Speech at the Awards Ceremony of Agenda 14’s Short Film Festival 2011

Agenda 14

Delivered this speech in Sinhala at the Awards Ceremony of Agenda 14’s Short Film Festival 2011, held at the National Film Corporation Cinema. A PDF of the Sinhala version can be downloaded from here.

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Good evening.

In the time I have for this speech, which is around 10 minutes, over 6,000 new videos would have been uploaded to YouTube. That’s over 10 days of video content.  Over 600 videos are uploaded to YouTube every minute, or around a day’s worth of video a minute. A minute. Let’s pause for a moment and think about that. On 24th July 2010, YouTube asked its millions of users to send in footage of their day. 4,500 hours of footage was submitted. That’s around 188 days worth of video content. Half-a-year’s worth of uninterrupted watching, produced in a single day. Oscar award winning director Kevin Macdonald made a 90 minute film based on this footage that was shown at Sundance Berlin and amazed audiences. It is now on YouTube, for free.

Many of you really aren’t gathered here to listen to a keynote speech. You are here because you are co-producers of this new content on the web, and because Agenda 14 has recognised your work as being more meaningful than shooting cute pets or home made music videos. The producers of the films recognised tonight live in a time of unprecedented change for film, and digital media in general. What drives this change, and what it means for all of us here in the audience is increasingly fundamental to exercise of citizenship, and democracy itself. Allow me then to take a few minutes to map out what I feel are important markers of an intersection between our digital content and physical activism.

Let’s go back to the YouTube video. Over half a year of footage submitted over a single day was produced not by acclaimed film directors or students of film school. For sure, some of them would have sent in their videos too. But most of the 4,500 hours of video was shot by ordinary people, using video cameras or their mobile phones. Two factors are at play here. One is the democratisation of technology to produce and disseminate video. From Windows 7 to Apple’s Lion operating system, from Ubuntu Linux to Nokia smartphones, video-editing software is now on all the major platforms that people use in their daily lives. Avid and FinalCut Pro are still used by professionals, but their basic features are now in the hands of billions. This of course doesn’t make any of one of us here a Spielberg, Cameron or a Coppola. But it does put in the hands of millions, including the illiterate, visual tools that can help them capture and tell a story. Most of these stories will be banal. A few will be good. Some will be great – haunting, horrific videos like the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan during the riots in Iran in 2009, captured on an ordinary Nokia, disseminated virally on YouTube, picked up by the White House and noted by Barack Obama. Video platforms like Witness.org now feature videos of human rights abuses captured by both torturers and the victims. Police brutality in London, the murder of protestors in Cairo, the tsunami in Japan – these are all captured on film and available on the web. The video cameras in our mobile phones, the web and digital tools are redefining the way we see our world, and the economics of video production. Shooting and producing video is no longer the pastime or prerogative of those who have the money to use studios and buy high-end hardware and software.  Every laptop, desktop and smartphone today is a studio.

Technology aside, it’s important to focus of who is producing these videos. Many more children, youth and women are making videos today than in any other time in history. All of them can increasingly directly upload their footage to the web.  Women don’t need the permission of men. Youth often do it in spite of parental controls. Children often use their parent’s smartphones to sometimes capture video better than many adults! In the ten minutes I speak, women from Kashmir will capture stories of life in conflict. Women from Sri Lanka will capture stories of gender-based violence. Youth from the Middle East will capture the heinous violence in Syria, and the Army’s oppression in Egypt. In South Korea, India and Japan, young children in schools are being taught digital filmmaking and media literacy. Sri Lanka is very far behind in this respect. But many here today, your friends, sometimes family, and colleagues are already producing a lot of videos. Each one has a perspective. Each is a story. Each captures life as you know it, and want to project it. Propaganda can also use the same digital media, but with growing access and use of video, it’s more difficult to convince people of the single-narrative. Inconvenient truths can’t be hidden easily anymore. You will capture them. You will disseminate them. You can hold governments and those in power accountable.

But how do we make sense of 6,000 videos, or over 10 days of continuous viewing, in the time I take to give this speech? Is too much information as bad as, or perhaps worse then no or little information? Is the deluge of karaoke videos and of cute kittens doing tricks with knitting balls drowning more vital video, voices and producers? How do we find and focus on what matters most to our fragile democracy, and issues of democracy, accountability and social justice?

These are tough questions. Whistle-blowers today – for example, someone with a video taken in the heat of battle that shows the torture and execution of a prisoner of war – can in fact upload their video to the web quite easily, and from almost anywhere in the world including the actual theatres of war. But their unique perspective and location can give their identity away even if care is taken to remain anonymous online. On the consumption side, there is simply too much of content out there, and without the skill to search for and determine the veracity of video content, videos like those showcased by Agenda 14 this evening will be largely lost, and will fail to reach critical audiences. Activists today need to know digital media skills. No longer is a picket on Lipton Circus enough, or a petition to the President’s office. Short form video plays a key role in advocacy campaigns, and yet, civil society in Sri Lanka is largely oblivious to its power. This has to change. I believe it will.

Finally, your story matters. In fact, it is what matters the most. Today, life in the slums of Mumbai can be captured in high-end digital cameras used for cinema. 2009’s Slumdog Millionaire became the first movie shot mainly in digital to be awarded the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. But there is another world of digital video. This is the world you in the audience hold the keys to, and are the best ambassadors of. I call it a new geography of perspectives – which reflects your ability to capture your world, and place it online for consideration by global audience. Resolution today matters less than perspective. No Sri Lankan here, possibly in their lifetime, can afford a 4K Red One camera. All of you, right here, right now, can capture me on film. Some of you, with a smartphone, can even capture me in high definition. The world of film is no longer contained in cinema or through a mere projection. It lives amongst us. No longer are we all passive subjects. There was always a choice between a just a voter and an informed, vocal citizen. Today that choice is mediated by how we all leverage digital media, and increasingly, short-form digital video. Many of you will choose to film the safe, the commercial, the profitable, the popular. A few of you will use technology as well as an eye for a good story to film the unpopular, the hidden truths, the marginal, the oppressed. Who we saw as victims of yesterday will shoot their own stories, competing with those here who make documentaries.

New voices, new video, new world. How you choose to engage is up to you. This evening, I am pleased to be in the midst of a few who show a larger public the power of film. I commend Agenda 14’s vision in creating a compelling platform to showcase these great short-film, and as importantly, create a space through its magazine to have a discussion about cinematography and its appreciation in a country that even post-war seeks to clamp down on critical perspectives.

As friend, colleague, diplomat, parent, lover, child, teacher, student, academic, worker, guardian, mother, father, sister or brother, I hope you all choose to bear witness to both what’s very wrong as well as what is good in our country. Technology already allows it. The choice is ours.

Thank you, and I wish you all a pleasant evening.

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