French documentary filmmaker Patrice Barrat tells stories of global crisis, one life at a time. While in Paris, I heard him speak of his new documentary project, Madmundo.tv.
It’s a common struggle for journalists reporting on human rights, oppression or corruption; it is difficult to tell stories of global complexity without losing the humanity of the problems. In response, journalists habitually seek out the human story amidst the sweeping crisis.
This storytelling technique is one many groups employ — my organization, Global Integrity, runs a series, The Corruption Notebooks, which examines institutional failures through a human lens: a Filipino family that refused to sell their votes, or a Chinese man who must bribe his taxi out of a police impound lot (readers of this blog can download a free PDF copy).
But Madmundo, a project founded by Barrat, takes a stylistic tool and elevates it to a set formula: On Madmundo, every story starts with a single person asking a specific question and lets the story unfold from there.
This is the theme of a “common citizen” taken to an extreme — from South Africa a woman with HIV, Busi, inquires into the fate of Sinesipho, a young AIDS orphan whose smiling face beams from the cover of a World AIDS Fund brochure. As the camera follows everywoman Busi, she occupies a space somewhere between a documentary subject, a citizen journalist and an activist prop. She travels to local and international power centers demanding answers. There are nested layers to this — we watch Busi as she watches the Global AIDS Fund watching Sinesipho. It’s an artistic metaphor made real on the Web – viewers comment as the story unfolds in episodes, and film (in theory) adapts in response.
Each stage of the investigation feeds a self-contained online video episode, which is later aggregated and recut into a television piece. The continuity of characters like Busi through the process adds a layer of artistic complexity, argues Barrat, that is missing in straight news reporting. As Busi walks through the process of discovery, we view her as both journalist and subject, reacting with her to the platitudes offered by Gordon Brown, Paul Wolfowitz, and Kofi Annan as Busi ambushes them with the story of the AIDS orphan, Sinesipho. We, the viewers, cheer her on. It’s theater, but it’s good theater.
— Jonathan Eyler-Werve