This behind-the-scenes blog serves as an exploration of my perspectives on the transformative power of video content in effectively engaging audiences, particularly when delving into complex subjects such as statelessness. It goes on to illuminate the approach I employed in producing a recent video for ABCD Denmark and ENS: a poignant portrait of Lok Maya, a 52-year-old stateless refugee in Denmark, shedding light on the intricacies of her life and underscoring the profound impact that her statelessness has had on her journey.
The problem with awareness campaigns
Awareness campaigns for issues such as environment, human rights and animal welfare face unique challenges:
- They have to express serious and complex realities that viewers might not be directly affected by and hence rather avoid confronting,
- They often are confronted with prejudice and cynicism towards activists and activism in general;
The main question for any campaigner is how can campaign materials overcome these challenges and gain the attention and engagement of a diverse cross-section of people?
Artistic approaches in film
Subversive campaigns can effectively challenge narrative conventions and defy expectations. Some remarkably impactful advocacy media has employed genre subversion techniques.
For example the viral campaign video by autonomousweapons.org mimics the style of a Ted Talk, promoting disturbing weapons technology as if it already was a disturbing reality. When the conceit is revealed it serves as great relief but also as a stern warning.
The “everything is not awesome” campaign ad by Greenpeace uses the innocent, playful imagery of lego and juxtaposes it with the disastrous environmental impact of the oil industry to great effect.
When conceiving videos on statelessness my strategy is to focus on the emotional, human level, highlighting personalities and stories and from there gradually fill in the information about the wider cause. Often I aim to employ the narrative form of visually engaging (cinematic) short documentaries. It is a balance act because there is often a lot of specific information to convey so that the videos serve multiple purposes. While the entry point to the film is the portrait of a central character there is still some reliance on text screens to convey basic facts and contexts. Also, before discussing any heavy, complex subject matters I ensure the audience is engaged with the personal story.
With this creative aim in mind, I want to now discuss the process for creating the video for ABCD and ENS focusing on the statelessness in the Bhutanese community in Denmark.
Lok Maya project
In early 2023 the Association of Bhutanese Communities in Denmark (ABCD) and ENS approached me to create a video highlighting the struggle with statelessness by its members. Around 98% of permanently resettled refugees there still remain without nationality, an issue recently discussed in depth in Thugten Dorjee Drukpa’s blog.
In the early discussions with ABCD and ENS I first established the information the stakeholders wanted to convey in the videos. The target audience was the general, wider public. It became quickly clear that ABCD wished to convey too much information to fit into 5 - 8 minute video, which was the absolute max length I proposed given the issues of long content to engage online.
During discussions, differing views emerged on how to present the community's issues, e.g. through interviews with various individuals. However, I proposed a more effective approach, focusing on a central and relatable figure. We selected "Lok Maya" and her family as protagonists due to her deep community involvement, challenges with the citizenship test, and an inspiring story of resilience. Lok Maya became the voice guiding viewers through her own experiences in the video.
I had 3 days to shoot on location, and thereby capture her everyday life and her involvement with ABCD, as well as to conduct a lengthy interview to provide voice-over material for the film.
We had to plan the activities very meticulously. It also required long working days, getting up at 03.00 am to capture her work routine, and capture various locations at night and more generally preparing shots and taking the time to capture things in an aesthetic way (this included filming through the car roof window of a moving vehicle).
One big challenge throughout this project was that I did not speak Danish or Bhutanese. Hence I strongly relied on assistance from community leader Thugten Drukpa in many practical matters. He was at my side at all times and even hosted me during my stay. I don't think there would have been any other way to complete the filming otherwise.
In the editing process, it became apparent that Lok Maya’s answers from the interview were hard to edit together in a concise manner. This was one of the pitfalls of not being able to understand the language exchange during the interviews. We solved the issue by formulating some of Loks answers and letting her read them out.
Adjustments in the editing were made till the end, always balancing the need to convey information with the need to engage and tell a cohesive story. There were definitely points when I had to avert the danger of cramming in too much detail and sacrificing pace and emotional impact.
I also have strong perspective regarding the role the music plays in videos. This is sometimes added as an afterthought, due to budget and time constraints, but I view it as absolutely essential to the impact of the video. Music has to be engaging and fit with the subject of the video without pressing too hard on the “obvious” emotional buttons. This really lifts the overall quality of the video and separates it from often over-emotional “hard-sell” campaign videos. Luckily I had personal connections to a composer who provided a brilliant set of tracks for the film.
This behind-the-scenes look provides a small insight into the intricate process of creating an engaging video that not only informs but also emotionally resonates with the audience, underscoring the importance of thoughtful storytelling and creative decisions in tackling complex issues through visual media.
Throughout the production journey, balancing informative content with compelling narrative proved essential. The power of music to enrich the video's impact was also evident. Despite practical challenges, the positive reception affirms the success in creating an impactful end result. This project underscores the importance of nuance and strategy in maximizing visual media's potential to drive change, something that is essential when working on issues like statelessness that require more awareness and visibility.