Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth, whenever it is a damp drizzly November of my soul, whenever I find myself barking at Brian Williams on the evening news, whenever I feel certain that civilization has sputtered into its decline-and-fall phase, it is then that I click to YouTube to view the finalists in the Democracy Video Challenge.
The Democracy Video Challenge? It’s pretty simple. A contest anybody in the world over age 18 can enter. Take the phrase “Democracy Is…” and you fill in the blank with a three-minute video. In 2009, the contest’s first year, there were 905 entries. Panels of judges narrow these to 18 finalists, based on creativity, production values, and overall impact – three from each of six regions of the world.
That’s when the YouTube voting occurs. Between now and June 15, you can view the finalists in this year’s contest on YouTube and cast your votes. The six winners get a trip to the USA and awards from VIPs in the media world and the State Department in Washington, New York, and Hollywood. Seeing the youthful crew of winning video-makers last year receive these awards is heart-warming in the way Oscar-winners’ speeches can be.
But for me the real pleasure of the Democracy Video Challenge is to see how the storytelling meme is evolving in the modern world. There is no better way to do this than to immerse oneself in all the entries.
I speak from experience.
Last year I was asked to be a judge, really more of a referee, for the contest – to sit on the four-person panel that makes sure all videos meet the entry standards. The rules are minimal. Videos have to be in English and no more than three minutes. (Entrants could use free subtitling software so the English requirement was not a major barrier.) Copyright law should be obeyed.
And YouTube’s general rules for all videos on the site have to be observed:
“Videos must not contain profanity, explicit sexual material, graphic violence, appeals to violence or commercial promotion. Videos must adhere to the norms of civil discourse and should not contain material that might be considered abusive, inflammatory or disrespectful to other groups or individuals.”
Over four months last year I saw all 905 entries in the 2009 contest with the eyes of a basketball ref ready to whistle a foot on the baseline. Thumbs up or thumbs down? Every entrant had to pass our panel to get in. Some thoughts on this experience:
A talismanic concept
Democracy in the rest of the world is an extraordinarily powerful word. Video-makers from Brazil to Iran to the Philippines took angles on the topic Americans would never think of. Many videos were sincere attempts to define democracy in conventional ways. One fairly common theme: “democracy means clean water,” as an entrant from Africa put it. There were a lot of entries that featured the right to demonstrate in the streets. We saw many doves in flight. Another common idea was that democracy offers great promise but that our elected leaders in country X fail to deliver real democracy. For an American, just noticing the backgrounds of these videos – often street scenes in jumbled, falling apart villages and cities – is a humbling reminder of the sweet life here in the USA that we so often take for granted.
The value of satire
The rules do not say a video must be pro-democracy. In fact, entrants in the 2009 contest often took it upon themselves to show how democracy doesn’t work, and these satirical, skeptical videos made the contest. One of last year’s finalists from Africa takes the form of a parable of a school election in which the winner winds up with empty pockets because he’s had to use all his money to pay for his votes. “Two cheers for democracy,” then, as the British novelist E.M. Forster once said, “one because it admits variety, and two because it permits criticism.”
A big tent
We refs decided early on that the theme of the contest – Democracy is – was so broad that no video would be rejected because it did not seem to be on the topic. In fact, the rules had no provision for off-topic rejections. Consequently, videos in the contest deal with an astonishing array of ideas and include everything from hip-hop artists performing in city streets to some allegorical chickens in a barnyard working out a pecking order to cleverly animated kingdoms changing kings. There was even a 60ish guy from, I think, Akron, Ohio, strumming a guitar in his basement and singing the amateurish anti-tax song he’d written for the occasion. This Joe the Plumber Wannabe tested my tolerance in many ways, but he hadn’t violated the entry rules so he made it in.
My fellow wise guys
There were some good entries from the USA, but generally speaking many Americans seemed to see the contest as a way to score snarky points against the idea of democracy or the contest itself. There were more teenagers than I’d like to recall standing up and delivering crude rants or parodies off the top of their heads. The obscenity quotient from American entries topped the rest of the world combined. The newspaper columnist Kathleen Parker recently suggested that the national religion of Americans is irreverence. I buy that. So my objection to many American entries is less about their negativity than their sheer half-assedness, their lack of wit, their crude “democracy sucks” attitude, and the sense they give of not taking the contest itself as anything more than joke. This was in contrast to so many of the foreign entries in which the video-makers had obviously invested much passion and effort. It seems as if many of our citizens are so used to the freedom of democracy that we don’t value it as much as cultures where democracy is less established.
The power of story
At times, as the contest deadline approached, I found myself watching as many as 100 videos a day. In these circumstances you realize how long three minutes can be and you’re most grateful to an entrant that can tell her story in, say, a minute and four seconds. I got bleary-eye bored. I confess as well to some multi-tasking, something I don’t ordinarily do. I might have a video up on my PC screen, which I’d keep one eye on as I attempted real work like editing an article. But then every once in a while a video created by a truly gifted storyteller would appear on my computer screen. The story or the ideas, the images or the music would grab my attention, and I’d find myself hooked – pulled out of my article and watching to find out what would happen next. The ancient magic of storytelling would take hold. This happened a lot. Here’s one winner from last year’s contest by a young woman named Tsering Choden from Nepal that still gets me every time.
I’m no longer a referee, but a month ago I did see a sneak preview of this year’s new crop of finalists at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. Fascinating stuff, just as interesting as the first-year finalists. Check them out and then cast your vote.
Some of last year’s winners: