Melissa Young and ‘Not For Sale’

Melissa Young and Mark Dworkin founded Moving Images Video Project in 1987 as a way to raise awareness of political and social issues in Central America. The Project now produces and distributes television documentaries about the environment, peace and social justice. Many of their programs have aired on PBS, are widely distributed to schools, libraries, and community organizations, have been shown in film festivals and won numerous awards.

Not for Sale, showing in the Center for Social Media’s Social Action Showcase at the 2003 Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital in March 2003, is the third in an ongoing series of educational programs concerning biotechnology. The other two programs are Risky Business: Biotechnology and Agriculture and Gene Blues.

1. Did you start out as a social activist who used media as a way to advance social change?
2. Could you define ‘Public Interest Television,’ which is used as the tagline for your production company, Moving Images Video Project?
3. To what do you attribute your long-term, successful working relationship with Mark Dwokin?
4. What’s your outreach strategy?
5. Do you try to link your documentaries with community action?
6. Do you have a funding strategy?
7. As a social media producer, are there recurring obstacles, other than funding, you’ve encountered along the way?
8. Have you encountered any problems in regards to PBS and their conflict-of-interest concerns with your funding sources?
9. Since Not for Sale was the third of an ongoing series, was it initially designed and funded as a series?
10. What are you currently working on?

1) Did you start out as a social activist who used media as a way to advance social change?
That’s certainly how it began. I first started working in television in the eighties during the wars in Central America. At that time I was a carpenter and cabinet-maker from Seattle and I helped organize a project from Seattle to build a school in Nicaragua. We did some video work while we were in this small community. That’s how I met Mark, who was already working in video. I made my first little educational piece and saw just how effective video could be conveying all these messages – some of them verbal and some of them nonverbal. And I saw the sense of emotional connection people made to it. I also saw how it seemed to make the issues clearer to people in the U.S. than all of the talks I’d given.

2) Could you define ‘Public Interest Television,’ which is used as the tagline for your production company, Moving Images Video Project? 
It reflects a basic philosophical idea that, as media producers, we have the responsibility of thinking of the impact of a given issue on society at large. And our goal is to represent that in our productions and not the more narrow view represented in the mainstream media which often embodies an industrial or corporate point-of-view.

3) To what do you attribute your long-term, successful working relationship with Mark Dwokin?
I think it has to do with our shared commitment to social justice, peace and the environment. It’s a mutual commitment to making media that is not dealt with by mainstream media sources.

In terms of our division of labor, Mark is the more technical member of the team – he does the camera work and the hands-on editing. I do the producing, fundraising, and organizing the field production. And I sometimes double up as a sound person. Scripting is a collaborative effort.

4) What’s your outreach strategy?
Our initial outreach starts with the people we meet during the course of our research and producing. For almost every single one of our programs we look for an educational distributor. In many cases our environmentally related films are distributed by Bullfrog Films, which is more or less the premiere environmental distributor. They do quite a good job at reaching out to universities and libraries. We also enter the films in film festivals and set up screenings. And many of our environmental films are also produced in a Spanish version so they can be used by activists in Spanish-speaking countries.

5) Do you try to link your documentaries with community action?
That depends on the topic. Not for Sale, for example, the third of a series having to do with the implications of genetic engineering, deals specifically with the patenting of life forms. Over the course of producing this program, we ended up doing research and meeting people and scientists who are working in the field and asking them to write letters saying that this was an interesting and timely topic that needed addressing.

6) Do you have a funding strategy?
It’s difficult and it’s become more difficult these last few years. We depend a lot on foundation support and the drop in the stock market essentially decreased available foundation funds by one-third. Ordinarily, we’re looking for foundation or individual support and, since our topics are issue-related, we look for people who have taken an interest in, say, biodiversity. One thing that we’ve done is get organizations to write letters of support. I can’t say this is always successful but it seems to help. This way our funders know that we’re not working in a vacuum and they have some sense that the film isn’t going to end up on the shelf somewhere. We sometimes get a letter from, say, KCTS, if we’re co-partnering with them and that helps.

And interestingly, I’ve talked quite a bit over the last few years with our Canadian colleagues and the first thing they do is to get a commitment for broadcast. But, of course, there are more public funds available there.

7) As a social media producer, are there recurring obstacles, other than funding, you’ve encountered along the way?
Over the course of my adult life, things in the mainstream media have become more and more focused on corporate interests. We consider ourselves pro-people and pro-public interest.

I’ve had the experience of certain people at PBS saying that we had to change certain programs because they were considered too controversial for public television. I believe it [PBS] has become more cautious over time. One of the films was called Retooling America, which was produced in the 90’s and was about what we were hoping were going to be some major changes in the economy after the cold war ended.

8) Have you encountered any problems in regards to PBS and their conflict-of-interest concerns with your funding sources? 
Not really, because basically we look for funding from organizations and people that are not considered a conflict of interest. We did have one occasion where PBS made us give some money back, which was, in my view, absurd. After all, who supports Wall Street Week or even This Old House – it’s supported by finishing products or wood-working companies.

It was something that was broadcast nationally by PBS in the 90’s called In the Midst of Winter. It was a documentary about people with AIDS-moving stories about a diverse group of people. We produced the film with virtually no money. It was basically our contribution as people with conscience and people who had been affected by the AIDS epidemic affecting friends and colleagues. We received a small grant from an organization that did education on death and dying. I think it was $2,500 and it didn’t come with strings attached. Nobody told us, for example, that we had to put this or that in the show. The film was broadcast in Seattle [on KCTS] and the Seattle folks said PBS would be interested but they didn’t like this group’s contribution. In the end we got a contribution from Microsoft.

I think that, however, there are certainly some very good things that happen at PBS, such as Point-of View and Bill Moyers’ Now and the new Frontline show that uses various producers. I think those shows all reflect the times. And we make an effort to have our things shown on PBS because we believe that it’s very important.

How Can I Keep On Singing is being aired by PBS this spring. Critics have called it an artistic tribute to frontier women. I would say it incorporates our broad and deep value systems. It’s a documentary based on some wonderful writing by settler women at the end of the 19th century.

9) Since Not for Sale was the third of an ongoing series, was it initially designed and funded as a series?
We had in mind one program when we began and then it became two and then it became three. We had some funding from one funder for all three pieces. We just kept going back and, because they saw our track record of how thoroughly we were able to distribute the previous programs, they continued to fund us. And we also had a variety of funders for the different programs.

10) What are you currently working on?
We’re just finishing a film that looks at the impact of salmon farming on the marine environment. It was shot in Chile and British Columbia, as well as the United States. It’s called Net Loss.