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Wide Open Video: OneWorldTV Democratizes the Documentary

By Susan Morris

"The idea of is to have a place where filmmakers and non-filmmakers alike can come to share stories—whether that's contributing stories or viewing stories that others have contributed." 

-Alyce Myatt
Multimedia Editor

If you have dial-up capabilities, if you have a digital camera, if you have a laptop, and soon, if you have a camera phone, you can be part of OneWorld TV. No zip code, no language barriers, no censorship.

What is OWTV?

OneWorld TV is a public space on the Internet for individuals and organizations, media makers and non-professionals, to get their video voices heard. It links the work of nearly 3,500 members from 57 countries and is still growing. But rather than simply presenting the work online, OWTV is striving to reinvent video for the Web by capitalizing on one of the hallmarks of new media— interactivity—in what OWTV has coined "Open Documentary." 

Less than two years old, OWTV is the latest venture of OneWorld, co-founded by Peter Armstrong and Anuradha Vittachi in 1995, whose mission is to harness the democratic potential of the Internet to promote human rights and sustainable development. OneWorld's network of 11 autonomous centers has partnerships with more than 1,500 civil society organizations including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), community groups, United Nations agencies and others, based in 90 countries. Other aggregate initiatives of OneWorld include OneWorld Radio, which enables community radio stations to exchange programs; the Open Knowledge Network, which develops tools to help generate local content for rural communities; and Itrain Online, which provides training tools via the Web. OW had always envisioned a place where media could be streamed because "OneWorld is about bringing global issues to the widest possible audience in most vivid way," according to Armstrong, a former BBC producer. 

Open Documentary

The initial postings of full-length documentaries online were unsuccessful; viewers were unable or unwilling to watch for more than five minutes. The solution was to make the viewing of each story interactive by offering several short clips—an interview, a testimony, a piece of evidence—often from different makers, clustered together by subject, that enable the viewer to navigate their own storyline. Further, the user is encouraged to add to the story by contributing his/her own clips. So, if you put up a piece on a particular global issue, and someone else in the world has done work on that subject, they can upload their clips and place them adjacent to yours. The Web user can see multiple perspectives of a particular issue in Roshomon fashion, creating their own tapestry of interwoven narratives. This is the core of Open Documentary. 

OWTV attempts not only to give voice to the voiceless, but to put them in conversation with each other, to provide a catalyst for dialogue, debate and discussion. It moves OWTV away from the less dynamic archiving of video on a database where, Armstrong reasons, "OK, so there are a million clips; why should I look at any one of them?  And your mind goes numb. Whereas what people need, I think, is a storyline. They need a reason, an issue, a topicality, a peg. And having got that peg, they then want to explore—what that means, who the people are, what's the background, what can I do, how do they relate to my life? All those questions come up once you get going."

One example is found under the subject heading Israel/Palestine: Beyond 'Us' versus 'Them' where ordinary Palestinians and Israelis, as well as journalists, tell their stories in presentations that are immediate and personal, and encourage discourse.

All a user needs is a 56K dial-up service to either upload the clip or log onto the site. The maker chooses the clips and the subject category where it will be linked, and is provided with tools for background text, subtitles and voiceover narration. 

Future Plans

The site is in Beta mode, according to Alyce Myatt, who came on board in May 2003, following distinguished tenures at PBS, the MacArthur Foundation, and Children's Television Workshop. With the January 2004 departure of UK-based founding producer Jo Hill, the OWTV landscape is in transition.

OWTV is working toward a re-launch of the site in the first quarter of 2004, which will make it easier to use and offer capability for more formats, an improved search function, instructions in multiple languages and more.

Myatt hopes OWTV will become a one-stop shop for media resources that will include partner organizations (both OneWorld's NGOs and media organizations like AIVF, NAMAC and Women Make Movies); a showcase for demo reels; a clearinghouse for crew and facilities around the globe; a connection point for film and videos for sale; a cross-media resource for raw material (radio and print, as well as footage); weblogs with video, video diaries and video debates. Other special Web initiatives will be expanded, such as the Global Challenge call for subject-specific video, which was tested for the 2003 World Aids Day PSAs, in conjunction with MTV International; and the selection of two young journalists from developing countries to dispatch from the December 2004 World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva. Myatt also hopes OWTV will work in the real world by hosting workshops and giving presentations at schools, film festivals and social and political forums around the world.

An upcoming technology that OWTV hopes to exploit is the mobile phone, particularly cameraphones. Peter Armstrong's enthusiasm stems from  "the capture and the upload all in one piece of plastic. At the moment, if somebody wants to input to us, they have to shoot on a camera and then get to a laptop somewhere in order to connect to the Internet, digitize...and send it up.  However you look at it, it's two stages. But the great thing about a phone would be [that] it could be a one-stage." It is "immediate, authentic and evidential." If a Rodney King situation occurs, it could be quickly recorded and transmitted to the site instantly by anyone with a cameraphone. In addition to the technical considerations, OWTV needs to work out issues of authenticity and possible abuse of so much undigested material. Nonetheless OWTV sees great potential.

The extent to which these plans can be implemented depends on funding. The primary sources thus far have come from the British government's Department of International Development, George Soros' Open Society Institute and the RealNetworks' founder's Glaser Progress Foundation. Myatt is working with a fundraising consultant to raise the money necessary to enable OWTV to grow and run the site, launch the new initiatives and keep it fresh and active.  

OWTV is on the cusp. It's in an experimental phase in its attempt to be the harbinger of a new media form, and more than a delivery system for existing media. And it is enlisting the current and next generation of media makers and users to participate in this experiment. The results will be rougher, more deconstructed and more immediate than what we usually see, plus the end-product will be owned collectively by the community. But as Myatt cautions, "The audience has to think that it's valuable; you can't tell them it's valuable."


Susan Morris is a producer, director and media consultant who has worked for New York Times Television, TRIO, BBC, BRAVO, IFC, WNYC, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the Rockefeller Foundation, WNET/Thirteen and Condé Nast.