Pipope Panitchpakdi: “It’s Like Being Out There Naked!”

Pipope Panitchpakdi
“It’s Like Being Out There Naked.”

That’s the reason given by Thai film maker and media activist Pipope Panitchpakdi why he doesn’t want to be present when his films are being screened.

A reporter at the recent Mekong Media Forum held in Chiang Mai, Thailand, noted how Pipope headed for the door when his ambitious 2009 documentary, Mekong: The Untamed began to be screened on the first day.

Asked why he was stepping out, he replied: “I don’t like to watch when my films are shown. It’s like being out there naked.”

Fair enough – there isn’t one right way to handle such public sharing, and each film maker does it differently. I know some who simply want to be there from beginning to end, derive great satisfaction from being acknowledged upfront, and are eager to engage the audience after the screening (I’m one of this type). A few prefer to sit quietly and unrecognised amidst the viewers, observing candid reactions of the audience, and may (or may not) own up in the end. Then there are those who leave the room.

But one thing every film maker I know shares with equal passion is that their film be screened with proper visual and sounds. This isn’t as easily or commonly accomplished as you’d think – I’ve seen a good film sharing moment ruined by technical glitches in too many countries, both developed and developing. Having been the victim of such mishaps, I know just how unnerving and frustrating this can be. Ours may be the digital age, but video and audio literacy levels are still very uneven.

Have you had such an experience as a film maker or film user? If so, please share it here!

Go ahead, just say the word: Condom! Now say it again…

not an easy task...
Acting out condoms in broad daylight in India: not an easy task...


No one is certain how or where the word originated, but it has become one of those ubiquitous items in modern society.

It’s a two syllable word, fairly easy to pronounce. Then how come so many people – at least in South Asia, home to a fifth of humanity – get their tongues tied or twisted in saying it?

That’s because it’s to do with sex! That’s not a subject that many South Asians still feel comfortable in talking about, in public or even private.

Sex may be a very private matter, but individuals’ sexual behaviour has direct and serious public health implications. Especially today when the world is still struggling to contain and overcome the spread of HIV that causes AIDS.

Condoms originally came into wide use to help prevent unwanted pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). In the past quarter century, condoms have become a major weapon against HIV.

Despite this, condoms still remain a hush-hush topic among many grown ups, even as the younger generation warms up to them. Across South Asia, we still have some hurdles to clear in normalising condoms – or making it socially and culturally acceptable for people to talk about condom use, and to go out and buy them without fear or shame.

They come in all colours and shapes!
They come in all colours and shapes!

This is the challenge that various communication groups have taken up, especially in India. According to a 2007 survey by UNAIDS and India’s National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), at least 2.5 million people live with the HIV virus in India, placing the country third in the world after South Africa and Nigeria. However, AIDS prevention in the country is not an easy job. Many people, especially in rural areas, cling on to preconceived taboos about sex — and are often hesitant to use condoms.

In recent weeks, I’ve heard from two campaigns that are trying to change this. One is the BBC World Service Trust working with Indian broadcasters and other partners to normalise condom use through a campaign. I’ll be writing a separate blog post on that effort.

Last month, I received en email from someone called ‘Spread Word for a Better World’, who shared with me web links on a socio-cultural group based in Hyderabad, who are using the performing arts to promote condom awareness.

For over a decade, the Nrityanjali Academy has been singing and dancing their way to the glorification of condom use. They see it as a crucial fight in their central region, where 2 per cent of the population is HIV positive.

P Narsingh Rao, director of Nrityanjali, recently told France 24 online: “Our main target groups are people vulnerable to the HIV virus like sex workers, transsexuals or truck drivers. We tour villages in mobile video vans to show the film. The screening is followed by a question and answer session about condom use and sexually transmitted diseases.”

He added: “We also encourage the use of female condoms, a relatively new concept. We tell the women to negotiate the use of female condoms with their male partners: for men with little sex education, the insertion of the female condom in the vagina can in itself be an erotic act.”

Here are some YouTube videos showcasing their work:

This is an entertaining and educational video in Telugu language on Condom usage, to prevent from sexually transmitted infections and HIV:

A more instructional video on how to use condoms properly:

And finally, an HIV/AIDS song in Telugu – with all the fast-beat music, gyrating and riot of colours we typically associate Bollywood movies and songs with:

The videos speak for themselves. They are matter of fact, engaging and presented by ordinary people (trained entertainers) rather than by jargon-totting medical doctors or health workers. There is none of the awkwardness typically associated with conversations of this subject. No one is tip-toeing around perceived or real cultural taboos. They just get on with it.

Importantly, they involve both men and women, both in performances and in their audiences.

Training young men on just how to do it right...
Training young men on just how to do it right...

Related blog posts:

July 2007: The Three Amigos: Funny condoms with a serious mission

April 2007: Beware of Vatican Condoms – and global warming!

Images courtesy France 24’s The Observers.

Ram Bahadur Tamang: The face of Film South Asia

ram-bahadur-tamang.jpg ram-bahadur-tamang.jpg

For ten years, this ordinary Nepali man’s photo has been a rallying call for documentary film-makers across South Asia, home to one fifth of humanity.

He has become the symbol, and the logo, of Film South Asia (FSA), a regional film festival organised every other year in Kathmandu since 1997. FSA, whose latest edition rolls out in the Nepali capital this week (11 – 14 October 2007) is the leading and most enduring film festival that brings together South Asian film-makers and film-lovers. It is a low-budget, high-energy festival organised by the non-profit Himal Association.

Having been associated with FSA from the beginning (I was on the first festival’s jury, and have hosted a couple of travelling festivals since), I was curious about who this old man was. On a visit to Kathmandu last month, I asked FSA Chairman and documentary champion Kanak Mani Dixit about it.

It turns out that the FSA logo is derived from this photo, taken of an ordinary Nepali called Ram Bahadur Tamang. Photocredit goes to Cory R Adams.

Courtesy Himal Southasian

Ram Bahadur belonged to the Tamang people, who are believed to have migrated to Nepal from Tibet. Today, the Tamangs reside mainly in the high hills north of Kathmandu.

Perhaps inspired by my query, Kanak has written up the story behind the photo/logo in his column On the Way Up in the latest issue of Himal Southasian which he edits.

He says: “The Tamang from Byabar served the Rana palaces as guards and porters. Ram Bahadur was one such. One day, he was caught by a photographer holding an early-model Sony video camera. He had a Sirdi Sai Baba badge on his left lapel. The image of Ram Bahadur is now the logo of the Film South Asia documentary film festival. He looks out over the world through his camera and his other, free, eye. The trophy given to the best film at the end of each FSA is known as the Ram Bahadur Trophy.”

Not much more is known about old Ram Bahadur. He had moved on shortly after this picture was taken. We don’t know, for example, if he ever actually used the Sony camera, or was just playing with what, at the time, seemed a high-tech curiosity. This was, after all, the early 1990s when video cameras were not quite ubiquitous.

Read Kanak Mani Dixit on Who’s Ram Bahadur Tamang in Himal South Asian October 2007

Read my July 2007 post: Himal Southasian – 20 years of celebrating South Asian diversity

Taking it personally: Anita Roddick’s Arabian Nights

“I am overwhelmed by the potential of the web to link like-minded people and move them to mass-action,” the late Anita Roddick once wrote. “We are excited to experiment in other media too — perhaps subversive billboards, or a television program, or other print projects. As someone once said, we are only limited by our imaginations.”

In my personal tribute to Anita, written shortly after her untimely death on 10 September 2007, I touched on her extraordinary skills as an activist-communicator. It was in connection with a global television series that I last met Anita in person.

In the summer of 2003, I was invited to join a small group of people at Anita’s country home, Highfield House, in Arundel, Somerset, England. It was a one-day brainstorming on the future of Hands On, a global TV series that she’d been hosting for three years.

Hands On stood out as a beacon of hope amidst so much doom and gloom on television -– it featured environmentally-friendly technologies, business ideas and processes that have been tried out by someone, somewhere on the planet.

It covered a broad range of topics, from renewable energies, waste management and information technology to food processing and transport. The aim was to showcase good news and best practices so they could inspire others — entrepreneurs, communities or even governments — to try these out.

The series was first broadcast on BBC World and was redistributed to dozens of TV channels worldwide through my own organisation, TVE Asia Pacific, and others. It was backed by the reputed development agency Intermediate Technology (now called Practical Action).

Watch a typical Anita introduction of Hands On and a sample story in capsule form:

Anita brought her usual passion and dynamism to our discussion, energising the development and communications professionals enjoying her hospitality. Covering good news was already going against the media’s grain, but it was harder to keep at it year after year, especially when the media landscape was changing rapidly. It was a challenge to stay engaged and relevant to viewers across Africa, Asia Pacific, Latin America and Europe.

During the meeting, Anita asked me to sum up the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) which was coming up in a few months. Putting aside all the ‘developmentspeak’ of UN agencies, I described it as an attempt to put new information and communication technologies (ICTs) to work for the poor and disadvantaged of our world. Or get the geek tools to work for the meek. (I still think my phrase ‘Geek2Meek’ sounds better than the official ICT4D, where D stands for development.)

We agreed that civil society had to seize the opportunities offered by these new media tools. (A few months later, Anita presented two Hands On editions called ‘Communicating for Change’ on BBC World that profiled some initiatives doing just this.)

Always fond of analogies, I likened Hands On to Arabian Nights, which, according to legend, a young woman had spun from her rich imagination for 1,001 nights to save her life from an evil king. In Hands On, I suggested, we are telling stories to save not one life, but all life on Earth.

Read my July 2007 post: Telling stories to save ourselves…and the planet

Anita quite liked my analogy. She was always a good story teller, and had so many good stories to tell (A favourite opening line from her biography, Body and Soul: “There I was, with my panty down to my knees.” You’ll never guess why until you read that story…)

She challenged everyone at that meeting to make Hands On more interesting to younger viewers in different cultures. We recognised that offering one media product to a global audience was a tough sell: most people prefer a home-made, local story.

But then, she’d built the entire Body Shop chain with a largely common product offering, even if raw materials were sourced from different parts of the globe. She never imposed the Body Shop experience on our meeting, but it was sometimes instructive to look at how a globally available product could still be localised.

hands-on-in-asia.jpg hands-on-in-asia.jpg

This is just what we did in the months and years following the Arundel brainstorming. We rolled out the ‘Localising Hands On in Asia’ project, which saw several dozen Hands On stories being versioned into local languages and distributed through broadcast and narrowcast means in Cambodia, India, Laos and Nepal. The two-year project, generously supported by Toyota, was hugely successful in delivering the Hands On stories to millions of people who would never have been exposed to it in original English.

We were thrilled when our localising work inspired similar local TV shows in three countries (Cambodia, Nepal and Laos). Yet it was the narrowcast outreach that was more rewarding.

Read about one narrowcast experience in my April 2007 blog post: Anita Roddick, Angkor Wat and the development pill

Coming soon: Who killed Hands On, one of the most successful multimedia initiatives in recent years to communicate development?

Earthcare Outreach: taking moving images to the grassroots

On 19 July 2007, I wrote about the need for natural history and environment film-makers to take their films back to the locations and communities where they filmed.

I cited the specific example of the Brock Initiative, started by ex BBC Natural History producer Richard Brock, which is supporting projects in several countries in Africa and Asia.

In today’s mail, I received the DVD of Tiger – the death chronicles, the latest documentary by the award-winning Indian film-maker Krishnendu Bose. I’m going to watch and write about it separately, but this reminded me of the outreach work he and his company, Earthcare Films, have been doing for years.

After working for a dozen years with factual film-makers from across Asia, my experience is that not many are really interested in any outreach besides a high profile broadcast. For sure, broadcasts help draw attention to a film and its creator/s. But as we have discussed in recent blog posts, broadcast television is not an ideal platform to get a discussion going on issues and concerns. In fact, many film makers are finding it harder to get their serious films broadcast at times with better audience ratings.

Still, surprisingly few film-makers have time or patience for serious narrowcast outreach. Yes, it is a time consuming, tedious process. The logistics can be demanding and expensive. And there is not much glamour (or ‘arty and intellectual feel’) in going to a small town or remote village and playing back your film to a few dozen people living on the edge of survival.

Image courtesy Earthcare Films website

But as exceptional film-makers like Krishnendu (in photo above, taken from Earthcare Films website) know well, it can be an enormously enriching and satisfying experience for a film-maker. People like him watch the audience while they watch the film.

Films are a greatly underused communication form. Serious communication usually is at most limited to awareness building,” says Earthcare Films website in its section on outreach.

That’s why EarthCare Outreach wants to explore beyond. “Films could be tools for social change and empowerment. Participatory film-making by sharing skills and capacities could take the ‘use’ of films to a different level. Not that it has not been tried and practised, but we want to take it forward and try and push the boundaries.

Krishnendu and colleagues have set up the EarthCare Outreach Trust specifically for this purpose. The objective is “to create ownership and stake in the process and the product of a documentary film of the people whose lives we document. In the process we strive to empower young people and rural communities to make them stakeholders in decision-making and in planning for natural resource management.”

For the past several years, Earthcare Outreach has been active on these fronts, organising mobile film screenings or traveling film festivals in rural and urban areas in different parts of India. The website talks about how they have held community and citizenry exchanges between selected locations, evolving film-making skill-share across these groups.

Read more about Earthcare Outreach activities.

Contact Earthcare Films for more information and involvement

On a personal note, I’m trying to recall when I first met Krishnendu. It must be at least a decade ago — I had seen some of his work before I met the man behind them. We were together as guests of the Earth Vision Tokyo Global Environmental Film Festival in 2001 — where his film, Harvesting Hunger, (image below shows it being filmed) won a special jury award.

Image courtesy Earthcare Films