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Stories from the Global Grassroots

Amy Wolf Feb 26

By Amy Wolf

For a seasoned journalist finding a challenging assignment is no small task — but neither is mentoring journalists and building independent media production in communities around the world. On this assignment however, you are not judged on the merits of the stories you file, but on the work of those you train.

Craig Duff was one of 33 journalists faced with this challenge as a Knight Fellow at the International Center for Journalism (ICFJ) last year. As a former producer of television and web documentaries for CNN, Discovery and The New York Times, Duff wanted to get away from “voice of god” style narrated productions. Through the fellowship, Duff taught documentary production at American University in Cairo in 2007. There he set out to foster his 36 student’s innate story-telling capacity through the production of stories told in the first person.

Seven of these works were shown at a screening at the Tribeca Grand Hotel Feb. 12 with one of Duff’s students, Alaa Al Dajani, a young financier turned filmmaker.

Al Dajani’s film focused on Mustafa Said Mohamed Antar, a master musician on the oud, a pear-shaped, stringed instrument. The fact that the artist was blind from birth was not the point of the film; rather, the story explores the radical act of loving music and delivering it from the realm of the profane. (Music in some conservative Egyptian traditions is considered sinful.)

Another film, Kasr Masr, provides a portrait of the doctors inside Cairo’s over-crowded, under-resourced public charity hospital for which the film is named. Filmed with an arresting degree of access amid bloody chaos, the work hooks the viewer on the story of a small boy, hit by a donkey cart, who has sustained possible brain damage, blood trickling out of his ear. The injustice of his massive suffering unfolds in an abrupt, unresolved ending that leaves the boy’s condition a mystery.

According to Al Dajani, without a cinema dedicated to independent film and adequate investments in the arts, there are limited opportunities to create or watch independent films in Cairo. But with the new Al-Jazeera Documentary channel launched January 2007, the demand may help spur the supply. One or more of the documentaries produced in Duff’s classes will air on this new station. In addition to helping fill the dearth of documentaries produced in Cairo, Duff also mentored and trained professional journalists at Orbit, a premium cable channel broadcasting across the Middle East.

Last year, Knight Fellow Michelle Garcia helped El Salvadoran community radio stations, which are largely run by young volunteer farm workers, advance their programming and content goals. In a nation with an alarming murder rate, Garcia stated that an overall goal in this work was “to figure out a way to talk about violence in a way that the listener is not dulled and desensitized by it.”

Garcia also partnered with Providad, a pro-transparency and anti-corruption organization, to hold a nationwide conference aimed at opening dialogue between political opposition media, the radio stations and their listenership. The conference specifically addressed “how journalists see the public, how they see institutional power and how they report on them,” she said.

Garcia’s involvement with one local community media outlet is more typical of the work ICFJ supports. According to their website, dozens of reporters are dispatched worldwide to support the mission that “independent, vigorous media are crucial in improving the human condition.”

The media professionals chosen to be Knight Fellows generally have extensive credentials in highly acclaimed, corporate news outlets. Garcia said that she sees the political or partisan bias of a news outlet as a problem for journalists to overcome both in El Salvador and in the United States. “How do you get the stories you want in to the paper?” she questioned. “This is a universal issue.”

ICFJ has a mixed bag of foundation, corporate and governmental funding. The Knight Foundation is responsible for approximately one third of the budget, while U.S. government affiliated agencies chip in another 27 percent. Dozens of major media corporations and their individual foundations — including News Corporation and CNN — also help keep ICFJ programs afloat.

Despite the fact that some corporate-owned media giants push a more conservative agenda — like News Corporation’s FOX News — once the money has filtered its way to the Knight Fellow program, the donations end up supporting efforts to empower local communities to produce their own media.

Photo — Abdalla F. Hassan is one of 36 students at the American University in Cairo who learned documentary filmmaking as part of a Knight Fellow program to train international communities on how to produce their own media. Photo by Craig Duff