Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn. Benjamin Franklin
1st chapter: What???
Digital Storytelling is a great tool for many situations: personal concerns, awareness raising, job applications, motivation, and what-not. And we love Digital Storytelling, so we never tire of finding new ways to apply it. But even we needed a moment to recover when we were asked to use DS to teach security forces and police officers how to step back from violent conflict solution.
All right, what was this all about? Here is in short what our partner GIZ (German International Society for Co-operation) told us: In Yemen, many people have many different backgrounds and loyalties and many people are armed. Too many conflicts are “solved” by police officers and security forces in a violent way, therefore not being solved at all. This violence is not planned beforehand, of course. It just sort of erupts – as if it were the natural way of things. But what if there were alternative ways?
2nd chapter: Care to explain?
The alternative – at least in this test phase – could be a story. A story about people living in violent times. A story where they are not just leaves in the wind, being blown here and there but where they take their fate into their hands – by making choices and dealing with the consequences.
So what was the plan? We would meet with a dozen young authors, journalists, actors and film-makers from Yemen and we would develop an audio story that could be accessible via standard mobile phones. Why an audio story? And why distribute it this way? The answer is quite simple: Whereas the internet can still be a tricky thing to use in Yemen, especially outside the big cities, everybody (well, at least a lot of people…) has a mobile phone. So we were supposed to use what is easily available.
Imagine a narrated story where some decisions are on you. You could phone in, listen to a chapter and at the end of that you would have to make a choice: Would “he” go home or join the others? Would “she” stay at home and wait or would she go out and look for him? And depending on that choice the story would take a different turn.
The entire affair was embedded in a GIZ programme called “Mobile Learning Yemen” and was supposed to demonstrate participants the choices they indeed have in a life that so often seems to be without choices at all.
3rd chapter: Let’s do this.
So far, so good. We couldn’t go to Yemen. Too dangerous. Who would have thought… So we went to Amman, Jordan, instead. What would we have to face? Well, minor stuff: Rudimentary technical equipment. No audio-recording studio. Hardly any knowledge of the English language on the participants’ side. No idea how the participants would react to what we had in mind. No idea if this would work. No idea if we would have a story in the end.
Honestly? We were a bit scared. We had never organised a workshop before where we weren’t able to communicate directly with our participants. Where we could not rely on the exemplary films we would show – because how is the emotional impact of a film supposed to work when you have to pause it every 20 seconds or so in order to have it translated? And finally: How were we supposed to teach people to use editing software to work on their own story – when the software was in English and every step needed to be demonstrated AND translated?
So what did we do to prepare? Basically: Close to nothing. Tried to get some insight on what was at stake in Yemen. Tried to get a glimpse at cultural and social issues. Checked out a row of newspaper and blog articles that were accessible in English. Packed some gear. Hoped for the best. And went on the trip.
4th chapter: The big trip.
Amman, Jordan: The Shams Café and Hiber, our workshop venue. When we met Mohammed, our host at the venue, who had founded this down-to earth blogger and co-working space a while ago, some of our worries vanished. We took one look at him and knew he would take good care of us.
Our first glance at the participants upon arrival the next day was with mixed feelings. Would it work? Would we find a way to really communicate with them even if we had to do it via interpreters? Would we be able to convey the spirit of a Digital Storytelling workshop if every single word needed to be translated? Would they get the meaning, the core, the message of the film examples we collected to show them?
Well, what can we say? Yes to all of the above! What a wonderful group of people. They came to us with such amazing backgrounds, such creativity, such dedication – and they were really willing to throw themselves into the process. We were indeed not only impressed but – let’s face it – moved by people who were confronted with such difficult times and who still laughed so much, worked so hard and helped each other every step of the way.
5th chapter: Look at what we’ve done.
In the end: there it was. Two stories about Helmi and Yasmin, two young people from Yemen, who try to keep their heads above water in gruelling circumstances. We were so proud, they were so proud and everybody was happy. Have a listen – even though you may understand as little as we did, unless you are fluent in Arabic…
And here are a few impressions of the workshop too:
6th chapter: And now?
Well. Now. They went back. And that was exactly the time when things deteriorated dramatically in Yemen. As of now, we don’t quite know how they are doing. And right now we don’t know how and when we will pick up the project again to move to the next step. Ideally, that would be the production of a whole bunch of stories that one day would be accessible via mobile phones and hopefully help to demonstrate that there is always consequences to your own decision. Stories that might show that there is an alternative to violence. Naïve in the light of what is going on in Yemen right now? Oh yes. But in the end you have to believe in something, don’t you?