Community Video: The Experience at Green Valley(edited)





 

COMMUNITY VIDEO: THE EXPERIENCE AT GREEN

VALLEY

Susan Varga

There has been a lot of talk among people recently involved in video about its potential uses in community development. This has not been, on the whole, from local experience but from various observations of overseas developments, and concentration on the one or two more spectacular successes of the Challenge for Change programmes in Canada. Personally I have preferred to keep my reactions to overseas experience to a minimum, out of the belief that indigenous, uninfluenced experience can

be most productive, and that each country's, each area's, each community's experience can be unique. Certainly common patterns are often there, but they are better extrapolated after the experience, than imposed before the thing is under way.

Thus what I think I best have to offer in this article is my particular experience with video in the Green Valley community, and some thoughts on that experience. To my knowledge Green Valley is the only example to date in Australia of spontaneous growth towards the concept of community video. This has ended, after many months of argument and negotiation, in the establishment of a Video Access Centre there, financed by the Australian Council for the Arts. The story of Green Valley is briefly, this. In April 1973, Film Australia, in response to the new Government's directive to make more films 'with teeth in them' and in the areas that had helped bring Labor to power, decided to make a film on Green Valley. Green Valley is a large Housing Commission Estate, forty kilometres West of Sydney and several kilometres out of Liverpool. It is now about twelve years old and houses about 30,000 people. It could by now be called a reasonably successful experiment (it was the first on that scale tried by the Housing Commission). To simplify and generalise a little, the main cause of the trouble was the uprooting of predominantly inner-city dwellers to a far-way location where nothing but physical housing was provided. All the social and emotional needs of a new and displaced community were considered the responsibility of no-one in particutlar; all potentially responsible bodies Council, State and Federal Government, and the Housing Commission , shied off. Green Valley was a community without  inancial resources or the people traditionally trained in leadership such as doctors, lawyers, etc., and had to create its own satisfactory social milieu, which it certainly couldn't do overnight. The film made in Green Valley by Peter Weir was influenced by the Challenge for Change concept. It asked for intensive participation by local residents, and its format was largely made up of five small films made by residents picked from the community. The beginning and end, and its overall concept were Film Australia's, or rather Peter Weir's, but the bulk was largely the product, to a greater or lesser degree, of five 'ordinary' residents.

The inherent contradictions between film product and community project became inescapably apparent to everyone involved on the final night's filming when community reaction to the resident-filmmakers' film was shot as the finale to the finished product. By then all the Green Valley filmmakers knew enough about editing techniques to know that the hour-long, highly unsatisfactory discussion filmed would be edited down to an interesting ten minutes and made to seem as if the films were having some impact on community problems. In fact the public meeting called for during the discussion came to nothing after two meetings. After the screening one of the resident-filmmakers arranged a meeting of all the filmmakers plus myself. The questions that came up were: in what sense had this really been a community film and what specific benefit had it been to Green Valley? was anything more possible within the film, or in some other way?; also, the group felt, with the new expertise and awareness that they had acquired, and their appetite whetted for the visual media, how were they going to keep going? Investigations all ended up spelling VIDEO. Factors contributing to this decision were: ease of use, relative cheapness, no processing, instant play-back, within reach of limited editing facilities, and video's potential for uninhibited use within the community (especially as the need for elaborate facilities were drastically cut down). Another factor considered was the community's long-conditioned familiarity with television techniques which only had to be brought to the surface by the chance to use the medium in a participatory active way, rather than in a passive consuming way.

 

 

EXPERIENCE AT GREEN

It was August 1973: there were hints in the air of money becoming  available for Community Video. No time was lost in putting in a submission to the Film and Television Board. Our sights were set at $21,000 including the salary of one full time employee. The group asked not only for equipment and some sort of premises, but put forward an interim project as an indication of how they intended the video centre to function. Subject matter was easy to find—there were questions raised by the film and not explored. The biggest problem, and one not unique to Green Valley, was the lack of community facilities, the poverty of communications between people living in the close proximity, the lack of meeting places, and, in particular, the boredom and nothing-to-do problems of the huge population of adolescents. The group saw themselves mainly in the role of reporters, gauging their own community attitudes as a starter to further community projects. The official response to this initiative from a grass roots level was a vague, ambiguous and contradictory one. A preview of the five residents' films to members of the Film and Television Board brought earnest pledges of support. We had, after all, impeccable credentials for the theory of access television and for the Board's charter on the matter. We were after all a working class suburb, even a Ho u sin g Commission area, the epitome in the public mind of the outer western suburbs with all the horrors that this conjured up, situated in the heart of Whitlam country (spot on in his electorate in fact), a traditionally and notoriously disadvantaged area. According to the ideology, video could help to alleviate this situation by giving the residents access to a medium in which they could express their plight, and eventually use it as a tool to spur some sort of action by the authorities. Difficulties arose, and many of them. The

De p a rtme n t of Urban Redevelopment and Decentralisation (D.U.R.D.) had approached the Board to launch the video centres on a joint financial basis as part of their five year $5,000,000 scheme to improve the quality of life in the western suburbs. They had defined the western suburbs, and Green Valley was not there—it had become a south-western suburb which had to wait for the next five year plan. Green Valley fell three miles short of that brain-bound boundary. I haven't got space here to go into all the details of the political campaign we mounted to get a community access video centre for Green Valley. Briefly, we concentrated on applying pressure to individual members of the Film and Television Board, to D.U.R.D. and to the local Member of the House of Representatives (MHR), one Gough Whitlana. Between August 1973 and February 1974, the Green Valley group got no indication from D.U.R.D. of their fate. What particularly offended them was that no written communications were received at any stage to inform them of the progress. They felt that they were receiving highhanded treatment. At least with the P.M.'s Department, there was a consistent flow of correspondence. They were encouraged by the Board to look elsewhere (which they did, to Social Security in particular), but that came to nothing. Eventually, however, some months after the establishment of the D.U.R.D. sponsored centres was announced, the Film and Television Board itself agreed to finance the centre at Green Valley. Why, when the odds were against it, did Green Valley receive its Government grant after all? A combination of reasons I think : a. pressure on the Board to act consistently with its avowed policy, b. even more importantly, a rather unexpected financial surplus, that enabled the Board to finance Green Valley on its own, the Board was in a position to be increasingly embarrassed by growing public awareness of the Green Valley project ; when the press asked for examples of existing access groups, Green Valley was the only phenomenon the Board could come up with.

 

Since Valley Video has come under an official umbrella, and is financially and otherwise accountable to the Australian Film Institute and the Board, its basic ideas have not changed much. It is conceived as essentially a cooperative venture, where the original group sees its role as fostering/promoting the idea of community video, while maintaining its personal interest in video work. My role as 'Centre Director' I see as not at all prominent rather I am paid full-time to set the thing going on a large scale, to help generate ideas and facilitate projects. Policy making is an evolutionary thing only when conflicting interests are irreconcilably opposed, or the continued well-being of the Centre is threatened, does a Centre Director, in my opinion, make some decision. Also in her/his sphere is the fine line between laid-down Government policy for these centres (which tries to be as open-ended as it can) and the possibility of conflicting interests of the community in question. It is the official hope that such conflicts will not arise; my hope too, but not my expectation. It could be argued, moreover, that if no such conflicts did arise, the centres were merely lawless and ineffective. What does alternative video consist of in the western suburbs? So far, some of it is the expected reflection of a sport-oriented and a culturally deprived environment, and some of it is exciting and creative. In the first instance there are the requests to film kid's football, and large audiences of parents and kids will watch the replays with

enthusiasm. Similar things happen with gymnastics and karate. A local protest group (eg. small landowners against a sponsored traffic corridor) will ask for our services. Some projects carry on in time. The Mayor of Liverpool promised, on tape, a public meeting for kids of the area. This occurred two months later and Valley Video was there to record it. The Mayor acknowledged the group as 'having started all this'. The most creative and socially interesting material is mainly coming from the fifteen to nineteen year old group. To these kids video seems a very rewarding experience it's both technological and creative and is something with which to test out ideas. One group is currently doing tapes on education something emotionally and intellectually close to them. They have recorded the activities of a free school nearby and they are comparing the various approaches to education they find around them. In another project, two young apprentice printers are making tapes on their trade to give school kids a more realistic idea of what awaits them in the outside world they hope it's the first of a series. Often it seems to me that centres such as this help people to make their lives more bearable and institutions more relevant to their lives. If the Church  for example, wants to mean more to people, and wants to use video to do it, we have to let it try. The trouble is though, that we at the video centre who have taken on 'alternative' jobs, ma y only end up reinforcing established values— we must have been aware of this before taking up the jobs. This dilemma puts in doubt to what extent the Centres can be cohesive and productive forces, or even forces for change. However, I think there are arguments for the potential effectiveness of the centres. There's something to be said for opportunities which give people just a little bit more control over their lives, and over the power that had hitherto controlled them. It will be interesting to see if any crack-down comes, or whether limited resources and lack of funds will itself provide sufficient brakes from above. In what sense will the access centres be 'alternative video'? I think it's in the sense that they are resource centres for people without any particular profession or training to come in and use, and where they have a fair degree of freedom. Within the limits available and the restraints of our 'democracy' they are potentially a substantial break-through. They provide a technological means of expression in a technological age, and make the grand multi-million audio-visual industry suddenly diminish and come within reach. There is something genuinely important about demytologising the media, just as there is, say, about, demystifying medicine. If we can understand and use media, we strip others of a great deal of power, and have a much better chance of taking control over our own lives. But obviously a few access centres scattered around Australia with three portapaks each will not effect anything astounding. As a beginning it's not too bad, and Australia can be commended for the planning that's gone into them. But if the centres are only used by a few hundred people, the Government will not have wasted its money exactly, but will have chosen a rather expensive way to do very little. Meaningful video could be extended in this country by:

1 Community control in the not too distant future. Despite good intentions (whether small '1' liberal, or benevolent socialist), no government- funded project can develop freely when its day-to-day running policy is under the funding body's supervision and there is always a potential threat of withdrawal of funds. The centre Directors who are, without exception, chosen from outside the community have a role to play as liaison between a usually dormant community and the higher-ups, and in promoting new ideas. But their usefulness should be over within a year or two. Local groups should then decide how these places should be run and who, if anyone, should be the boss. (Community ownership is an important related question but I do not have the space to go into it here.)

2 Within five years, if the access centres prove to be useful and needed, the whole concept must be broadened to cable television or some other form of broadcast whereby local television stations can be set up. So, for instance, Green Valley or the

Liverpool area can have its locally run, locally controlled, non-commercial television station, where b y things of interest in that area, made by people of that area, can be seen daily by between 30,000 to 100,000 people. This seems to me an essential feature of the regionalisation concept, but it means substantial government funding and planning and the breaking down of many entrenched prejudices. The most prejudiced are naturally those most threatened the existing television networks and their employees. At the moment they refuse to show half-inch videotape material (for no good technical reasons) and the thought of people-controlled television is anathema to them. For those who believe in the potential of alternative television it will be a long and nasty fight against entrenched interests, with the results unpredictable.

The Australian Government likes to see the access centres as alternative means of encouraging 'social change'. A well-sounding two words, but I personally can't even begin to understand what they mean in this context. I am involved in alternative video because of its potential for participation and involvement in what had hitherto been an unreachable, impersonal and very influential medium. I am for anything that will humanize and enrich people's lives and in that sense I think video can do much.

 


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