A very busy March: Part 2

March 21
The session this week included only Carmen and Marcos.  The others were having an exam in computers.  Marisol (who you know as coordinator of education and my right hand “man”) and Erin (a new hire at Maya Traditions) were with me today.  Erin is the new director of development and was interested to learn more about the project first hand.

Even with only two student, things moved along as planned.  The focus today was to follow up on the ideas from the previous week.  That is, we focused on the different between conversations and interviews. Our goal in doing these documentaries is to capture the ideas, beliefs, and knowledge of the community. At this moment, most of the video interviews are didactic  In their defense, we did focus on creating open-ended interview questions.  The idea of using those questions solely launching points for discussion and not scripts is a little lost on them.  Just “telling” them this has not seemed to impact their interview styles.  The question at hand: How do we help make their process more ethnographic?

I find myself thinking about the power of modeling and examples.  These often facilitiate new ways of seeing things. Luckily, we had an example from from last week – the conversation between Gustavo and the girls. We also had translations from the interviews that Emilio, Marcos, and Carmen did.


I reminded Marcos and Carmen of the conversation with Gustavo.  But what seemed to be more powerful was the visual example of Emilio’s translated (KChe to Spanish) interview.  I asked, “Why is this interview good?”  The conversation evolved and we eventually got the the point of agreeing that this was a personal account of someone’s personal experience with alcoholism (Emilio’s topic).  Emilio had allowed the person to express her knowledge of the theme, her beliefs related to it and her personal – and difficult – account.

Erin interjected at this point.  She the goal of allowing the audience to become more connected with the community by allowing us to capture meaning, feeling, and personality.  

With this in mind, we reviewed the films that Carmen completed over the past week. We discussed the what the differences were – both in the way that conversation was framed and how the video was shot.  Carmen understood the difference in the interview style.  She also realized that she forgot the video techniques that Drew taught her. Each time it becomes more clear that this process of catching emotion was a combination of both words and images.  It was a perfect “teachable moment”.


We took advantage of putting what we learned into practice right away.  We packed up our equipment and off we went into the community to search for people to interview.  What I found out quickly was that the kids were not independently going into the community to do this work because they felt a little timid about doing so.  As a team though, they felt more empowered to make this happen.  It took a few tries before one person agreed to be interviewed.  Carmen worked as a professional (and looked like one!) to create a comfortable setting for this amiable volunteer.  Together, Marcos and Carmen began shooting.  Carmen – the words; Marcos – the images.


The results yielded an obvious shift.  Although not many of us can understand K’Che, we can just see by the body language that this interview is a more natural conversation that Carmen creates.  Step by step, they are becoming video ethnographers!


A very busy March: Part 1

March 14:

7:30 AM, with coffee in hand, Gustavo and I boarded the chicken buses for Chirijox.  Gustavo is a Guatemalan businessman.  He heard about the project through a friend of mine and he offered to accompany me when I needed him.   Today, I needed him.  Marisol had a meeting and was unable to come.

Describing Gustavo is not an easy task.  He is exuberant to say the least.  His energy is infectious.  He talks… to everyone.  He knows… almost anyone he passes.  He clearly loves and enjoys life.  On our way on the chicken bus, I recall him saying, “I love taking the chicken bus.”  I look at him like he is crazy, but I understand.  We both talk about how it keeps us close to “local life”.  Gustavo owns a tour business so he most often travels around in a car.  I, however, am on this bus every week!  We both agree though that being on the bus is a chance to feel a part of the daily lives of the locals. We comment on how happy the people are and how friendly and content they are.   He smiles while saying this, but there is rarely a time he does not smile.

We arrive in Chirijox and walk into the home where I meet the youth each week.  He immediately stands tall and reaches his hand out to each and every one of them.  One by one, he introduces himself.  Gustavo is just one of these people whose presence fills the room with energy.

Gustavo come to offer help with translations, but his contributions were far more considerable than changing words for me.  He showed genuine interest in the stories and topics of each youth or group.  And as he interacted with them, inspired the youth and he made them feel at ease.


This is a perfect example.  Edgar is not often present for our sessions. It is not exactly clear why he isn’t there, but the reasons include is work, his family, his school, or how far he lives.  Today, he was present and I was thrilled to see him!  I got the others started on doing KChe-Spanish translations or on interviews.  I started to work with Edgar on his story. He had written it yet.  When I asked him a questions, he was so nervous.  Gustavo was right there.  He set his hand on Edgar’s shoulder.  Are you nervous?  Tranquillo, he said.  Relax. All is good.  And right away, Edgar did relax.  His breath softened and he was able to focus.  Gustavo conversed with him and Edgar began to write.  He wrote an introduction for his documentary and work a list of ideas of what he wanted to record.


Later on, Gustavo shifted his energies to the girls working on the history of weaving.  This came right after he and I were talking about the importnat custom of weaving in the community.  I was talking about how I wanted the girls to go deeper with their interviews.  I wanted them to be curious and get the women to talk about the significance of the colors and designs used.  He said, “They don’t know this.”  I said, “Why don’t we ask them.”  So he did.  He engaged in a ten minute conversation with the girls asking all kinds of questions about their traje.  It was an eventful moment.  We all learned not to assume that knowledge is not there, but rather when we engage in inquiry, we find out more than meets the eye.


For me, this was would become a perfect example  I wanted to encourage that their interviews be more conversational and less didactic.  My interest in this peaked especially after Catalina and Fabiola interviewed Fabiola’s mom.


That interview like many of the ones that all of them have done this far were a dry question/answer session – all but Emilio’s (in which his subject told a personal story).  Dynamic and interesting were words that came to mind when thinking about how we needed to regroup.  Gustavo’s dialogue with the girls was just perfect; it was an interview in a sense, but so much more interesting.    There was curiosity and inquiry.  And just like that, with Gustavo’s gregarious personality – we had the model example.    

Upon leaving, Gustavo asked, “When do we start working?”  I laughed.  He said, “That was not work, it was fun.”  On a more serious note, he shared that he was heartened to see the kids working on such an interesting project.  Moreover, he was impressed with the depth of the topics that these youth – at such a young age – were concerned with and were tackling.

There is no better affirmation for me, than having a local person say that this is “one of the most profound experiences” he has ever had.  It means ever more from someone like Gustavo who grew up in poverty, worked hard to teach himself business and English, someone who understands the lives of these youth… there is nothing more rewarding than to receive kudos for this projet from him.  Yet we remind each other that this work is all the work of the youth.   I’m just here, he and others that help are here, to offer the tools and the vehicle.  The stories are theirs and we are so thrilled with their work and proud of all of their commitment.

Day 2 with Drew (March 1)

What next?

After seeing the kids in the field the day before, he realized what he needed to help them with.  The kids were focused on pointing the camera and shooting.  They were ready to stage things and often they show signs of doing news casts.  Documentaries, though, are what we are trying to create.

“Creating a documentary is not just about pointing the camera and shooting”, Drew said during our conversation.  “It is about telling a story with the images and objects that are around you.  It is about capturing personality, emotion, and feeling.”  The goal for day 2 with Drew would be to get this across to them; to model it and then take them out in the field again to film.


Creating a scenario:

Drew said, “They have a video game there right?”  I did see them playing video games in the house one day, so yeah, they do.  He said, “Let’s have them video us playing a game.”  So we planned an activity to use this scenario to teach them about how to make the seeing and the story interesting.  The night before we brainstormed about how it would go.  We listed questions that we would pose to get them thinking.  We more or less scripted about what we wanted to do and then took the time to translate it in Spanish.  Still we’d be without a translator for day 2 of workshop with Drew!

Contextualizing this activity:

Drew used video that Marcos took to contextualize the activity for Day 2 of his workshop. He put together a sample of how to take the pieces of what the kids record and then put together different angles and shots to capture the story in a compelling way.  Here is what he shared:

As we watched the video, we asked them to critique it and tell us what they see.

One of the responses from Marcos was that it was bad that we could not see the face of his grandmother.  This was an interesting observation and one that opened up a good segue to filmmaking.  It is art.  We have to keep reminding them that this is art.  Art is a way of seeing things.  Art is a representation of reality (in this case for documentary film making anyway) and it is a medium that we use to capture the audience.  To get them interested in the story is part of the trip right?  So when we see grandma sitting covered on the ground, she kind of creates a mystery or a sense of suspense.  Then we focus in directly on her for the interview.  So we are more interested in this covered figure.  Who is she and what does she have to say?

Shot lists:

This was a perfect conversation that transitioned us into the activity and to review the concept of a shot list.  While we used storyboards to help the kids visualize how the director plans a shot, we also wanted to give them a tool of how to plan for a scene that they were ready to capture.  The two tools have very different purposes in my eyes.  The storyboard is more for scripting a movie that you will create.  You organize the scene, you plan your compositions as a director would to manufacture the story and its props.  The shot list is more open and flexible.  You can use it to create a general foundation for what you need to capture, but it leave you more open to make adjustments in the moment.

For a documentary, I think the shot list makes sense.  You don’t want to over plan for your scenes and you want to try as hard as you can to capture reality, conversation, natural occurrences, etc.

Their turn:

Next, it was their turn.  We stood up and we walked out of the room that we were in.  Everyone but me.  I grabbed my ipad to set up in a corner where I would play a game.

Then Drew walked back in with them.  What do you do?  What shots do we need?  Look around the room. Walk in the room and look for every detail.  You need to figure out what is going on in this room.  You are looking for shots as soon as you walk in the room.  How are the objects in this room going to tell the story?

building scenarios

Paper in hands, they began to write and talk out loud about their shots.  We couched them to think about long shots to get a sense of the scene; medium shots to bring us closer to the subject; and multiple closeups from various angles to feel like you are there.

Drew and the kids left the room again.  He wanted them each to shoot their own video, but in the interest of time, they did this in pairs.  Two, by two, they took their shot lists and they got to work.

Emilio-2013-03-05-grain GE POCKET CAMCORDER

The kids downloaded the films and Drew helped them to edit. Here are the three practice videos that resulted from the activity:

1. Shot by Catalina and Fabiola:

2. Shot by Marcos and Edgar

3. Shot by Emilio and Carmen:

A visit from Drew (February 28)

Getting to Chirjiox:

After arriving at 11:15 PM in Guatemala and a 3 hour drive to Pana, Drew was ready to leave on the chicken buses at 7:30  AM to meet the youth for the first time.  The experience was unique for him and perhaps made him a little weary!

chicken bus

Entering the room for the first time, Drew took a chair and was introduced to the group.  It took a few minutes for his Spanish to wake up.  Drew is not a morning person!  I was personally surprised that all the kids had made it this morning to meet Drew.  I was told that only two of them would be there and the others we be there on Friday.  It is hard to get the entire group here because of other commitments.  But there they were ready to go.

Today’s Goal:

Being without a translator that day was a bit difficult for us, but we seemed to accomplish a lot.  We did this with the aid of our broken Spanish and with the help of our friendly ultralingus on the ipad.

The goal of this day was to film in the field with Drew.


I had envisioned that Drew would talk to them about storyboarding and shot lists, but instead he was anxious to get into the field.  This actually aligns with my personal educational philosophy that learning takes place in context and skills are most readily remembered when they are embedded in meaningful activity.  So today, we had to follow this.


Learning in context – learning visually without language contributed to the reason for taking this direct.

Today’s Scenes

A week ago when I met with the group, I asked each of them to identify a location where they wanted to film.  I asked them to schedule their interviews so that Drew could work side by side with them to capture the videos.  Again, learning in and making adjustments in the moment would be a key to building artistic and documentary skills.

Two locations:

1. Abuelita (little grandmother)


Our first film location was at the grandmother of Marcos.  He scheduled an interview with her at 10:00 AM. When we arrived, we found a family -grandmother, father, uncle, sister and husband, and a young child.  Everyone was working: sorting, bagging, and crushing corn.  Grandma, or Abuelita, was on the group wrapped in a colorful shawl.  Carmen and Marcos were ready to sit her in a chair for the interview that Marco wanted.  Drew and I discouraged this.  This was an example of why being in the field was so important for us.  We encouraged then to see what was in the scene and make their conversation with grandma was as natural and real as possible. Of course once the camera is in the location, it changes the “natural” or “authentic” moment.

2.  Ovejas (Sheep)


The second location of filming was in the field.  Catalina and Fabiola were taking shots of the sheep – which are important to their story. fab-y-cat-sheepfab

With just a little filming today, the activity would greatly inform what we would do the next day.  Drew and I recognized a great deal of what they were doing well and what we they still needed to learn.  So off were when on another chicken bus… this time to Xela to stay and plan and then return to Chirijox for another day!