Filmmaker, Sergio Rapu recaps his experience with PIC's latest digital storytelling project with Cowbird, THE PLACES WE CALL HOME.
There exist a myriad of digital mediums available to storytellers these days. For the last couple of months, I was able to experiment with a new platform that was a bit of a departure from my normal tool kit. Pacific Islanders in Communications (PIC) recently collaborated with Cowbird and a handful of storytellers to produce a series of stories focused on the idea of “home.” The other storytellers and I were ushered through the process by PIC’s Cheryl Hirasa and Cowbird’s Nathan Tobey, both of which provided great feedback and guidance. Finding inspiration for my stories was easy; I have recently become a father to a wonderful little boy and am raising him in Minnesota. I proposed to tell stories about the experience of Pacific Islanders who are parents but have raised their children away from their island homes. My hope was to address the cultural clash that comes with moving to the mainland while also shedding light on our desire as parents to teach our heritage to the next generation.
Below, I share a lot of what I learned in the course of this project. Hopefully, it serves as an inside look into the platform as well as encourages other storytellers to experiment outside of your normal medium.
Learning the Platform & Gathering Content
I found the Cowbird platform really easy to use. The end result is kind of like a slick Powerpoint with an audio track that lived online and could be embedded onto a website or shared within social media. Building the story involved creating an audio track with interviews, music, and sound effects, then still images could also be uploaded to support the story visually. I used a Zoom audio recorder to capture conversations with my subjects and a Canon 5D to take the still pictures. I was the most comfortable with using Adobe Premiere to edit the audio as I wasn't doing anything that fancy.
One of the stories I produced focuses on my wife and I as we struggle with raising our son in Minnesota while trying to instill in him a sense of his Rapanui (Easter Island) heritage. The other two stories I produced focused around Marie, a Guamanian, who now lives in Minnesota with her two adult children. The plan for the audio portion (the main driver for the Cowbird stories) was a bit different for the two subjects. For my own story, I recorded conversations with my wife and I and combined this with reflective voiceover audio. For Marie, I recorded an interview I had with her, with the thought of only using her voice to tell her story - no additional VO needed. I took stills before and after the interviews to help support what was talked about. I eventually also used Creative Commons images to fill in the gaps where my still shots weren't enough.
The Feedback Process
Though I had a general idea of how each story would go, it was really through the feedback and review process with Cheryl and Nathan that the final stories came to light. Draft after draft, they provided feedback that helped me "cut out the fat" and make the stories more succinct and to the point. Though I initially wanted to tell a longer story that included tangents and symbolism, the feedback directed me to create simpler stories that were easy to understand but also quick to view (they all ended up being around the 2:30 range). At times I fought the feedback internally, saying "but if I cut out x segment then the story won't be as symbolic/important/impactful!" I was wrong. I realize now that many of those additional segments only clouded the story, and would have been a point at which the user could lose interest and not stay until the end.
In retrospect, I learned two big lessons by working on this new platform that now helps me in the documentary world I generally work in:
1 - Sometimes, all you have to do is hook them
Most digital stories are meant to be bite-sized; things that are short to watch at work, on a break, or while waiting for something. So, when someone is willing to give you a few precious moments of their day, what do you say? There is not enough time to explain how the Rapanui were not solely responsible for the population "collapse" on the island, nor will you have time to show why Hokule'a's World Wide Voyage is so emotional for all Polynesians. What you DO have time for, however, is to hook them into wanting to learn more. If you are able to get across some anecdote, some unbelievable tale of perseverance, or an interesting little nugget that the audience will engage with, then your job is done. If you are able to move someone with that hook, they will take the next steps to learn more about it on their own.
2 - Make your story for everyone
At times we as Pacific Islanders find ourselves in a "cultural echo chamber;" talking to people within our community that understand the basic values of our culture and enjoy deep, insightful conversations around that. When we speak to people outside of our community in the same way, suddenly those same conversations get confusing or even uninteresting because they lack the shared experience of growing up in the Pacific. It is our job as Pacific Islander storytellers to bridge this gap so that our stories will touch and be relevant to the rest of the world. I think the key to this is boiling down the story to those emotional elements – love, fear, anger, loss, etc. – that we as human beings can all relate to.
In the end, I got a lot out of being part of this collaboration. It gave me an opportunity to not only experiment with a new platform but also identified techniques that can make me a more effective storyteller in this modern age.