2011, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 53, summer 2011
Claims to be heard: young self-expressivity,
social change, and the Educational Video Center
by Stephen Michael Charbonneau
On January 16, 2009, a short documentary entitled Journeys through the Red, White, and Blue was screened as part of “The People’s Inaugural,” an event held at The Historical Society of Washington D.C. designed to celebrate the efforts of grassroots organizers as well as the impact of the youth vote during the 2008 presidential election. The exhibition of Journeys on this particular day concluded what was a busy distribution schedule for the video throughout the previous fall. During the election the video was screened at countless festivals, high schools, and colleges and received a great deal of praise for promoting voting and civic participation among youth of color. Eschewing a traditional expository approach, this video was organized around three first-person segments featuring the voices and attitudes of a young Latino, African-American, and West African immigrant. The testimonies of these three subjects (also producers) all tell similar stories of alienated outsiders developing a healthy respect for the democratic process. This shared narrative dovetailed with the event’s theme — to honor the participation of those who traditionally felt disengaged from U.S. politics — as well as with the Inauguration and swearing in of Barack Obama as the United States’ first African-American President.
No doubt, part of this youth video’s success lies in its autobiographical approach, an approach that coincides with organizers’ belief that a self-inflected narrative resonates most powerfully with audiences. Susanna Egan has written about the power of certain autobiographical forms to undermine culturally ingrained “inevitabilities…such as hierarchies…among races or cultures or peoples” through “[r]esistant strategies that untrammel the subject from discursive helplessness [and] subvert established verities” (12-13). The autobiographical emphasis on the self can become oppositionally inflected when the self is situated in relation to a particular culture (“securely positioned in time and context”) and is presented as intrinsically counter-hegemonic by the “claim to be heard and recognized by voices either marginalized or silenced under old dispensations” (Egan 13). From this point of view, the self serves as the site for the initiation of political agency, even more so than the collective does; the self advocates on behalf of a communal situation with which his or her identity is intertwined. As a stage for the performance of a self usually denied agency, this particular mode of media production — and its embrace, in the case of Journeys, of an especially young and minoritarian self-expressivity — is often couched in the discourse of undoing a culture of silence.
In this paper, I will review the founding and principles of the youth media organization behind Journeys, a New York-based, nonprofit youth media organization called the Educational Video Center (EVC). In addition to discussing the various cultural and historical formations in which EVC is situated, I will look closely at two examples of its work: the above mentioned Journeys (2008) and one of EVC’s earliest documentaries, 2371 Second Avenue: An East Harlem Story (1986). This organization is one that has been promoting first-person documentary production for young people of color since 1984. In this time EVC has produced hundreds of documentary videos, many of which have made it into the programs of international film festivals and garnered awards as well as recognition from major media outlets and public institutions (http://www.evc.org).
Film and media studies, through the work of Dan Streible, Patricia Zimmerman, Deirdre Boyle, Rick Prelinger, Heide Solbrig and others, has broadened to include analyses of an array of ephemeral and orphan media that had previously been overlooked. In this light the work of community media organizations, such as EVC, can be seen as worthy of greater academic scrutiny and as an important participant in broader cultural and historical formations. Whereas the work of local cultural organizations — especially those promoting youth media — has been historically sidelined, perhaps because of a tendency to view these media works as somehow disposable, amateurish, and outside a public sphere of impactful cultural practices, a review of youth media can serve as a reminder to scholars to unsettle any easy divide between center and periphery, mainstream and grassroots. Most relevant to this study is the use of first-person documentary forms within disadvantaged communities, drawing on auto-ethnographic conventions to carve out a discursive space for repressed voices. With its presentation of young, racialized selves in autobiographical media forms, EVC’s work should be seen as both a product of and contributor to broader autobiographical currents in U.S. culture.
Just as significant, given its organizational work with minority youth, is EVC’s status as a leading facilitator of youth media and young self-expressivity. The history of youth media programs involving film and video is obviously extensive and includes DeeDee Halleck’s work in the early sixties. In 1961, Halleck — through her work with the Lillian Wald Recreation Rooms, a non-profit organization “located in a low-income housing project…on the Lower East Side of New York” — coordinated the production of a film entitled, Children Make Movies (Halleck 47). Shot on 16 millimeter, black and white film stock, the film is eight and a half minutes long and is segmented around an introduction by Halleck herself on the process behind the film’s production, the presentation of a “scratch film” made by the participating children (in which film leader is marked by pins, see Figures 1 and 2), and a second live-action film in which the children improvise a narrative involving themselves and a tower of building blocks (see Figure 3). Enthusiastically embraced by Marshall McLuhan — who screened the film at Fordham University — Children Make Movies suggests that the medium of film is one that can be highly participatory (Halleck, xvii). In the film, based both on what we see in the image and hear from Halleck’s commentary, we witness the children productively engaging the medium on their own terms, creating films based on their own expressive actions.
Halleck’s work with youth media continued as she founded the New York-based Henry Street Settlement Film Club in 1963 and went on to teach film production to incarcerated youth at the Otisville School for Boys (Otisville, New York), where the boys’ learning to make films on 16 mm, Super 8, and video was seen by the state as conducive to rehabilitation (Halleck, 44-45). Other youth media organizations developed in New York State throughout the 60s in part due to support from the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA, created in 1960). Rodger Larson, a teacher in a summer arts program in the Bronx, has argued during this period that “filmmaking meant more to many teen-agers than any of the creative arts being offered them” (Larson and Meade, 13). Larson went on to found the Film Club, which sponsored almost forty 16mm films by young people in Manhattan between the years of 1966 and 1969 (Larson and Meade, 13-14). The Film Club, supported by NYSCA, went on to organize “The Movie Bus,” a bus that would tour the boroughs of New York City and screen films produced by its participants and by those involved in similar programs, such as Channel of Soul (a 16mm filmmaking workshop based in Buffalo, New York; NYSCA Annual Report, 17). As Halleck puts it, these were “the days of the Great Society when such experimental, creative projects were given value by the federal government, and there were funds for equipment, supplies, and even my salary” (45).
The establishment of the Cambridge Community Art Center’s Teen Media Program in 1970 was another notable development in the history of youth media production. Additionally, as Brian Goldfarb writes in his book, Visual Pedagogy, the program was “just one example of a media education program that came into existence before the video wave” (68). As community interest in video education grew by the early 80s, drawing “inspiration from the broader community access television movement” in years prior, schools and an array of organizations drew on arguments that production skills were not only vocationally valuable but also when approached critically that they would instill greater analytical viewing habits in students (Goldfarb 68). Goldfarb reviews the work of several scholars and pedagogues from the late 70s to the late 80s who were committed to “critical vocationalism,” a concept which undermines the “long-standing class-based educational divide between vo-tech [vocational] and academic tracks” (70). The 90s, he continues, witnessed the rise of a “student-as-producer” discourse, which was able to accommodate vocational, critical, and expressive curricular goals for “even the most underfunded public schools” (69). Furthermore, as Nicole R. Fleetwood notes, an array of “media organizations [during the nineties] benefited from the rise in high-technology industries, specifically the development and proliferation of moderately priced digital video cameras and editing systems” (158). Such organizations sought to “bridge the ‘digital divide’…by equipping underrepresented groups with the tools of media production” (Fleetwood 158).
On the exhibition front and prior to the rise of the Internet as a platform for youth-produced videos, it was rare for these works to be shown publicly beyond an initial “premiere” event for students, family members, and the community at large. Those videos that did acquire some degree of distribution were typically seen “as portraits of ‘real’ experiences of urban youth” (Fleetwood 170). “During the mid-1990s,” Fleetwood writes, “youth-produced videos gained increasing circulation in museums, major film festivals, and other adult-oriented cultural events” (170). The videos’ amateurish or rough aesthetic generally signified and continues to signify “unmediated access to the mind and experiences of racialized youth” (Fleetwood 170). In this context, reality wasn’t tethered to simply any self but frequently to an injured self that was coded as young and other, outside of white middle-class experience. A critical review of EVC, then, and its propping up of young, racialized, expressive selves can tell us a great deal about the possibilities and problems associated with participatory youth media cultures. At its core, the experience of EVC — its ethos and its practice — illustrates many of the contradictions endemic to youth media. Too often the institutional terms of production for expressive texts are obscured (i.e. who provided the cameras and why), hidden behind a posture that purports to serve as a sounding board for young self-expressivity. Bringing the institutional and historical contexts into sharper focus in this analysis enables us to both emphasize the discursive nature of the texts under review here and recognize their potential for accommodating counter-hegemonic subject positions as well as their risk of working from a more limited therapeutic aesthetic of the self, one that lends itself to a fetishization of racialized angst abstracted from social context.
The first EVC documentary to be reviewed here, 2371 Second Avenue: An East Harlem Story (1986), is remarkable for its situation of its young author’s voice within a broader community and class structure. Foregrounding the vantage point of a Puerto Rican teenager, Millie Reyes, and her family’s experiences with their dilapidated living conditions and a delinquent landlord, this documentary highlights a repressed subject’s claim to be heard, as Egan puts it, and in a surprising reflexive turn acknowledges its own limitations as a text even as it presents the experiences depicted as metonymically tied to a much bigger problem. The second documentary, Journeys through the Red, White, and Blue (2008) is a critically acclaimed video focused on the 2008 Presidential election, presented from the point of view of three youth of color. As with the first video, Journeys privileges the expressivity of marginalized young subjects. Nevertheless, the self-consciously counter-hegemonic stance of 2371 Second Avenue is overturned in favor of a less radical contextualization of these voices within a romantic narrative of U.S. democracy.
It must be said that EVC has produced many hundreds of documentary videos and such a small sampling should in no way be seen as representative of the organization’s entire body of work. The aim here, instead, is to suggest a range of uses of the self in first-person documentary forms. In spite of some formal similarities, these two texts represent starkly different approaches in their approach to the self and its relation to social change. As we will see, Second Avenue is the more radical of the two texts as the subject draws our attention to a social problem that exceeds the ability of any media text to resolve. In this video, the protagonist uses the video to convey to the audience what it is like to live in housing conditions that deprive inhabitants of basic utilities and hopefully change the audience’s perception of how serious this problem is for many working-class and minority families. In contrast, in Journeys the three protagonists perform a narrative of personal growth as each learns the “value of the vote.” While it is a mistake to say that Journeys is not about an important social and political issue — voting and the need for political engagement on the part of youth more generally — the selves featured here are therapeutically constituted as they come to terms with their own apathy and proclaim a newly discovered civic identity. In the former video, the subject is not the one “growing,” although she undertakes certain actions and no doubt learns something in the process, but the emphasis is on her address to us, to challenge the audience to consider an entrenched humanitarian problem that is so everyday, it is easily overlooked. In the latter, the socio-political content is couched within an overall narrative of self-transformation and as a result fetishizes and prioritizes the performance of a racialized existential angst.
In order to delve further into these two documentaries it is important to give some sense of the history of the organization that sponsored their production. EVC has been largely shaped by founder Steven Goodman’s discourse of “critical literacy”; and its establishment in 1984 was part of a broader historical formation around “media literacy” that was emergent in the early eighties. The media literacy movement was and is an especially transnational phenomenon, and it set the stage for EVC’s practice and its insistence on providing minority youth with access to a particular cultural mode of production.
Community media, media literacy, and critical pedagogy
Carmen Luke has written that the 80s witnessed a deluge of references to “literate viewing,” “interactive viewing,” and “media literacy” (282). This “new educational rhetoric” was in some ways an outgrowth of the cognitivist turn in media research studies, in which the viewing subject is constituted as a mentally active participant in the construction of meaning (Luke 282). By re-writing the viewer as an adventurous producer of meaning with the televisual text, scholars could make the leap to the notion that reception was deserving of its own codification in order to regulate and give shape to the viewer’s use of and interactions with television. As a core theoretical supposition, this particular take on television viewership helped spawn the “surge during the 1980s of school-based, regional, and statewide media literacy curricula and the correlative establishment of media-studies curriculum and resource centers” (Luke 282). Robert W. Kubey concurs that this decade sparked a “worldwide movement in media literacy education,” although this transnational movement for media education and the promotion of a media-based “literacy” developed largely outside the United States and included fora sponsored by the British Film Institute and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (352).
The German Commission for UNESCO, in particular, circulated a key statement on media literacy that was unanimously supported by the nineteen member-states known as “The Grunwald Document,” but officially titled “The Challenge of Media Education.” The Grunwald Document was produced at the 1982 UNESCO International Symposium on Media Education in Grunwald, West Germany. This document forewarns of dangerous trends: “In some countries, for example, children already spend more time watching television than they do attending school.” The disarming recognition that the medium of television frequently trumps educational institutions is used to support a call for pedagogical practices directed at promoting “critical understanding of the phenomena of communication.” The three “symbolic systems of “images, words, and sounds” will require young people as well as adults to develop a new kind of literacy. Hence, the document makes the following recommendations:
The “omnipresence” of the media is recognized as a global one that requires international coordination to equip global citizens with the proper skills to navigate this new world (UNESCO).
While somewhat marginal to this international movement in the early 80s, the United States nevertheless was home to educational and community media groups basing their work on principles of social justice and media literacy. A form of “critical vocationalism” took shape in the 70s through the activities of a long line of left media collectives and community media centers, such as Downtown Community Television (DCTV) and Global Village. DCTV was founded in 1972 by Jon Alpert and Keiko Tsuno as both a media production and training center (London 254). Global Village was founded three years earlier by John Reilly, Ira Schneider, and Rudi Stern as a video collective, and it eventually evolved into a “media center devoted to independent video production with [an] emphasis on video documentary” (London 250). Both of these organizations sought to disseminate production skills to citizens not necessarily out of any desire to further careers in the film and television industries, but rather to promote a sense of democratic participation in the commercially-driven media of film and television.
Steven Goodman, the eventual founder of EVC, had been working as an independent documentary producer in the 70s in New York City with ties to the community media scene, which included groups such as DCTV. He had spent the bulk of the late 70s and early 80s producing a black-and-white video documentary about street gangs in the South Bronx, entitled Shotgun (1982). The film incorporated both original footage shot by Goodman as well as an array of found footage, including local news coverage of the gang. In the process of filming Shotgun, Goodman spent time “living with [a] particular gang [called “The Savage Riders”] and learning about why [these young people] were in a gang” in the first place. As an outsider, “a middle-class kid, who grew up in suburbia,” Goodman felt compelled to explore the reasons for gang formation and high dropout rates in the local schools. However, the urgency of his documentary became instantly exacerbated when one of the gang members, an eighteen-year-old male, suddenly confessed on-camera to killing two fourteen-year-old girls. The confession prompted Goodman to interview the gang member’s mother as well as the mother of one of the victims. Goodman’s documentary thus became a portrait of a community both before and after the murders.
In order to attract an audience for the film, Goodman and other members of the community literally screened the film “on the streets in the Bronx.” They attached “monitors to lamp posts…[and] had screenings and discussions” out in the streets where any member of the community could view the film and participate. Their success at initiating an open public forum where race, poverty, crime, and gender could be discussed eventually led to the film’s presentation in local schools where it prompted testimonies from students. His film’s exhibition in the streets and in the schools demonstrated to him a “really powerful way of sparking discussion about social issues, problems, and what kind of action people can take.” This experience encouraged Goodman to bring young people in closer contact with media hardware. He wanted to develop a mode of production in which young people are given the opportunity to represent themselves and their relations to their community. In the process, they might find an opportunity to find avenues of “action,” that is, of intervention into socio-economic conditions impacting local communities. This is what was at stake in EVC’s promotion of a particular brand of auto-ethnographic production. Such an emphasis on social action through media production also tied in with contemporaneous calls for a critical vocationalism, as discussed earlier. Goodman, like other producers in the New York-based community media scene, understood the value of a vocational education not simply in terms of bolstering media skills but rather in terms of building confidence in under-represented and oppressed teenagers to engage in productive cultures, to represent themselves and their communities in their own ways and in the process to constitute their own voices in a political climate that prefers their silence (Goodman 2006).
The radical participatory agenda suggested by Goodman and the work of groups such as Global Village, DCTV, Videofreex, and others dovetailed with the media literacy movement and notions of a critical pedagogy informed by the ideas of Paulo Freire as articulated in his foundational book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. At the heart of his book is the desire to overturn the conventions of a “narrative education” in which the dominant relationship “involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient, listening objects (the students)” (Freire 71). Premised upon a “banking concept of education,” traditional pedagogy implies that “knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing” (72). The problem with this arrangement is that it reproduces the “attitudes and practices…[of an] oppressive society as a whole” (73). In its place Freire proposes a “humanist and libertarian” pedagogy that engenders conscientização, a critical consciousness that overturns the dehumanizing effects of oppression “without reversing the terms of the contradiction” between being oppressor or oppressed but simply “man in the process of liberation” (Freire 54, 56). Put another way, Freire is characterizing a pedagogy that actively pursues the subjectification or “humanization” of students so that they may regain a sense of agency that rewrites the rules of oppressive hierarchies. A “pedagogy of the oppressed,” he writes, “must be forged with, not for, the oppressed…in the incessant struggle to regain their humanity” (Freire 48).
This desire to buttress the expressivity of oppressed classes, to discover or recover a collective “voice,” animates both media literacy practices aimed at strengthening the critical reception skills of viewers (as in the Grunwald Document) as well as the social justice movement to de-mystify the instruments of moving image production, including efforts by Global Village and DCTV to make media production training sessions part of their general practice (Goodman 2003). The founding of EVC was part of a historical and cultural formation that encompassed critical vocationalism, a first-person documentary ethos, and a school system seeking to provide troubled students with a technological skill base for life after graduation. Other youth media projects, in particular those that prioritized documentary video (such as The Mirror Project in Massachusetts and The Global Action Project in New York City), were similarly motivated to couch their work in terms of developing young people into both skilled workers and expressive citizens.
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.
Featuring youth documentary production was, then, for EVC central to its social justice project. However, EVC found a way to balance this agenda with the vocational priorities of school curricula. Goodman notes that “by the early 1980s” — by the time the EVC was founded…
“…the increasing availability of low-cost, high-quality equipment led to the boom in the consumer video market. This trend, along with the rapid growth of the industrial media and cable television industries, led to a greater tendency to channel students into vocational training programs at the high school and college levels. The portable handheld video camera was increasingly replaced by the camera locked down on the tripod. Instead of taking the camera into the community, students read daily school news reports from within the school studio, imitating, or in some cases parodying, the dominant model of the commercial television nightly news. The promise of youth and community empowerment was overshadowed by the promise of jobs in the industry” [Goodman 2003, 17].
In video as taught in schools, then, a “handheld” paradigm of guerrilla filmmaking was displaced by a “tripod” paradigm of staid, pseudo-industrial production in the 80s. In this context, the tripod — upon which the camera becomes “locked down” — becomes, for Goodman, a metaphor for the restraint, containment, regulation and near imprisonment of minority youth in educational programs that prioritize the training or disciplining of the body over the strengthening and enhancement of the mind and self-expression. He insists that the handheld camera, conversely, services an opposite vision of free-wheeling unpredictability. Unstable images that signify the camera’s position on the shoulder of the videographer register subjectivity, a self that is implicated in the image and is simultaneously both in and out of control of the camera. Goodman posits a psychology and a whole aesthetic from handheld camerawork. A handheld camera bolsters an aesthetic of spontaneity that conveys the feeling of an improvisational and liberated self that counters the static character of predictable industrial conventions. Goodman’s characterization of the handheld camera rearticulates past discourses on the portability and participatory nature of video. For instance, David Cort, a founding member of Commediation and Videofreex, described his initial fascination with video in the late 60s as follows:
“I was overwhelmed by the lightness of the portable video camera, the intimacy of it, the way you could talk from behind the camera to people, and they could talk to you” (qtd. in Boyle 6).
While the EVC program could accommodate the vocational needs of some schools, it could also synchronize with the “prevention language” that also permeated educational discourses of the 80s. Such language represented, for EVC staffers, the necessary “funding language” that needed to be appropriated. “Violence prevention, pregnancy prevention, drug prevention, dropout prevention” all complicated the vocational agenda by yielding a variety of narrowly articulated “social problem” concerns that at times lent themselves to EVC’s broader commitment to social justice. Goodman notes that the primary message of EVC to funders was that young people
“are caught in these institutions that are failing them and they need to be able to have a critical consciousness about it, a critical literacy, and to understand it and to have skills [while also having] pleasure in creating and changing their sense of their identity.”
In the process of making this case, the prevention language was at times aligned with EVC’s therapeutic discourse of self-improvement or identity transformation, even as educational institutions may have been less comfortable with other aspects of EVC’s critical stance (Goodman 2006).
Needless to say, this constellation of discourses around prevention, self-improvement, and critical literacy renders a highly contradictory media practice that is not easily summarized. Navigating the competing demands placed on EVC, given its institutional setting, falls onto the figure of the teacher who “needs to work on multiple levels simultaneously” and in the end “bears ultimate responsibility” (Goodman 2003, 56-7). The framework for young self-expressivity in documentary media presumes the student’s acquisition of an array of skills, which Goodman outlines as “research, interviewing, writing, technical arts, editing, and critical viewing” (Goodman 2003, 57). The “learner-centered methodology” that characterizes EVC’s pedagogy and production ethos is attenuated by the teacher’s responsibilities and effectiveness (Goodman 2003, 56). Given this context and the institutional pressures exerted, EVC’s practice couches its auto-ethnographic enterprise in a social problem-solving discourse that appeals to educators by prioritizing a racialized aesthetic of personal growth.
In the following textual analyses, I will look at two very different EVC videos produced twenty-two years apart. Both resonate with aspects of Goodman’s pedagogical ethos and as instances of EVC’s practice, both share formal characteristics as first-person documentaries. However, these two texts also suggest a range of possibilities within EVC’s mode of production by virtue of a clear contrast. The first video, 2371 Second Avenue: An East Harlem Story, presents a narrative in which its young subject is ensnared by appalling living conditions because her family and neighbors are victims of a delinquent landlord. The second video, Journeys through the Red, White, and Blue, follows three subjects — in three separate stories — as they consider the value of participating in the 2008 Presidential election. In the former, a desperate plea to address oppressive material conditions is foregrounded while in the latter, a narrative of personal growth trumps social change. These two videos should in no way be seen as indicative of EVC’s body of work as a whole, but — through this clear contrast — they give an indication of two contrasting aesthetic strategies within youth media.
2371 Second Avenue: An East Harlem Story (1986)
One of EVC’s earliest videos and best examples of how the center’s emphasis on young expressivity, social justice, and handheld camera becomes actualized is 2371 Second Avenue: An East Harlem Story (1986). This work centers on the living conditions of a young female, named Millie Reyes, and her family in East Harlem. Through first-person voiceover, interviews, and direct address to the camera, Reyes reviews for the audience the dilapidated state of her family’s apartment building, which consists of “broken windows, garbage, rats, and no hot water.” At one point she states explicitly that 2371 Second Avenue “is a documentary I made with other teenagers about my family, my neighbors, and how we struggle to survive under these conditions.” Early in the piece, Reyes introduces the audience to her family by combining both an in-frame direct address commentary with a voiceover on the soundtrack (Figure 9). In a handheld medium shot of Reyes and her family, Reyes with microphone in hand introduces her mother, father, and cousin, followed by a voiceover that explains: “My family came from Puerto Rico almost thirty years ago for a better life, but this is what they found.” Subsequently, the documentary adheres to the principle of evidentiary editing as close-ups of a hole in a wall (Figure 10) and a faulty pipe provide illustrations of the father’s description of how “rats have eaten [most of] the wall” (in Spanish as Reyes translates for the audience). Reyes and her camera crew continue to film her father as he turns on the bath faucet demonstrating that there is no hot water. Translating for her father, Reyes explains that there are more apartments like this in the building.
These early segments of 2371 Second Avenue illustrate many of the complexities of EVC’s project. It could be argued that, in spite of Goodman’s claim to prioritize the handheld paradigm over that of the tripod or studio paradigm, this documentary right away demonstrates a certain blending of the two. Of course, every shot thus far, and indeed for the rest of the piece, is handheld and registers the experience of venturing out into the “gritty” racialized reality of life in East Harlem. The mobility of the camera through the space of the Reyes’ home grants viewers access to the appalling domestic living conditions of a working class Puerto Rican family, who struggle with an indifferent and racist housing system. While this could be seen as a far cry from the industrial mimicry of high school vocational media programs set in studios, these early segments nevertheless synchronize with a commercial, “human interest” model of news in which a reporter takes an audience into a racialized experience centered on first person anecdotes. One of the critical differences here, however, is that the reporter is in fact a member of the family and is telling the audience not just a story of race and poverty, but rather her personal and familial experience of an indifferent landlord and housing authority. Here the self, the representation of Millie Reyes, is immediately situated within the larger context of not only her family, but of her film crew as well — the “other teenagers” of whom she spoke in her introductory voiceover. The self is speaking not only on behalf of her family, but also as an expression of the youthful collective that enables her to direct the action of the documentary live and in frame.
This situation of the self in the family is carried further as the family’s experiences with their retrograde living conditions is shown to be indicative of the community’s experience of the apartment building as a whole. In a voiceover commentary, Reyes explains that her cousin “Martha Sanchez lives upstairs in Apartment 11 with her one-year-old son, Fernando [and she] is one of the many in this building [lacking] hot water.” As a result, “in order to give her son a bath, she has to boil water” (Figure 12). This last line is juxtaposed with medium shots of Sanchez with her son in the bathtub (Figure 13). Continuing her voiceover, Reyes introduces the audience to Angel Mercado, “who lives in Apartment C with his mentally disabled daughter, Sylvia.” As Reyes translates Mercado’s comments from Spanish to English for the audience, Mercado explains how he and his family have had to deal with rats in their apartment and shows the camera crew, in close-up, a rat he recently caught (Figure 14). These testimonies accrue into a kind of critical mass that prompts a transition in the documentary’s mode of address to the audience. Moving from an illustration of a particular problem — poor housing conditions — the work shifts into the gear of action and intervention cited by Goodman as a key agenda item for the work of EVC as a whole. Accompanying a moving high-angle shot of Reyes and her neighbors walking down the stairs in the building, Reyes explains in voiceover: “Our video crew went with my neighbors to confront the super about the problems in the building.” This segues into a medium shot of a man we are to assume is the superintendent standing in the doorway to his apartment (Figure 15). The shot establishes an aesthetic of confrontation as the camera pans back and forth from the superintendent to a tenant. In Spanish, the superintendent admits the lack of hot water is a problem, but the “landlord doesn’t want to fix it.” “I call and call and call,” he exclaims, “[but the landlord] doesn’t supply me with materials…” This exchange is followed by a medium shot of Reyes knocking on a door as her voiceover states: “I went door to door getting my neighbors to sign a petition which we would then present to the landlord” (Figure 16).
The quote from Egan which opens this essay resonates most clearly with this moment. To reiterate, Egan traces the unique potential of autobiographical texts to – within limited parameters – prop up an oppositional subject who performs against the hegemonic conditions in which she is situated by supplying a voice where there is normally silence. Egan’s vanguard of the self is married to a vanguard of the camera in the above sequence of 2371 Second Avenue. A key implication is that Reyes and her crew confront the superintendent and collect signatures on a petition both because of Reyes’ personal experience and outrage and also because their presence as a camera crew publicly validates and legitimates their “marginalized voices.” The superintendent receives these complaints aware of the proximity of the camera to his person; thus he is aware of the presence of an imaginary audience and that audience’s perception of his handling of the tenants’ complaints. “If subjectivity and alterity can take turns within one text, with neither one disappearing as a subject,” writes Egan, “then dialogues between cultural and political margins and centers also become possible within the text” (13). This moment of confrontation between Reyes, the tenants, the superintendent, and the camera unsettles the quotidian experiences of all involved and – in doing so – initiates a series of “dialogues” that inches the activists and the video itself closer to an encounter with the dominant figure of the landlord.
After collecting enough signatures, the film depicts the exterior of an office building while Reyes explains in voice-over that “it was hard to track down the landlord, Simon R., since he worked out of an office that sells air conditioning, but we went in anyway.” A long shot of the tenants entering the building cuts to an over-the-shoulder shot of Reyes introducing herself to an administrator; the editing eventually settles into a pattern of shot-reaction shot cutting between individualized medium shots of each (Figures 17-20). After being informed that the landlord is “not in,” Reyes reads the petition aloud to the administrator, stating that “the tenants of 2371 Second Avenue have been living in rat-infested apartments without hot water and demand that these and ninety-five other violations be corrected immediately” and, if not addressed, the tenants would “withhold rent.” In response, the administrator informs the entire group that they have to leave the building immediately and Reyes notes in her voiceover that “after getting thrown out of the landlord’s office, we went to City Limits, a housing magazine to see what could be done to help the tenants in the building…We spoke to Annette Fuentes.” A medium shot of Fuentes cuts to a medium shot of a video monitor on her desk (Figure 21-22). As the camera zooms in onto the monitor, we revisit earlier scenes from the documentary including shots of Reyes’ apartment and the confrontational scene between Reyes and the administrator, but mediated through the television screen in the journalist’s office (Figures 23-25). In response to the footage, Fuentes responds by noting that “what we saw from Millie’s building is not uncommon…landlords are milking these buildings.”
As we can see, the confrontation with the superintendent is ratcheted up as Reyes leads the tenants beyond the space of the building and into a direct showdown with and entrance into the space of authority. Again, the rigidity of center-periphery hierarchies is called into question as Reyes leads the charge into the landlord’s office and speaking on behalf of her community warns of consequences for the figure of authority if the living conditions for the residents of 2371 Second Avenue are not improved and “violations” are not corrected. Nevertheless, while the corridors of the landlord’s authority are breached and the marginalized status of the tenants is unsettled, the video remarkably doesn’t leave us with any easy solutions as the administrator simply tells the group to leave and the City Limits journalist merely situates the tenants’ complaints within a broader context of landlord neglect in New York City.
The documentary seems to presume that the ultimate intervention is the text itself, the record of conditions, events, and expert characterization of the problem. The self-reflexive implications of electronic media are reinforced as the documentary’s earlier scenes return to us as agents in their own right, as more than frames within frames, but as real-time players that call forth testimony from the journalist just as Reyes called forth a reaction from the administrator. In this regard, it is significant that Reyes is minimally visible in the scene with the City Limits reporter. Instead, with the exception of our view of Reyes at the beginning of the scene and on the video monitor, she is only present in the scene through the journalist’s third person discussion of her family’s living conditions. To be clear, the primary purpose of this scene is to present a straightforward talking-head shot of Fuentes relating Reyes’ experiences to a more systemic and pervasive problem that will necessitate a broader outcry from the public in order for things to change. In many ways, Fuentes completes the video’s gradual socialization of Reyes into increasingly broader familial, communal, and social registers. In this regard, the video camera’s zoom onto the television monitor – and its correlative abstraction of Reyes on the screen within the screen – is a visual compliment to this theme of Reyes’ specificity giving way to something larger and harder to capture within the confines of 2371 Second Avenue.
Journeys Through the Red, White, and Blue (2008)
In the run up to the Presidential Election of 2008, a great deal of mainstream political discourse centered on the influence and potential impact of the youth vote. In addition to the work of Rock the Vote, the Obama campaign encouraged the perception of its candidate as an especially “youth-friendly” politician, one who was earning the endorsements of musicians such as Will.i.am and Jay-Z while parading his affinity for new technologies (discussing the songs on his i-Pod, for instance. McCormick 31). Through the work of national organizations such as Rock the Vote and the media attention generated by iconic musicians, local efforts took advantage of new media technologies to engender interest and participation in the upcoming election — paralleling the Obama campaign’s historically unique blending of the netroots with the grassroots.
One of the more notable attempts to use media to heighten the politicization and mobilization of young people at the local level included the EVC-sponsored production of Journeys through the Red, White, and Blue (2008). Promoted as a “documentary produced by a team of New York City youth of color,” Journeys is divided into three parts following the biographies and perspectives of three young men (a Latino, an African-American, and a West African immigrant) grappling with the significance of the upcoming election and the U.S. democratic process more generally. Conceptualized as an agent of change in its own right, the film was shown in countless high school and university settings in the build-up to the election (including high schools in New Jersey, Chicago, as well as colleges such as Hunter College, LaGuardia Community College, University of California at Santa Barbara, and Brooklyn College). Copies of the video were distributed to schools and institutions in fourteen states prior to the election and additional screenings took place at an array of film festivals, such as the Human Rights International Film Festival and the Social Justice Film Fiesta. As mentioned at the outset, the documentary’s renown earned it a special screening at Mount Vernon Square in Washington D.C. as a part of the three-night celebration that was “The People’s Inaugural,” sponsored by The Historical Society and held on the weekend prior to Senator Barack Obama’s swearing in as the country’s forty-fourth president on January 20, 2009.
The documentary was produced through EVC’s “YO-TV” program, which arranges for a select group of graduates from EVC’s high school documentary workshop to have a ten-month- long, paid internship producing a documentary project (http://www.evc.org/programs/yo-tv). All three parts of the video are formally organized in a nearly identical fashion despite being presented as products of three different points of view. However, rather than necessarily undermining the first-person ethos of the project, the structural similarities of the three different stories in the video serves to underscore the auto-ethnographic impulse of EVC by reminding us that each “voice” is supported by a collective of other youth producers whose life experiences are similarly underrepresented. Each of the three stories opens with one of the featured youth producers (Brian, Shon, and Tidiane) pondering the same question, “What is the value of my vote?” (Figure 26). While the content of each of their answers varies slightly, the format is consistent. The first-person approach is still evident, largely reinforced through narration delivered through direct address to the camera, ensuring that the authorial voice heard on the soundtrack is almost always tied to a particular body in the viewfinder (Figures 27-28). This represents continuity — across twenty-two years — between Journeys and Second Avenue, where Millie’s perspective was frequently communicated through an address to the camera with a slightly greater reliance upon a dubbed voiceover narration.
Another shared narrative characteristic in all three stories is a resort to traditional adult authority figures to resolve moments of uncertainty on the part of the young subjects. Such authority figures include parents of the highlighted producer in the case of the first two stories featuring Brian and Shon, Latino and African-American teenagers respectively. In the first story, Brian asks his mother about the value of participating in the political process and as a result he says he’s learned details from his mother’s past, details of which he was unaware, which include her award for past service as vice-president of the local Parent-Teacher Association (Figure 30). Shon similarly speaks to his father, Rudy McGoy, about the son’s skepticism towards voting, largely couched in general disdain for the government as a whole (Figure 31). The elder McGoy gently reminds his son to take time to learn about the value of voting and to conduct a little research about the “political process” before shrugging off voting rights so casually. “I think you’re making a lot of assumptions without being informed.” Both Brian and Shon perform dutifully on camera as sons willing to learn from their elders even as they freely express skepticism.
Two of the stories resort to and reaffirm another form of adult authority: academics. Shon and Tidiane turn to academics to provide some context for the particular concerns each has about the voting process. Shon’s uncertainty about voting means he has to gain a greater communal respect for the historical legacy of civil rights struggle. As part of his “growth” process (this being the driving narrative impulse for all three stories), Shon speaks with Esmeralda Simmons, a faculty member at Medgar Evers College, specifically in the College’s Center for Law and Social Justice (Figure 33). Simmons implores Shon to remember the history of African-Americans’ struggle for the right to vote; that is part of who he is (“They’re your people!”). While acknowledging that voting cannot be seen as a panacea, Simmons underscores for Shon in rather practical terms how voting can be an important tactic within a broader overall strategy for social change. Specifically, she paints a picture of a self-interested politician who cannot afford to ignore the needs of a powerful and mobilized voting bloc.
Tidiane, as a twenty-two year-old African immigrant from Guinea, is frustrated that despite paying taxes he has no voting rights. To buttress and, to some extent, validate this feeling, Tidiane interviews political science professor from the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), Ron Hayduk (Figure 34). In the interview Hayduk agrees with Tidiane, calling the policy that denies immigrants the right to vote in spite of paying taxes “inconsistent.” The distinction between the two scenes —Tidiane has his views affirmed while Shon has his challenged — shouldn’t obscure the fact that in both cases the young producers passively receive scholars’ knowledge. To some extent, these scenes give the feeling of the “banking concept” of pedagogy critiqued by Freire even as the three young producers’ stories seem like acts of young expressivity, of youth speaking out.
Tidiane’s frustration over legal barriers to his civic participation indicates how Journeys — while ultimately underscoring the value and import of voting — introduces a number of caveats throughout all three stories. Rather than merely celebrate voting as the be-all and end-all of democratic citizenship, the stories which make up Journeys introduce viewers to structural impediments, to elements that diminish the impact of voting, reminding us that there are limits to what the ballot box can do. In Brian’s segment, the film addresses the Electoral College and its curtailment of democratic principles. Through a series of hand-drawn illustrations, Brian explains to viewers that the College is inherently anti-democratic by essentially allotting a disproportionate share of voting power to electors from small states (where the electoral points granted to individual states are disproportionate compared to their actual share of the country’s total population; Figures 36-38). Shon’s story includes an interview with his older brother, Ryan, who has served in Iraq for over a year (Figure 39). Ryan insists that the problems he’s experienced as a veteran (such as inadequate financial support and medical care for returning troops) probably will not change as a result of the elections. The only way to ultimately bring about change is — in Ryan’s view — “war, civil wars, [rather than by] voting.” Tidiane’s experience as an immigrant is also reinforced by several key scenes which document the legal and bureaucratic hurdles he faces that keep him from feeling integrated in the U.S. democratic process. These scenes include his failed attempt to fill out a voter’s registration form (in which his pen hovers over the blank space reserved for the last four digits of his social security number; Figure 40), the intolerable length he’s waited for his “papers” to arrive after he begins the process of becoming a citizen (Figure 42), and a meeting with an immigration lawyer who explains to Tidiane that there’s no way he’ll be able to vote in 2008; instead it will be five years before he’ll be legally allowed to vote in any election (Figure 43).
The inclusion of these structural impediments to democracy in the United States notwithstanding, Journeys ultimately ensures that the audience members will embrace their civic responsibility by voting in 2008. All three of the stories end on near identical notes. In the two stories featuring Shon and Tidiane, each of the young subjects finds himself volunteering at the west Philadelphia campaign headquarters for Barack Obama, ultimately hitting the streets as a canvasser for the Obama campaign (Figures 44-50). In parallel scenes of their training as canvassers, shouts of familiar slogans are heard on the soundtrack (“Fired up and ready to go!” and “Yes we can!”). Brian’s story ends on an interview with a local politician (Miguel Martinez, New York City councilman for District 10) in which Brian’s questions (suggested by his “mother and friends”) about mobilizing youth to get involved in the political process are to his mind fully answered (Figure 51).
In synchronous final scenes, all three stories conclude with their respective subjects testifying at “We Run This Vote: Youth Arts and Politics Festival,” sponsored by an organization dedicated to arts education in the Bronx (DreamYard) and held at The Point in the South Bronx (www.dreamyard.com; Figures 54-58). Brian declares that he has developed a “better appreciation for his politics” after having “started out not caring about the vote.” On the same stage Shon states that the government “fears the youth vote” and ultimately maintains that “voting is power.” Of course, he reminds his audience, “voting is not enough…you have to be informed about the issues.” Tidiane shares his insights as an outsider, someone who is “from a country where politics doesn’t matter to nobody.” As a student in the United States, he speaks of his admiration for a political process that holds elections regularly and places term limits on Presidents, ultimately leading him to believe that the potential for participation as a citizen is greater in the United States than in his own country. While acknowledging the legal restrictions on his ability to vote, his experience at EVC’s YO-TV has given him the opportunity to realize “that participation is bigger than just voting” and that there are opportunities for him to assist other immigrants like himself become U.S. citizens. The cheers from the audience that greet all three young producers register the completion of a narrative of “growth,” from a position of apathy towards voting to a consciousness of the value of a participatory politics that valorizes voting while also suggesting that this is never enough.
The parallels between Journeys and Second Avenue are numerous. In addition to presenting the young subject as active within the image, a visible presence, in order to help the audience easily identify the presumed author of the documentary, both videos also obscure the identities of the videographer(s), the primary handler(s) of the camera. This textual maneuver gestures away from the terms of the video’s production even as each makes obligatory nods towards the collaborative nature of the video’s creation. In each of the videos the protagonists are youth of color whose social status is essentially located at the margins of public discourse. To varying degrees the videos are themselves about the realities of marginalization and the possibility of a political praxis that might undo or reverse these realities.
Nevertheless, the videos diverge from one another on a variety of fronts. Specifically, each video is a mirror image of the other in the way that each represents adult authority figures. The quiet respect for and acceptance of the adult figures in Journeys is largely overturned by Second Avenue where adults are depicted as in need of mobilization (Millie’s family members as well as neighbors in her building), ineffectual (the building superintendent caught on camera), or as part of a corrupt and exploitative New York housing system (the administrative representative for the landlord as well as the landlord himself). The exception is, of course, the reporter from City Limits, whose testimony affirms and relates Millie’s experience to a broader citywide problem with slumlords. A further exception includes the ever present yet visibly absent role of the adult teacher (either Goodman himself or another adult supervisor) whose importance never needs stating since it is central to a process that is publicly associated with EVC’s name. Yet these exceptions fail to derail Second Avenue’s overall implication that Millie’s young expressivity can serve as a wake-up call, not a solution but an incitement to organize and collectively resist structural conditions that are fundamentally unjust. The unpredictable agency of youth and the threat of visibility felt by administrators of city slums position the majority of adult figures in the video as in need of activation or confrontation. Journeys, on the other hand, signifies the opposite: its young subjects have their horizons expanded by adults in their lives, whether the adult is a parent, scholar, activist, or politician.
Most significant, however, is the divergence of the two videos in terms of the camera’s engagement with social reality. Second Avenue presents moments of shock, of unexpected encounters with the camera. The building’s superintendent is caught with his shirt off, standing in his doorway, and on the defensive as a thoroughly visible camera documents his response to the tenants. Similarly, the administrator for the landlord is evidently caught off-guard by a surprise confrontation involving not only a camera but a mobilized collective of tenants demanding improvements in their living conditions. These two key moments of surprise engagement and unexpected visibility are critical to the video’s overall project of not only drawing attention to an important problem but also unveiling the disdainful attitudes of those in positions of power. In this regard, following Egan, certain inevitabilities might appear precarious, contingent, and open to questioning as a previously silenced voice – in its singularity – unsettles what is normally taken for granted.
On the other side, Journeys deploys a largely static camera setup in order to accommodate a more formal and presentational style on the part of the young producers. Transparently prepared remarks, including speeches and awkward interstitial transitions in the video’s exposition, suggest an overly managed narrative of personal growth in all three of the highlighted stories (Figure 60). Journeys, as a result, presents no moments of incitement or confrontation where discomfort with either questioning or the presence of the camera is ever apparent. Its presentation of racialized realness ultimately glosses over the threat of alterity, of otherness, to the status quo by recuperating these marginalized voices into a largely romantic, albeit qualified narrative of U.S. democracy.
Both videos are clear illustrations of how EVC’s practice reflects and problematizes both Goodman’s discourse as well as a broader discourse on young self-expressivity. In Second Avenue, auto-ethnographic aesthetics are engaged to call attention to delinquent landlord behavior fuelled by racist and class structural realities in the city. Journeys seeks to impart a sense of civic responsibility to minority youth alienated from the political process. Each video, in its own way, embodies a tension between young expressive selves and the absent but influential educators. This forces us to think about how young self-expressivity is entangled with “adult” communitarian desires and institutional pressures, foregrounding the discursive and tenuous status of the young selves depicted onscreen. However, the spontaneity of Second Avenue and its embrace of an aggressive videography that often catches subjects off-guard keeps the participatory process in the unstable foreground and reminds us of the text’s contingency and partiality. We’re less concerned about the impact of the absent but decisive role of the educators because the video embraces an open-ended narrative with no forced solutions.
In contrast, the static, formal, and even more “professional” quality of Journeys discussed above makes us more suspect about the influence of institutional pressures. While cognizant of the contradictions of U.S. democracy, the video ultimately situates these within a broader embrace of the U.S. political system. This particular presentation of three youth of color undergoing a narrative premised on personal growth and a concluding public testimony to this fact reminds us of Fleetwood’s comments about youth media’s association with a yearning for racialized realness. This staging of alterity and its incorporation into a relatively narrow understanding of civic responsibility and citizenship is more consistent with a therapeutic practice in which the subject’s transformation is the main show.
Put another way, youth media and participatory media cultures compel a consideration of the value of self-expressivity and critically-oriented vocationalism, as well as the persistence of a politics of surveillance and objectification towards youth of color. Educational exposure to the process of documentary production holds the promise of teaching important job skills, critical thinking skills, as well as the possibility of drawing attention to important social issues. However, as a few resulting texts become disentangled from their originating mode of production and circulate to a wider public audience across an array of exhibition outlets (as was the case with Journeys), they acquire a particular meaning in a broader public sphere and contribute something to representations of minority youth. In this context, the performance of young, racialized angst resonates with the public’s fetishistic interest in “unmediated access to the mind and experiences of racialized youth.”
Such a fetishistic interest can most clearly be seen now in the success of autobiographical reality programs whose depiction of the experiences of minority youth are consistently held within a horizon of the self, of personal growth and responsibility. This therapeutic zone blunts the potential for young self-expressivity to speak more pointedly to social conflict, entrenched hierarchies, and stifling living conditions. In her book, Girls Make Media, Mary Celeste Kearney acknowledges the need to resist an over-romanticized take on youth production, highlighting the issue of access (14-15). To be sure, Kearney is correct to highlight the racial and economic barriers to media production as critical qualifiers to a “celebratory” take on youth cultural production (14). However, we should also keep in mind Fleetwood’s observations to consider how an ethos of expressivity, self-display, and production can be re-wired to accommodate new forms of fetishization in new media environments. In other words, we need to recognize the difference between Millie’s claim to be heard and Brian, Shon, and Tidiane’s claim to have grown.
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