Analyzing an Array of Visual Storytelling Techniques

May 2, 2014

by Leo Lou

Our Bass Connections in Energy team — Exploring the Intersection of Energy and Peace-Building through Film — travelled to Washington, DC, for the 22nd annual Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital . This year’s theme, “Our Cities, Our Planet,” celebrated the sustainable and adaptive ways natural and built environments meet human needs. We attended screenings of both traditional and innovative documentaries.

The film festival provided our team with a unique opportunity to learn more about storytelling through the use of documentary film.  As part of our Bass Connections in Energy project, we are working with archival footage that was shot in post-conflict regions as part of environmental assessments carried out by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). In order to create educational films for both UNEP and classroom settings, we are exploring the power of the story/narrative as a mode of communicating complex ideas about the role of natural resources and peacebuilding. Watching these films, while keeping in mind the materials, objectives, and storyboards of our project, helped us understand how to combine stock footage, images, sounds, and interviews to deliver a complicated environmental issue to a general public audience.

With only three days in DC to attend film screenings and a large number of film selections from which to choose, the team members divided up the available options so as to attend films of particular interest. We later reconvened to exchange thoughts and take-away points from our various viewing experiences.

I was able to attend the presentation of the Eric Moe Sustainability Film Award,which included the screening of six finalists for short documentaries (less than 30 minutes long). Two films particularly stood out to me because of their intentionally crafted message, intended to encourage a specific action by their audience. One of the finalist films, “Field Chronicles: Chingaza – The Water’s Journey,” is twenty-two minutes long and made by Conservation International Visual Storytelling Alliance. The film had a specific audience in mind— the president of Colombia. Its goal was to persuade the government to appropriate more funding for conservation efforts, especially to protect the fragile ecosystem that provides water to its capital city—Bogotá. Similarly, “Silkies of Madagascar,” produced by the Sante Fe International Folk Art Market, showcased the originality and quality of one of their products: silk scarves woven in Madagascar. With crisp images of the natural environment in Madagascar and heartwarming stories of how a new business opportunity altered the lives and livelihoods of local silk weavers, the Folk Art Market clearly aims to encourage customers and investors to support the international businesses featured at their market.

Having watched these two short documentaries made by non-governmental organizations and businesses, I was able to reflect upon the messages the Bass Connections project should convey for UNEP. As an international organization, UNEP’s message in an educational video would be to explain the role of its environmental assessments in post-conflict regions and their importance for programming. The experience of watching these films helped our team’s brainstorming process to determine what materials—interviews, B-roll scenic shots, or recordings of UNEP operations—would best achieve that goal.

Another film that drew my attention was “The Great Flood” (trailer), a multimedia film that almost completely consists of stock footage from the 1927 Mississippi River Flood, with blues music composed to accompany these images. This film, with its deliberate black and white decayed texture, magnifies the role music is capable of playing in interacting with the images and directly manipulating the emotions of the audience. The film also rearranged decades of footage from various towns into different chapters to present a clear chronology of the flood. The film highlighted several key issues that we have encountered as a team. For instance, our team also deals with archival materials shot by either UNEP representatives or  third-party filmmakers. Although our materials are a lot more recent and (in our opinion) more aesthetically pleasing, we still struggle to utilize footage, often without sound or narratives, to deliver a compelling story. “The Great Flood” also lacks first-hand interviews, which is another issue shared by our project team working on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This film, however, provided an excellent example of how to combine the emotional messages of music with the creative arrangement of footage to deliver a clear story.

Besides the above-mentioned films, other documentaries provided our team with insights into different aspects of our project. “Beyond the Edge” (trailer), a 3D portrayal of the historical first ascent of Mount Everest, conveyed the importance of character development to telling a compelling story. “Slums: Cities of Tomorrow” (trailer), on the other hand, was shot in multiple cities across multiple continents. It gives an excellent example of how to effectively compare and contrast a similar community, event, characteristic across different locations. It could potentially be a great model if the UNEP project eventually produces a documentary summarizing different cross-cutting themes across post-conflict regions such as Sudan, DRC, Nigeria, or Gaza.

The opportunity to attend the environmental film festival was extremely valuable, especially during the period when our UNEP project team was focusing on developing the storyboards and selecting useful footage and still images for our film on the DRC. Coming out of the viewing experience, our project team plans to use interviews we conducted with UNEP experts for the storyboard. We are more mindful of not only the effects of sounds, characters, storyboards, and other elements on the storytelling, but also how to work with a client – in our case , UNEP – to create a visual narrative of their work.