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LAFF2015: ‘Question Bridge’ and NBPC on Social Change Through Transmedia Storytelling

LAFF2015: 'Question Bridge' and NBPC on Social Change Through Transmedia Storytelling

Most content creators agree that as society shifts and
evolves, their work has to evolve with it. This means meeting audiences where
they are, whether in the theater, online or elsewhere.

In the past few years we’ve seen the rise of transmedia
storytelling – that is, telling stories across multiple platforms including
film, TV, web, mobile apps, games, books, interactive media and other forms.
Two groups that have been on the front end of this trend are the National Black Programming Consortium,
which funds, develops and distributes content about the black experience, and “Question Bridge: Black Males“, a
transmedia art project that seeks to represent and redefine black male identity
by facilitating a dialogue among black men of different backgrounds.

Both organizations will present content at #BlackLifeBlackProtest,
a screening and panel discussion this Thursday, June 11 at the Los Angeles Film Festival. I spoke with Leslie
Fields-Cruz, Executive Director of the National Black Programming Consortium,
and Bayeté Ross Smith and Hank Willis Thomas, two of the artists from “Question
Bridge,” to talk about their work and how transmedia content can influence
social change.

When “Question Bridge” began traveling across the
country to capture footage four years ago, they gave participants a simple
prompt: “We know that you have a question for another black male that you
feel different or estranged from. Look into the camera as if you’re talking to
them, and ask your question,” says Smith. “Then we showed those
questions to men we felt could answer them, and they answered as if they were
talking to the original man who asked the question. The only criteria for
participating was that you self identified as black and male.”

The initial filming in nine different American cities
resulted in hundreds of hours of content that went on to screen in over 25 states
at museums, festivals and individual screenings. An interactive website and
mobile app have drawn over a million visits, which has led to user-generated
content from more black men. And later this year, “Question Bridge”
will release a book.

Four core artists – Thomas and Smith along with Chris
Johnson and Kamal Sinclair – collaborated on every aspect of the project from
development to exhibition. They started with a concept aimed at black and
Latino men, perhaps as a one-hour TV presentation.

“But then we also knew that by basing part of it on
gender, there’d be aspects of men talking that women would be interested in.
And then we realized that allowing people to be immersed in this conversation between
a group of black men would have a profound impact on a lot of white people,”
Smith explains. “It’s just one of those things that continues to amaze me,
just how many white people don’t really know black people.”

Says Thomas, “I’ve always been interested in finding
ways to approach audiences where they feel most comfortable. So the project is
transmedia because some people prefer to see work in galleries, some prefer to
see it at home, some prefer to learn in classrooms. So one of the things that
was really important was to find a variety of different approaches to present
the same content, but also have a through line of openness in all of
them.”

The artists credit a long period of workshopping and
collaboration for helping to shape it into something with greater impact. Because
it would have different visual forms, they also had to account for perspective.

“What happens very often with documentaries is that as
a viewer you have to rely on the authoritative voice of the filmmakers
contextualizing everything,” says Smith. “What was really important
for ‘Question Bridge’ was that we create a scenario where the men are the ones really
speaking and defining themselves in the context of the conversation. I think
that’s the power of visual storytelling, that we can allow these populations
that we engage with to have a lot of agency in defining themselves.”

While the National Black Programming Consortium has
traditionally funded projects for public television, they’re now looking at
more online content than ever before, which Cruz attributes to the content
creators.

“The obvious trend is that people are finding ways to
tell stories in bit-sized pieces that can be consumed online. Projects like
‘Awkward Black Girl’ amplified that trend for folks who were already doing it.
Four years ago we may have had one or two projects for the web, and now in our
submissions it’s almost 50/50, broadcast vs. web content.”

To stay ahead of the curve, they developed the NBPC 360 funding initiative to
support episodic series that could live on broadcast, cable or the online space,
as well as Pitch
Black
, where content creators from 360 could discuss their projects and
receive feedback and development help. In working with new filmmakers, Cruz
says that the downside of more accessible production is that sometimes, story
suffers.

“Because it’s easy to access equipment and now you can
edit on your laptop, a lot of people feel that telling a story is really easy
when in fact it’s very difficult. So I think that’s an area that’s important
for emerging filmmakers, to work with somebody who understands story structure
and can help you develop a stronger sense of how your story should be
told.”

At LA Film Festival, NBPC will present “Counter,”
a short drama about Civil Rights activist Bayard Rustin.

Says Cruz, “We just felt like the script captured that
particular moment in Bayard’s Rustin’s history, of practicing activism, and it
told the story very well. At the same time it really spoke to NBPC’s legacy,
which is to bring stories about African American history, life, art and culture
to the forefront.”

NBPC hopes that “Counter” can live on multiple
platforms as well, specifically in classrooms as a teaching tool. Past
NBPC-funded content has been developed along with academic curricula and
discussion guides, workshops, and published books. The organization also hosts
online Ovee Chats with filmmakers and experts to extend the reach of the
content further.

“We always encourage our filmmakers to have what we
call an outreach and engagement plan. Beyond having them participate in a
Q&A, what’s the action, the outcome, what do you want them to do after
they’ve seen the film?”

The tools that complement the content itself also help NBPC
to gauge the success of the project. In addition to tracking the number of
viewers online or at screenings, tracking the number of discussion guides
downloaded, books sold, and web visitors helps to know whether a piece of
content is having an effect.

“Question Bridge” uses similar markers, but Thomas
and Smith point out that much of the project’s impact is experiential.

“I think just actually getting over a thousand men to
create profiles and stand and represent themselves in all the unique and
beautiful ways they exist, that to me is the biggest measure,” says Thomas.
“The fact that even one person is willing to be vulnerable by asking a
very sincere question, much less that we’ve had hundreds of people to stand up
and represent their unique value to our society.”

“Question Bridge:
Black Males” and “Counter” screen at
#BlackLifeBlackProtest at
LA Film Festival today, June 11 at 6pm in Los Angeles. 

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