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Workshop March 17 - 20, 2008


1. Summary

“Tell It Better” is a one-year project being conducted in India during 2007-08. It is funded by the VIKES Foundation, Finland with some initial support from the Embassy of Finland, India and implemented by the local partner, Foundation for Responsible Media (Formedia), as part of the Steps India initiative. It is aimed at enhancing the storytelling techniques of social issue-based documentaries in the non-governmental (NGO) sector.

The NGO sector in India is a vast arena, where a lot of funds are spent on audio-visual content. Most of it has a one-time event life and few, if any, are ever telecast. This is a rather dismal scenario in context of the fact that the country has thousands of NGOs and nearly one hundred electronic media channels. The need to have high-quality content in NGO films that can be telecast or widely used for outreach and dissemination is tremendous. “Tell It Better” is a pioneering initiative in India to help generate film content that can intensify outreach activity and enable public debate towards achieving its Millenium Development Goals.

At Hyderabad, in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, a workshop was conducted for 8 participants from different states, from March 17 – 20, 2008. (The workshop was originally scheduled for December 2007 but had to be postponed due to unfortunate circumstances of death in the family of two trainers.) The overall plan of the workshop was based on deliberations conducted during a brainstorm session held in March 2007 at Shillong in northeast India. NGO film-makers, NGO experts and professional supporters discussed the aims, objectives and possible methodologies for “Tell It Better”.

The Hyderabad workshop successfully reviewed rough-cuts, films in-progress and idea development for films on various social issues like poverty alleviation, flood relief, rehabilitation of tsunami-affected children, nutrition and care of children, democracy and children’s parliament, urban slums and the municipal corporation.

As a result of the workshop, participants were viewing film-making in the NGO sector with a new dynamic approach in story-telling. In addition, they gained a fine appreciation and understanding of the real tradition of documentary film-making.
This was achieved through group discussions, analytical screenings of participant and other films, intensive one-to-one discussions and previews with professional supporters conducted in rotation and hands-on editing sessions.  

By the end of the workshop, participants felt empowered with new techniques for storytelling in NGO film-making and gained a high degree of confidence for dealing with NGOs for future film projects. Some used the opportunity to edit the opening sequence of their film, the general shortening or lengthening of sequences in a rough-cut, a detailed re-edit structure to be accomplished after the workshop.

This report provides some further details about the workshop and is written by Neelima Mathur, Trustee & Trainer, Formedia, who designed and co-ordinated the workshop alongwith Iikka Vehkalahti, the group leader and professional supporter. Between them, they have maintained the professional support for the participants before, during and after the workshop.

While the participants imbibed a high-level of capacity building, there is no doubt that they need further professional support to truly achieve maximum impact in contributing to the NGO sector, and therefore the Millenium Development Goals, through the audio-visual medium.

2. Aims and Objectives

The “Tell It Better” workshop aimed to enhance the quality of NGO films so that they could be used to full potential through outreach activities leading to intensive focussed-group discussions or television telecasts that generate public debate.

As a conscious change from general practice, Formedia looked for participants in cities outside the major metropolitan cities of India. Finally, there were participants from Udaipur in Rajasthan, Ahmedabad in Gujarat, Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh and Bangalore in Karnataka. One participant from Delhi was included since the project has the concept of a continuing process that picks on one or two projects to be carried forward in a subsequent workshop. The participant from Kathmandu, Nepal was also part of this process. Both had attended the preparatory workshop held in Shillong in March 2007 and their projects showed strong potential to be completed in the “Tell It Better” process.

The main objectives of the workshop were to:

  • Look for wider developmental contexts for specific local issues
  • To break the barriers between NGO films and documentary films
  • To shift the approach to content from NGO reporting / propaganda to human interest storytelling
  • Identify ways of building stories around characters and specific events
  • Give space for the voices of people associated with the issue

This was achieved by:



Wider developmental contexts for specific local issues

  • Conducting discussions on the concerned developmental issue
  • Investigating the local scenario regarding who are the main players at the grassroot level

Break barriers between documentary and NGO films

  • Matching the local scenario with the developmental issue in terms of cinematic story-structuring

Shift approach to content from NGO reporting to dramatic storytelling

  • Screenings of NGO films made by participants
  • Analysis of why it was made the way it was
  • Discussion of possible alternative story-structuring

Practical edit sessions of sequences

Building stories around characters and specific events

One to one sessions between participants and professional supporters

  • Screening of more films by participants in one-to-one sessions
  • Analysis and discussions of specific sequences
  • Discussions for new ways of storytelling in the future

Practical edit sessions

Give space for the voices of people associated with the issue

One to one sessions between participants and professional supporters

  • Identifying strong characters or events that can be the highlights of a film
  • Pointers for future shooting and editing
  • Specific discussions on sections where local voices enhance a film
  • Practical edit sessions
3. Methodology 

The workshop lasted four days, which turned out to be intensive sessions that continued into the late evening and to further screenings after dinner. The schedule for each day was adapted and modified as per requirements, which were discussed on a daily basis by the professional supporters. The workshop was necessarily need-based and the professional supporters had a debriefing session at the end of each day and a briefing session at the beginning of each day. Time allocation was done as per the judgement of the professional supporters.

There were three editing systems available for practical work. While the sytems were fine, the local assistants were not geared for an international level workshop. This is the one major lesson learnt during this workshop. For a zero-error and efficient technical set-up, Formedia felt the absence of a familiar and dependable technical support system. The financial constraints did not permit more than one person (i.e. myself) to travel for this workshop. The impact on technical efficiency was visible and noticeable. This aspect will receive special attention in any forthcoming workshop.

The continuous interaction between professional supporters and with participants was intrinsic to maintaining the delicate balance between developmental needs and professional skills. Throughout the workshop, the professional supporters concentrated on emphasising the fundamental issues that are critical to enhance the quality of NGO films.

Iikka Vehkalahti and Neelima Mathur looked into the needs, requirements and constraints of NGOs, which are often a hurdle for the professional performance of a film-maker. Subsequently, Iikka had one-to-one sessions to discuss new story structures around existing footage / rough cuts / finished films. Erez Laufer and Jari Heikkinen concentrated on the dramatic quality of the films, including giving tips on many aspects of cinematic grammar that participants were unaware of.

The sessions were conducted as group sessions at the beginning of each day, and then split into one-to-one sessions for the rest of the day. All participants had the opportunity-by-rotation with all professional supporters. They were therefore able to have general discussions on developmental issues and specific discussions on themes they were working on at present / planning to work on in the future.

4. Participants

The eight participants work in different sectors of NGO activity. Some work as audio-visual experts within an NGO while others are independent film-makers who work for NGOs.

Following are some relevant details of the participants:






Chinna Narsamamma

Andhra Pradesh


Nutrition of children

Women & Children




Nutrition of children

Women & Children

Kesang Tseten



Displacement of citizens


Killol Parmar



Children affected by Tsunami

Disaster Management

Lokesh Menaria



Food for work
& floods

Food security
& Disaster management

Manvita Baradi



Urban slum management

Urban slums & poverty alleviation

Prashant Sareen

New Delhi


Children’ parliament

Democracy, gender, children

Uma Magal



Status of women


The range of development sectors and film-making skills were very diverse. This was a challenge for the professional supporters. At the same time, participants found the process of exchange of information very useful. It took almost one full day before all participants were brought to the same level of thinking, approach and understanding. Subsequently, all participants made valuable interventions and offered constructive criticism, whether in their own one-to-one sessions or as observers on other participant’s sessions. Group leader, Iikka Vehkalahti, drew up a list of ten commandments for NGO film-making, which has been circulated to all participants and will used for any future “Tell It Better” workshops.

Ten commandments & More enclosed as Annexure 1

The daily schedule that was modified as per necessity, enclosed as Annexure 2.

5.Progress report on achieving objectives

Chinna Narsamamma

Edited one film on mothers and children’s nutrition during workshop with inputs from Iikka Vehkalahti


As above – team mate

Kesang Tseten

Detailed re-structuring of conflict story with Erez Laufer; email / internet exchange after workshop; film to be screened at a special screening in Finland; detailed storyline discussion on migrant film with iikka Vehkalahti

Killol Parmar

No intention of working on NGO films as reporting or propaganda; possible restructuring of Tsunami affected children film on return;

Lokesh Menaria

Extra shooting and re-editing of flood disaster film with inputs from Iikka Vehkalahti, Erez Laufer and Jari Heikinnen

Manvita Baradi

Reshooting and editing film on rag pickers with inputs from Erez Laufer

Prashant Sareen

Re-edit of opening sequences of Children’s Parliament film; complete paper edit of full film; pointers for further shooting; inputs by Jari Heikinnen

Uma Magal

Story  structuring with inputs from Iikka Vehkalahti and Erez Laufer

6. Feedback

At the end of the workshop, all participants and professional supporters filled in the feedback form. Detailed filled forms are enclosed as Annexure 3. Below are highlights of what participants and professional supporters felt about various aspects of the workshop.

“The group of the filmmakers was very diverse and I found the harmony between rural filmmakers, a Berkley graduate and urban planer amazing, something that it is hard to imagine in other places if you put such a different background and level of filmmaking and have this generosity.”

“…opened up options to look at other ways to tell a story”

“Cultural sensitivities were interesting…”

“The attention paid to the craft. The detailed discussion regarding drama in doc. Not only that it is necessary, but ways to achieve it.”

“It was a very caring professional environment for taking my film idea to the next stage. It was amazingly generous and supportive feedback.”

“The spirit; the primary interest in ‘telling it better’; the intensive one-to-one critique and editing…”

“I liked the interactions between experts and film-makers. They were highly constructive and informative.”

“As an editor, [wish to] continue to give feedback and maybe do the actual editing later.”

“Ofcourse this feels too short time but on the other hand this is just a first step to go on. Actual work is still ahead.”

“…the main thing that is unique about this training is that you don't do the workshop and it is all over, there will follow up till completion. This is a multi year project and my advice is to make it 50% new participants in every new workshop and the other 50% will be the one that their progress justifies being in another workshop (for example a film that is rich at the rough cut stage and needs professional help). Having filmmakers at different levels of production will work that the one that made more progress will share their experience with the new filmmakers.”

“…another thing that lies in this multi year concept is to have professional support through the web. When the session is over, the filmmaking begins and the filmmakers will be able to upload their films or scenes and get comments.”

7. Recommendations as trainer

As per the feedback forms and the viewpoints of professional supporters in the “Tell It Better” workshop, the following points need to be kept in mind for any future activities:

  • The duration of the workshop should be increased by a day, if possible two days, and excluding arrival / departure days
  • The number of participants should be reduced by two or the number of trainers increased by one
  • Professional equipment should be hired from known and dependable sources in the city of local partner’s headquarters and should be taken to the location of the workshop
  • Besides a workshop co-ordinator, at least one technical assistant from local partner’s organisation should be designated to travel for technical facilitation during the workshop
  • The Internet facilitation to interact with international professional supporters should be an intrinsic part of the project
  • Practical hands-on tips for use of camera should be included in the workshop schedule. This would necessarily mean extending the days of the workshop, which would be justifiable since it fulfils the objective of enhancing the quality of NGO films
  • Subject experts from the developmental sector should be a part of the professional supporters team





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