Why do we tell stories? It’s a basic human need, and you can trace it right back through history – through oral traditions, art and literature. Storytelling through the moving image, or video, is a more recent phenomenon, but speaks to the same part of the human spirit. Seeing action unfolding visually before you can have a very profound impact on the viewer.
So why do we tell stories in the development sector, and at Quest Alliance specifically? Stories are told to inspire change, to reflect, to share knowledge, to recognize effort, to build perspectives and to celebrate innovation. They are told to bring in resources, build partnerships, attract new talent, and to build our identity. They capture learnings, challenges, emotions and aspirations.
As a storyteller at Quest, I capture narratives primarily, but not exclusively, through the medium of video. I work with program teams to capture impact stories in the field; to document events; and to enable stories to reach a larger audience. One of the most satisfying aspects of my work is when I’m given the opportunity to get into the field, and spend an extended amount of time uncovering the story of one particular aspect of Quest’s work, or the story of one particular individual.
This was the case with my most recent project The 21st Century Educator, which enabled me to deeply engage with the story of MasterCoach trainer Sonal, who works with the the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme in Gujarat. After receiving the brief, I travelled to Sonal’s town Talala, near the city of Veraval, which is an overnight train journey from Ahmedabad.
I spent a lot of time talking informally to her, with the help of Alpan, one of the members of our Gujarat field team, who works on our youth program MyQuest. I met Sonal’s students, her colleagues and her supervisor. I interviewed her parents, her in-laws and her young relatives. I spoke to her neighbours and her friends. The result is the film above.
But beyond making more, and better, films, my goal for the next one year is to enable more people at Quest to become effective storytellers. As one storyteller in an organization which is present in eight states across India, I’m often overwhelmed by the number of stories that my colleagues share with me. I only have the capacity to work on a handful each year. But what if we could all be storytellers? How could this democratization of storytelling affect the way we are able to communicate our impact? With each team member working deeply in their particular context, they have the potential to connect with and communicate a story in a very meaningful way.
There are several ways that we can go about doing this. Part of this process involves me reflecting on the process that I go through when I make a story. What are the steps and stages? What have I learned over my last almost four years at Quest, and eight years as a filmmaker and storyteller? At what point does the role of the storyteller begin and end? This is what I’ll try to share here.
1. Finding your story
Once you have a basic brief, you need to dig deeper find the essence of the story. The brief could be something as simple as ‘show how MasterCoach impacts trainers’ (as was the case with Sonal’s video). You need to find out what it is that you want to communicate; who is the target audience and when you need to produce it by.
If you’re telling a personal story, then it’s important to make that individual comfortable. I’ve found it useful to ask any questions a little later in the process, and at the beginning just to let the subject open up and say whatever they want to. This technique helped me get to know Sonal.
The camera can sometimes put people off. So for the initial visit, just chatting and maybe using a sound recorder can help.
2. Capturing your story
I’ve found that it’s good to go with as small a crew as possible for the shoot because it creates an intimate, trusting space (and helps with budgets!). It’s also good to accept help from teammates who already have a certain relationship with the context. They can assist with specialist knowledge, language, and familiarity with the subject, which allows you to focus on other things. If you’re short on time, then it’s possible to even leave the actual interaction with the subject to a trusted team mate in the field, while you focus on the camera.
Apart from interviewing the subject, talk to people around the person whose story you are capturing. These multiple perspectives help you to build your narrative further. There can often be a gap between the story the subject is telling you and the needs of the brief, and these extra layers of narrative can help you to bridge the two.
3. Weaving your story
The challenge of finding a balance between the story and the original purpose will come out when you’re back at the edit table. The first edit may look very different to the final output (Sonal’s film did!) but it’s all part of the process. While the first cut tends to go with your gut instinct, the feedback loops from the program team, as well as other people in the organisation who might have a new perspective, tend to bring you back to the original brief.
There can sometimes be a certain pressure when you’ve connected with a person and built a very personal story, to then have to reconcile that with the intent that your story has to fulfil. Feedback is both important and useful, but there comes a point at which you have to close the feedback loop. I like to think of it like this: at the end of the day, I’m the ‘chef’ of the story, and others are bringing my ingredients, and telling me how the story should taste. What is non-negotiable is making sure that the branding aspects are taken care of, and that the video is uploaded to right channels with the right tags, to make it easy to find.
4. Going beyond your story
This is an aspect of the process which is often neglected, but should be taken seriously. My realization over the years has been that the role of a storyteller does not end at the point of making and uploading the film – but extends to closing that loop, and understanding the impact that your film is creating. This is something that I am starting to engage with more closely now. To do this you need to get beyond people ‘liking’ or ‘not liking’ the film, and really focus on why. Only then can you incorporate feedback into the next piece of work.
Starting to see other people in Quest use video as a medium is exciting, and I hope to see more and more of that over the next one year. The next step is a small ‘kit’ that I’ve developed, with a tripod stand and mic which can be used with a mobile, so that good quality audio and visuals can be captured from a phone. The first kits will be sent out in the next few weeks, and the first training sessions held later this month. I don’t know what the next stories to emerge from Quest will be, but I hope that as this process continues, that the videos appearing on our YouTube channel and other sharing platforms will come from many different storytellers.
Narayanan Poomulli, Media Associate, Quest Alliance