Reading is believing

An essay on Moving Pictures, the magazine brought out by the Television Trust for the Environment, and its role in projecting TV, video and even the CD-ROM as alternative and effective media for articulating developmental issues

By Peter B Stone
Published: Sunday 15 December 1996

THERE was a time when everybody involved with development knew exactly what to do. Rival camps disagreed with each other but were at least confident that they themselves were right and everyone else wrong. Today, with the exception of the International Monetary Fund and human rights campaigners, the worm of self-doubt has eaten into every school of opinion. A messy situation such as this could be taxing on journalists who strive to maintain public interest and support for development.

However, there is one magazine that has triumphed over the problem. It is called Moving Pictures and is published by the Television Trust for the Environment (TVE). A quarterly, it calls itself "a thematic guide to new films on the environment, development, human rights and health issues". Inevitably, the title has a double meaning. It refers to what used to be called the 'movies', now including videos, tv, films and even tentatively, the cd-rom with its video clips. The title also reflects the vision of Robert Lamb who founded tve -- over a decade ago -- to move film, video and tv material around the world so that everybody could see it and not just satiated viewers in rich nations, whose tv broadcasters alone could afford to make the stuff. At the time tve was founded, environment and development tv made by Third World producers was rare. But today, there is a two-way flow of material.

Moving Pictures provides information on what the programmes are about, what reviewers say about them, who made the shows and how to get them. Policy-makers do not watch a lot of tv and if they do, it is likely to be golf or cricket or the endless political interviews projecting their colleagues in the wrong. But a glance at Moving Pictures and they would know that environmental issues have become important and that many millions are aware of it. Indeed a subject could become important in public mind in parts of the world they might not expect and to a degree they might not anticipate. And lastly, they will discover the heartening extent of co-operative effort that goes into co- productions between broadcasters in the rich and poor countries.

Through the catalogue one is aware of the fact that many original documentaries which expounded now familiar topics like Hole in the Sky on stratospheric ozone depletion, The Blue Eye of Siberia on the degradation of Lake Baikal or Seeds of Despair on the Ethiopian famine (that shocked the world in 1984 and launched such massive fund-raising efforts as Live Aid), are still available. By the time of the Rio Conference in 1992, Developing Stories brought the work of Southern producers to Northern viewers. Over the years, limitations of the documentary format have led to the use of the drama, cartoon and the condensed, commercial-style snippet, to make the point. For instance, the drama The March on Europe explored the end-point of African environmental degradation.

This diversification of form in environment and development-oriented film-making is quite striking when a magazine gathers the output together and displays it over the years. Many people in the business of advocating the need to care for the planet feel they are fighting a losing battle. But when one reads about the efforts of tv worldwide in arousing environmental awareness about say, preserving steam railways or a threatened species, one feels much more encouraged.

But why should one be moved at all? The main reason is that every hour of tv represents many thousands of hours of creative effort by people involved in making the programmes and raising the money to do so. For instance, Adrian Cowell, one of the co-founders of tve, spent 10 years in the Amazon filming the agony of its forests and people. Two Canadian directors trailed Naom Chomsky for three years on his lecture tours. If the definition of environment and development tv is widened to encompass programmes that are not overtly campaigning but contributing to changing attitudes to nature -- such as those of Cousteau and Attenborough -- then the total tv hours of persuasion in favour of sustainable development must be much more than that of print. But, the value of the printed Silent Spring by Rachel Carson surely surpassed the impact created by a whole year's television. And of course, television just about always starts with something first read in print. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to quantify the persuasive power of the two media. Thank you, Moving Pictures.

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