’ and ‘not really documentaries’.

We remain unaffected. We do produce half hour documentaries from time to time, for specific purposes and defined audiences. But to ignore the mass audience trends would be to box ourselves into a tiny part of the audio-visual landscape.

We now know it is much harder to produce shorter films than longer ones. The challenge is to distill and compress without oversimplification or distortion.

So the sooner film-makers get over their obsession with length, the better. It’s not the duration of a film that matters most; it’s how a story is told. Some of the best stories are also the shortest.

To cite my favourite example from the print world, Ernest Hemingway once bet his friends 10 dollars that he could write a self-contained, full story in less then 10 words. He produced what is still considered the world’s shortest short story:
“For sale.
Baby shoes.
Never worn.”

It’s hard to beat that one for its amazing economy of words and sheer power of story telling.

How short is short today? Read leading wildlife film-maker Neil Curry’s views in my post on 27 July 2007

Read my post: Moving images move heart first, mind next

Read my post: Can you make a one-minute film for a better planet?

Playing Shahrazad; Telling Stories to Save Ourselves…and the Planet

I’ve been silent on this blog for over 20 days. I like to think that was for a good cause.

Well, I was frightfully busy organising and running a small Asian regional workshop in Khao Lak, Thailand – it was part of TVE Asia Pacific’s Saving the Planet project.

Saving the Planet is telling real life stories to save our planet in peril. It was inspired by the Arabian Nights.

Remember how the clever and beautiful Shahrazad saved herself and other women in her kingdom from the murderous King Shahriyar? Once betrayed by a wife, the wicked ruler had embarked on a killing spree where he would wed a virgin bride everyday, and have her beheaded the day after the wedding. All girls and women in his kingdom were threatened.

That is, until, beautiful and clever Sharrazard volunteered to be the next bride. Facing an assured death, she starts telling the king engaging stories that holds him spell-bound. Her story, or stories, since many tales are interwoven and imbedded into the first, lasts for 1001 consecutive nights.

This story-telling captivated the king’s attention and held his patience with its fantastic and mysterious tales, its vivid descriptions and breath-taking heroism. Shahrazad’s story-telling is in itself a heroic and life-saving device, which finally forced the king to spare the wise and courageous girl’s life. Apparently he gave up his killing ways after that experience (if only some of our modern day rulers were so easily reformed!).

Image courtesy Rose TheatreImage courtesy Middleeast UK.comImage courtesy Middleeastuk.com

Read more about Arabian Nights

Story telling is more an art than a science. Shahrazad used it to save her life, and lives of all other women in her kingdom. Mythical as it may be, we can draw a few lessons from the Arabian Nights on what kind of stories to tell — with visible effects.

Good journalism is all about telling stories — real life stories about what happens to real world men, women and children. Mixing journalistic skills with development stories as we do, Saving the Planet is an attempt to tell a few good stories from the Asia Pacific — about individuals and organisations who are engaged in education for sustainable development, or ESD.

As we introduce the project on its dedicated website:
Confronted with a range of environment and development problems, the world is looking for bright ideas to sustain life on the planet. Education at all levels can shape the world of tomorrow, equipping individuals and societies with the skills, perspectives, knowledge and values to live and work in a sustainable manner. Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is a vision of education that seeks to balance human and economic well-being with cultural traditions and respect for the earth’s natural resources.

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Saving the Planet started with an open competition – we asked people to nominate projects or activities in developing countries of Asia that are communicating or educating their communities on any aspect of sustainable development. Not just ‘green’ issues (e.g. recycling, conservation) or scarey issues like climate change and ozone depletion, but also ‘brown’ issues (e.g. sanitation, cleaner production) and what I call ‘black and white issues’ – human rights and social justice.

We received dozens of nominations, which we turned over to a regional selection panel. Their final selection was announced in mid May 2007 – see my blog post on the winners.

Read more about the winning stories on Saving the Planet website

The idea is for us to go out and film each of these winning projects for an Asian regional TV series. But ahead of that, we brought to Khao Lak, Thailand, two representatives of each project/organisation for a week-long workshop, 2 to 6 July 2007.

That workshop sought to strengthen the communication skills and capacity of the six organisations. Not just in moving images, which we dabble in, but in new media and older media as well. In short, how to use media and other communication tools to reach out to different audiences and, hopefully, influence them in positive ways that help them — and the planet.

This is why Saving the Planet is also story telling for survival – and here we are talking about the survival of not just one individual, but of all life on the planet. And instead of one evil king, our story tellers are confronted with a multitude of threats to our survival, many of them of our own making.

The analogy with the Arabian Nights is not as far-fetched as it might seem. The success of the Arabian Nights stories over many other forgotten folk tales may be due to their blend of popular themes: heroic and romantic adventures are littered with mystery, old wisdom and exciting struggles between good and evil. Almost all tales have three main elements or notions. Firstly, if there is a problem, there is a solution. Secondly, endurance can enable a crisis to reach a resolution. And finally, fantastic elements help the protagonists to maintain their endurance.

So one thing we kept probing and discussing was how to package serious (and often perceived as ‘boring’) development messages in ways that engage and entertain groups or communities we are trying to reach.

I’ll write more about the workshop when I have a chance. The official report of the workshop will go up on TVEAP and Saving the Planet websites within a few weeks.

For now, here’s the photo of our participants, together with the resource team and my colleagues from TVE Asia Pacific.

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Saving the Planet is implemented by TVE Asia Pacific in collaboration with the Asia/Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO (ACCU),Tokyo, Japan, within the framework of ACCU-UNESCO Asia-Pacific Programme under the UNESCO/Japan Funds-in-Trust for the Promotion of Education for Sustainable Development.