The Multilingual Community Interpreter Service (MCIS) and the DOC Institute have come together to form Docs for Change, a unique initiative aimed at harnessing the power of documentary film to encourage community dialogue, inspire civic engagement, and combat the isolation by many newcomer communities in the GTA. The project is generously funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation. Here is an excerpt from our community blog entry – Love Letters to Docs for Change:
Tamil is not my first language. Or even my second language. In fact, before today, I never knew Tamil is so incredibly alive and it could be spoken so fast, rolling over tongues and lips quickly with cascading, delightful stream of nasals and retroflex consonants.
“Today, it is estimated that in Canada alone more than three million people are possibly affected by the onset of diabetes which is considered the 4th leading cause of death. Today, we will watch a documentary on diabetes followed by a discussion.” No small claim from Thulasi Sahajananthan, one of the Docs for Change Fellows who is completing her two-year grant program funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation (OTF). In 2012 a small group of visionaries from MCIS Language Services and the Doc Institute Toronto explored for the possibility of using non-fiction story telling (documentaries) in front of a live audience and proposed the development of a program that would pilot the initiative. The following year the OTF recognized the need and rationale for investing into the program intended not only to popularize Canadian documentary movies but also to enable easy access to documentaries and connect newcomers and immigrant communities across the GTA with the art of storytelling. What we did not know, however, was how the pilot we envisioned would actually turn out.
But, the pilot was tried, tested, and not only true but gathered a much bigger response than we could’ve imagined. What we also found was that regardless of the language spoken (or not) the audience is able to get the essence of a story if the story is told by the proper story telling tools.
Now, what are proper story telling tools? With so much digital and visual material out there, it often appears as if we have countless tools at our disposal and everybody knows how to use them.
Yet in fact, they don’t. The proper means it must be confirmed through and through in all of these four categories, it must be: 1) properly researched, fair and unbiased; 2) properly made so it will not offend my senses, visual or auditory receptors; 3) respectful towards its subject, live or inanimate, and respectful towards the viewers so as not to offend by shortcuts and simplification; and 4) maintain an open-ended curiosity that will ignite a question, a small intellectual fire leading to a lasting transformation. In other words, not just any short YouTube video, but well-made, well-thought out documentaries are such a tool, a proper tool, for engaging with diverse audiences.
We are at 65 Greencrest Circuit at our second community screening of Lalita Krishna’s I have a Little Sugar (the 7th screening of the Docs for Change program), a documentary that features four people exploring their unique and complicated relationship with diabetes. The screening, organized in partnership with the Scarborough Centre for Healthy Communities and coordinator for the Tamil Seniors Programs, Dharshana Jayapathy, introduces us to lovely and energetic Suboshana Saravanapavanandan, Scarborough Centre for Healthy Communities’ Diabetes Nurse, with tons of experience and indisputable passion for engaging seniors.
The audience arrives on time, the director, Lalita Krishna, who graciously gifted us with her presence once again, arrives ahead of time, but we are still running late. A few tenants from the building want to join us and inquire to see if we feel like they would be intruding. Of course not! The room, rather the ballroom for at least 250, will be witnessing our new bold audio “statement”.
MCIS is in the process of developing a fully equipped mobile theatre that we plan to make available to communities (inclusive of lending library, collection policy, speakers, projector, microphones, movie licenses, engagement and discussion guides) and just last week we invested in a couple of used but powerful professional speakers. Our tech –Souleiman– is happy with our great new sound, and we are hoping to be loud enough to mobilize the entire building to join us.
We are still waiting. It appears that food and drinks, a significant part of our “appeal”, almost a “signature” that helped us open the doors to various places, are not in yet. Thulasi is filling the air with melodic Tamil providing excuses until we are stocked and back to business.
I Have a Little Sugar speaks about the so called “silent killer” of the 21st century. In India, diabetes has reached the level of a potential epidemic with more than 62 million diabetic individuals currently diagnosed with the disease. The Canadian Diabetes Association’s 2013 Clinical Practice Guidelines explicitly states that “people of South Asian descent are one of the populations at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.” Irrespective of geography and genetic factors, the major causes of diabetes are environmental, such as obesity (associated with rising living standards), urban living and a sedentary lifestyle. Community health centres are reaching out to the population to educate for prevention, yet it is difficult to visualize if the stories we share are sufficiently impactful and, especially, if they are told in languages we do not understand.
Here I am in the room with 50+ Tamil speaking seniors, one of only two people who do not speak Tamil. The movie is dubbed in Tamil and, although here and there I can hear some traces of English (I find myself conspicuously leaning forward whenever it happens because my body thinks more of it is coming), it lasts only for a few seconds. Yet I do respond to the images and the logic of the story. I see the man with the amputated leg who takes away the braces for his skin to breathe. I see the young First Nations man who is obviously suffering, shown in the kitchen, so I trust he has made some constructive dietary changes. I see people providing testimonies, people learning how to cook, people talking to community nurses, and I see glucose monitors. I see the audience quietly watching, focused and observant. Even the people in the back (your usual talkative culprits) are immersed and silent.
And I wonder. Is this what it feels like to be — a person excluded from the dominant language, and with a health worry that is addressed only by a pamphlet or a brochure or by an external authority (a health practitioner, or a doctor) in an isolated room? If we do not have an access to a rich, comprehensive narrative (an equivalent of a traditional story teller) to make us aware what will motivate us to change?
Yet when we are in the room with many others, immersed in the cultural landscape of known language, equipped with an opportunity to be given time to stay quiet and be reflective recipient of a truthful story, of somebody’s attempts, struggles and small victories, we become touched and engaged. I am this person on the screen. This is my struggle. I am the same. And when you also have somebody like Suboshana who, equipped with a most beautiful smile and in the fastest Tamil ever, able to, right after the screening, share a story after story about the importance of behavioral changes (sometimes in both languages to mercifully include me), and you hear the audience laughing, approving and vigorously raising hands and voices you can see how a simple transactional engagement has just created a transformation. If I would happen to be a public health official contemplating my diabetes communication strategy in this lively room right now I would probably feel as if I have just won the lottery!
Certainly, the process to get to this point for us, Docs for Change participants, is difficult. We still struggle with a lot of communication and miscommunication, some realized but many missed links and opportunities, a lot of overtime work on top of our regular jobs that must be done after hours. Yet, when screenings start, it is all forgotten. And when they finish none of us is able to leave the room. Post community screening discussions are notoriously lengthy.
What I have also seen happening here is a unique but very powerful way of disseminating public messages – an outstanding and rather non-conventional model that could be replicated across the city.
Just imagine: we want to disseminate a message and instead of writing and printing we source a really good, relevant Canadian documentary. We translate and subtitle into as many languages as needed. We organize public screenings, big and small, focusing on a one single message first to see if our metric is right. We keep in mind that in communities we also want to find people who could emerge as leaders that will be trained in principles of community engagement. Canadian documentaries have a story for everyone because they are universal: Tamil seniors, Mandarin first time parents, Filipino teenagers, Afghani slow cooking aficionados.
As “tax-payers” (don’t you also hate this phrase for excluding our rich civic lives), we need to demand much larger investment into the art of documentary storytelling so we can harvest real engagement, real communication, real reduced isolation that will manifest as lowered stress, better health, and generally, a much happier, inter- generationally inclusive and connected society.
This means sustainability, and it starts right here. Let’s not lose the momentum.