Community video is one form of community media. It is best defined by its objective, which is to stimulate participation in public affairs. The defining phrase might be “with the people, not just about them.”
John Grierson, in the late 1920s in the UK, began writing about its possibilities. His persuasive pen and leadership attracted young and able acolytes, who created the British documentary movement. Their purpose was “to put the working man on the screen,” not as an object of derision and comedy, which had been customary since Shakespeare created his sextet of “rude mechanics” in Midsummer night’s dream, but as fully responsible members of society.
Grierson’s persuasive polemics spread this idea throughout the empire, and it took root most impressively in Canada. In 1939 he was invited to transform the National Film Board into an instrument to unite the country to fight World War II. He and his staff used this as an opportunity to involve viewers in their own local affairs as well. Discussion leaders were sent to rural circuits, held screenings in trade union halls and church basements, and created town meetings – and always the purpose of the gatherings was to promote civic action. A similar pattern of use was developing in the early post-war years in the United States by adult educators, particularly those involved in changing attitudes and practices about healthcare and agriculture. Whatever the precise medium, be it 16 mm film, slides, posters, or audio recordings, the objective was to stimulate group discussion, leading to action for social change.
A great leap forward, ideologically, came in the late 1960s, again at the Canadian Film Board, when young community oriented staff members, working with progressive government officials, created a program they called Challenge for change. They hypothesized that if ordinary citizens were involved in making media themselves, they would be more strongly influenced to make change happen. To hand was the Porta-pack, the first generation of consumer video-tape rigs. Their early experiments were recorded on film. VTR St Jacques (1969), a half-hour program, ends with this essential voice-over: “Yes, but all this [the making and showing of the video recordings] is just a tool. The objective is to get people to act.”
In the decades since then, community media has found far more sophisticated devices, but objectives have remained much the same. The continued development of video technology has led to increasingly lower costs and more accessible equipment and production, the growth of media art centers that facilitated independent video production, and the expansion of amateur video production for personal and public purposes. Small portable video cameras were carried to neighborhood meetings, labor union actions, and protest demonstrations. At the same time, videographers were roughly divided between those who would foreground the professional quality and artistic excellence of the work itself and those who thought these things should be secondary to the primary purpose, which was to involve people in their own transformation. This tension can still be seen daily in the programming on the more than 3,000 community cable channels in the US that have been created since the early 1970s by those who believe the medium can foster community empowerment.
In the 1970s and 1980s, as cable television systems were introduced to the nation’s urban areas, monopoly franchise agreements with municipalities routinely called for the inclusion and support of public access community cable channels. A portion of these channels were organized and funded to provide video training to community members and to cablecast amateur, citizen-produced, community-based programming. Early experiments with these new opportunities, such as Paper Tiger Television in New York, drew a great deal of attention from community activist groups, and sometime led to satellite distribution of cable access programming nationally through networks such as Deep Dish Television (Halleck 2002). But the anchor for public cable access systems has been purely local community programming, from programs covering local high school sports to those featuring ethnic community music or dance, or those presenting weekly interviews with local community leaders.
Some critics have gone so far as to say there is a danger inherent in the medium of video itself. Television, they say, is usually viewed passively, in isolation, with the chance for active participation limited to the occasional invitation to “call in” or vote via an Internet poll. On the Internet, video has tended to be restricted to brief presentations, due to memory and speed limitations, and has tended toward the curiosity or prank, revealing funny or taboo glimpses of embarrassing moments or shocking behavior on political websites or YouTube. Yet the power of exposing well-selected and provocative samples of reality on the screen to a group of viewers who share common problems and objectives is also widely recognized, particularly by community organizers. Experience has taught them that, to contradict Marshall McLuhan’s well-worn phrase, the medium is not the message.
- Engelman, R. (1996). Public radio and television in America: A political history. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Grierson, J. (1966). Grierson on documentary, rev. edn. (ed. F. Hardy). London: Faber.
- Halleck, D. D. (ed.) (2002). Hand-held visions: The impossible possibilities of community media. New York: Forham University Press.
- Rennie, E. (2006). Community media: A global introduction. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.