JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Images from the documentary 2371 Second Avenue: An East Harlem Story (1986)

An establishing shot of New York City, featuring the World Trade Center. This opening image of the city underscores a familiar view, emphasizing wealth and power.

An establishing shot of Millie’s neighborhood. The scene quickly moves from the Manhattan skyline to a shot of the streets featuring a decayed building.

Class-consciousness: another cut juxtaposes an image of leisure against Millie’s neighborhood.

An establishing shot of a building in ruin concludes the opening sequence, built around alternating motifs underscoring class divisions in the city.

The title screen: a store with shuttered windows and a door in the center of the image. This leads into Millie’s voice, whose experience is entangled with broader economic problems.

Millie introduces her family. With the microphone in her hand and her direct address to the camera, Millie’s appearance combines a journalistic media aesthetic and a first-person mode of documentary production.

Evidence of landlord neglect. The hand pointing at the wall’s decay calls attention to the camera’s inductive framing, following the lead of the voices in the film.

A two-shot of Millie and her father. Millie’s presentation in the foreground reinforces her status as the narrator, one intimately tied to the conditions she’s documenting.

 

Social justice, critical vocationalism,
and the Educational Video Center

In 1984 documentary filmmaker Steven Goodman founded the Educational Video Center to teach documentary production as well as critical reception skills to young people in New York City. This particular event was an outgrowth of Goodman’s time working as a documentary producer within both the New York community media scene during the 70s and the New York public school system during the 80s. In particular, Goodman’s work with students at Satellite Academy, an alternative high school in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, enabled him to take advantage of his production experience as well as the increasing affordability and portability of video equipment. When needed, DCTV provided Goodman’s students at Satellite Academy with access to its video resources. As such, the EVC experience is an example of DCTV’s impact on the broader media access movement, serving so often as a training center for future community organizers and media producers, along with Paper Tiger Television and Appalshop (Goldfarb 68).

Goodman was certainly not operating in a vacuum. His work, in addition to being informed and assisted by DCTV, was part of a general movement to integrate media production and analysis into school curricula. The interest on the part of New York City schools in video production was largely based on the vocational possibilities of such a program, imparting practical job skills to minority youth faced with dim job prospects. The combination of this institutional interest on the part of schools, greater affordability of video production equipment, and Goodman’s experience in a community media scene animated by a critical vocational ethos set the stage for Goodman’s eventual fundraising push to establish EVC (Goodman 2006).

EVC was primarily focused on the process of documentary production. Such a commitment was and still is married to a critique of both the state of contemporary mediascapes and the prevailing “factory system of schooling” (Goodman 2003, 2). In 2003, Goodman articulated his motivations for the founding of EVC in a book entitled Teaching Youth Media: A Critical Guide to Literacy, Video Production, and Social Change. The book provides an overview of EVC’s discursive rationale for its practice and, as such, should be understood as an example of how the organization speaks about itself to a broader public. The romantic and somewhat simplistic characterizations summarized below are helpful in discerning the contradictions (problems and possibilities) in participatory media cultures. EVC’s recognition of real socio-economic inequality winds up being read almost exclusively within a horizon of media expressivity. In particular, Goodman’s fetishization of the handheld camera and its potential as a Freirean instrument, promising to undo a culture of silence for poor minority youth, has the effect of distilling a complex process of subjectification and social change down to formal technique. Of course, Goodman recognizes that no single production technique or media text is going to upend the effects of systemic inequality on a variety of economic and cultural fronts. However, in making the case for EVC’s pedagogy, he has a tendency to overstate the value of one aspect of what is overall a worthy endeavor. In doing so, I think Goodman’s discourse and the approach of EVC as a whole resonates with broader and even more recent participatory media cultures that romanticize the liberating possibilities of expressive agents (whether as viewers or producers) who are abstracted from a messy social fabric where problems are not so easily solved. And, as Fleetwood suggests, the tendency to privilege individual expressivity and a narrative of “personal growth” over the conditions in which the producer is ensconced often relies on an aesthetic of racialized “authenticity” that is comforting to administrators, parents, and festival audiences.

Goodman’s introduction to the work of EVC specifically singles out the plight of “poor and minority children” (Goodman 2003, 2). Such youth, he argues, are subject to rigorous surveillance and pedagogical practices governed by a crass vocationalism. Specifically, Goodman highlights three “systems,” two of which apply to all children and the third is directed at those who are poor and minority. They are…

“…the system of global media that wants young people to be spectators and consumers rather than social actors, and a factory system of schooling that wants young people to be passive and willing vessels for a prescribed set of knowledge and skills. For poor and minority children, a third system is congruent with the first two: a social and political order that wants to monitor and control their behavior in order to minimize risks to the white, middle-class community. Although the content of these systems differs greatly, their form, structure, and outcomes are oddly parallel. They all are one-way systems that seek to repress the agency and self-determination of young people” [Goodman 2003, 2].

As a result, for Goodman, to promote production —activity, expressivity — is intrinsically oppositional and political. In this rhetoric, the prioritization of young expressivity is tied to a presumed vulnerability of young, especially poor and minority, subjects to a racist and class system. According to Goodman, as a period of life defined by vulnerability and susceptibility, youth should serve as the point of intervention; it might be too late once subjects reach adulthood. Goodman’s rhetoric parallels that of earlier visual/media literacy advocates by underscoring a “profound disconnect” between the “predominant language of youth today” and educational curricula (Goodman 2003, 2).

“Until corrected this disconnect will lead to the increased alienation of low-income urban youth from the dominant social, political, economic mainstream. Their voices will be muted, their chances to move up and out of poverty will be greatly diminished and society at large will be that much poorer for the lack of all the creative potential that went unrealized” [Goodman 2003, 2-3].

Goodman’s concern with freeing up voices to be heard seeks to foster a more overt address to racial and class differences and the need to counter biased institutions that see little need for expressivity among poor and minority youth.

An idealistic coupling of vulnerability with possibility is evident in Goodman’s writing here; he implies that enabling these voices, the expression of these young selves, could contribute to alleviating “poverty” and other oppressive conditions. These youths have the potential to transcend and transform their young lives if only given the opportunity. They could benefit from “critical literacy” that promotes active rather than passive subjects by overcoming the breach that persists between educational institutions and the media ecologies that constitute and overwhelm young subjects (Goodman 2003, 3).

“[Critical literacy refers to] the ability to analyze, evaluate, and produce print, aural, and visual forms of communication. A critical literacy empowers low-income, urban teenagers to understand how media is made to convey particular messages and how they can use electronic and print technologies themselves to document and publicly voice their ideas and concerns regarding the most important issues in their lives” [Goodman 2003, 3].

This pedagogical practice is, for Goodman, most desperately needed in low-income, urban communities. But his own addition to such a pedagogy lies in Goodman’s emphasis on the use of the camera. His focus on promoting activity over passivity calls for more than simply instilling critical viewing skills, but must — ultimately — entail active engagement with one’s community through the lens of a camera.

“Taking a video camera into the community as a regular method for teaching and learning gives kids a critical lens through which they can explore the world around them. It helps them to defamiliarize the familiar taken-for-granted conditions of life. This approach to critical literacy links media analysis to production; learning about the world is directly linked to the possibility of changing it. Command of literacy in this sense is not only a matter of performing well on standardized tests; it is a prerequisite for self-representation and autonomous citizenship” [Goodman 2003, 3].

Here EVC’s situation within a social justice paradigm of “action” and “intervention” precludes the possibility of being bound by the confines of the classroom. Goodman maintains that critical reflection of texts is only half the battle and must give way to the experience of production and “exploration,” of re-visualizing the conditions of one’s life through the distantiation of the viewfinder. This particular discourse on youth ties agency, productivity, and action to the expressivity of the camera on the ground in real communities.

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