Voice Over, Camera Shots, and Conservationist Storytelling

Watching Faith E. Briggs navigate the ruts, inclines, and down hills as she runs through three national monuments – public lands protected under the Antiquities Act – makes for a vivid and immersive viewing experience.  Her exploration of what it means to be a conservationist amid the threat of rolled back protections for public lands is a layered story, one that prompts us to consider all the barriers to our own access to the outdoors.  At different moments of the film This Land, we see her run by herself, run with others, get lost, and stop and observe the beauty surrounding her.

Directed by Whit Hassett and Chelsea Jolly.  Image via This Land on Vimeo

Whether through speaking directly to the camera or providing voice over, Briggs invites us to see ourselves in America’s public lands.  While watching scenes of her trail running with local activists through national monuments at risk of losing territory, we noticed that this 11-minute documentary short provoked us to think more deeply about the aspects of personal narrative, place-based writing, and call to action we’ve practiced in our own writing this school year.  As my students prepare to make their own 90-second films for the Redford Center Youth Environmental Justice Filmmaking Challenge, we’ve been exploring stories that teach us how to create powerful place-based storytelling.  Since few had experience planning a film narrative, we studied This Land as part of our introduction to framing personal stories with a purposeful use of camera angles and voice over narration.  The mini-writing exercises below can augment class discussion of this extraordinary work, as well as help students in the preliminary stages of thinking about the stories they’d like to tell through film.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.  Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

Mini-Exercise #1: In their Own Words


Writing Start: At the 30 second mark of the film, Briggs says “The battle now is saying, ‘No, I am a conservationist and redefining what that means.”  How important is it that this film is told from Briggs’ 1st-person perspective?  What would be missing from our knowledge of the film’s subject if it were discussed from a 3rd-person perspective?

Briggs powerfully models how documentary storytelling can underscore the personal.  As images of her running on a track are juxtaposed with images of her running through Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, we hear her explain in the voiceover narration that being a conservationist is an identity explored through running.  As my student Joseph puts it, “she tells us her own story while trying to inform us.”  Thinking about a film subject’s story in their own words can highlight the value of hearing someone’s story in an unmediated manner.  My student Estrella explains her thoughts in a writing reflection:

Something that would be missing from our knowledge of the film’s subject if it were discussed from a 3rd-person perspective would be the subject’s insight on what they are talking about and how it affects them personally. When you see something from a 3rd-person perspective you may be able to see the broader picture, but you will also miss the smallest of details that help make up the bigger image.

Estrella’s reflection insightfully explores the value of hearing 1st-person point of view: while visuals guide the eyes to help tell a story, 1st-person narration can help us understand the subject’s perception of their own identity in relation to their surroundings.  This is important to note, because much of Briggs’ narration is describing how her identity as a conservationist is contextualized by being a Black woman runner.  Watching the documentary taught us that an identity can become more salient in a specific environment.  We might assume that a national monument is an inclusive and safe space that everyone feels invited to enjoy, but as Briggs says in the voice over, “if you come from a group that’s been historically unwelcomed, you’re not going to suddenly feel welcomed.”

Image via redfordcenter.org

As Briggs and her running companions pour over maps, a line is drawn on a map as they plan their 150-mile run, beginning at Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon, snaking down through Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, and ending at Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks in New Mexico.  My student Jayhann pointed out that the concept of redrawn lines echoes throughout the film in visual and verbal form, as the previous presidential administration redrew the boundaries for public lands.  The camera footage shot overhead as Briggs runs often reveals roads and trails that parallel the lines of waterways and mountain ridges, depending on the camera’s vantagepoint.  Most strikingly, combining public land advocacy with her passion for running redraws the image of conservation.

Mini-Exercise #2: The Mirroring Landscape

Studying the documentary short as a mentor text for our own writing helped us articulate dual tracks of noticing – the more we see Briggs make progress across the landscape, the more we perceive how the documentary footage suggests her inner journey as well.  Briggs’ exploration of what it means to be a conservationist is a journey intimately wrapped up in physically navigating the unknowns associated with the terrain, but also in marveling at the beauty encountered when ending up in an unexpected place:

“I was running in a place I’d never been before.  I was running in a place that’s not set up for running.  I figured out on a map where I was going to run but then getting there finding out…maybe that trail isn’t actually there.  Maybe that road hasn’t actually been used since the 80s.  And maybe that river you think you’re going to cross is dry.  Or maybe that river you think you’re going to cross is actually too high and you can’t actually cross it.” (4:25 minute mark)

Writing Start: As Briggs describes being alone and feeling lost at Grand Staircase-Escalante, her voice over narration begins with a mix of camera shots.  To practice planning the types of camera shots you will use in your own film, write narration commentary for voice over.  Include setting description with at least one establishing shot (a zoomed-out shot that captures the setting).

My student Leyla’s joyful writing and camera shot description seen above were inspired by the image of Briggs standing alone on an elevated peak, looking around in quiet contentment, her body language suggesting an immense ease despite her elevated surroundings.  It’s important that students are able to access the outdoors, both in community and by themselves.  Limited access to parks and green spaces is an ongoing concern, as many public land areas in our state are still recovering from wildfires, and the pandemic has led to temporary park closures.  The question of which establishing shots to include in their own films is something we’ll explore more fully as students develop a sense of the settings they wish to use to highlight their film topics.

Mini-Exercise #3: Worthy of Preservation

At the 9:00 minute mark of the film, Briggs says that “in a way, that has been what the whole journey has been about, I guess…about showing that you are welcome.”  As we thought about images in the film that suggest invitation, a sense of welcoming, a feeling of belonging, we realized they were peppered throughout: shots of Briggs laughing with her companions, reaching out to gently touch the leaves on a plant, and dancing mid-run.  As she expresses her wish for people to feel welcome and to bring their authentic selves – “looking like you do, talking like you do, laughing like you do,” – I felt a keen sense of gratitude that I was one of those people who could witness this call to action.

Writing Start: Write a 1st-person narrative about something you believe is worth preserving or protecting.  Write as if you were providing a voiceover to film.  Include description of a mixture of camera shots (establishing shot, long/wide shot, medium shot, or close-up) you will use to focus the viewer’s attention. 

My student Ameyalli’s writing and camera shot description seen above reminds me what a privilege it is to be a teacher.  To be able to read such an empathetic description of the interdependent parts of a community, a description that acknowledges feelings of bitterness and wistfulness, is incredibly moving.  As someone who meets with her students in a virtual learning format, I’ve been searching for opportunities to amplify their concerns and their stories beyond the Zoom boxes.  My student’s writing embodies Briggs’ belief that, “[w]e do have a say in what the world we occupy looks like.”  I look forward to learning more from them through the Redford filmmaking challenge.

-Xochitl

How could you bring This Land into your classroom?  What can we do to support student storytelling through film?  Share your reflections in the comments below or find me on Twitter @dispatches_b222.

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