As many return to the second half of the school year, educational organization, The Babel Project and Global Kids, a youth leadership organization, are working together to bring documentary filmmaking into New York City schools.
POV’s Community Engagement and Education team member, Lisa Daniels, got a chance to interview Palika Makam, Executive Director and Co-founder of The Babel Project, about her organization and the work they do around the world.
LD: Can you describe The Babel Project’s mission?
PM: The Babel Project partners with communities around the world to teach young people how to use documentary filmmaking and digital media as tools to advocate for themselves and activate change in their communities.
LD: What programs do you currently participate in around the country?
PM: We’re currently running programming with one of Global Kids’ middle school sites in the Bronx, New York. Our students just premiered their short films and photo essays about their school and community. I love screening day because that’s when the work really comes full circle for the students – when they actually see their films on a big screen and how people react to it. It’s fantastic.
We are also running a program with Make the Road New York – a community-based organization that works with marginalized Latino community members to help them achieve dignity and justice. We’re working with 4 youth members of their organization, helping them to create short and personal documentaries that capture their immigration stories and channel their creativity. Those films will be used by the organization to support Dream Act legislation next year. I’m so excited about this workshop because it gives us the opportunity to implement our model from pre-production through the impact phase – the last phase of the cycle, which is hard to achieve without trust in the community or the right partner. It’s so important for our students to understand that making the film is only the first step – how they use their work to educate, spread awareness, and create change is the ultimate goal.
I’m also extremely proud to report that our workshop in Cape Town, South Africa continues to flourish with two full-time staff members, a new group of students being recruited for next year, and our original students finding their way to film school and professional production opportunities. Local and long term sustainability are integral to our approach (and so hard to achieve!), and nothing makes me happier and more certain of our model than to see that become a reality at our very first site.
LD: How did you start working with Global Kids?
PM: One of our co-founders who worked on the ground to create our pilot site in South Africa began working with Global Kids full time as an educator/trainer earlier this year. When conceptualizing programming for the year, he thought that a collaboration between our two organizations would make sense considering both of our commitments to youth empowerment and social justice on a global scale. It’s been a wonderful fit, and I think that a filmmaking/visual arts component compliments their work perfectly.
LD: In your opinion, what is unique about documentary film in how it enables communication of stories and ideas?
PM: I strongly believe that there is nothing more powerful than seeing and hearing someone tell their story with their own words – hearing the intonation in their voice, seeing the discomfort in their eyes, noticing when they look down at their feet or scratch their nose, absorbing their words and feeling their emotions. I think that documentary film can elicit empathy and foster connection in a way that no other medium can because it feels grounded in a reality. Yes it’s edited, and yes it’s bias, but any good art is.
LD: What are some of your favorite documentaries?
PM: I’m from Chicago so Hoop Dreams will always be a favorite of mine – I love to show it to our students and am always just a little amazed by how much they connect with it despite the visuals feeling a little outdated for what they’re used to. I think it’s a great example of the power of good storytelling – it can stand the test of time.
Searching for Sugar Man is a more recent favorite of mine – there is one scene when they are driving alongside the mountain to Camps Bay that I watch whenever I’m longing for my life in Cape Town. It also hits at one of the core concepts that we teach our students: the documentary filmmaking process is a journey – it’s an exploration into something that you are genuinely curious about – an attempt to answer a question.
Restrepo is how I began to understand the potential of documentary filmmaking. Tim Hetherington was and is a personal hero of mine and I get emotional whenever I think of his work. Growing up, I wanted to be an international reporter. I wanted to write about human rights violations around the world. That’s why I came to New York – to study journalism. Restrepo perfectly captures how visuals can propel a story in a way that words sometimes fall short. Yes, it’s regarded as antiwar documentary, but it could just as easily be seen as a snippet into the lives of American soldiers during wartime. There’s no backstory, no experts to give context. You’re just there, in it, living alongside these soldiers and journalists. It’s visceral and raw and tells a story that is often overlooked. That’s what I think the world needs more of.
LD: Can you tell us a little about the film making process that you teach?
PM: We teach hard and soft skills concurrently. So as we explore our identities – how we describe ourselves, how we represent ourselves – we’re also teaching documentary photography.
From there we transition to understanding our community – what does it mean to be a part of a community? How do we work collectively? While we’re talking about these issues, we’re also teaching the basics of filmmaking (pulling focus, panning, wide shots, tight shots, etc.).
Next is my favorite phase: story development. We’re very diligent about allowing our students to generate their own story ideas. During story development, we teach basic interview skills as a way to help them gather information and figure out what topic they’d like to explore. Interviewing should be like a conversation. We teach our students that the best conversations are genuine – you have to believe that the person you’re speaking with can teach you something you didn’t know before. One of my favorite exercises to do is have our students engage in a conversation where they have to try to not think about the next thing they’re going to say while the other person is talking – it’s harder than it sounds!
Then it’s production and post-production. It’s so important to engage the students in the post-production process – that’s where the story is crafted.
And finally we end with the impact phase. In a world of ‘slacktivists’ and social media, we want our students to understand that their films can do more than get ‘likes’ – they can be used to organize and make a real and tangible difference in the world.
LD: Beyond the technical knowledge, how much of the film making process is driven by the instructors, and how much is driven by the students themselves?
PM: We believe strongly in co-creation. We are the outsiders coming into a community, after all. So without insiders and immediate stakeholders (our students) in the community, we couldn’t produce work worth watching. This is a conversation that we have on the very first day of a workshop, it really sets the tone.
I see the role of a facilitator as holding up a mirror to someone – helping to parse out an idea that’s already there. It’s so crucial to allow our students to generate their own story ideas and be a part of the editing process. We have to truly believe that they hold the answers to making their community, making their world, a better place.
LD: Can you share with us examples of how these projects have fostered communication and engagement within communities?
PM: One particular student film from our Cape Town, South Africa site was the basis upon which a local community took the school district to court for teacher absenteeism and misconduct. With the help of those powerful youth voices, our partner organization was able to win the court case for the community, and students were legally guaranteed sufficient space and resources to learn.
LD: Where do you see The Babel Project moving toward in the future?
PM: I’d like to continue fostering community partnerships around the world, but to also start working towards getting some roots down in a community that makes sense for us. Right now we’re a mobile organization because we’re new and still in our first year of programming. The partnership model has been so crucial to our growth and learning experience. But I’d like to eventually have our own head quarters, our own youth led production house. I’d also like to start connecting youth from our different sites. We have the potential to learn about each other and connect through these films, and I’d love to help make that happen.
LD: How can educators/groups take advantage of the work you do?
PM: Most of our student films are accessible through our website and YouTube channel, but depending on the location, we could also arrange in-person screenings and Q and As with our budding filmmakers. Face time is always the best!
The Babel Project partners with communities around the world to teach young people documentary filmmaking and digital media literacy skills as tools for active learning, community engagement, and global citizenship. They believe in the power of young people to lead the way, and the potential for participatory filmmaking to foster the process. You can learn more about them at babelproject.org.