Witness to Change

System Failure: Violence, Abuse and Neglect in the California Youth Authority has all the elements you’ve come to expect from an earnest, well-intentioned documentary. There are heartrending interviews with young people who have been incarcerated in California’s juvenile prisons, their parents, and the advocates who work with them. These interviews are well lit and seamlessly edited. There is archival footage of the state legislature, and clips from local news reports on a savage 2001 beating of several “wards” (as the young inmates are known) at the hands of guards. There is b-roll footage taken inside the prison and at reformers’ rallies and demonstrations. There is an opening sequence and a score, chapter headings and even a proper credit sequence.

System Failure, however, is not really a documentary—it was not made by filmmakers who recorded hundreds of hours of footage and then painstakingly assembled a finished product based on their observations. The 31-minute movie never did the rounds at festivals or crossed the transom at PBS or HBO or any of the other popular outlets for nonfiction film. It doesn’t have a theatrical distribution deal. The video was made by Books Not Bars, an advocacy group that works to reform the California Youth Authority (CYA), in partnership with WITNESS, a Brooklyn-based organization dedicated to arming human rights activists with the tools they need to make targeted, savvy media about their causes.


WITNESS does not mind if this distinction is lost upon viewers; in many ways it is probably good if System Failure’s audience does not feel as if it is watching a tiresome and pedantic piece of propaganda, but is instead caught up in the story and persuaded by the film’s imagery. But as it has with every one of its partners, WITNESS set out to help Books Not Bars make a film that would have a very specific aim—in this case to aid in the CYA reform effort. “We stress that you are not making a video about an issue, but rather for a purpose, for an audience,” says Sam Gregory, WITNESS’ program manager. “You want to persuade and shame and move that audience.”


The power of video is undeniable. What one person might report—or even what a newspaper might explicate—pales in comparison to the persuasive power of an image. Decision-makers and even ordinary citizens often feel they must act once they have seen footage of a disaster or a crime. “Powerful images become a source of energy for social change,” says Andrew Blau, a media analyst and a member of the WITNESS board. “Once you have seen it, the burden is on you to do something about it.”

For its part, Books Not Bars has found its partnership with WITNESS enormously effective. “We wanted decision makers to really understand what it would be like to be in the CYA and how they could reform the system,” says Books Not Bars Executive Director Lenore Anderson. “We wanted them to do more than just paint the windows a new color and hire a nicer staff person.” Since mounting a campaign to distribute the film to judges, public defenders, district attorneys, and members of the California government, the CYA population has dropped from 5,000 to just 2,300. “The judges who sentence kids understand these issues better, as well as probation officers, and people who make policy. This film has turned people’s hearts around and given them a real sense of what it means to send young people to one of these facilities,” says Anderson.

WITNESS is the brainchild of the musician Peter Gabriel, who has long been interested in human rights issues and had been affiliated with Amnesty International and other organizations over the years. He founded WITNESS in 1992, in the wake of the Rodney King beating. The now-iconic footage of that incident, in which an African-American motorist was severely beaten by Los Angeles police officers, sparked a national—even international—debate about the appropriate use of amateur video footage. The men who beat King were eventually acquitted of any criminal wrongdoing, a verdict that sparked devastating riots, but regardless of what you thought of the guilt or innocence of those police officers or of Rodney King himself, the power of that grainy footage was undeniable. “People understood that if you saw something that was normally hidden, you could change the public discourse,” says Blau. “Once you change what can be seen, you change our ability to do something about it.”


An average citizen, equipped with a hand-held video camera of the type used to film children’s soccer games and family get-togethers, had changed the way Americans view law enforcement and brought attention to the way minorities are treated by police. What was once the exclusive territory of journalists and professional filmmakers had been opened up to anyone with access to a camera.


Gabriel recognized that human rights work would never be the same: Cheap and readily available technology meant that the victims of crimes, both here and abroad, could document their plight through compelling images. But the Rodney King footage also provided a cautionary tale. “Those images sparked a national conversation and real social protest, but there was no conviction, no lasting systematic change,” says Blau.


Gabriel hoped WITNESS would help filmmakers harness their images for a purpose and help them follow through on that aim. In 1992, he helped set up the organization under the auspices of the Lawyer’s Committee for Human Rights (now Human Rights First), and WITNESS’s small staff went to work finding local activists with which they could work. WITNESS acquired hundreds of cameras and some editing equipment and set about making it available.


It was a unique moment in the history of media. Inexpensive cameras could be had by the hundreds and used with little training or expertise; in contrast to film, video was cheap and easy to edit, which required a minimum of training and expertise. The Internet was just beginning to catch on with ordinary civilian users and, over the next decade, would explode as a platform for still and video images, and as a means to spread information and ideas.


The WITNESS staff quickly realized that merely making cameras available was not enough. “In the beginning there was an emphasis on getting the camera out there, but that was never really the biggest added value,” says Gillian Caldwell, WITNESS’ executive director. “The biggest value was always the technical and tactical advice to help them develop a powerful visual vocabulary surrounding their issue.”


WITNESS began developing techniques that could be distributed along with the equipment. “At the core of our work is the principal that you know your objective and goal for change and from there, you work out to the audience you need to reach and from there you move to the video,” says Gregory.


Before they could set about making a film, local organizations needed to identify their audiences: Were they legislators or judges, journalists or townspeople isolated in the countryside? What did the film hope to accomplish? Was it designed to promote a specific policy or referendum? Was it designed to educate people about a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or expose an atrocity that had been suppressed? And how would the local organization get its footage: Would it interview people or attempt to film an incident?


“Our distribution strategy is what we call tactical media,” says Caldwell. “It’s not a focus on maximizing the number of eyeballs or on getting a television broadcast or a big premier. It’s very focused on what’s the solution and who the media needs to get to in order to ensure that the solution is implemented.”

WITNESS wanted to ensure that its grantees understood the power of a film to persuade, took that power seriously, and protected themselves against any potential dangers. “We wanted people to use video in ways that are ethical and effective,” says Gregory. “What does it mean to use somebody’s voice? What does it mean to edit together two contrasting viewpoints? And what will it mean when your worst enemy can see you talking about human rights violations?”


As it grew, WITNESS realized that in order to implement this strategy, it would need to work more closely with a smaller number of organizations. Instead of scattershot grants, an intense partnership program was put in place. Each partner was carefully chosen based on the strength of their work, the clarity of their mission, and the possibility that a video would help accomplish their goals. In addition to granting permission to equipment and technical training, a WITNESS staff member would travel to meet with a representative of the organization in their home country—from Colombia and the Congo, to Thailand and sights in the US—to help them flesh out their objectives. As filming is completed, partners spend time in the WITNESS offices editing their video and further honing their strategy.


These partnerships, says Caldwell, are a model for how Western organizations can interact with human rights activists who have close, personal ties to a crisis. Instead of a pedantic “you have the problem, we have the answer” methodology, Caldwell and her staff work to enable local people to help themselves. “The underlying theory of [our work at WITNESS] is that change really depends on the strength and visibility of local human rights defenders,” she says. “Western human rights organizations tend to focus on report writing and on identifying trends. And then they make recommendations. That role is important but we want to empower these groups to plot their own solution.”

“WITNESS gets that there are people struggling for generations upon generations to change the conditions in which they live,” says Anderson. “They get that people have been fighting for their human rights and that if an organization comes in and says ‘we’re going to do something,’ that can be enormously damaging and unhelpful. What most people need are resources and tools, they don’t need bosses.”


Thanks to its success—and to the galloping pace of digital advancement—WITNESS has flourished. When Caldwell joined the organization as executive director in 1998 (she had previously been a WITNESS partner herself; her three-year project produced a film that used hidden camera footage to record the trafficking of sex workers in the states of the former Soviet Union, and an extensive advocacy and international awareness campaign), she had a staff of one and a budget of around $100,000. Today, the organization is housed in two floors of an office building behind the Brooklyn Academy of Music, has a staff of 20, and an annual budget of $3 million.


They have more than a dozen active partnerships at a time, plus many other smaller projects. They attracted the de rigueur attention of Angelina Jolie, who traveled with WITNESS staffers to Sierra Leone to observe the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, about which WITNESS produced a video for distribution throughout the countryside. And WITNESS has assembled what is perhaps the largest archive of footage about human rights abuses anywhere in the world. It is a grim but powerful repository, a memory bank for victims of atrocities who would otherwise be forgotten or ignored.

As digital cameras and camera phones proliferate worldwide—and penetrate even the most remote areas—the WITNESS’ mandate, and the services it provides to activists, promises to grow even more pressing. Last October, WITNESS also published a book, Video for Change: A Guide for Advocacy and Activism, which anyone can download for free off the WITNESS website. Gregory and Caldwell hope it will be an invaluable tool for human rights advocates who cannot be WITNESS partners—or even for ordinary filmmakers interested in making targeted films.


Documentary filmmakers will no doubt want to distinguish their work from WITNESS projects. After all, many self-styled storytellers value the investigative process in which a WITNESS film must by nature eschew as extraneous to a specific strategy. But Caldwell thinks the WITNESS method could benefit ordinary filmmakers tremendously. “What often happens in video and documentary filmmaking is there is so little funding and so few opportunities for distribution that people invest themselves heavily in making a movie and then run out of gas and time to invest when it comes to distribution,” she says. “A more targeted set of goals and a broader set of allies committed to distribution could be hugely valuable to them.”


For her part, Books Not Bars’ Anderson thinks that filmmakers could learn an even more important lesson from WITNESS: “When I went to law school I remember that only one of my professors said anything about the responsibility of lawyers. He said, ‘You’re now being given a tool and that is power, and you can either use that to improve the world around you or to maintain the status quo. I think all skilled professionals are faced with that same choice. Filmmakers are a group of people with a tremendous amount of power and the ability to shape the world we live in. You can use that power to continue things the way they are or you can change the world.”

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