Dozens upon dozens of young people lie sprawled across the floor of the Caracas airport. Despite the fluorescent glare, most are asleep. It is August 2005, and 15,000 of them from 144 countries have come to attend the World Youth Conference. Hours peel by without any sign of rides to their accommodations. “I love being here,” an exhausted young man from the U.S. says, “but this is not the perfect welcome.”
Thus begins Bringing Back Venezuela, a documentary film produced by Youth Channel, a TV and documentary training outfit for young people based at the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, one of New York’s public-access channels. Shot on a single TRV 950, a digital video camera about the size of a brick, the film focuses on the U.S. delegation, from its arrival to the opening march to a visit it made to a provincial community health clinic.
The idea, says director Cynthia Carrion, 26, was to highlight the importance of international youth solidarity and, as the title suggests, to bring home some of the magic.
“For a lot of us watching the kids who came from the U.S., we saw them realize the things they took for granted,” Carrion says. “Understanding poverty on a different level, what it means to be an American citizen and to be challenged. And it was also good for other kids from elsewhere to meet U.S. kids.”
At one point in the film, Urequiz, an 18-year-old Cuban delegate, looks into the camera and, with a touch of surprise, says: “I just came from a workshop with young Americans, and while we were debating, we realized they knew a lot about our revolution.”
The documentary represents the first foray into international solidarity for Youth Channel (www.mnn.org/yc), which Carrion heads. Established in 2000 with seed money from the Open Society Institute, the organization began teaching students, mostly black and Latino, the basics of TV, from digital filmmaking and editing to operating a control room. “We want them to see it not just as TV but as a living part of their community,” Carrion says.
Youth Channel began broadcasting just one hour each week on New York’s public-access networks. Today, with the support of numerous sponsors, that’s expanded to 17 hours, but the dream of a real 24-hour channel for young people is still unrealized.
From a small office, its walls painted lime green and festooned with posters, Carrion and her staff of four full-timers, together with a large cadre of trainers and interns, coordinate a number of programs, all of them under the rubric of youth media.
Although Youth Channel’s motto, “Media made by youth, for youth,” emphasizes media production, the organization also offers a free media-literacy workshop called “Mind Over Media: Who’s in Control?” in which peer leaders challenge students to critique their visual environment. Among other things, they’re shown pictures of Malcolm X and Che Guevara, followed by the products that have used those images to sell themselves.
“We emphasize media for social justice,” says Mariela Rosario, an outreach coordinator. “We don’t do music videos, no pimps and ’hos. Our mission is educational, to get kids thinking critically about their world.”
Youth Channel’s other youth-produced documentaries have included Young Immigrants: Struggle to Freedom and Equality, about six new U.S. residents and their fears of losing their culture and language; Divided We Stand, a dissection of stereotypes and their impact, using skits used to motivate discussion; and Prom Night, in which urban teens confront the challenges presented by love, sex, HIV and drugs.
Though still a nascent movement rooted in local public-access systems, U.S. youth media excels at building links with its peers. One example is the National Youth Media Access Project (www.nymapexchange.net), a Youth Channel initiative. At the Web site, youth from similar organizations across the U.S.—and, perhaps one day, around the world—can upload their videos.
Next on Youth Channel’s agenda, if all goes well, will be another exploration of international solidarity: a documentary on the upcoming Venceremos Brigade to Cuba, in summer 2007.
Pablo Morales is the editor of the NACLA Report on the Americas.