Powered by the People

It only took me a year and a half to finish what I consider the earliest documentary I ever started. What began as a practice project turned into an interesting story about an energetic red head who wanted to create a sense of community through a pedal-powered concert.

I was proud to screen the final movie at the Glow and Show at Cyclepalooza, a ten-day biking event in Calgary. Here is the movie within the movie:

A Touch of Kathmandu

Spending four weeks in Kathmandu working with Nepalese youth and shooting a documentary is like living in an alternate reality… one you can’t help carrying home. I have the luxury now of trying to make sense of it all in the editing room. Things I never noticed in the moment (overwhelmed as I was by the stimulation of a completely different culture) become clear upon review and reflection.

The story is shaping up and in a couple months I’ll be sure to share a screening of the final 20 minute documentary. In the meantime, here is a little bit of that experience I recorded overseas.

Journey to Nepal

In about a week, I leave for Nepal to shoot my first official international documentary. CAWST recruited me to work with them to produce an educational resource that can be used in high schools to spur conversations on global issues. We’ll be working with a local group of youth in Kathmandu who is working with the Nepalese on water sanitation and education. I’m giddy with excitement, but I’m also anxious about shooting in a hot foreign developing country in the middle of a monsoon.

20120624-183910.jpgThe easy parts are done. I’ve been vaccinated for polio, typhoid, cholera, hepatitis, rabies, and something else I can’t spell. My passport and plane tickets are in order. All my critical equipment is ready to go each with backups in case one fails. All that remains of the logistics is figuring out where to pack my clothes in the remaining space.

The hard part is the mental preparation. After taking CAWST’s travel risk management course and discussing emergency scenarios, evacuation routes, and crisis mitigation, I’ve realized there is an important difference between this trip and other trips I’ve taken.

This is not a vacation.

With a vacation mindset, you can rely on the tour company, the cruise ship, the tourist board to plan your day and take care of your survival needs. If you’ve read Deep Survival, you’ll recall that taking a vacation mindset when headed into unfamiliar territory is generally bad practice. With the Deep Survival mindset, you would prepare for critical failures such as civil unrest, disease, severe weather, equipment malfunction. You would prepare yourself to be co-responsible with a foreign culture you don’t understand recognizing that much of the planning will happen on the ground. The difference is stark. A vacation is meant to conform to your expectations of having a “great experience”. International development work requires dealing with your own preconceptions and lack of understanding.

I am not the most observant person on the best of days, so it is fortunate I’ll be traveling with an experienced partner and we will be working with local hosts as our guides. The risks are low. Kathmandu is a big city and I don’t doubt I’ll adapt. Nevertheless I’m conscious of the fact that my usual networks, institutions and other assets are not as readily available to me there. It’s worth reflecting on as we usually associate travel with learning about other cultures, when the real eye-opening lesson is what you learn about your own culture. I have no doubt this trip will be as transformative as other experiences I’ve had. Culture is a force to be reckoned with.

20120624-184454.jpgI intend on being open to the experience and building relationships. Even though spending four weeks in Kathmandu to work with a local organization is a brief moment in a culture with thousands of years of history, it is a beginning. It occurs to me that having a successful relationship with a stranger requires the same qualities for any good relationship: a willingness to learn and understand, an openness to different perspectives, a sense of one’s own identity and culture, and a sense of the other’s identity and culture. I hope to cultivate these qualities further in myself. I find somehow when you grow up and live in the same culture for too long you can lose that inherent curiosity in other people. We assume too much about each other.

There is one other thing that weighs on me. Samantha Nutt’s book Damned Nations highlights the problems with most international aid and development work. North Americans send piles of t-shirts to developing countries to “clothe the poor people” and in the process decimate the local textile economy. Or we’ll buy goats or build wells, but develop no capacity to sustain those gifts. We want to feel good more than we want to do good. I would like to not do harm as a starting point, and that takes more than good intentions. It takes good thinking.

Despite it all, I am cautiously optimistic that I’ll be able to keep my eyes open, my mind sharp and my curiosity well stocked. Nepal, bring on my education!

My First Documentary

I thought that the best way to learn how to shoot a documentary was to shoot a documentary. So with camera in hand, I tracked my subject, Heather Hendrie, in her attempt to build a electricity generating bike adapter. She thought she could build it in a day, and I naively thought I could finish a documentary short in a week.

A year and a half later, I’m finally releasing my first documentary short. I’m proud to say it will be premiering this Friday evening at an outdoor movie event during Cyclepalooza, a ten day celebration of bikes. Here’s the trailer:

It’s humbling to see the evolution of my camera abilities and how difficult it is get the right shot in changing outdoor lighting conditions. Nevertheless, the project has rewarded me with lessons in patience and persistence.

In life, I am quick to take action and impatient for results. In documentaries as in life, the meaningful things take its own time to grow and flourish. Strangely, through my computer screen I examine life more closely and fully than in real life. I can replay interviews and extract themes and nuance. I can observe the story of a year’s journey in seconds. Here on my editing suite, I am permitted the luxury of reflection.

Perhaps this says something about how I do tend to see things through a fog of ideas. Documentary video helps me crystalize some of those ideas in ways that feels practical. The ideas become real for me.

Editing is a process of reflection and meaning-making. Every cut is a decision that says “this is important” because it’s significant or it entertains or it simply moves the story along. One day, I’d like to reach this level of mastery where every cut is purpose made.

Like any meaning-making process though, I have to see the small moving pictures in the context of the larger stories. How am I able to see clearly in these moments of life if I don’t invest myself in experiencing and understanding life itself?

Sounds abstract I know, but it is eminently practical. On a small scale, Heather’s project is just a bike that generates electricity. But in the context of our collective dependency on energy, particularly fossil fuels, and its threat to the environment, the bike takes on greater significance.

So I remind myself. There are times to act and do your best. But there are more times where taking more time will lead to far better results.

Why sports often doesn’t develop character

The word sport came from a Old French verb, desporter, meaning to divert or amuse or play. Ref a few testosterone-laden soccer games and you’ll see why the “sport of kings” originally referred to war-making.

I have higher aspirations for sport. Can it serve a purpose above the motivations of war? Will it remain the domain of diversion and amusement to pass the time? Or will it simply be a spectacle to be charged for at the gates? I hadn’t considered this question until a recent Artist in Residency partnership with Sport Calgary had me thinking about what sports offer, if anything, to society. With over 500 amateur sports organizations and 80 categories of sports in Calgary alone, there is no doubt it plays a big role in the community.

Unfortunately, in an age where success is often measured by fame and fortune alone, the spirit of sport is lost in the economic drive to commercialize all aspects of life. But I think sport, if properly understood, is a potential vehicle for developing values that make for a strong and vibrant community.

At its core, sport is a form of organized play requiring physical prowess. For some, this form of play may become a lifelong profession. For many others, playing is a healthy form of leisure. But as every child learns, play is a form of practice for the big game of life and it should be taken seriously.

Sports inherently creates conditions where good character could be developed. One may need to overcome fear and stress to overcome obstacles, or compete with intelligence and respect against an opponent, or strive for excellence in one’s ability. But it can just as easily descend into a winner-takes-all attitude where slavish loyalty to the team trumps ethical behaviour. Famous basketball coach, John Wooden, was on to something when he said that “Sports do not develop character. It reveals it.”

The issue is that sports by itself is insufficient for developing character. Sure the structure of the sport, whether team or individual, plays a role in the types of skills developed. Nevertheless, coaches, parents, celebrities, schools, sports films, and news play as much, if not more, of a role in shaping how athletes approach their sport. Imagine a coach who preaches respect and fairplay in the dressing room, but dresses down the ref on a bad call, or parents who pressure kids to win at all costs even if it means sneaking one past the ref. The lessons learned from an activity depends on the culture surrounding the individual athlete.

Yet, even if there is a supportive network of people present to draw out the best in the athlete, there is also no guarantee that qualities developed in one discipline will transfer into other areas of life. You can be disciplined in your training, but undisciplined in your personal relationships. Or you might excel in sport, but lose sight of the bigger picture of life.

Consider the values that could be learned through sport:

  • Resilience – the ability to manage setbacks or failures in productive ways
  • Persistence – the resolve to continue to pursue objectives despite challenges
  • Adaptive Learning – the ability to learn from mistakes or failure and build new skills for changing circumstances
  • Courage – the ability to manage fear and move ahead regardless of it
  • Fairness – the ability to act well despite the heat the moment or the pressure to achieve objectives
  • Respect – the quality of treating people, friends and foe alike, with dignity and compassion.
  • Teamwork – the ability to work with and coordinate with other people to achieve the same objectives
  • Excellence – the drive to continuously improve oneself

At a high level, they make perfect sense. The devil really is in the details. Knowing is not the same as having the capacities. They require as much practice and training in life as in sport. Developing the courage to climb Mt. Everest is different than the moral courage to question your own team, but climbing Mt. Everest might help. The specific disciplines in kicking a ball accurately every time under pressure is different than the specific disciplines of doing an investigative documentary on a corrupt politician. But the general principles of diagnosing problems, self-correcting, pulling back ignorance, and managing the pressures performance does cross disciplines.

I’m interested in hinting at the possibilities that sport offers beyond the vague generalities that sports commercials offer. Hence, the artist in residency. If you have any thoughts on what sport could develop and how, I’d love to hear what you think. Until then, remember that you are what you train in sport and in life.


About the Artist in Residency

Hidden Story Productions and Sport Calgary would like to invite you to participate in an exciting exploration of the true spirit of amateur sport through a series of short documentary films. Our goal is to illustrate in cinematic style these values through the thoughts and feelings of local athletes and the sports that they play. To this end, we are looking for amateur athletes in Calgary willing to share their stories, the behind the scenes of their training, and how it shapes their life. We are now looking for amateur athletes in Calgary of any age, skill level, or sport (except for hockey, soccer, baseball, basketball… sorry too mainstream).

This project is sponsored in part by Calgary 2012’s Artist-in-Residency Program. Calgary 2012 is an independent, non-profit organization that helps showcase Calgary’s culture and create legacy projects to encourage future cultural achievements.