Communicating disasters on film: Experts, please don’t cross this line!

Global Platform bannerExperts should let film-makers produce professional films in simple terms that are more appropriate for public audiences, instead of trying to produce films that have little chance of being broadcast or distributed in other ways. There is a role for technical experts – but that’s not in the crafting and directing of films, but in providing the knowledge, clarifications and guidance to film-makers and journalists who are professionals in communicating complex issues to non-specialist publics.

Self-evident as it may be, these home truths are well worth reiterating every now and then — especially to experts and officials who keep forgetting them (sometimes with disastrous and expensive results!). So I was very glad to read that these points were emphatically made at a ‘film debate’ held in Geneva last week.

The occasion was a panel discussion, ambitiously titled ‘The role of film-makers in promoting climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction stories’. It was held on 17 June 2009 as part of the Second Session of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Geneva.

Moderated by the well known journalist, writer and producer Edward Girardet, from Media21, Geneva, it involved five panelists drawn from media/communication sector and the disaster/humanitarian sectors. Among the panelists was my colleague Robert Lamb, director of One Planet Pictures, UK, and consultant producer with, Switzerland.

The debate’s premise was simple: So far much of the thrust of the film industry, NGOs, UN organizations and media in portraying disasters and climate change has focused on outcome – which is more visually stimulating – rather than showcasing vital prevention and adaptation solutions. This is necessary, but not sufficient. What can be done to improve the interaction between the film/news industry and leading organizations dealing with disaster risk management and climate change adaptation on a daily basis?

Interviewing tsunami survivor in Tamil Nadu, India - image from TVEAP
Interviewing tsunami survivor in Tamil Nadu, India - image from TVEAP
This was similar to the approach we had in TVE Asia Pacific’s Communicating Disasters project in Asia (2006-2007). We too explored the common ground for these two sectors, with their distinctive needs, and asked how the two can support each other without stepping on each others’ toes.

The same discussion continued in Geneva. I’ve limited information on what actually transpired during the debate, and am hoping someone will soon write it up. For now, here’s a summary adapted from UN-ISDR daily coverage (the official language is theirs, not mine):

“More than 150 participants attended a thought-provoking film debate. The five panelists discussed how to enhance the interaction between the film/news industry and leading organizations dealing with climate change adaptation (CCA) and disaster management to increase CCA visibility which is very limited today in film productions.

“Eight short films were presented during the session, among them a short trailer of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and a CCA film shot in Burkina Faso produced by Christian Aid. After identifying a number of challenges due to their formats and audiences, film-makers and experts agreed it was important to work more closely to make more films on the solutions offered by CCA.

“Film-makers suggested that experts should let them produce professional films in simple terms that are more appropriate to their audiences and focus on bringing expert knowledge to enrich the content of their current productions instead of producing films that have little chance to be broadcast or distributed.”

All this reminds me of a discussion we had around an earlier blog post where I asked: Anyone can make video film, right? So why do we need professionals?

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

2 thoughts on “Communicating disasters on film: Experts, please don’t cross this line!”

  1. Here’s a comment from sea safety expert John Swamy, who has coordinated a large-scale training programme for fishermen in Tamil Nadu a year ago. A former sailor based in Kollam in Kerala, he writes short stories in his free time.

    (Btw, I am from the other side, a reporter.)

    Regards, Max

    ———- Forwarded message from John Swamy ———-

    I left a sea safety film to a filmmaker and he made bloopers that made me cringe. For eg, he shot entire footages in a fishing boat at sea without nets! It was for a scene where fishermen are in a boat that lost its power, while on a fishing trip. How can anyone justify a fishing trip in a boat without nets?

    Don’t cross the line, yes, but over-confidence in communicating and messing up on basics is no good. He still thinks it’s a minor blooper but fishermen across Tamil Nadu laughed at my team while exhibiting the film. We got away telling them it was symbolic blah blah.. (end)

  2. Technical experts are allowed and welcomed to cross the line if they have not only in-depth knowledge in their specialization but also the skill to communicate to people outside their narrow area of expertise. This skill is rare in experts but there are notable exceptions like David Attenborough and Carl Sagan.

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