It’s 10am, and we’re talking about death. Deaths from disease and neglect—deaths the world could prevent, if only for… Name the disease, and someone in this room will know what it takes to stop it.
The room is full of advocates and policy makers and United Nations types. They want to inspire (or in some cases, guilt) the 250 or so filmmakers, other storytellers, and public health purveyors gathered Wednesday night and Thursday into bringing global health stories to the masses. The event is the fifth “Envision” conference, convened by the UN’s Department of Public Information, the Independent Film Project, and Social Good Summit Partners and sponsored by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer.
These days, there’s lots of interest among the do-gooding world—nonprofits or NGOs, private foundations and public agencies—in how to use media. Partners in Health, to name just one big public health player, regularly uses videos and storytelling in its fundraising campaigns and on its website. So Envision’s focus on getting storytellers to understand and raise awareness about public health issues isn’t exactly new. The question is, is it useful?
At one point during the program, experts lobbed story ideas into a room of upwards of 100 filmmakers. The pitches were wobbly but the intentions were good, and promising nuggets crystallized into sound bites, at least in this journalist’s mind. Here’s one: Did you know there’s more people over 65 in the world today than there ever have been, ever?
I’m not entirely sure how to make that into a story, and neither was Alexandre Kalache, former head of ageing and life course programs at the World Health Organization, who threw that fun fact our way. But he gave it his best shot: He showed us a picture of a glamorous woman in a full gown, paired with the warm smile of an elderly lady. “I can only remind you,” he said, “that the ‘Girl from Ipanema’ is now 75.”
Here’s the thing about media: Everyone knows it’s powerful. The crowd was still buzzing about last night’s opening film, Blood Brother, about “a disenchanted young American drifting through India” (says the film’s website) and helping HIV orphans. We flicked tears from our eyes during Open Heart, a short documentary about Rwandan girls who get free cardiac surgery in the Salam Heart Center in Sudan. We all know that people connect to stories, and we all felt that connection at Envision.
But the story pitchers and the story makers don’t talk about stories the same way. When Eric Sawyer, the civil society partnership advisor for UNAIDS, showed several slides of AIDS statistics, someone asked him for a “face” for the problems he’d numbered. When Kalache finished his spiel on the importance of aging issues, Fisher Stevens, the Oscar-winning director who moderated the pitch session, asked him bluntly, “How would you envision a film?” Kalache said he wanted to “listen to the voices of other people and see what we can enact in terms of policies on the ground.” Sawyer didn’t bother much with story vision; he went straight to finger-wagging about AIDS transmission and treatment: “You need to help us get that message out to the public or we’ll never get this under control.”
It wasn’t a coincidence, I don’t think, the Sawyer didn’t know how to tell storytellers a story. It’s not a coincidence, either, that the officials and NGO staffers whom filmmaker Lisa Russell talks to in developing countries don’t know how to talk to artists. Russell spoke at Envision about the “parallel conversations” happening in the development and arts worlds. Later, she told me more simply, “Those worlds don’t talk to each other.” Russell recounted the time she brought a hip-hop artist from Sierra Leone to a high-level panel about youth and war. The head of a UN agency asked him what kind of music he performed. When the musician said hip-hop, Russell recalled, “the UN official laughed.”
Russell attributed that to the official’s discomfort or fear, but the point was undeniable: “What he doesn’t realize is that this particular artist is one of the top-selling artists in Sierra Leone. When he goes home and does performances, he’s selling out 75,000-person stadiums. The impact he has on the community level is outstanding, and nobody is talking to him.”
Russell’s missionaries of message aren’t journalists—they’re entertainers—but there seems to be misunderstanding between the people who craft message and those they want to amplify it. Robin Smalley, founder of the HIV prevention organization Mothers 2 Mothers, told me she takes a page out of the playbook of a producer who’s worked on Law and Order and on ER, and who’s also a pediatrician. “He’s always interested in seeing if, in the context of a good story, there is something healthy he can give,” she said.