Freelance writer Amanda Hirsch, former editorial director of PBS Interactive, blogs about documentaries and the Web in her weekly column, Outside the Frame. Amanda is attending South by Southwest this week.
It’s cold here in Austin — unseasonably cold. They’ve got heat lamps at the outdoor parties and people are carrying coats and scarves with them around the massive Austin Convention Center, where most of the events of the festival have taken place so far.
We festival attendees are a motley crew — everyone from computer programmers to filmmakers, start-up executives to guerilla artists. There’s a temple for geeks in the form of the Screenburn gaming arcade, which is outfitted like a basement circa the 1980s, where you can hang out drinking Mountain Dew and playing Mortal Kombat 3. Down the hall, the head of an online shoe company (Zappos) explains that every employee goes through mandatory Twitter training (view a graphic depiction of Zappos CEO Tony Hseih‘s keynote remarks).
I’m here wearing multiple hats: writer, blogger, Web consultant, actor. My schedule reflects this variety: yesterday, I went from a lunch at the PBS Engage “online video and social media studio,” where Web celeb Zadi Diaz was interviewing other notable festival attendees (video at pbs.org/sxsw ), to a two-hour acting workshop with actor Jeffrey Tambor. Earlier in the day, I attended a session called Integrated Multimedia Video Journalism with panelist and video journalist (“VJ”) David Dunkley Gyimah. Gyimah, who’s worked for BBC, Channel 4 and ABC, shared his video journalism manifesto in a smart, dynamic presentation. His vision: VJs as people who can report, shoot, edit and market video news stories with a particular cinematic aesthetic, presented on websites that they design and program. He won me over when he noted that when you distribute video online, its placement and presentation on the page is as much a part of the storytelling experience as the contents of the video file themselves. His word for this was “intertextuality,” and I was fascinated to take in his personality, which is equal parts professor (not surprising, since he teaches at University of Westminster) and hyped-up MTV veejay.
In Gyimah’s mind, today’s market doesn’t allow newsmakers to spend hours in the editing room — you need to shoot with a clear picture of the story in your head. He clearly has an uncanny ability to read a situation and immediately determine the shots he needs to tell its story on film. This speed started to worry me — was he leaving enough room in the process for finding the story (versus assuming what the story was at the outset, before he started shooting), and for listening to the people he was documenting? When I posed this question to him, he got a tad defensive, assuring me that he always listened first, and that he emphasized to his students how listening is key. I asked him what lessons a documentary filmmaker might take from his technique — someone who’s used to spending years absorbing and filming a subject before shaping the story — and he expressed respect for such artisans, but doubt that the market could support their more leisurely approach.
And this, I think, is the push and pull of SXSW, in a nutshell: It’s a celebration of creativity on the one hand, and market success on the other. On the heels of Gyimah’s snappy approach, I listened to Jeffrey Tambor talk about how the culture’s demand for speed is suffocating art (I’m paraphrasing). The consultant in me understands the former, but the artist in me hopes that enough of us can continue to take the time that’s necessary for producing stories of truth and beauty.
That’s not to say Gyimah isn’t creative — he is, fiercely so; just that our culture also needs people to tell the stories you can’t discern in 60 seconds or less.