Community Digital Storytelling grows out of our experiences in the world, shared as stories. Our strategy, as mentors developing new approaches to storytelling, is to create and hold open a receptive and welcoming space.
As a result of our choices in workshop structure, facilitators and mentors hold open a space for digital stories to develop through creative processes. Our way of working in Community Digital Storytelling (CDS) is to embrace an informal learning environment. Mentors acknowledge that everyone has a story to tell. And we are happy to listen. Other people’s stories have the potential to touch us emotionally and share their experiences in the world.
Film structure is often analyzed by looking at the character arc. The character has a starting place, encounters challenges along the way, and arrives at some form of resolution. During CDS workshops, participants go through an arc of personal transformation as telling a story requires you to examine and share your personal reality.
“Storytelling is about reflecting back a personal experience and recontextualizing that and witnessing what it was. That recontextualization can lead to extreme insights, like ‘I had no idea what that meant to me, but now I do.’ You’re putting it out there and having that chance to reflect and witness it and have other people share it and see their responses.”
Participants have told us that they walk into a CDS workshop terrified yet walk out with a digital story. Part of the CDS process is to look more closely at the stories told about us. Storytellers decide which parts of the old stories they still believe and what has changed over time. They experience the inclusive atmosphere within a group of storytellers, hear challenges to unexamined ideas, share a goal to co-create a story, and move toward completion of the digital story.
The mentor supports participants in the workshop by helping them to negotiate the pathway to creating a digital story. This is a process that begins by active listening on the part of the mentor, a deep listening that gives full attention to the storyteller’s version. The mentor offers suggestions, including tropes that grow out of certain genres (don’t look behind that closed door when scary music plays in a horror film!).
In most longer CDS workshops, time is set aside at the beginning to develop each story concept before recording the footage. As storytellers identify the audience they are trying to connect with and the central themes of their story, they move forward in developing their script.
Concept Development: Nurturing ideas that lead to a story
Filmmaking is a process. We go through a series of steps, starting with brainstorming, writing, and production planning. CDS is also a process. We go through the same steps but with a different purpose. With our focus on personal transformation, we value a deeper understanding of the storyteller’s self-worth more than high production values.
“If you set up a video camera, you get a totally different, often uptight, stressed person. The minute you introduce this tiny audio recorder on the table and a little lapel mic, it becomes conversational and it’s way quicker to forget that you’re being recorded. Particularly working with seniors, I found it makes a big difference.”
Storytellers may feel intimidated by production gear and crew-in-training who resemble an audience. Some older storytellers like to have a friend nearby when telling stories. For this reason, the recording is framed as a social occasion. The idea of teatime, having a sympathetic friend who will listen to your story, implies that the storyteller can relax and open up. The workshop process becomes a sanctuary from an indifferent world. As older community members may defer to others, it is important to encourage elders to speak with you, if they are willing and you have shown you are a good listener.
Working with older adults differs from mentoring youth. As adults, we tend to think in higher concepts, instead of remembering how things taste, feel, and smell. Adults may be thinking about issues of privilege, equity, and racial representation and wondering how to bring these concepts into their stories.
Youth may experience an arc of transformation, similar to a story arc. The personal transformation is related to finding some form of “authentic truth for someone’s experience” coming from “a deeper level than a lot of communication starts from.” The youth are reminded that doing their best is the most important part of the process. This is not the only story that they will tell so it does not have to be perfect. The inner process takes time and the story they end up telling may be different from the one they started with.
There are also generational differences between how younger and older people learn to use gear and apps. Youth tend to see handouts and guides as a waste of time, while older users and teachers find them handy. Skills exchanges work both ways. Youth tend to explore tech to learn it, and in doing so, find new ways of using the equipment or apps. They are able to teach their mentors new skills in this way. While some older participants (and mentors) are very adept in using digital technologies, many are not adept at transitioning between multiple applications and devices.
When mentors are working with youth or adults, they try to be a peer. Discussions are based on being on the same wavelength. Working with youth sometimes means trying to act as if you are their age and just one of their friends.
Sometimes people feel like they don’t have anything to say that is worth being shared. A good listener can, by asking questions and listening, bring out specific parts of the story that are important to the teller. The very personal can reflect the very universal.
Concept Development: Brainstorming and Story Circles
Generally, facilitators begin workshops with examples of digital storytelling that may interest that specific group. When asked to comment, some folks respond with detachment, sharing concepts that don’t tell much about the story. Others may have an emotional response and describe their feelings evoked by the story. This habit of commenting on stories carries forward into story creation in the workshop. By gathering knowledge from a cross-section of folks in the workshop, mentors set a foundation for developing a digital story that resonates with a diverse audience. For youth, learning to collaborate in this way can set them up to work well on creative projects.
After general introductions and looking at examples of digital stories, CDS facilitators ask people in the group to share their story with the group. When participants begin to tell a story to others in the workshop, they are able to get immediate feedback. Group discussions in Story Circles give storytellers a sense of the potential of their ideas. Story structure can be influenced by what we experience with all of our senses at a certain place and time.
Some workshops use a Story Circle to share stories within the group. This means telling your story idea to the group again and again. The process allows others to respond reflectively about how the story impacts them. It allows the teller to clarify their message. Some people come into a workshop with their script fully formed, but most have only a rough idea to start. The mentors don’t come up with ideas. Instead, they suggest the act of brainstorming.
Stories may also express our emotions and thoughts about pain and loss. Expressing our story allows us to process grief. We may not want to keep telling the same story in person; a digital story can be shown repeatedly and do its work as a story in the world long after we have moved to working on another story.
“I encourage them to really talk about the story, not so much as three distinct acts but as a story arc. What is the through-line of the story going to be? What insights do you want the audience to go away with? This usually happens in the third act. What do you want them to have experienced by the end? I encourage the students to think about that at the beginning. So story arc and story.”
The Artsbridge program acknowledges that young people are traumatized as a result of living in a conflict zone. For several years, White American youth partnered with the group. When Black youth began to partner, the dynamics shifted. Both Palestinian and Black youth shared a common concern about their community being under seige and exposed to prevalent gun violence. For Israeli and Palestinian youth, the idea of Americans living in similar conditions to the Gaza Strip was a revelation.
Each youth begins by presenting their personal experiences and perspective. Working with teams of three – an Israeli, Palestinian and North American youth, narratives from all perspectives are legitamized through a therapeutic process. Each youth begins by presenting their perspective. Then others in their group reflect that viewpoint back until they have understood it, a form of active listening. The Israeli youth might move from thinking, ‘What do you mean, problems at the checkpoint?’ to ‘It must be awful to be treated this way.’ The North American youth realized that in different parts of the world, power differences could be based in community, rather than race. They heard 16 and 17 year olds discussing the legality of United Nations resolutions.
We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts.