| By Autumn Stephens
It’s the peculiar irony of storytelling that the more personal and specific a story is, the more universal its appeal. “Each man bears the entire form of man’s estate,” Michel de Montaigne—father of the unzipped, moved-my-bowels-today, this-kidney-stone-is-a-bitch approach to first-person narrative—wrote in 1572, and centuries later, his words still ring true. Grounded, as our species is, in the tangible, sense-based world, we effortlessly grasp unique concrete details: a childish sketch of a castle, two beaming women in white gowns, a golden-brown blade of grass. By comparison, impersonal abstractions—dying children, gay marriage, environmental crisis—fail to gain traction on the slippery geography of human emotion, or register deeply in our memory.
Montaigne’s heart is preserved for the edification of posterity at a parish church in France, but you can still hear its metaphorical beat—along with the morning rush hour traffic on Martin Luther King Jr. Way—resounding through the flagship office of the Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS) in North Berkeley. Eliciting the elusive personal story is, in fact, the house specialty—the raison d’être, if you will—of CDS, a nonprofit offering entry-level workshops in the distinctly 21st-century skill of digital moviemaking. To date, the flourishing 14-year-old organization, which now boasts branches in Denver, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and Toronto, Canada, has trained upwards of 10,000 novices to craft three- to five-minute stories on the computer, incorporating a first-person narrative, a simple soundtrack and a handful of still images.
But on a chilly Thursday morning in January, Debbie Esslinger, a genial, grandmotherly blond who has flown in from Alabama for the standard CDS three-day workshop, suspects that she—unlike the 10,000 who preceded her—just may not have what it takes. Esslinger is here on behalf of her employer, the Tuscaloosa Housing Authority, which intends to use digital storytelling to document the history of a culturally significant African-American neighborhood. But like all students who attend a CDS workshop under professional auspices, she has been instructed to focus on a personal experience for her maiden effort. Surveying her peers—the seven other incipient moviemakers gathered around a wooden table in the intimate, softly-lit studio, along with CDS director Joe Lambert and trainer Surya Govender—Esslinger smiles apologetically. The problem is, she frets (her Southern accent riveting every ear in the room), “I don’t have an interesting story.”
What Esslinger means is that she doesn’t have some big, boffo, knock-back-your-eyeballs tale to tell, nothing involving miracles or incredible coincidences or superhuman endurance. What she means is that she imagines (wrongly, as it happens) that the notebooks of the other workshop participants must be bursting with tales of epic drama. What she means is that hers is an ordinary human life.
The fact that Esslinger doesn’t have a blockbuster tucked into her travel bag fails to discombobulate Lambert, a rugged-looking, 50-ish man whose office wardrobe runs to blue jeans and work shirts. “The point of coming to the workshop is not to make a film that will make you famous,” he says. “The vast majority of our films don’t even make it to the Web.” In other words, you don’t have to consider yourself the next Ken Burns or Michael Moore to sign on. In fact, you needn’t even identify as a writer, artist or tech whiz (though a soupçon of emotional exhibitionism might stand you in good stead). As long as you’ve got a life, or so the populist CDS philosophy goes—a loved one, a scrapbook, a reason to remember, a reason to cry—you’ve got a movie.
As the organizational motto—“Tell Stories; Listen Deeply” (and not, for instance, “Flaunt Ego; Make Money”)—clearly suggests, CDS is in the sharing-and-caring business, and it is safe to say that no one walks in the door truly expecting to be raked over the coals. But just in case, the classic three-day workshop opens with coffee, pastries and a few humorous, reassuring remarks from the trainer (in this case, Lambert), setting a tone that’s feel-good collaborative rather than film-school competitive. Next comes an informal but concise lesson on the essential elements of writing and producing a digital story. “Write like you talk,” Lambert urges Esslinger and her mostly-female, mostly middle-aged cohort. “It doesn’t have to have actually happened. Just write the truth of it.”
Next, Lambert and Govender lead the participants through the hallowed CDS ritual of the story circle—a lengthy but gentle group critique of each participant’s seed idea. By lunchtime, Gloria DiFulvio, who showed up this morning with a draft script already written, is beginning to see the value of focusing on her own love story instead of lauding gay rights pioneers and the state of Massachusetts for legalizing same-sex marriage. “But that’s why I live in Massachusetts,” she initially protests. “Even though the weather is much better here!”
But with Lambert’s guidance, and encouragement from the group, she decides to work toward a more personal piece. Angel Nai Saelee, a quiet, reserved young woman, visibly warms to her topic (her mother’s tribulations as a Mien refugee) as others draw her out with questions. As for Esslinger, she floats her supposedly tedious concept—a meditation on the sketchy, fragile bonds between generations of women in her family—and gets a bright green light. Apparently she’s not going to ruin CDS’s reputation after all.
Later, trainers will guide each participant through hands-on tutorials in the software she will use to produce her piece—primarily, but not exclusively, Adobe Photoshop for image manipulation, and Adobe Premiere, Final Cut Pro, iMovie or other applicable tools for video editing. “We work very hard to make the technology transparent,” Lambert says, and technophobes (ironically, a significant CDS constituency) receive as much hands-on help as needed. Group members work at their own pace and skill level, with CDS staff keeping a watchful eye on each individual’s progress. “The emotions of sharing those stories becomes a big part of the payoff of the experience,” Lambert says. No product, no payoff. So it’s imperative to pull together a strong draft to present at the conclusion of the workshop.
Lambert, whose liberal parents (a rare breed, he says, during his childhood in Dallas, Texas) often hosted touring folksingers, grew up with the idea that every voice has a right to be heard. “Digital storytelling is rooted fundamentally in the notion of democratized culture that was the hallmark of folk music, reclaimed folk culture and cultural activist traditions of the 1960s,” he writes in Digital Storytelling: Capturing Lives, Creating Community, a detailed history of CDS and the digital storytelling movement published in 2002 by Digital Diner Press.
Not until he relocated to San Francisco in 1976, however, did Lambert hear a diverse range of voices, including those from the culturally distinct neighborhoods—Chinatown, Japantown, the Mission and Hunter’s Point—where he now worked and played. He became, he writes, “more identified with the syntax, language, and story of those cultures in America.”
After obtaining a theater degree from U.C. Berkeley, Lambert went on to direct the nonprofit People’s Theater Coalition, and in 1986, to co-found Life on the Water, the now-defunct San Francisco theater devoted to experimental and solo performance. When the “Digital Tsunami of 1992” (Lambert’s tongue-in-cheek title for the interactive media explosion that preceded the dot-com boom) thundered through Silicon Valley, he was struck by the potential for a new solo performance venue: the computer. The upshot was CDS, co-founded in 1994 by Lambert, his wife, Nina Mullen, and the late Dana Atchley, a multimedia artist who had been experimenting with videographic storytelling for many years.
“From the beginning,” Lambert says, “we thought of this as a grand literacy project in the spirit of the grand literacy projects of the 20th century, which were often quite politicized.” CDS’s overtly warm and fuzzy organizational ambiance, however, tends to suggest something more along the lines of a grand art therapy project. Perhaps both are true.
From the outset, CDS methodology rests on the belief that the effect of digital storytelling on the artist is at least as important as the effect on the audience. “We’re all about the process,” Lambert concedes. “Almost any creative process helps open one’s heart, but digital storytelling has a particularly useful combination of intelligences, an interdisciplinary creative form that allows any number of ways to get to people.” Sometimes, he says, a specific image, usually a photograph, resonates with emotional significance for the creator. In other cases, “the music they put behind the story is what gets them, sends them over the edge in terms of releasing loss and emotions.” Nearly a decade and a half down the road, the pioneering do-it-yourself premise on which CDS was founded has, to put it mildly, lost its novelty. In the wake of an avalanche of technological advances, Lambert says, “we are consuming media from each other at a scale that few of us could have articulated 10 years ago.” Digital storytelling training has evolved into a state-mandated staple in many American classrooms. The iMovie icon has settled serenely into place on computer desktops around the world. YouTube obsession borders on a DMS-classified disorder, and “the notion that ‘I’m going to make a movie,’” Lambert says, “now seems mainstream in the extreme.”
But is this progress? Googling the current gaggle of clips depicting gyrating pop stars and inane antics, you can’t argue that easy access to online video tools has led to great artistic advances. But then again, perhaps artistry is not the entire point. See, for example, Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous Triumph of the Will, widely acclaimed for its aesthetic value, but ultimately condemned as a propaganda piece for the Third Reich.
Or don’t. “Film,” Lambert claims, “enslaves us”—and he’s not referring only to work that is morally flawed, but that crafted with the best of intentions. Even when a commercial venture addresses a social ill, he says, citing The Burning Bed (the 1984 movie featuring Farrah Fawcett Majors as a victim of domestic violence), it fails to represent the idiosyncratic experience of a person who does not merely play a difficult role (in this case, that of a battered wife), but lives it. Just as learning to read was “a step out of slavery,” Lambert says, so “making your own movies is a step away from being dominated.” From that perspective, YouTube certainly looks a lot smarter. And from that perspective, of course, CDS—a sensitive, introspective second cousin to the anything-goes Tube—looks like an organization with a still-important mission.
To stay afloat, CDS relies on tuition from workshops open to anyone with three days to spare and $495 to spend on self-expression. But these days, Lambert says, the organization is best known as “a trainer of the trainers” in the U.S. and internationally. And though CDS deliberately maintains a small size, with only about 12 staff members in the U.S. and an equivalent number of instructors, its influence extends worldwide. Sneak a peek at the Web site (www.storycenter.org), and you’ll find a portfolio comprising dozens of health, education, community service and social change projects. At the name-dropping end of the spectrum, there’s the 2001 collaboration with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to establish the digital storytelling program, “Capture Wales,” and at the grittier pole, a workshop last summer with Ugandan women who have undergone surgery for obstetric fistula. Young cancer survivors, South African men against gender-based violence, Canadians concerned with sustainable land use, former child soldiers, Boston social workers, LBGT (lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender) youth, sub-Saharan migrants, nursing home residents, HIV care providers—if there’s a nut that CDS hasn’t cracked during the last few years, it’s probably only a matter of time.
Across the board (or around the globe), CDS’s emphasis on personal experience and group support remains the common, golden thread. “Verbal sharing of stories and bearing witness is one of the most important pieces,” says Amy Hill, a long-time CDS consultant and community projects director since 2005. Hill is currently compiling a DVD of digital stories created by participants in the “Silence Speaks” program she co-founded for women and men who have experienced or witnessed violence and human rights abuses. In shaping—and sharing—a personal account, as Lambert points out, a “victim” has the opportunity to reframe himself or herself as a “survivor”—a shift that reverberates not only semantically but also, as numerous psychological studies indicate, with potential for healing and transformation.
Of course, CDS didn’t invent the concept of attitude adjustment. Since the beginning of time, surely, people have been urging each other to focus on what they can control, and leave the heavy lifting to God, or karma or Cousin Vinny with the steel knuckles. (“Not being able to govern events,” wrote Montaigne—traumatized not only by the aforementioned kidney stones, but by a short stay in the Bastille as punishment for refusing to become a Protestant—“I govern myself.”) But sometimes, Hill suggests, the boundary between personal change and social change is more fluid than we imagine. “In developing their own story and listening to others,” she says, “people can make the links between their own struggle and the larger social struggle. Individual stories add up to the larger story.”
Saturday afternoon, and it’s show time. The CDS studio smells of fresh popcorn, and the newly minted digital storytellers are pouring each other cups of sparkling apple cider. “I’m done, I’m done!” exults one 11th-hour producer, and Lambert cuts the lights. And one by one, the eight small stories begin to unfold. Here, finally, are DiFulvio’s double brides of the Eastern Seaboard with their real and radiant faces; here is Saelee’s Mien refugee mother, safe now in her American kitchen; here is a tangible handful of Esslinger’s flesh-and-blood female ancestors—visible representations of a deep symbolic connection. And so it goes, each tiny piece a poignant snapshot of a moment in a human life. As the words and music tug at the heartstrings, the artists fumble in pockets and purses for Kleenex.
“The most profound joy has more of gravity than of gaiety in it,” Montaigne observed, a bon mot no doubt sparked by a profound life event such as marriage, or a birth, but also applicable to this final tearful, euphoric hour. No one thinks of offering commentary. The time has passed to say, “I can’t hear the voiceover above the music,” or to ask, “What if that leaf image came later?” Now, there are just sniffles, and smiles and hugs. “Beautiful,” Lambert murmurs, as he must have murmured a thousand times before. “Just beautiful.”
Autumn Stephens is the author of several books of women’s history and humor, and editor of the anthologies Roar Softly and Carry a Great Lipstick and The Secret Lives of Lawfully Wedded Wives. She conducts private writing classes in Berkeley and leads writing groups for cancer survivors at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center. For more information, contact Autumn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Images of women—some photographed long ago in black and white, some more recently in color—materialize on the screen, then vanish. "Mine is a modest Motherline," the narrator reveals, a note of regret in her voice. She knows few facts, she says, about the women ancestors who preceded her grandmother. Yet she believes she has inherited their gifts nonetheless—"strength of spirit, resolve of self, and loyalty to family"—and will pass them on to her daughter. (Motherline by Debbie Esslinger) Video Still courtesy Center for Digital Storytelling.
Candlelight flickers on a man’s strong brown fingers as he threads a needle. With the soothing sound of rain as a backdrop, the narrator describes a beloved great aunt—a seamstress—left behind when he emigrated from Ethiopia to the U.S. The rain continues to fall as the man tackles his mending. (Mama Bisrat by Thomas Paul.) Video Still courtesy Center for Digital Storytelling.
Blood red in a sea of white ice, the ship lists dramatically to the right. In a voiceover, the narrator reminisces about losing a piece of herself when a thief stole the passionately-written journal of her youth. Years later, when the MS Explorer (the very ship, it happens, on which she took her honeymoon cruise) capsizes in the Antarctic Ocean, she is haunted by the image of the passengers’ journals sinking to the depths. “That could have been me on the ship, losing my stories all over again.” (This Will Be Named by Heather Sarantis) Video Still courtesy Center for Digital Storytelling.