| Steps Toward a Quaker Media Practice
Part 4: Distribution & Media Literacy For Friends
by Pamela Calvert
This article is the fourth and final installment of four based on the author's thesis presented
at the Pacific School Of Religion.
seek as people of God to be worthy vessels to deliver the Lord's
transforming word, to be prophets of joy who know from experience
and can testify to the world, as George Fox did,
'that the Lord God is at work in this thick night.'"
It is finally time to speak your message, to release your work into the world. The next steps will come naturally to you if you have been pursuing your work in an attitude of faith and accountability. The first places where your finished work will screen are, of course, among the communities who have come to "own" it through their participation in the project. Only after they are clear to release your work may you bring it to a wider audience, if that is the proper distribution for the film.
Some media work may be most appropriate for "internal" circulation within the community where it was made. Other times, the work may circulate more widely, but maintaining controls that ensure respect for the original community. George Stoney's documentary All My Babies was made as a training film for African-American midwives in the rural South of the 1950s, unprecedented in its time for its sensitive and effective collaboration between the middle-class white male film crew and poor black female midwives. Stoney showed it once to a group of Navy personnel, who belittled and made fun of the subjects. Thereafter, he limited distribution of the film to audiences of health care providers; even though the subjects of the film would never be present when the film was screened in such settings, its use would never diminish their worth and dignity.
If you have been working with your prospective audience from the earliest stages of the project - treating them as part of the community that "owns" the work - you will have few impediments to reaching them with the finished film. To make his feature La Ciudad, producer/director David Riker learned Spanish and spent five years in dramatic workshops with his actors, most of whom were themselves struggling immigrants, many without papers. Even to find these actors, he had to create community around the film, building trust and credibility with organizations serving immigrant workers. Throughout production, Riker maintained accountability to the people whose stories were shared in the film: "They never deal with a white person except in situations that are hostile - either a cop, an immigration agent, or a boss. I had not only to earn their trust, but also to show them that they could feel safe. Safe not only to come out of the shadows of the city, to stand in front of the camera, but more than that, safe to open up and talk about their most intimate stories with strangers." When La Ciudad was released theatrically in 1999, an enormous community came "out of the shadows," hungry to claim the shared experience of hearing their collective stories spoken aloud. When La Ciudad was broadcast the following year on PBS, community screenings were held in churches, on buses, in labor camps. The "success" of La Ciudad was measured by the community that claimed it for its own.
La Ciudad's accountability to its core audience extended into the most "commercial" of venues, when many producers would be focusing their attention on dealmaking. At the Sundance Film Festival, a Park City church hosted a special non-festival screening and discussion of La Ciudad for the usually-invisible immigrant service workers who clean up after the skiers and festival-goers. This audience does not buy tickets to festival screenings or offer acquisition and development deals, but for Riker, it was without contest the most important event of the entire week.
Community-based distribution requires a much greater effort by the producer than conventional models of doing the festival and market rounds, finding a distributor and moving on to the next project. Regardless of how comfortable you are with thinking of yourself as a "traveling minister," as you take to the road with film can under your arm you may find yourself relating to the experiences of 19th century circuit riders on more than one occasion. You are responsible to make sure that your work is sent out into the world with the same integrity, accountability, and engagement as has governed the process to this point. Your job is to bring it to the people who will give it a life in the world for years to come, in ways you can never imagine on your own. Over-committed, under-staffed community organizations will invest far more time, resources and creativity in using media and broadcast than you could ever presume to propose. A social service agency in Staten Island, New York rented two billboards for a month to promote the broadcast of Travis, a documentary on a little boy with AIDS. Lutheran Disaster Response of North Dakota set itself a goal of showing The Farmer's Wife (all 6.5 hours of it) to every farm family in the state. You don't have to move the mountain, but you do need to build a community around it—and then get out of the way.
Your ministry should take you outside of your comfort zone and into the world: "If we are to be the Lord's hands and feet in bringing about the Kingdom of God, we have to leave the spot we are now and do new things in strange places." You may show your work in a living room or broadcast it around the world, as way opens, trusting that in either setting it is in its right place, speaking to the people who need to hear its message. You should not stay away from mass media as an outlet for your work if your message will speak to the condition of a mass audience: indeed, "the early Quaker ministers worked the public places - the churches, markets, fairs, streets - in order to bring the Truth before those who had not yet received it, to plow the ground and plant the seed of their new faith." By the same token, your message may be most appropriately shared in more focused settings, again following the example of early Friends, in "meetings for cultivation and harvest." Speak to your audience where it is, at all times endeavoring to bring people together in active engagement and communion.
At the end of the day, the "success" of a ministry will be judged by God alone, and not by human standards. Like John Woolman, who died nearly a century before emancipation, we may never see the direct fruits of our work. But as Wilson reminds his readers, "True ministry is a state of servanthood, for that is the root meaning of the word minister: 'to serve.' ... The New Testament says very little about human success; it says a lot about human faithfulness."
Media Literacy for Friends
appears to me to be one important means of helping the human mind
in a healthy state, that in recreations which are needful for it,
it should be trained as much as possible to look to those things
that bring profit as well as pleasure with them.
I will now turn to the role of the Friends community in media education, both working with media and in training media makers. As noted above, Friends' response to the popular culture in general and media in particular has been for the most part to pretend it isn't there and hope it goes away. I believe we have cloistered ourselves more out of unexamined elitism than careful and Spirit-led discernment. Just as individual Friends may be led into the production of media as a ministry, I call upon Friends to learn to use media in pedagogies of transformation and liberation. We have remained illiterate in the means of communications employed by the vast majority of the world's people, and have abdicated the job of teaching media literacy to others. This is hardly the way of the Quaker missionaries who founded the Penn Center in South Carolina in 1862—three years before the end of the Civil War - to prepare former slaves for freedom by teaching them to read.
I will not belabor this point, but make a few notes for future discernment among Friends. Since we are bringing up the rear in this effort, we may learn from models such as the principles espoused by the World Association for Christian Communication: "Prophetic communication stimulates critical awareness of the reality constructed by the media and helps people to distinguish truth from falsehood, discern the subjectivity of the journalist and to disassociate that which is ephemeral and trivial from that which is lasting and valuable."
The modern media experience is one of social and spiritual isolation. Either hosting public screenings and discussions in our meetinghouses, co-sponsoring events with community-based organizations, or holding small group viewings in our homes, we can draw the solitary, passive "consumer" of media into an active engagement with the text, in community, under the care of the Inward Teacher. A person who attends such a screening, whether they are a pillar of the meeting or a first-time visitor, is already expressing a willingness to step out of isolation and into community, to be part of a collective for a few hours and, in ways as yet unknown, to be transformed by that experience. Media is a powerful tool which we have no good reason to deny ourselves—both in our own edification, and in speaking to the larger world.
"Queries" are a particular art form among Friends, so constructing discussion questions for worship-sharing following a screening should come rather naturally to us. I will offer two foundational sets of queries Friends might consider in working with media. The first set are widely used in "Quaker Bible study": What is the main point of this text? What new light did you find in it? Was it true to your experience? What are its implications for your life? What problems did you have with it?
The second is from John Wycliffe, "the morning star of the Reformation," whose 14th century advices might have been written by a 21st century media theorist:
shall greatly help ye to understande Scripture,
Training the Quaker Minister
the Communication Arts Department, commit to develop communicators
rooted in communities, acting as agents of truth, reflection, transformation
and reconciliation in a way that celebrates God's grace and faithfulness."
Finally, I wish to discuss briefly the role of Quaker institutions of higher education in training Friends to make and use media. There is a wide and perhaps predictable spectrum of engagement with media among Friends colleges. After decades of successful media use by Christian evangelists, it should surprise no reader that the more theologically conservative the Friends institution, the more likely it is to offer a media production program. All the Friends colleges affiliated with an EFI yearly meeting, save tiny Barclay, offer undergraduate majors in communications or media studies, focusing on production training, although it is unclear how many of their graduates go on to professional careers in the field. On the other hand, not one of the FGC-based colleges and universities offers such a program. Of the latter schools, only Swarthmore offers as much as an interdepartmental Film and Media Studies major, focusing on history and theory rather than practice. In the theological and geographic center, Earlham's journalism major offers coursework in news reporting, photography, and radio, but no television or video.
It was not within the scope of this paper to have surveyed these academic programs to discern how students are prepared for work in media with a distinctively Quaker approach, and to what degree that might align with or diverge from what I have outlined above. Malone College's new mission statement, adopted just this year, is a marvel of revelation and inspiration, exemplifying Rufus Jones's observation:
I cannot claim that all Quaker schools and colleges succeed in cultivating the deeper life, but it can at least be said that they all take that aspects of education seriously. ... What is done is to make the fundamental features of religious life as real as possible. I say 'religious life' advisedly. Religion is brought over from the abstract to the concrete, from definitions to practice. It is dealt with as a way of living, as something to be done, and not as merely something to be talked about and left in the region of theory and speculation.
I call on all Friends colleges to evaluate whether their media programs are geared toward training professionals, or ministers. If a Friends institution does not offer a media program, I call on them to consider whether this serves the interests of 21st century Quaker witness, at the same level as the ubiquitous "Peace and Conflict Studies" departments. If evangelical Friends colleges are in fact placing significant numbers of alumni in media, I call on them to lift up their graduates and urge them to speak widely and publicly of their experiences as Quakers in the field of media, to be mentors and role models for others, and to open the way for future ministers. I encourage evangelical Friends colleges to claim and teach Quaker distinctives in media education, and I challenge liberal Quaker colleges to engage with the confessional and evangelical.
I call upon all Friends to consider how we might bear witness to the Truth, wherever we are led, using every means we have at hand. Thy will be done.
beloved Friends, these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or
form to walk by, but that all, with the measure of light which is
pure and holy, may be guided; and so in the light walking and abiding,
these may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not from the letter, for the
letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.
Part 2: Discernment of Calling & Preproduction
Part 3: Production & Postproduction
Pamela Calvert is an itinerant televangelist
currently studying media
Email your comments to email@example.com. Your thoughts may be posted in next month's edition of Faithful Witness. All replies must include full name and location to be included. No email addresses will be posted online. Please indicate if you would like your note forwarded to the author of this article.