Have you made your million dollars yet?

Money, money, money!

Many development film-makers like to decry our society’s obsession with money, consumerism and greed. Some would make films that passionately promote sharing ideas and resources at community level, and advocate common property resources over private ownership.

But when it comes to rights of their own film/s, these very film-makers would become extremely possessive: they want to restrict it in every conceivable way.

They feel justified in such sentiment and action: after all, they have invested a great deal of time, effort, creativity and hard-won resoures to make their films. They must now seek a ‘return on investment’ like everyone else (it’s a material world!). Film-makers too have families to feed.

No argument on that last one. But it would be interesting to find out how many – or how few – development films deliver any appreciable ‘returns on investment’ to their makers. Certainly in developing Asia, development film-makers will be seriously endangered species if they had to rely on license fees or royalties for their survival.
After a dozen years of extensive networking with environment, wildlife and development film-makers across Asia Pacific, I have yet to come across a single film-maker who made his or her million dollars from a film.

Yet, many continue to cling on to the traditional notion of copyright in film, perhaps hoping that sooner or later, that cherished million bucks would come calling.

And in the meantime, they continue to approach every known funding source – and many unknown and unlikely ones – for supporting their next film. At TVE Asia Pacific, we receive our fair share of these requests every month – and we are not even a funding source for independent films! These requests are accompanied by impressive CVs or filmographies, listing past films produced.

Produced, yes. But how many are circulating? How many have been seen outside film festival circuits, or beyond a one-off broadcast (or two)? How many films are available for educational, advocacy, training or activist purposes at affordable cost of duplication and dispatch?

The answer is depressing: precious few.

Because our film-makers are waiting for their million dollar deal or sale, and won’t let go of their creations. Even if many have been made using development donor (i.e. public) funding, these films are not in the public domain.

That, to me, is incongruent with the lofty ideals that many development films proclaim: sharing ideas and resources at community level, and advocating common property resources.

We have to walk our talk, or we risk joining the already burgeoning ranks of hypocrites in our societies.

The time has come for documentary film-makers, especially those covering development topics, to take a fresh look at copyright. That doesn’t mean abandoning all our rights to be known and acknowledged as creators of our films.

For a start, I strongly recommend an interesting and insightful essay, “Shoot, Share and Create: Looking beyond copyright makes sense in film“, written by a young Indian lawyer-activist specialising in intellectual property. Lawrence Liang is a Bangalore-based lawyer who works at the Alternative Law Forum. I had the opportunity of meeting the dynamic and articulate Lawrence at the Asia Commons meeting in Bangkok in June 2005 – he’s certainly a man to watch in this rapidly evolving field of managing our digital commons and how to safeguard the public interest in the bewildering era of digital media.
Lawrence Liang

Here’s how he starts his essay, which he wrote as an open letter addressed to Indian documentary filmmakers:

When I was in law school, I had great aspirations of wanting to be a filmmaker, and an FTII-type (Film and TV Institute of India, a prominent school for film-making) friend told me the best place to start was to watch a lot of foreign films and documentaries. So I did that rather dutifully and spent many hours when I should have been reading corporate law, watching documentaries.

My fondest memory of my placement in Mumbai with a law firm was when we took off to the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and watched Anjali Monteiro and K P Jayashankar’s film on the Yerawada prison in Pune.

I gave up on the idea of becoming a filmmaker after we finally did do a documentary on law school. But by then the bug had bitten and I had fallen in love with cinema and the documentary form as well. I think watching documentaries has also made me a better lawyer than I would have been if I read Ramiaya on the Indian Companies Act. So if I have written this rather longish argument about why documentary filmmakers should start thinking about open content licenses, it is with a sense of repaying a debt.

Read the full essay at Alternative Law Forum website

Read my own call for recognising poverty as a copyright free zone

Ratomate’s best cup of tea

In another post earlier today, I quoted a doctor turned film-maker in India saying people affected by HIV are dying more from the social stigma attached to the disease than by the disease itself.

Social stigma is a wide-spread problem that confronts people living with HIV in all parts of the world.

But occasionally, we hear some good news: how community has overcome its prejudices and accepted those infected with HIV with affection and care. Usually, it happens after going through the knee-jerk reactions.

It would be very worthwhile for some research to be done on how and when community attitude changes: what are the triggers? what is the tipping point?

Five years ago, we had first hand experience of this through a film that we at TVE Asia Pacific commissioned under our Truth Talking documentary series.

The film, titled Love for a Longer Life (26 mins, 2002) was directed by leading Nepali documentary film-maker Dhurba Basnet.

The best cup of tea in the Ratomate village, in central Nepal, is made by a woman called Laxmi Lama. She works in a tea shop owned by her father. “People tell me my father does not know how to make good tea,” she says. “They want me to make tea. The men like their tea strong. When I give my customers strong tea they say one cup is enough for the whole day.”

This is nothing unusual – except that Laxmi is living with HIV. A few years ago, no one in her village would have come near her, let along clamour for a cup of tea she makes.

Born into a very poor family, Laxmi was sold off to a Bombay brothel at the age of 14, and worked as a commercial sex worker for nearly three years before returning to Nepal. She married a man from her village and had settled down to a peaceful routine when a health worker tested her blood and found her positive for HIV. That changed everything dramatically: her husband fled, never to return, and everybody shunned her. The pregnant woman sought refuge in her parents’ house.

That was the fate of most Nepalis living with HIV – abandoned by friends, ostracised by community and left to their own devices. But thanks to the perseverance of a few courageous people – many HIV positive themselves – community attitudes have changed slowly, and have come almost full circle: being reassured that HIV does not spread through casual physical contact, they have accepted her back into their fold.

lakshmi-lama.JPG The moment of truth is when she makes Ratomate’s favourite cups of tea with her bare hands, and men and women flock to taste it. Such a major transformation of community attitudes captured in such a simple, elegant sequence.

Laxmi’s neighbour Kumari Shrestha sums it all up: “We have to give her love. If we do that, she will live longer.”

It would be wonderful if we can discern how and when this change happens. So that it can be induced in thousands of other villages and communites where persons living with HIV are currently battling the virus within, and stigma without.

View a clip from the film here.
Order the film from TVEAP e-shop

HIV: Stigma a bigger killer than the virus?

A doctor turned film-maker in India says people affected by HIV are dying more from the social stigma attached to the disease than by the disease itself.

Dr Jorge Guillermo Caravotta’s AIDS documentary Second Life was released recently. Goa-based journalist Fred Noronha’s story about this film has appeared on several websites.

An extract from the article:

India has 5.1 million HIV positive people, second only to South Africa. However, the stigma and discrimination associated with this disease are the real enemies, said Mumbai-based Caravotta, an Italian doctor of Argentine origin.

“My source of inspiration was Kamal, the first PLHA (person living with HIV/AIDS) to be my colleague,” he said.

Kamal discovered her HIV/AIDS status six months into marriage. After her husband’s death and daughter’s birth, she completed her medical studies to “live for positive people like her”, says Caravotta’s film.

“I never thought of making a documentary film about HIV/AIDS before. But after listening to her during a trip to Delhi, I found in her story a lot of courage to empower PLHAs,” Caravotta told IANS.

“India acted as an alarm clock for my film-making creativity, boosting my potential,” he added. “I would like the message of the documentary film spread all over this country with the same velocity as the virus.”

Read full article here: Doctor’s AIDS Documentary Focus on Stigma and Discrimination

You got films on YouTube?

Earlier this year, we at TVE Asia Pacific decided to place all our short video films on YouTube.

We are always willing to try out new ways of reaching out to the various – and increasingly fragmented – publics. Any new media format or platform that comes into the public domain is to be explored and exploited to peddle our content.

With this in mind, we launched the TVEAPFilms channel on YouTube in February 2007. We have so far placed three distinctive TV series on this channel:

Digits4Change, which explores how information and communications technologies (ICTs) are changing lives and livelihoods across Asia (6 x 5 min stories)

The Greenbelt Reports, where we revisited tsunami-affected countries in South and Southeast Asia, investigating how communities co-exist with coastal greenbelts of coral reefs, mangroves and sand dunes (12 x 5 min stories)

Living Labs, our latest series which was released this month, which profiles global action research efforts to grow more food with less water (8 x 5 min stories)

Since then, attending film festivals in Singapore and Washington DC, I realised that many documentary film-makers aren’t yet convinced about this new outlet.

‘You got your films on YouTube?’ one film-maker asked me somewhat incredulously. ‘How can you be sure someone will not download and manipulate it?’

Well, we can’t be sure. But that doesn’t prevent us from engaging this new platform. We’re willing to take these risks.

Another colleague asked: ‘But isn’t that a place for all those ameteurs?’ Perhaps. But in this digital age, the division between so-called amateurs and professionals is blurring.

Some film-makers have started placing trailers for their longer films on YouTube. Since we produce a fair number of short, self-contained films — all of which come under the YouTube’s upper limit of 10 mins — we are able to place our entire films online.

And unlike broadcast television and even passive webcasts, YouTube allows our online viewers to comment on films, and if they feel so moved, even to rank them.

At TVE Asia Pacific, we want our moving images to move people…so they join the conversation. In that sense, YouTube is a good platform to be on, and a good community to be part of.

Do visit TVEAPFilms channel on YouTube. Tell us what you think – whatever you think.

Thanking a supportive public…

At the end of his public talk at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington DC, Canadian naturalist and TV host David Suzuki autographed copies of his life’s story in print, simply titled: David Suzuki: The Autobiography.

Naturally, I lined up. He inscribed it as: “To Nalaka: For Mother Earth”.

Suzuki has been one of my heroes from the time I first listened to him in May 1991, at an environmental youth conference in his home town of Vancouver. That was a memorable meeting, thanks largely to the presence of David Suzuki and Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop and an equally passionate campaigner for social justice and environmental causes.

The Autobiography The dedication of his autobiography is moving as it is fitting a man of public science who has done much to critically communicate science, technology and environment issues through radio, television and print media:

With deepest gratitude,
I thank and dedicate this book to the general public,
who made my life’s work possible.

You watched and listened to my programs;
You read, thought about, and responded to
ideas I expressed in writing.

You support added weight and
visibility to my efforts and carried me past
numerous road blocks and detractors.

That support has been a great honour, privilege,
and responsibility, which I have tried in my fallible, human
way to live up to.

In his acknowledgements, Suzuki goes on to thank many and varied people in his life including his parents, wife, children, grandchildren — as well as ‘the dozens of CBC radio and television staff, freelance researchers, writers and media professionals whose efforts have made me look good, a job that Jim Murray (his first producer on The Nature of Things) reminded me was not easy’.

I’m reading the book that is full of fascinating insights. There can’t be too many scientists who stripped down to a fig leaf and allowed public photography — all in the name of science (see photo).
almost nothing to hide from his audiences....

If he harboured any doubts whether his life held anything of interest or value to others, he need not have worried. David Suzuki is one of Canada’s greatest living treasures.

And his audiences know it.

For more information on the autobiography, go to Amazon.com

For David Suzuki Foundation

The Nature of David Suzuki

One of my highlights in the recent week I spent in Washington DC, attending the DC Environmental Film Festival, was listening to a talk by the Canadian naturalist and television personality David Suzuki.

In a 90-minute presentation at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, Suzuki talked about his childhood, early influences, academic career and public life. He kept his packed audience – over 600 people – spell-bound, entertained and inspired. It reminded me of the first time I listened to this charismatic geneticist: in the summer of 1991, on my first visit to his home city of Vancouver.

If anything, he had got better with age but, I was happy to note, hasn’t mellowed. He still has the same passion that has made him not just a highly successful science communicator, but an ardent activist for the environmental cause and the rights of indigenous people, or First Nations.

David Suzuki

Introducing their well-known host, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) says:
“Dr. Suzuki is an award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster. His television appearances, explaining the complexities of the natural sciences in a compelling, easily understood way, have consistently received high acclaim for over 30 years. He is the only network television science host who was actually a practising scientist.”

In his Smithsonian talk, Suzuki reminded us that his show – The Nature of Things with David Suzuki – is the only regular science programme that is broadcast on prime-time TV in North America on a mainstream public access channel. This might partly explain, he suggested, why Canadians are better informed about science and environmental issues that affect their daily lives. (In contrast, programmes like Nova go out on niche channels.)

The Museum of Broadcasting has this to say about the programme:
“One of the longest-running television shows in Canadian history, The Nature of Things has aired continuously since 6 November 1960. An hour-long general science program, the show began as a half-hour series–an attempt, as the first press release phrased it, ‘to put weekly science shows back on North American television schedules.’

Suzuki has been presenting the show without a break since 1979, and it is now branded by his name. When The Nature of Things with David Suzuki turned 30 years in l990, Suzuki wrote in The Toronto Star that in the gimmicky world of television-land, where only the new is exciting, “the longevity of a TV series is just like the persistence of a plant or animal species — it reflects the survival of the fittest.”

CBC’s official webpage for the show

Read a brief history of The Nature of Things

CBC profile of David Suzuki, and selected extracts and interview clips

Living Labs searching for solutions

Today, March 22, is World Water Day. TVE Asia Pacific’s latest TV series, Living Labs, was released in Colombo and Washington DC last week in time for this day of significance in the development calendar.

The series — filmed in nine countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America last year — looks at how researchers, farmers and local communities in different parts of the world are trying to grow more food with less water.

This year’s theme for World Water Day is ‘Coping with Water Scarcity’, which resonates fully with the content of Living Labs.

Between 70 and 90 per cent of all freshwater drawn in the developing world is used for growing crops. But this has to change fast: with water scarcity emerging as a global concern, agriculture cannot afford to remain so hooked on water.

Today’s crowded world needs to produce more food using both less water and land. This calls for smarter, thriftier methods of increasing water’s productivity in agriculture. And it must be achieved without damaging the environment, or threatening people’s food security, health and jobs.

Living Labs looks profiles a major global effort looking for solutions through action research: the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF).

Read TVEAP news item on Living Labs

See all 8 short films in Living Labs series on TVEAP’s channel at YouTube.

A girl named Nan Nan…

Nan Nan is a young girl living in Guo Zhuang Village, in China’s Anhui province. Her parents died of AIDS sometime ago, and she now lives with an older sister — and HIV.

After her parents’ death, the two girls were shunned by relatives and left to live without adult care. “Little Flower,” Nan Nan’s teenage sister, is about to get married. She vows not to tell the groom about her sibling’s disease.

Nan Nan is one China’s estimated 75,000 (and growing) AIDS orphans. She is one of several children whose depressing story is captured in a documentary film, The Blood of the Yingzhou District (China/USA, 40 mins, 2006).

I watched this film last afternoon at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington DC as part of the DC Environmental Film Festival. For me, it was one of the highlights of the festival. After all, this film won the Oscar award for Best Documentary, Short Subjects (while Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth won the Oscar for best documentary feature).

Notwithstanding the giggly woman moderator provided by the host institution, and even in the absence of any representative from the film’s producers – China AIDS Media Project — the audience managed to have fairly good discussion with a representative from Family Health International who was panelist to discuss the issue of AIDS orphans.

Accoring to FHI, some 15 million children worldwide have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS — and the numbers continue to grow as the pandemic consumes men and women of child-bearing age.

But the millions and billions don’t make much sense to most people. It’s hard to visualise more than a few thousand, let alone millions. This is something that UN agencies – all claiming to be serving the poor and disadvantaged – often forget: they dabble in the abstract, theoretical and statistical matters far removed from real people, real issues.

In that sense, films like The Blood of the Yingzhou District take us close to the unfolding human tragedies behind big numbers.

This is just what we tried to do in our own Children of Tsunami media project, in which producing a documentary film was one of many outputs across different media platforms and formats.

A question was asked how the film has been received in China. The giggly moderator informed us that it is allowed to be screened in China, which is encouraging. But the Chinese response to the film has been mixed, as can be expected. See this interesting exchange online.

What impressed me the most was the film’s subtle yet powerful use of soundtrack – a good mix of music, natural sounds and spoken voices. Some featured children did seem a bit like acting at times, but that didn’t detract the film’s value too much, at least for me.

Truly a moving image creation that moves people!

See trailer on YouTube.

Attacking the Messenger…again!

The Pakistani police attack on the popular, independent TV network Geo TV made international news during the weekend. Here in Washington DC, I read a half-page news features in the Washington Post, and was dismayed by this attack by law-enforcers on a reputed media organisation that operates within the law.

Geo TV, Pakistan

The Washington Post item read:

The Lahore protests on Saturday followed a clash in Islamabad on Friday in which police fired rubber bullets into crowds, detained key opposition leaders and stormed the offices of Geo TV, Pakistan’s most popular independent network.

The government has generally defended its reaction to the protests as the only way to maintain law and order. But Musharraf apologized for the raid on Geo TV in an interview with the station and indicated that the action had been executed without his approval. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz also visited Geo TV’s studios Saturday to express his regret, and the government fired 15 officers involved in the raid.

But Hamid Mir, the station’s bureau chief in Islamabad, said that was insufficient.

“They wanted to destroy this newsroom,” Mir said Saturday afternoon, his words punctuated by frequent coughs, the result, he said, of inhaling large amounts of tear gas Friday. “They were trying to send a message to the whole media by attacking Geo TV.”

The station was broadcasting live images of the protest Friday afternoon when it was attacked. Journalists filming from the roof reported that police fired rubber bullets and tear gas in an attempt to knock out their cameras. Video footage of the raid showed police smashing in windows and doors inside the building. Broken glass lined the lobby floors Saturday.

Mir said he was encouraged that the media did not appear to be giving in to what he described as government intimidation tactics. “This is the first time the media is showing a lot of resistance,” he said.

There we go again….South Asian governments never seem to learn! We have good friends at Geo TV, and are relieved to hear from them that they are unharmed and that they continue to broadcast. Our thoughts and solidarity are with them, in the weeks and months ahead, when they stand for the public’s right to know and for the freedom of expression.

Kicking the oil addiction: Miles to go…

On Saturday 17 March, over 10,000 people coming from all over the United States marched on the Pentagon in Washington DC protesting the fourth anniversary of the war in Iraq.

They braved freezing temperatures – and lots of rain, sleet and snow. I could only admire the resolve of these people, some of whom I saw on my way to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History for an afternoon of film screenings.

As The Washington Post reported on Sunday: “The march, part of a weekend of protests that included smaller demonstrations in other U.S. cities and abroad, comes as the Bush administration sends more troops to Iraq in an attempt to regain control of Baghdad and Congress considers measures to bring U.S. troops home.”

Meanwhile, the DC Environmental Film Festival was taking a closer look at one major reason why the US went to war in Iraq: oil.

Addicted to Oil is the title of a new documentary on Discovery Channel. This one-hour documentary, reported by Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign affairs columnist Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times, explores his ideas for a “geo-green alternative” — a multi-layered strategy for tackling a host of problems, from the funding of terrorist supporters through America’s gasoline purchases, to strengthening US economy through innovative technology.

See interview extracts on Discovery website

Watch the first few minutes of Addicted to Oil:

I missed his panel discussion because of exceedingly cold and damp weather on Friday evening. But this is a topic that will continue to dominate the environmental and security agendas for years to come.

And it’s something that I myself have written about. When the US and its ‘Coalition of the Willing’ were about to move into Iraq in March 2003, I wrote an op ed essay titled “Oil, Iraq & Water: Will The Media Get This Big Story?”. It was globally syndicated by Panos Features, and appeared in quite a number of newspapers, magazines and websites at the time.

The full essay is found online on, of all places, the Sri Lankan government’s official website! Here’s a short extract:

It’s not just the United States that is addicted to oil – we all are. Addicts tend to lose sight of the cost of their dependence, as we have. On 24 March 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on in Prince William Sound in Alaska and a fifth of its 1.2 million barrels of oil spilled into the sea, causing massive damage to over 3,800 km of shoreline. Investigations implicated its captain for grossly neglecting duty. Shortly afterwards, Greenpeace ran a major advertising campaign with the headline: ‘It wasn’t his driving that caused the Alaskan oil spill. It was yours.’

Greenpeace continued: ‘It would be easy to blame the Valdez oil spill on one man. Or one company. Or even one industry. Too easy. Because the truth is, the spill was caused by a nation drunk on oil. And a government asleep at the wheel.’

A nation drunk on oil is waging a war that has more to do with oil than anything else. Our news media are behaving just like cheer-leaders.

Read the full essay here.