Youngsters on the West Bank will have the chance to benefit creatively from a new project this summer. From the beginning of July, Handheld Stories plans to teach filmmaking skills to groups between eight and 16 years old from youth centres and refugee camps in East Jerusalem, Nablus and Hebron, while also giving them video equipment, computers and software. After six weeks, the films that come out of the project will be uploaded to a dedicated YouTube channel and to Handheld Stories’ own website.
“To say that these kids’ voices are underrepresented is something of an understatement,” says Guy Brooks, the founder of Handheld Stories and a lecturer at Dubai Men’s College. “We don’t ever hear their story. There’s always something much louder going on and it’s all political and all adults. It’s the kids that are really suffering and they’re not being heard.”
The idea behind Handheld is apolitical, which Brooks admits is a difficult concept in an area so heavily entrenched in politics. “My goal is not to go over there and do a political story, there are enough of those. This is about kids caught up in politics who are just trying to be kids. I’m not going over there to discuss Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. When you start going into that you go into centuries-old conflicts and ideas. Ideas can be argued, but feelings can’t, or so my wife tells me all the time.”
Brooks spent several weeks travelling around the West Bank last year to arrange the logistics of the project, meeting various groups and finding fixers on the ground. A trial run earlier this year in a Palestinian refugee camp in Amman helped him to refine the idea and pinpoint potential pitfalls.
The result of all this work was the selection of three locations for the first phase of the project. In Nablus, the participants will be chosen from the Balata refugee camp, in which more than 30,000 people – 70 per cent of them under 18 – live in an area about a quarter of a square kilometre in size. In East Jerusalem, they will come from Burj al Luq Luq, a community centre working with marginalised Palestinian children in one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods. And in Hebron, the group will be working with the Dreams Theatre, a community centre in the old town.
“We’re probably going to start with about 12 students in each place,” says Brooks. “We’ll set them up with the training and have the teachers rolling back and forth between the locations. We’ll teach them one part – say composition and framing – and then move to the next place. When we come back up, we’ll see what they’ve done, give the camera to another kid and teach them narrative styles and move finally to how to edit their stories.”
To do the teaching, Brooks has enlisted the help of a cameraman who has worked with the BBC, industry professionals and several lecturers working in the UAE. They’re designing a curriculum specifically for their prospective students. “Our curriculum should get the kids up to speed very quickly. It’ll include using flash cards, showing the basics about zooming, tilting getting a good shot and a steady shot, that sort of thing. It’ll be quite intensive, but should be comprehensive enough so that if they aspire to do this as a vocation, they’ve got the skills.”
The stories that the youngsters shoot will be of their own choosing. “If they want to tell the story from a political stance, that’s entirely their choice, we want them to decide. We’ll be showing them other narrative and movies to help give them inspiration.”
For funding, Brooks says he has been approaching community organisations. He’s also hoping to work with various electronics companies to see if he can get them to donate some of the video equipment and computers needed.
In terms of equipment, with prices falling dramatically, Brooks hopes to kit his West Bank students out with fairly robust “prosumer” video cameras, and perhaps a smaller handheld video camera such as the Flip. “The production value that these kids could get would really benefit the project and people’s perception of what’s going on. I think it’s important to have such high production rather than standard definition and shaky camera.”
One of the most powerful aspects of the Handheld Stories programme is not just the training and equipment, but the platforms it will provide for the young Palestinians to showcase their creations. Apart from YouTube and the Handheld Stories website (www.handheldstories.com), some of the best videos will also be packaged by the Palestinian News Network, which will broadcast them across the whole of Palestine – the West Bank and Gaza – at the same time. “Because of travel restrictions, the kids don’t get to go to other villages, so this is a great opportunity for them to interact with each other.”
On top of this, some of the videos will feature in a documentary that Brooks will direct, which will follow Lafi, a Palestinian member of his team who will be visiting the West Bank for the first time since he left at the age of 13. For this side of the project, which has a working title of No Direction Home, Brooks has brought on board as producer the rising Emirati director (and former Dubai Men’s College pupil) Rashid Al Marri, whose documentary Letters to Palestine made its debut at last year’s Dubai International Film Festival.
The hope is to turn the programme into a scheme that can continue after Brooks and the other teachers have left. “We’re going to take a couple of the students from each place and train them up to be teacher trainers themselves, either for the rest of the summer or next year, so that after we’re gone it can continue into the future, becoming a legacy project.”
Brooks, who has been in Dubai more than three years, says that encouraging young people to make documentaries is what he does at Dubai Men’s College, with several of his students picking up awards for their work at UAE film festivals. But the idea to take it further came to him – in part – from a report he saw about the YouTube revolution. “It was fantastic,” he says, “and the proletarian in me thought, ‘not everybody has a camera, not everybody has a mobile phone, not everybody has this opportunity’. Rather than someone singing a pop song into their webcam and getting a million hits, surely we could be using this for better things. There is a really powerful use of this, but it’s not being exploited because people don’t have the kit.”
The Handheld Stories idea is not limited to the West Bank. “Unfortunately, the possibilities are endless for underrepresented youth worldwide who are living in less-than-decent circumstances,” says Brooks. “Someone told me about the Roma kids in Europe. Nobody hears their stories, plus the soundtrack would be wicked.”
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