Actuality Media takes young filmmakers and storytellers on a journey to capture the good in the world and bring focus to local changemakers.
by Aisiri Amin
“Sometimes I find myself in a place I never thought I’d be, with people I never imagined I’d know, experiencing something so pure and fleeting it makes me wonder if it’s real.”
– Livvy Runyon, filmmaker who worked as a producer for Rompiendo el Ciclo, a documentary filmed in 2015 with Actuality Media.
More often than not, developing countries are reduced to mere statistics in mainstream media and if focused on, it’s often the socio-economic issues that are highlighted. Like Robin Canfield, co-founder of Actuality Media says, it’s more in terms of “this horrible thing is happening in a country and you should film it.”
But Actuality Media is changing that through positive storytelling. Their documentary outreach programmes encourage young filmmakers from around the world to visit countries such as Nicaragua, Guatemala, Columbia, and Kenya and to film stories about local changemakers.
Founded in 2010 by Aubrie Canfield and Robin Canfield, Actuality Media offers study abroad programmes to students allowing them to tell stories that highlight the good in the world.
Co-founder Robin Canfield spoke to INKLINE about this unique visual storytelling programme, about building a better world and much more.
INKLINE: What made you start an organisation which focuses on changemakers in developing countries through films?
Robin Canfield: We knew of some stories of people doing good work. We had come across a book or two highlighting international programmes and a few articles analysing changemakers. But there was no source of visual storytelling which is really what was needed to show people the change that can be accomplished by groups and organisations, both large and small.
The first idea we had wasn’t to focus on changemakers in developing countries. We started small, and so we started with what was more easily within reach. We approached students in the United States with the idea of filming changemakers [there]. There was very little interest.
Then we scouted parts of Latin America, switched the idea to filming abroad and announced projects in Columbia, Nicaragua, and Guatemala for our first season. Hands flew up in the air for people who wanted to be “counted in” for our first Documentary Outreaches abroad.
Since then we’ve taken crews to 19 countries – wherever there are good ideas there is development.
I: You have helped students make films in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Kenya. How has the experience been? What are some of the challenges you faced?
R: There are going to be challenges, some we’ve faced before and some new and so we have to figure out new ways to deal with them.
Working with camera gear in-country, that’s an issue. We keep small cameras to attract less attention and try to not look so much like a film crew whenever possible. A big reusable bag from the local market goes a long way towards making a tripod look less interesting.
Access and understanding are regularly our biggest challenges, and getting an individual from the changemakers working with our crews is a key to getting the doors open for us.
They’re a key person for safety, too – which is always something we’re mindful of. And of course, there are preconceptions about filmmakers which we have to overcome. On one trip to Costa Rica, we had a first in-person meeting with the board of a local cooperative we had made plans to film with. One of the board members, who I hope had read all of our emails and documentation, looked at us and said: “So, do you want jet skis?” I replied, “Do you use jet skis for work within the cooperative?”
His eyes went a little wide with surprise and he answered, “No. But you have video cameras. You are from Hollywood.”
I: What was the one thing that worked for you, for Actuality Media?
R: The people. We meet fantastic people everywhere we travel, and they take us to locations that most tourists couldn’t even imagine. But it’s not just the locals – we mix people from all over the world in our crews and it’s a joy to watch them work together and to help each other become better storytellers.
I: How does Actuality Media sustain itself?
R: We are a social enterprise. Our funds come directly from students or their universities. Everyone participating in our trips has the option to receive credit. We help many people get it through their own university, but also we have a partner organisation in California that can issue a university transcript for internship credit. We are very much a study abroad programme, though sometimes up to one-third of our crew members are recent graduates and some are already working in the industry and just want the experience.
I: Has there been any particular experience that has stayed with you or inspired you in this journey?
R: One of my favourite memories is sitting in a small village in Guatemala besides Lake Atitlán, where we were welcomed to observe a weekly meeting of the local fishermen’s cooperative. There was no English spoken, and next to no Spanish spoken – several of the fishermen spoke only Tzutujil Maya – and it was an extremely surreal experience. Certainly, it was somewhere I never expected to find myself.
One of the most fascinating changemakers we’ve ever worked with is Los Patojos (also in Guatemala), led by Juan Pablo Romero Fuentes. When we first met him in 2013 he had an after-school programme based out of his family’s house. We’ve filmed with him three times so far and he has won the CNN Hero Award in 2014 and built his own, government-sanctioned school. With his eyes on land to build a university on, I’m sure we’ll be back to film with him again and I can’t wait to see what more he’ll accomplish.
I: What do you love about what you do?
R: Being in the field with students as they realise new truths about the world is just plain enjoyable. It’s the feeling of being part of someone else’s enlightenment, and it’s a good feeling.
Working with students on documentary films presents many challenges – not in a bad way. I don’t mean setbacks so much as tests for me to try a new approach or adapt an old one in connecting with a student. Then on every trip there are those moments when I can tell things clicked for a student – that all of a sudden they totally understand what I’m trying to teach them about telling a good story. It’s a wonderful moment.
With it often comes excitement and a drive to keep going. I’ve been up with students until three or four in the morning working on changing and rearranging their story when the excitement has hit them, and it’s exhilarating.
Meeting people who have figured out what they can do in the world, who have come up with fascinating ideas for how to fix problems, that are doing things that might even inspire others to try it for themselves back home – that’s something I love about what I do.
I hope that by sharing their stories, I can help make this world a better place. They are an inspiration, each one of them.
I: What kind of stereotypes or prejudices do people often have in developing countries? How does Actuality Media address them?
R: Being based in the United States and more connected to US film students than anywhere else, it’s easiest to address the fears and prejudices of American students.
Much of the world does not realise how small a percentage of Americans have a passport and ever leave the country. The majority of our students that come with us from the United States are on their first trip outside of the country with mixed support from home.
For the most part, our participants really don’t have an idea of what things will be like. They leave much of the world as an unknown other, leave it to television programmes to fill it in or they basically project their own life to other places.
They’ll have been told some things so they might think everyone will be poor but it’s more a concept than a thought out idea. They don’t know what that looks like and so they’re still surprised the first time they come into a house with a dirt floor. And they’re definitely confused when they first find a local poor family that sits together at night with no TV, maybe some musical instruments, and spends the evening enjoying time together.
I: If there is one advice you could give media students around the world who are aspiring to tell the stories that matter and to bring about a change, what would you tell them?
R: Start now, and start with what you have.
Maybe you don’t have the resources to get across the world to reach a community in crisis that you’ve been reading about in the news but a phone is all you need to start being a voice for the voiceless nearby! You can get to them, and you can start from there. Build your projects, tell more stories, spread awareness on those issues. As your stories go further so will your reach to tell more positive stories.
Aisiri Amin (she/her) is an independent journalist specializing in gender, culture, and social justice. She is a struggling optimist, trying to understand the world through cinema, books, and travel.