Five Benefits of Social Listening for Bloggers

One of the strongest tools for blog writing is social listening. Social listening refers to tracking what companies, news media, influencers, bloggers, and others are saying about your blog’s topic or focus, your blog, and even you. Though generally used by corporations for brand management, social listening adapts easily to other content and website goals. Social listening offers many benefits for bloggers. Here are five to consider:

1. Keeping Current

A regular social listening habit keeps you updated on what’s happening in your content area, such as key events, hot topics, big debates, and deep changes. Keeping current helps you maintain fresh blog content and fresh perspectives even on old ideas. It also offers you an edge in that you avoid including outdated materials and ideas in your posts.

We live in an exciting time for documentary, with so many new technologies, releases, festivals, fundraisers, distributors, makers, and many others. I use social listening to learn about the new titles coming out, their critical reactions, the emerging debates, and the new technologies. Virtual reality has been a particularly enthusiastic and divisive subject, for example. I also hope to discover projects outside mainstream documentary cinema and the festival circuit.

2. Seeing Trends

Within all the information out there, patterns do emerge. Learning to spot what’s new, what’s just starting, and what’s fading will set your content apart. Seeing those patterns — and writing about them — gives you an edge over other bloggers who cover the information but not the bigger, changing picture.

Part of seeing trends is also learning to identify when an idea is really not a trend at all. One example that regularly comes up in documentary promotion is when a production claims to be the “first” at something — topic, approach, interview source, or something similar. While an unoriginal marketing point to begin with, a closer look often reveals others who have tried that very same thing.

3. Developing Expertise

Expertise is a process, not a product, and developing expertise is ongoing, not a destination. Social listening allows you to deepen your knowledge in your topic — whether you are just starting or have been engaging it for a long time. That continuing process helps in keeping new topics flowing and in developing new content directions, while at the same time allowing you to revisit ideas with new perspectives from time to time.

I have been studying and following documentary for more than 20 years, and I still learn something new or different every day about the field and its changes. For example, many new documentary organizations have started and flourished during these last 15 years. Looking at the Washington, D.C, area, Docs in Progress started in 2004 and became a not-for-profit in 2008, while Meridian Hill Pictures started in a basement in 2010. And I wouldn’t be able to finish this post if I started mentioning all of the new documentary festivals out there.

4. Identifying Connections

Blog writing can be a soapbox, or it can be part of a conversation. I approach blogging as a conversation, and a key part of that approach is identifying and developing connections. These connections might be other bloggers, experts, influencers, or organizations.

Learning about these connections gives you directions for people to follow on social media. You might learn about a new blog that you need to add to your social listening lineup. While these connections provide sources of knowledge, they also provide potential blog topics, such as with interviews, or even become potential blog contributors.

5. Honing Content

The best blogs have content unavailable elsewhere. Repeating the same listicle with the same angle adds a post, sure, but the post is largely forgettable. Honing content means finding holes in current discussions or gaps in the trends. It means addressing misconceptions or responding to changes.

A few years ago Kartemquin Films tweeted about losing its sales tax exemption because someone perceived their documentaries as “propaganda:”

A Tweet from Kartemquin Films
A Tweet from Kartemquin Films

The term “propaganda” has a long history within the documentary form. Today, unfortunately, the idea of “propaganda” has come to mean any documentary with a point of view someone disagrees with. Having taught persuasion and studied documentary, I saw an opportunity for a blog post commenting on the situation, which I wrote about here.

The five benefits of social listening listed here are far from the only ones, but regular social listening is still one of the strongest tools for building better blog content.

Navigating Violence and Alma’s Story in an Interactive Documemtary

The opening screen of Alma: A Tale of Violence
The opening screen of Alma: A Tale of Violence

In order to make interactive documentary reviews more focused and systematic, I will use the following outline: platform(s) used, story and structure, user role, navigation directions, navigation execution, and overall comments. Released first in 2011, Alma: A Tale of Violence represents my first application of this approach.

Alma: A Tale of Violence is an interactive documentary available online, on the iPad, and on Android. One of the earlier of the next generation of interactive documentaries, it tells the story of Alma, who joined a Guatemalan gang as a teen and managed to leave with her life as an adult. This review focuses on the web and iPad versions.

The primary story in Alma: A Tale of Violence belongs to Alma herself. In an almost 40-minute video interview, Alma recounts her childhood, gang initiation, gang life, and life thereafter. The interview frames Alma in medium and close-up shots, ensuring our identification with her, though it also offers cutaways to her tattoos and fidgeting hands. Interestingly enough, that framing hides the fact that Alma is now confined to wheelchair.

Alma’s story is harrowing. Alma explains how the gang offered acceptance, belonging, support, and purpose — things unavailable at home.

One price for that belonging, though, is a life of violence. As part of her initiation, Alma helped members kill a woman whom they had just raped. Another part of her initiation involved the choice between her own rape and being beaten. Alma chose the beating because she didn’t want to appear weak.

Another price for that belonging is a lack of freedom. The gang dictated its lower-ranked members’ activities, which often involved collecting protection fees and killing those who refused or couldn’t pay. Alma killed one person for this reason.

Though not explicitly articulated, a third price for that belonging is fear, particularly of the violence turning back on Alma herself. Alma left without permission for two years, and when she returned, she feared the gang’s retribution. This time, none came — they invited her back in. After becoming pregnant and suffering abusive relationships, Alma requested to leave the gang altogether. They beat her briefly, and she left the meeting thinking the situation fine among them. As she walked away, bullets flew. One struck her and left her paralyzed. The bounty still remains on her head.

While this interview plays, a secondary storyline appears above her. The upper “track,” for lack of a better word, offers a combination of still images, B-roll, archival images, sketches, and animations. Sometimes, the upper track offers a thematic connection to Alma’s recollections, such as the pictures of poor neighborhoods. Other times, the upper track depicts Alma’s recollections, such as the animated illustrations of her gang initiation or of a gang rape. Though nonetheless disturbing, the animations offer ways to show the violence without spectacle.

The Maras module from Alma: A Tale of Violence
The Maras module from Alma: A Tale of Violence
In addition to the video sequence, Alma features four information modules that offer background about Guatemala, maras, violence, and prevention. Each module appears like a slideshow, with images, statistics, and quotes. Some of the images also appear in upper track of Alma’s interview, but overall this part remains separate from it.

The integration of user, navigation, and narrative ensures a cohesive interactive documentary experience. Casting the user in a role helps with this integration. Alma, though, offers no particular role for its users. The directions only tell users how to access the content, which amounts mostly to swiping on the tablet or moving up and down with a mouse and to tapping or clicking on these respective devices.

The navigation in Alma is straightforward and largely similar between the web and iPad versions. The interview with Alma herself allows the expected starting and stopping of the video, as well as scrolling up to see the upper track and scrolling down to see Alma again. Users can choose not to switch between tracks as well. But, other than the up and down, start and pause, no other interactive features appear in the video.

The modules offer even fewer interactive features. An internal table of contents allows skipping through the modules’ information, or users can progress through each one sequentially, slide by slide, with a click or a tap.

While the navigation’s simplicity allows for easy access to all parts of this interactive documentary, its simplicity undermines the interactive documentary’s cohesiveness. The narrative disconnection between the video interview and the information modules also fails to help create a sense of unity. Overall, the interactive options here remain quite limited.

One of the sketches appearing in Alma: A Tale of Violence
One of the sketches appearing in Alma: A Tale of Violence
That said, Alma still tells a powerful story. One thing I greatly appreciated about this interactive documentary was the extended interview. Too often in contemporary documentary participants speak briefly, providing on-point information and focused emotion while revealing little about their character or personality. Alma’s screen time allows her to explain her backstory, her motivations, her fears, and her outcomes. The story proves difficult to tell (and hear, for that matter), and Alma breaks down at certain points. The camera continues rolling, but no voice or editing transition interrupts her thoughts.

Another thing I appreciated was the background information’s separation from Alma’s narrative. Balancing oral storytelling and factual details provides a difficult line to walk, with the facts often interrupting the flow of more personal details. The separation ensures a smoothness to Alma’s extended interview that might not be there otherwise.

11 Ways to Boost Your Blog

Note: This post is based on a presentation I gave to a women’s empowerment group on my campus recently. I thought the information might be useful to others, so I am posting it here.

Blogs offer a great way to boost your professional image, practice your writing skills, and raise your voice. This post offers 11 quick tips to help take your personal blog to the next level.

The Big Picture

We often think of blogs as soapboxes, places to vent and share our feelings and insights. To elevate your blog, think of it instead as a conversation. Several groups participate in this conversation: you, your readers, other blogs, news media, organizations, and even others beyond these groups. Asking yourself, “What am I going to contribute to this conversation?”, is an easier starting point than, “What am I going to write today?”

1. Choose your passion.

Write about something that interests you! Or, write about something that you want to learn more about. Readers respond more to this kind of energy than blog posts that come from elsewhere. And by going deep into one passion, you will continue to find inspiration to keep writing.

2. Engage in social listening.

Social listening means following conversations about your subject happening elsewhere online. Some ways to listen online:

  • Read the news about your passion
  • Read other blogs
  • Watch videos and vlogs
  • Seek relevant experts or brands
  • Check out Instagram or Snapchat stories
  • Follow relevant Facebook pages
  • Follow relevant hashtag campaigns

Look for patterns, themes, questions, or gaps in the discussions that you might address in your own blog posts.

3. Participate in online communities.

Online, 90 percent of people lurk. Become part of the other 10 percent, and say something that contributes to the conversation. For example,

  • Compliment a post
  • Answer a question
  • Reply to another comment
  • Ask a question

Go beyond the emoji response and actually write something. That said, avoid promoting your own blog in the comments in the other conversations. It’s like getting a commercial break in the middle your Netflix movie marathon.

4. Learn more about your audience.

Audiences like it when you take an interest in them. It also benefits you to learn more about them and their interests. Here are some ways of doing that:

  • Read the comments on your blog
  • Check profiles of your commenters
  • Check out their social media profiles
  • Do a short survey of their interests

5. Change up your blog post formats.

Blog posts can take so many different structures:

  • Interview another blogger
  • Product or service review
  • Offer instructions for doing something
  • Make a list (“Top 11 Ways to…”)
  • Respond to a reader’s question
  • Respond to another blog post
  • Compare options
  • Participate in a meme

This variety helps keep interest for audiences and you.

6. Tell your readers how the post benefits them in the first paragraph.

Online readers scan blogs more than read them. If the first paragraph fails to grab their attention, they will move on to something else. Tell them what is at stake as soon as possible; don’t make them wait for the big reveal.

7. Write a catchy, but not deceiving, headline.

The best headlines provide the subject and the incentive for reading the post, and they do so in a short sentence of 6-8 words. Remember that headlines on your blog posts appear on different social networking sites when they are shared, so avoid using inside jokes or cute phrases that won’t make sense of out context. Also avoid clickbait, or the headlines that read, “YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!” They turn off audiences, and some sites — even Facebook — prohibit certain phrasings that resemble clickbait.

8. Add 5-7 keywords to each post.

Keywords place your post in search engine results and connect your blog with other posts and articles that share the same keywords. In other words, they offer a way to connect with the conversation.

To determine some keywords, consider your post’s

  • Topic
  • Audience
  • Goal
  • Themes

Be careful not to go overboard with adding keywords.

9. Interact with your audience.

Audiences enjoy when bloggers connect with them and their comments. They also respect when you respond to criticisms gracefully and fairly. Interact with your audience by responding to their comments on

  • Your blog
  • Other blogs
  • Review sites like Amazon and Yelp
  • Other social networking sites

You also can build blog posts around their questions and comments. Be sure to tag the appropriate people when you do!

10. Set reasonable goals and stick to them.

Set a goal of writing a blog post on a certain schedule, such as one post per week or one post per two weeks. Set a goal that is workable within your current obligations and gets you writing on a regular basis. That regular writing practice will make writing blog posts easier and easier.

Another benefit is that regular posting appeals to audiences. It keeps them coming back to your blog and gives them something to look forward to.

11. Limit or balance “I” statements.

Blogs often are written in the first person, or with sentences that begin with “I.” Sometimes, every sentence begins with “I,” especially rants.

Remember that blog posts are as much about conversations and audiences as they are about their writers. Look for a balance between using “I” statements and other statements. Save the “I” for the points closest to your passion.

A Small Review of Three Tools for Archival Research

During the past year, I started work on a history project that involves extensive archival materials. These materials come from the organization’s paper archives and from news archives through Lexis-Nexis, among other places.

While sorting through the papers and files becomes the first step, subsequent steps involve recording, sorting, and annotating. In going through these steps, I found several apps useful for managing information and workflow.

Please note I am firmly rooted in the Apple ecosystem, so my comments and options are limited to Apple devices and apps. After Windows and Word eating my candidacy exam, two 25-page comprehensive exam questions, two dissertation chapters, and two edited book collection chapters, I avoid that operating system as much as possible.

Recording

After sorting, recording the materials for later inquiry is the next step. I started this recording by taking pictures using an iPhone and its camera, but I quickly learned the flaw in this approach. Shaky hands, small device, and micro details like type all result in blurry images that become difficult to read later.

A better solution came through an iPad app called Scanner Pro from Readdle. The app mimics a scanner, but it does much more than that.

Using the tablet’s back camera, the app scans for the document’s edges and takes a picture either automatically or manually. After the capture appears, you can adjust the edges to include the entire page or just part of the document. You then can add pages to that document or start a new document.

The app offers built-in optical character recognition, which makes coding text later on much easier. The app also saves the documents as .PDFs both on device and to a cloud service. With more than 300 documents to move, I found that cloud syncing very handy.

Sorting

Many types of documents appear in this archive: bills, spreadsheets, editing logs, production memos, letters, faxes, emails, contracts, scripts, hand-written notes and edits, and doodles, just to name a few.

Each document tells its own story, but at the same time, each document becomes part of multiple other stories. A hand-written note on a production memo, for example, might connect with multiple productions, organization philosophy, organization culture, operating procedures, and finances. As part of sorting, I could make multiple copies of the same document and put it in multiple places. But doing so makes future discoveries and connections more difficult in that this kind of preliminary sort is based on a superficial understanding of the document’s story. Further investigation might reveal further nuances.

Tagging provides a better solution to this problem. Tagging allows multiple assignments per document, and tags can be organized into different hierarchies. They also are easy to add and remove as needed.

While MacOS offers an internal tagging system, I sought something more robust, perhaps more intuitive. After reading many reviews (particularly this one), I decided to try DEVONThink Pro. Creating, adding, and deleting tags within DEVONThink Pro is simple, and as the system learns, it can suggest other tags that might be useful. Sorting through tags proves easy — with just a couple clicks, every related document appears in one place.

In a world where a 99-cent app seems too expensive, the nearly $80 price tag on DEVONThink Pro might give you some pause. The makers of this program were smart in offering a generous 150-hour trial. It took me nearly 50 hours to tag all of those documents, but the program’s ease of use quickly proved it worthwhile.

Annotating

While tagging offers a superficial sort, annotating moves toward coding the documents. Coding, I am learning, is a labyrinthine process that requires multiple passes before it even starts to resemble something coherent. Part of that might be due to the complexity of this project, however.

For this first pass, PDF Expert offers a great tool for typing on a laptop or by handwriting on the tablet. A simple interface allows quick changing among tools: highlighting, underlining, typing, and writing. Highlights note the relevant data; underlines highlight particularly juicy bits. (Yes, archival research can reveal “juicy bits.”) Typing and handwriting allow me to add potential categories for each piece of information. Aggregation will require another program and probably another post, though.

Like DEVONThink Pro, PDF Expert comes with a price tag that might make you cringe, but it offers several advantages over Adobe systems and even Notability. One key advantage is that the price tag happens once, while with Adobe that amount covers only four months of a subscription. PDF Expert also works with the cloud subscriptions you already have, unlike Adobe which requires using their cloud. Further, changes made to a document in PDF Expert appear in other programs, unlike Notability which used to keep your notes in their app. Plus, I can work offline if I choose to do so.

Merchandise Extends the Hoop Dreams Experience

With every new blockbuster arrives a bevy of branded media, merchandise, and cross-promotions. Soundtracks, television specials, DVDs, and novelizations expand your media collections. Elsa dolls, Batman key chains, and Shrek Twinkies extend your movie experience while they shrink your wallet.

Sometimes, you have to wonder if Hollywood will ever let it go.

Documentaries for the most part fail to fit neatly into these branding machines, but a few exceptions exist. Warner Bros. released a March of the Penguins bonus set with postcards and plush penguin toy. Morgan Spurlock perhaps demonstrates this disconnect most clearly in POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, wherein he attempts to solicit funding for the documentary through paid sponsorships. In addition to POM Wonderful, other products and brands include Mane ‘n Tail, Old Navy, Seventh Generation, and Sheetz, a gas station chain familiar to those living in Pennsylvania and nearby states.

While these two titles lean on the lighter side, most documentaries address more serious issues that make further branding ridiculous. A Born into Brothels T-shirt or The Thin Blue Line backpack are inappropriate. (An Errol Morris bobblehead, however, might be a hot commodity.)

Some documentaries offer movie promotion items such as posters, cards, and autographed stills, but rarely more than that.

Hoop Dreams is a tasteful exception. In exploring the film’s history in the Kartemquin archives, I discovered documents that mentioned Hoop Dreams-branded merchandise. T-shirts with the Hoop Dreams brand sold in J.C. Penney’s stores in the mid-1990s, for example. Turner Publishing released a tie-in book by Ben Joravsky, for another example.

Where does one look for these now-vintage items? Why, eBay, of course. Much to my surprise, I found both official merchandise and memorabilia related to the film, its distribution, and its stars, William Gates and Arthur Agee.

Turner Publishing’s book proved the easiest find:

The front of the hardcover edition of Hoop Dreams, by Ben Joravsky.

This branded pencil connects with the distribution through Fine Line and Turner, but it makes no mention of Kartemquin:

Hoop Dreams pencil
A Hoop Dreams pencil with the New Line Home Video and Turner Publishing logos.

Two of the branded T-shirts showed up in the search results. This green one features a player with a basketball head holding an old-school cell phone. The writing reads,

Hoop Dreams official T-shirt
An official Hoop Dreams T-shirt. Check out that original flip phone!

Defense
You can’t do it
Shut me
down?
I toy with your
Existence
Fake left
Fake right
Take you (any which way)
You need
Help
Fool
Time to dial

A small patch reading, “Hoop Dream 911,” appears on the sleeve.

The black T-shirt is more understated with just the Hoop Dreams logo on the front and back.

Hoop Dreams official T-shirt
Another official Hoop Dreams T-shirt, this one with more understated logos.

Both T-shirts bear tiny writing that claims copyright for “Kartemquin Educational Films, Inc.” I wonder if any other documentary production houses can make the same kind of claim.

Memorabilia also appear on eBay. Memorabilia differ from the branded merchandise in that they may not be official, but they still connect with the film in some way. Trading cards for Gates and Agee are the most popular find. But then I came across this T-shirt:

Hoop Dreams commemorative T-shirt
A Hoop Dreams T-shirt commemorating the television broadcast in November 1995. The shirt is signed by both Gates and Agee.

The T-shirt commemorates the Hoop Dreams PBS broadcast on November 15, 1995. On the front a screenprint shows Gates holding a basketball, with below the logos for Chrysler, Kartemquin, PBS, and KTCA, the Twin Cities PBS-affiliate and producing partner. On the back appears a screenprint of Agee, ball in hand, in mid layup.

Two additions make this T-shirt special: signatures from Gates and Agee. Gates wrote, “Hoop Dreams,” while Agree wrote, “#4,” “Hoop Dreams,” and “’95.” I asked the eBay seller if they knew more about the shirt, and the seller said the person who originally had the shirt worked in sports promotions and probably did an event with the film’s broadcast and the two stars.

While Kartemquin and Fine Line no longer offer Hoop Dreams merchandise, Arthur Agee still uses the film’s name for his own company, Classic HD Basketball Clothing Co. The company features autographed Hoop Dreams posters, DVDs, and books, as well as T-shirts and basketball shorts. Part of the proceeds go toward renovating and equipping a basketball court in Chicago so that others can shoot for their own hoop dreams.

My Life I Don’t Want Tells Story through Girls’ Eyes

My favorite film from last month’s Speechless Film Festival is My Life I Don’t Want, created by Nyan Kyal Say. The appeal of My Life I Don’t Want lies in its simplicity in story and style, though that simplicity also belies much complexity about girls’ experiences in Myanmar and elsewhere.

Title image for My Life I Don't Want
Title image for My Life I Don’t Want

My Life I Don’t Want is a 12-minute animated documentary that represents the collective experiences of girls’ lives in Myanmar through the childhood of a single female child. Her growing up appears as a series of scenes. The series starts with her joyful welcoming into the world and her growing curiosity about school, but it quickly reveals her secondary status.

This status follows a heartbreaking cycle that begins at home and affects her in school and beyond. When the girl and her brother study in one scene, the girl experiences constant interruptions with household chores such as doing laundry and cleaning floors. She is exhausted and unable to concentrate after all of the interruptions, and her school marks suffer. Her brother studies without interruptions and excels in school. Instead of understanding her struggles, her parents express deep disappointment.

The obstacles grow bigger and more dangerous as she ages. She gets kicked out of homes, boys exploit her for sex, and one man even tries to traffic her. In one scene, she attempts to escape the threats, but they all loom menacingly over her as she runs. She ends up pregnant, standing at an edge with the rain pouring down.

Still from My Life I Don't Want
This still from My Life I Don’t Want shows the visual simplicity of the short.

A moment of reckoning, to be sure, but in that, grace appears and offers a hand. For the first time since almost the start of the short, the girl smiles.

The audio and visual styles complement the seemingly straightforward story. In line with the festival’s strong emphasis on visual storytelling, this short uses no specific dialogue. No words are needed.

The animation style also complements the simplicity of the story. Creator Say maintains spare settings with stark backgrounds, such as two desks for the children studying or a bench and tree for the girl meeting a boy. Other elements only appear when necessary to advance the story, such as the girl bringing out a clothes line or a mop and pail during cleaning.

Still from My Life I Don't Want
Another still from My Life I Don’t Want showing the girl in line for starting school.

Recent live-action documentaries show girls’ circumstances around the world. While some films celebrate girls’ cultures and their successes, many films focus on their plights and the challenges they face just to survive. They struggle for education, health care, and economic opportunities, while they fight against forced marriage, childbearing, and prostitution.

These documentaries can prove quite traumatic to view. Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky visits six countries around the world, showing young girls who have been raped, prostituted, molested, and otherwise exploited. In one segment a girl accuses an uncle of rape only later to lose her home because of her family’s shame. That same segment mentions a 3-year-old being raped as well.

It’s a Girl examines gendercide, or the systematic killing of girls simply because they are girls. This documentary visits India with its practice of selective abortions and visits China with its one (now two) child rule. Both of these countries prefer male children, and the documentary shows these preferences’ effects. Girls end up aborted, abandoned, and murdered.

An opening interview in It’s a Girl spikes this point home. An Indian woman speaks matter-of-factly about killing her newborn daughter. She offers no apologies or remorse. And, chillingly, the recent killing is not her first one.

Both It’s a Girl and Half the Sky make for difficult viewing, and they focus on the cultural implications through multiple interviews and stories. My Life I Don’t Want speaks to these broader themes as well.

But what I really like about My Life I Don’t Want is its focus on a single girl’s story told through her point of view. We identify with her, and the story, animation, and the soundscape all point to that identification. The story is still harrowing, but ultimately, it is her story.

Speechless Film Festival Offers Marathon Viewing with 52 Films in 24 hours

Serving as an audience jury member for a film festival makes for quite a different experience from playing octopus at the information booth. I watched 52 films in less than 24 hours during the Speechless Film Festival in Mankato, Minnesota, in mid-March.

A banner with a quote from Alfred Hitchcock
A banner at the Speechless Film Festival reads, “We should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise.” The quote is from Alfred Hitchcock.
Celebrating its fifth year, the Speechless Film Festival focuses on the art of visual storytelling to connect cultures and transcend genres. A banner quoting Alfred Hitchcock conveys this philosophy: “We should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise.” Many programmed films relied primarily on the visual to convey their messages with little to no spoken words.

The festival maintains strong educational connections with the local liberal arts college, Bethany Lutheran College. Professors from there, Minnesota State University – Mankato, and South Central College served as organizers and judges. Regional arts and media organizations also were represented among the judges and organizers.

The audience jury was a new feature that the festival organizers wanted to try this year. The idea seems a strategic way to gain more participation from the greater community. I was happy to volunteer and help decide the audience award winners.

Though the program included four feature-length films, short films running between one and 20 minutes dominated the schedule. Films came from countries all around the world: Azerbaijan, Brazil, Canada, France, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Switzerland. A couple documentaries snuck in there, but almost all films were fictional narrative.

The programmers grouped films thematically into 17 categories. Some themes followed generic lines such as experimental, animation, and fantasy, while other themes consisted of a key idea such as “journey” or “short and sweet.”

My badge and audience jury button from the Speechless Film Festival.
My badge and audience jury button from the Speechless Film Festival.
Serving as an audience jury member required that I attend eight sessions. I chose fantasy, animation, experimental, journey, Minnesota loud, Minnesota quiet, animation (family), and art. My favorites were both animation sessions and the journey one.

Animation, both adult and kids, featured strong storytelling, sometimes stronger than some of the live-action pieces. Some narratives, such as Alto El Juego (Walter Tournier) and Hope (Michael Scherrer), offered both harrowing views and, well, hope even within a short runtimes. Some stories appeared simple, such as meeting a girl in Lion Dance (Tim Pattinson and Zheng Kang) or chasing a seashell and the ocean in Au revoir Balthazar (Rafael Sommerhalder).

In the journey category, RM10 (Emir Ezwan) stood out for its focus on a piece of currency’s trip throughout an evening. The currency travels from vendors to sex workers to children to indebted parents to loan collectors to wealthy debt holders, coming full circle in a surprising way at the end.

The festival recognized films with Minnesota connections in the program book, the awards, and the thematic groupings. The program book labeled regional and local films with an “M” within a blue circle to mark “Made in Minnesota.” This category carried two awards of “Best of Show” and “Honorable Mention.”

According to the program, the “Minnesota Loud” category featured “extreme situations, strong aesthetics, or boisterous characters.” The group I watched this category with enjoyed The Car Pool, a short film by Mike Sorenson. Four people car pool to their jobs at a bank, with the usual annoyances of personality quirks, inane chatter, and indecisive coffee ordering. One twist lies in their jobs at the bank: To rob it. The other twist lies in who survives to take the carpool home.

I also appreciated Bobby’s Run Off, directed by John J. Kaiser. Its central plot involves an abused wife accidentally murdering her husband, though the premise suggests that the husband has disappeared. The film handles this delicate subject in an even way, avoiding the salacious spectacle that sometimes results in representing these stories.

The “Minnesota Quiet” category gathered more “contemplative and highly personal stories.” In their collective subtleness, most of these films failed to stand out for me. I suspect their grouping had something to do with that. Directed by Joe Kessler, Half Smile perhaps stood out the most. Forced to clean out a storage unit, a man confronts his past and his losses.

Interestingly enough, none of these films featured strong Minnesota geographical connections within the films themselves, such as particular cities or regions, or strong Minnesota-based plots or people. The connections to the state occurred with the filmmakers and their production locations instead.

In all, the Speechless Film Festival was quite a different experience from the Frozen River Film Festival, and not just in my minor roles in them. The overall festival was much smaller, confined to one venue, and in general its audience skewed younger. Frozen River involved greater swaths of the community than Speechless did. While Frozen River featured multiple titles about Minnesota, Speechless featured films made in –but not necessarily about — Minnesota. Still, though, serving as an audience jury member for Speechless made for an overall cool experience.

Frozen River Film Festival Maintains Strong Commitment to Regional Identity and Documentary

Picture of a volunteer pass from the Frozen River Film Festival
A volunteer badge from the Frozen River Film Festival in Winona, Minnesota.
My first time volunteering for a film festival introduced me to rural festival culture and helped me perfect my octopus impersonation.

In February 2017, I volunteered for the information desk at the Frozen River Film Festival in Winona, Minnesota. Winona nestles among the bluffs along the Mississippi River. Sugar Loaf, a unique bluff on the National Register of Historic Places, contributes to a mountain town feeling. This rural community of about 27,000 hosts multiple other festivals throughout the year, including the Great River Shakespeare Festival and the Minnesota Beethoven Festival.

Celebrating its 12th year, FRFF programs only documentaries in order to bring global issues to local audiences. The Hunting Ground, Do Not Resist, Life, Animated, and In the Game topped this year’s feature-length documentary offerings. The programmers balance these international documentaries with strong commitments to supporting regional identity and community.

The program cover for the Frozen River Film Festival in Winona, Minnesota
The program cover for the Frozen River Film Festival in Winona, Minnesota
FRFF involves multiple venues throughout the city, including Winona State University, the historical society, the public library, and local businesses. I staffed an information table located in the university’s science building, which also housed two theaters, an open performance space, and food vendors.

That location — not to mention the festival itself — proved a hub of activity. Saturday featured a volunteer fair for area organizations and programs, and local musicians performed both days. Volunteers I sat with named all of the familiar faces they knew from attending the other area festivals.

FRFF recognized both state and local identities with its programming. Five documentaries appeared in the “Minnesota Made” category. For examples, The Seventh Fire examines gang cultures on a Minnesota reservation, while Iraqi Voices breaks down stereotypes through stories of Iraqi people living in the Twin Cities.

Local identities also received attention. One special session included works about two prominent historical figures. Directed by Mary Farrell, The John Latsch Documentary explored the life of this Winona businessman and philanthropist who donated sizable tracts of land for preservation and parks, including one that now bears his name.

The other work-in-progress screening in that session honored Minnesota politician and poet Gene McCarthy. Along with clips, the session included a question-and-answer session with director Bill Kersey, Kelle Green, and Mary Beth Yarrow.

A picture of Sugar Loaf Bluff with a frozen lake in the foreground. An ice fisherman walks to his shelter in the foreground.
A view of Sugar Loaf Bluff in Winona, Minnesota. Despite 50-degree temps, people still fished on the frozen lake as others in shorts jogged around it.
The line for that event started to form about two hours before the doors even opened. Many people brought individual tickets just for that event. The room reached capacity quickly, and ushers turned many people away. Individual ticket-holders turned away received refunds, fortunately.

Working the information booth provides much opportunity to observe happenings such as these. It also involves a lot of pointing as part of answering questions about where to find venues, food, bathrooms, audience voting, and festival personnel. All that pointing in all of those directions makes you feel like an octopus after a while. In all, it was a great experience.

And despite the 50-degree weather that weekend, people still fished on the frozen lake while others jogged around it in shorts. Aside from FRFF, I don’t think you can get much more Minnesota than that.