Monday, March 01, 2010

Translations with Father Charlie: The Making of the Video

At the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, former Catholic Priest Charlie Hardy uses the gospel to explain why the U.S. media often mistranslates Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

By Al Giordano

Charlie Hardy, former Catholic priest, Wyoming native, residing for the past 25 years in Venezuela, and three-time participant in the School of Authentic Journalism. Photo: DR 2010 Noah Friedman-Rudovsky.

The variety of online videos coming out of the 2010 Narco News School of Authentic Journalism ranges from the deadly serious (as with the Torture in Egypt video that we premiered last week) to the humorous one we now unveil: Translations with Father Charlie.

It’s funny to many folks but it also reports serious content: how the US media routinely distorts the news out of Latin America and especially out of Venezuela.

Charlie Hardy is one of a special few who has taught and graduated from, now, all three sessions of the School of Authentic Journalism (2003, 2004 and 2010). A former Catholic priest who has worked 25 years in the slums outside of Caracas – now on a speaking tour in the United States - he told that history in an interview last week with the Kansas City Tribune:

“In 2002, there was a coup in Venezuela – somebody said to me afterwards “Hey take a look at Narco News”. I had never heard of It was an online newspaper, so I looked and they had a good article about what happened in Venezuela. Then I saw where they were going to have a school for authentic journalists. I thought well maybe I would become a journalist because I could see that the truth wasn’t getting out of Venezuela. So, I applied for a scholarship and then I got a letter saying “Sorry we don’t have enough money – we want someone in radio, video and so on down the line. It went onto say “But we do want you as a professor – you write too well and you don’t need the school but we need you”. Professors at the school pay their own way. This is a unique school, all of the students have scholarships, but all of the professors have to pay their own way.

A former priest gave me a thousand dollars and with that I was able to pay my fare and pay for my lodging and so on, and it’s still that way basically today. It’s been an exciting thing – if you were to look at Narco News and the students that are there from India, Egypt, Argentina from Chile, from Mexico - all over the world. And then you look at the quality of the people who give the classes.

For me it was a real privilege. One professor was Alvaro Garcia, he is now Vice President of Bolivia.

Another professor was Gary Webb who wrote the ‘Dark Alliance’ that was about the CIA getting drugs into Los Angeles. He won the Pulitzer Prize for some other writing but because of the ‘Dark Alliance’ he was blackballed. Other major newspapers came out and said they talked to the CIA and the CIA said they never did that…

It is that kind of people that Al Giordano of Narco News has recruited to give their time and to be with young people. That for me is just a hopeful thing.

Charlie has mastered the art of saying a lot in a small window of time (brevity is next to godliness, we try to teach our professors; some get that better than others) and so on Sunday morning February 7, in Mérida, Yucatán, when Charlie said he had a five minute presentation on how English language media often abuses the translation process when reporting from Spanish-speaking countries, I confidently gave him the floor.

His presentation was, as you will see in the video, a big hit, and it occurred to 2010 authentic journalism Scholar Katie Halper of New York that its content would be ideal for a viral video; that is, a video that could go “viral” or replicate widely throughout the Internet.

Katie took the initiative and leadership on producing the video, with strong assists from 2010 scholar Edwin Reed-Sanchez and professor (and 2004 graduate) Gregory Berger. Here is the result:

As part of our continuing series on “The Making of the Video” I asked Katie Halper to share her notes on how this video was made and what she learned in the process. (We’re also awaiting a similar recount from Edwin Reed-Sanchez, which we will post as an update when ready.)

Katie Halper, documentary filmmaker, video producer, social humorist, blogger and authentic New Yorker, is called to receive her diploma from the School of Authentic Journalism in Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, on February 12, 2010. Photo: DR 2010 Noah Friedman-Rudovsky.

Katie writes:

When I heard Charlie Hardy tell the story featured in this video, I thought to myself, "this would make a great viral video!" I looked around the room and was happy to see that several people in the viral video group, of which I was a member, were filming the presentation. When I got the footage, however, what I found was an almost comically incomplete and nearly unusable rendering of Charlie's speech.

So I can communicate the humorous challenges presented in making this video, I'll need to explain very briefly and simply what "b-roll" is. B-roll is, to quote Wikipedia, "supplemental or alternate footage intercut with the main shot in an interview or documentary." This often includes reaction shots, shots of details in the room, archival footage, etc. Not surprisingly, the b-roll camera is the camera assigned to shooting the... b-roll. The other camera is what captures the main event, the person speaking or the action happening. OK. done with the techy part. I think we've all learned a lot.

The viral video group wound up filming around 75 percent of the plenaries that took place over the course of the school. As luck would have it, though, the sub team assigned to film Father Charlie was running late. In all fairness, the viral video group was overstretched because it had to both learn and teach viral video making and cover the various school events. This double duty, I think, had a cost on both the production of videos and the quality of the coverage. We always underestimate how much time, work, prep and stress goes into something as seemingly simple as filming presentations. Anyway, the main camera only caught the tail end of Charlie's talk. The good news was that the b-roll camera was filming from the beginning. The bad news was that since the b-roll camera was focused on reaction shots, it shot the audience and not Charlie. (Reaction shots are good, even necessary, because they contextualize the presentation, break up the footage and add another perspective. But they can't make up the bulk of a video.) And, since the b-roll camera is not intended to capture the content, per se, the camera started and stopped several times and missed much of what Charlie said. In other words, key parts of Charlie's presentation were either missing or, if captured by the b-roll camera at all, less than ideal because they didn't show Charlie's face. The lesson is when the main camera is running late, make the b-roll camera do the main camera work.

The missing parts of Charlie's speech wouldn't have been that bad had I used a voice-over. But I prefer avoiding voice-overs unless I want to emphasize the role of a narrator. In other words, had I put my own voice in, the video would have been, at least in part, about me. This works well in, for example, Greg Berger's Gringoyo videos, where he is making fun of the character who narrates the videos. I wanted to focus on the content of the video, which I had no role in.

So I used text (my own) and images of text (the newspaper) to explain the things Charlie had said but were not recorded. I used the reaction shots which caught Charlie's audio but focused on the audience, but the high ratio of audience faces to Charlie's face would have been bizarre so I used graphics to cover up some of the b-roll.

I had imagined using some kind of 1950's music to give the video a corny educational video sort of feel. Gregory Berger suggested the Latin lounge music, which I liked because it connected to the content. There were several things I wanted to do but didn't know how to do or manage to do in the short time we had, so I harassed Edwin (Dreadwin), who knew how to do them and/ or could do them 77 times faster than I could. Not only does Edwin have mad techy skills, he is also funny and has a good eye and came up with some of the visual tropes such as the red text "asshole" and the flashing "idiot."

Authentic journalism scholars Edwin Reed-Sanchez and Marine Lormant colaborate during the 2010 School in Mérida, Yucatán. Photo DR 2010 Jill Freidberg.

This was also a new experience for me content-wise. Most of my stand-up, writing and videos are ironic and satirical. I tend to make fun of those I disagree with by impersonating them, identifying with them, defending them etc. I made a series of videos, for example, which pretended to be for John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign but were clearly against him entitled Women for McCain, Gays for McCain and Jews for McCain. I've done some woman on the street videos in which I pretend to be more naive than I am ["McCain was in a war? Which one? World War II?"] in order to get people with whom I disagree to reveal their ideas, ignorance, incoherence, hypocrisy etc. In this case, though, the comedy was largely provided by Charlie's intentional humor. My job was not to make fun of Charlie, with whom I agreed. My job was to make Charlie's already funny presentation even funnier. To do this I mainly used images to heighten the comedy. The only thing I introduced was a pseudo serious religious tone at the beginning to trick the audience into thinking this was something it was not. And the style of the rest of the video was a parody of a certain genre of video but not a parody of Charlie.

Because I had never made a video in this tone and was expecting to make a more ironic oppositional one and am also a bit of a perfectionist, I kept doubting myself and the video [cue sad dramatic music and re-enactment of Katie pulling out her hair and throwing a laptop* across the room.] Greg was very encouraging, however, and prevented me from abandoning the project for something else. [Cue upbeat positive messaged hip hop music and reenactment of Katie & Greg putting broken laptop back together and high-fiving]. So I'd like to thank Greg... [cut to Oscars where Katie wins best viral video made by a left wing Latin American educational organizing collaborative school] and my parents and G-d.

I'm honored to have my video published by the same online newspaper that published the Torture in Egypt video. I'm also, however, embarrassed to follow it. Clearly the Egypt video is more alarming and moving. But the juxtoposition of the two videos also highlight the advantages and disadvantages of different types of video making. The Torture in Egypt video was not confined to any time, space, or narrative. This gave the team both the burden and freedom to find footage wherever they could. Their video is also much more successful as a viral video in that it requires much less context. This is definitely one of the downsides of filming an event, a speech, a presentation as opposed to something intended for a larger public made by a well known person such as, for example, Obama's State of the Union address. You don't need to know anything before seeing the video in order to get it. The Father Charlie video is a much more insular. Some questions the video didn't answer (because of time and not wanting to overwhelm people with text and information is) who is father Charlie? Where exactly is he talking? To whom? What is his relationship, if any, to Venezuela? Is he a priest? Was he a priest? While the the mass media's distortion and biases are universal issues, the actual event portrayed is much more specific. It's less than ideal for a a viral video.

*No laptop was actually thrown or hurt during the making of this video.

I'm in fact a lot more optimistic than Katie on this video's chances of going viral as I'm a great believer that humor is the key that opens many otherwise locked doors and minds. There simply is something irresistible about a former priest deconstructing the translation of "bad" words as a way to teach a powerful lesson about the abuses of the commercial media.

Kind reader: Would you like to help the Translations with Father Charlie video “go viral”? It informs and teaches a lot in a power-packed two minutes and 57 seconds. Let’s try this experiment: Post it to your blog, your Facebook page, Twitter a link to it, share it via email and in every other way. Let’s get it out there and together let's see how many viewers genuflect, er, salute!