The ‘What, Why Democracy?’ Student Festival for Politics and International Studies (PaIS) students took place when Prof. Renske Doorenspleet challenged them to make a short film discussing what democracy actually is, and what it means to them.
“It was good to move out of an academic setting and broadens your mind about what democracy should really mean outside your academic circle; it’s more engaging and more interesting,” expressed one of the students when talking about their film.
I arrive on to the lecture theatre in the Social Sciences building a good fifteen minutes early (I allowed time for getting lost) to an empty lecture theatre, save for a few other time-anxious students, and one woman dressed in a casual jeans, a t-shirt and hoodie. She is slim with olive skin and a touch of bold red lipstick; as soon as I hear her speak in an Italian accent my suspicions are confirmed: she is Zoe D’Amaro. D’Amaro is an underground political film maker from Godmother films, who has been invited to give feedback on what the students have produced. So aspiring film-makers: read on…
I approach her and introduce myself; I tell her I’m from the student paper to interview her and before I know it she’s interviewing me: “How long have you been with The Boar” she probes, taking an interest, “Oh not long” “Keeps you busy?” “Well, it keeps me out of trouble” I nervously joke, “Keeps you off the streets!” she laughs, putting me at ease. She’s exactly what you’d expect an underground cult film director, unimposing, yet somehow she draws people in.
PaIS students were now filing in behind me, ready to show the results of this academic experiment; the films showed promise from students that perhaps would not have considered expressing their ideas in this way. One student said that “whilst it is a creative project, it is very difficult to produce a good result without really intellectually and academically getting to grips with what democracy means. Academic and creative thinking go hand in hand”.
Most students found the balance between academic thinking and creative expression, despite its difficulties. One group compared democracy to the process of making banana bread; a concept that initially started off as a joke in the formative ideas stage, as they put it: “we were hungry”. Using stop-motion, they likened the ingredients of banana bread to the components of democracy (the banana was freedom of speech, if you are wondering), where the heat of the oven is the heat of debate, and in the end result “one person, one slice”. D’Amaro appreciated the ‘out of the box’ concept of dealing with serious issue in entertaining way; talking about democracy can feel very dry, so the students found a way of bringing it back to something they can relate to. “That’s what film makers should do – think outside the box, it’s about how you tell that story,” said D’Amaro.
Then a group of third-year students showed their film which illustrated how we’re collectively not sure what democracy actually is, by adding post-its of different people’s ideas to a board, which ended up suitably jumbled. “What we wanted to say changed as the filming process went on” said a student, which D’Amaro quickly picked up on: “it is a crucial issue: the abuse of the word ‘democracy’: so it loses meaning and no one really knows what it means. But doubting is the first step to knowing – it’s great that you are open about what you want to say… it’s good to be surprised by your own content”.
This was the theme of the presentations: it was interesting watching these students try to express what democracy actually means without coming to a solid conclusion, but then, isn’t that the beauty of democracy; that it is adaptable, and not rigid? Another group looked at the difficulties of Western impositions of democracy, and interviewed international students and encouraged them to express themselves in their own language; “if you try and answer in English you adopt western-centric ideas, saying what you are expected to say; but if you speak your own language you express your own feeling and your own thoughts” said Ganna Maria, a Comparative Politics student, about this film.
The morning rounded up with a presentation from guest speaker, Paul Le Cuzait, a Warwick student and founder of SIBE (the Student Interactive Broadcast Entranet), a project which was the result of D’Amaro’s visit last year. SIBE is a completely student-run internet hub of documentaries and live television, particularly taking an interest in local politics, Cuzait remarked that “students need to step into the real world, even when we are students”, to which D’Amaro added “this is what these projects about, give people who are not film makers a voice”. I think that’s the point of this whole project, democracy and film have at least one thing in common: they give people a voice, and students especially should take advantage of that.
Zoe D’Amaro illustrated this idea further in her lecture the next day; she showed Interferenze, a film about pirate TV stations in Italy. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was a media tycoon, and so had almost complete control over all television and radio, this film “explores the intriguing story of what became known as the Telestreet network through the personal experience of the members of Orfeo TV,” highlighting how important it is for marginalised communities to have the tools of film-making in order to make a political statement without taking to violence. Therein is the point of the ‘What, Why Democracy?’ festival.
She continued this thread by talking about her time in South Africa to make a documentary about Mitchel’s Plain, an impoverished area with little to no opportunities for education; a trip which resulted in forming the Godmother Foundation. What D’Amaro wanted was to give the people possibilities for education, and tools to tell their own story, “I didn’t want to make another film from a white imperialistic point of view,” she noted, “it’s important to plant a seed, but it needs to grow itself”, in other words the idea was to let the people of Mitchel’s Plain use the communication tools and skills they had learnt to create community spirit organically, “media access is crucial for maintaining social diversity and to stimulate participation”, D’Amaro stated in tandem with the Festival ethos.
It is not always plain sailing in the world of political film making, and not everyone is as on-board as one would hope: “We get trolls – people who are hired by corporations that we have challenged to work online: you start seeing very negative comments on our videos, suspiciously very similar comments. People are actually hired to make fifty different accounts and boycott activist campaigns… others to manipulate Google views, so more corporation-positive videos go to the top of the list. It is kind of scary. People are employed full time for these purposes.” After the lecture D’Amaro walked with me to her next appointment…
**When you started making films what do you wish someone had told you about pursuing this particular career?**
ZD: SO many things… [she laughs] Oh, well, take your time, don’t get demoralised, it’s a very difficult business and very difficult field to make a living, but it’s a great platform for young people with ideas… Firstly, it depends which field you are going into; whether you are going into documentary, into fiction, I think the most important thing is tell stories that are very important to you. And respect your character, get close, don’t be afraid, it’s very difficult to find the balance between the necessary emotional involvement and the distance. You have to put yourself in line as a person in the first place, then as a film maker. Also do research… I dig beyond the obvious, dig beyond the surface, look for the stories that are untold, and look for the other side of the coin. I think that’s very important.
**You mentioned you have ‘trolls’ sometimes, what other difficulties do you typically have when making films, or is it different with each project that you take on?**
ZD: Well when you take on a good-cause the financial possibilities are always limited, on a budget level it’s sometimes hard to make a production, for example for Greenpeace, than if you are working for a big corporation. There are also a lot of financial issues in my choices as a film-maker, sometimes I do choose to do projects that are more commercially orientated because I do need to have the… well I have a company. I need to support myself. And because I need to create an economical base that will allow me to take the time to often do thing that are not, you know… its like Robin Hood, you take from the rich then you put it back into a good causes project with a sense of purpose.
**So when you are selecting projects to make money, you said that you have certain criteria they have to fulfil?**
ZD: Well I try to be coherent even if it is very difficult, to be always consistent with yourself. I try to select the companies I am working with and I check how they are on an ethical level, on an environmental level… sometimes I work with companies that have a sort of sustainable side to it: it’s actually very sexy now for companies to have a sustainable side for marketing purposes. So even if they have an edge that goes beyond marketing or trying to not work for big evil corporations.
**How have you found the students’ film festival?**
ZD: I’m just very happy to come to a place like Warwick, you’re such a great University, and I have the chance to talk about my work on a different level. Quite often I don’t analyse it myself, like I did today. It makes me understand and gives me perspective, it’s very important not only to inspire young people but be inspired by them, and it was great that last year I came, and the result was the creation of SIBE which was an incredible result for me. I was quite impressed with these first-time film makers; they were dealing with extremely interesting topics.
**So I guess you feel projects like this should be used more?**
ZD: I think it’s very interesting to implement more practical projects into academic work and combining them with academic research; it shouldn’t be conflict it should kind of work together.
_You can learn more about the ‘What, Why Democracy?’ festival and watch the student’s films at http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/pais/research/csd/whatwhydemocracyproject or Whydemocracy.net; Zoe D’Amaro’s films can be seen at www.godmotherfilms.com; and to find out more about SIBE simply visit sibe.co.uk to get involved._