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Lessons from the Street

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This past November and December, through our partnership with the Alcaldia (mayor’s office) of Medellín, I had the privilege of working with an exceptional group of adult students from Comuna 11, a neighborhood in the western-central zone of the city. Working both individually and in small groups they produced an extraordinary set of films, most of which were about different aspects of street culture. Their specific topics ranged from street musicians and performers, to caring for strays and other animals, to the bicycling community. Have a look now at some of their impressive works:

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(Click here to visit Bent Marble on YouTube)

This cohort, consisting of university students, artists, civil servants, and professionals in various fields, was probably the most diverse group, demographically and personality-wise, that I have ever worked with. And I was extremely impressed with how well they “gelled”, quickly forming new friendships and helping one another with their projects, both in and out of the classroom. By the end of the course more than one participant had commented privately to me how much they enjoyed meeting their classmates, and how they felt they wouldn’t have had this opportunity if not for the workshops. And importantly, this marked a significant, real-world lesson for Bent Marble as well.

While we, as an organization, are primarily concerned with promoting cross-cultural understanding and friendship between countries and continents, this most recent observation demonstrates that we can also do this, to an extent, WITHIN the workshops as well. And bridging cultural and “subcultural” divides within a community is equally important, and perhaps even more directly impactful. So with this in mind, moving forward we will definitely seek to have greater diversity represented within our workshops and public screening events.

Take a gander now at an image gallery from our Facebook page that shows this diverse group in action, in class and at their successful screening events:

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A second lesson learned from our experience in Medellín expands on Bent Marble’s value of using resources that already exist in the community. While most of our past students have been first-time filmmakers, as of late, we have also been encountering more and more who have made films before, or who have academic or professional backgrounds in visual communications or multimedia. During the workshop series in Comuna 11, the first one I’ve taught in Spanish without the “safety net” of an assistant for translation, I was still, at times, graciously assisted by a few of the students. For instance, participant and now workshop co-facilitator, John Álvarez, was experienced with Adobe Premiere video editing software. And when I drastically needed to rest my language cortex, he was there to explain in his mother tongue some of the most complicated things on our plate!

On a similar note, other participants, with ample understanding of camerawork and photography, were able to benefit the class by sharing what they knew as well. In this manner we formed a unique environment in which multiple individuals were empowered to contribute to the best of their abilities, and to the educational benefit of all. This second pedagogical point gleamed from our workshops, the concept of capitalizing on the experience and expertise that already exists in each group of participants, felt so important, in fact, that we added it to our official educational philosophy!

And now lets hear from some of the co-facilitators and participants themselves, as they comment on their experience of the workshops:

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Before signing off I’d also like to offer my sincere gratitude to Natalie Montoya Montaño and Catalina Gaviria of the Alcaldia of Medellín for all their help in finding a group of talented participants, arranging the physical space for the workshops, and organizing two highly successful screening events (one private and one very public). I know it meant a lot to our new filmmakers to share their works, hot-off-the-press, with such a large and appreciative audience. And it is experiences like these that will further inspire them to continue making films, and share their unique perspectives on Medellín’s city streets… and the world!

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Although the principal purpose of my travels is facilitating documentary filmmaking workshops, I also typically take a bit of time to explore the land after my teaching responsibilities are fulfilled. The highlight of this travel period while in Uganda was unquestionably a three-day safari trip to Murchison Falls National Park, in the Northwest of the country. While I have traveled quite a bit over the years, this was the first time I had been on an actual safari, and was exposed to such great numbers of large animal life in the wild.


Notably, before setting out into the wilderness, a couple of my students in Kampala had challenged me to make a documentary short of my own. And after all I had just put them through in the workshops, it only seemed fair. My time at Murchison was a virtual feast for the camera, as we were constantly surrounded by natural beauty, in many wondrous forms. It was almost like being behind the lens of a National Geographic documentary… perhaps despite the fact that the safari experience was actually a highly managed package tour 🙂


Now while we typically think of documentaries as being about something “actual”, from the outer world around us, in my workshops I also strongly encourage the participants to consider sharing something from their inner worlds as well. This includes making more personally-voiced “video essays” about concepts, thoughts, and feelings that they have. My latest Clackumentary, Sofari, indeed took this form, reflecting not only on the exotic wildlife I encountered in Murchison, but also on the more general significance of what it means to journey in strange lands and have encounters with the “other”… and how that, in turn, can equally impact one’s view of self and home.


So take a guided gaze now, through my lens of experience, as we travel in Sofari:

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Rules of Thirds

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The Rule of Thirds was one of the first principles I learned in graduate school in New York, in regards to composing shots for documentary camera work. According to

The Rule of Thirds is a ‘rule of thumb’ or guideline which applies to the process of composing visual images such as designs, films, paintings, and photographs. The guideline proposes that an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections. Proponents of the technique claim that aligning a subject with these points creates more tension, energy and interest in the composition than simply centering the subject.

Bangalorean musician and music educator, Gopal Navale, performs on the MG Road Promenade, playing a classical instrument while demonstrating the classic Rule of Thirds.

I was recently teaching an evening documentary workshop series to adult students at Jaaga Startup in Bangalore, India. During the second class meeting, where we cover documentary production techniques, no sooner had I uttered the name of the Rule of Thirds when I was interrupted by one of the participants, Venugopal, who proclaimed that this principle is for photography and doesn’t apply to motion picture! Now it is important to mention that Venugopal was not a typical student, but a septuagenarian who has 50 years experience in the Indian film industry, and who has worked on multiple monumental films, including the 8-Oscar Award winning, Gandhi.

Venugopal sharing some of his insights from 50 years experience in the Indian film industry while a diligent student takes notes.
Venugopal sharing some of his insights from 50 years of experience in the Indian film industry, while a diligent student takes notes.

I immediately could tell this was going to be a long class. After taking a breath and acknowledging his point of view, I reiterated that all the rules I would be mentioning that day are indeed meant to be broken, for the right reasons. But it was my job to at least give the other students, most of whom had no filmmaking experience at all, a brief overview of what traditionally is considered good practice.

While the concept of the Rule of Thirds has been part of our core curriculum for camera work since day one, during our time teaching in India we have also discovered two more “Rules of Thirds”, you could say, that apply specifically to the work that Bent Marble does. The second one, interestingly, is also well-demonstrated by our series at Jaaga Startup, where we offered workshops to a new category of participant… the general public. Up to this point, we had partnered primarily with educational institutions and nonprofits, teaching a lot of young people, and a lot of folks who normally aren’t exposed to filmmaking and digital media.

Groups of participants from our three workshops in Bangalore (top to bottom), Jaaga Startup, CMS Jain University, and Ashwini Charitable Trust.
Groups of participants from our three workshops in Bangalore: (top to bottom) Jaaga Startup, Center for Management Studies Jain University, and Ashwini Charitable Trust. Together they demonstrate Bent Marble’s second Rule of Thirds.

But what about older learners who aren’t likely to be attending a school or university? And what about those who aren’t in social or financial need, but still have the equally important need to express themselves and share their stories? For that reason, while in India we reached out via our online and offline networks to create and promote a third workshop series, open to all, at Jaaga Startup. And it was a tremendous success, as adult learners, many of whom attended the workshops after a long day in the office, learned documentary filmmaking with unmatched enthusiasm!

A young student at Ashwini Charitable Trust reacts to a computer freezing during editing, and then makes a humble offering of candy to the “computer gods”. Her plight demonstrates the need for our third Rule of Thirds.

This brings us now to our third, and final, Rule of Thirds, which has to do with the idea that teaching documentary filmmaking perhaps needs a “third” week of instruction. When beginning this venture of offering free workshops internationally, mostly to beginners, we aimed to teach the most we could in the shortest amount of time. We figured that asking folks to attend two classes a week for two weeks, as well as do the associated filmmaking assignments, was a big enough time commitment in this uber busy world we live in.

However making documentary films is undeniably a process that requires time. Indeed most professionally made documentaries take many months, if not many years, to complete! Relatedly we have learned, over the last several months, that two-week workshops only “work” if everything goes perfectly smoothly. But this is life, and that, of course, rarely happens. Sometimes students miss a class, due to unavoidable circumstances, and fall behind. Sometimes people need a bit more time to shoot their subjects, or creatively edit their masterpieces. And often we come across unforeseen (but now always expected) technical difficulties, as we try to get our varied camera and computer gear to work and to “play nicely” together. So starting now, and as we plan our next round of teaching in Africa, we will be offering our workshops as an extended three-week series. So there you have it, our third Rule of Thirds!

But before signing off, let’s return one last time to that “tense” documentary production workshop with Venugopal at Jaaga Startup. After introducing a couple more best-practice rules for camerawork, and demonstrating some handheld shooting techniques, I sent the students out with their cameras to practice what they had learned. Interestingly, Venugopal stayed in the classroom and took out his Android tablet, which he had recently begun using to shoot videos. He proudly showed me a whole host of footage he had shot recently at a family member’s wedding, and about which he was thinking of basing his documentary project. The bride, family, and wedding all looked beautiful, as did his footage… each frame of which was shot expertly applying the classic Rule of Thirds!

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Samui School Spirit

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While Bent Marble’s primary mission is to teach creative documentary workshops that foster cross-cultural understanding, we are also filmmakers ourselves, and look forward to those opportunities when we are able to use our cinematic skills to help like-minded organizations. This past June and July we had the opportunity to film a promotional video for Koh Samui School, the largest public school on the island of Koh Samui, located off the east coast of Thailand. Although we don’t speak Thai, the language barrier was readily overcome through the assistance of English teacher, Alfred te Water Naude, English department head, Judy Walaiporn, and school headmaster, Pore Or. And with their support we were also welcomed with open hearts and minds by the entire staff and student body, as we “intruded” for nearly four weeks with our cameras, filming all aspects of school life.

In addition to their regular academic coursework, the students at Koh Samui School take part in an impressive array of extra-curricular activities, ranging from traditional music and dance, to meditation courses, to lively performances in assemblies where the entire audience also participates! Our time filming at the school fortuitously also coincided with their annual island-wide athletics (track & field) championships, which is highlighted in our piece.

It was truly a wonderful experience being part of the Koh Samui School community and we look forward to offering our creative documentary workshops there the next time we are in town. And while we couldn’t showcase all the fine folks we met in this short video (recently edited and “hot off the press”), we certainly hope we’ve captured some of their spirit!

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Smooth Operators

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Not long ago we had the chance to work with some talented kids at the Jodie O’Shea Orphanage in Denpasar, Bali (an organization founded in loving memory of Australian, Jodie O’Shea, who died tragically in the Bali terrorist bombing of 2002). There we gave a one-day documentary camerawork workshop to a group of students, aged 12 to 17. The goal of the class was for each participant to learn to become a “human tripod”, in essence to use their body, itself, as a stabilization device for their camera, as they performed a variety of still and moving shots.


Being able to shoot handheld like this allows for a degree of flexibility that is very important for documentary work, where you never know where the action will lead next. And while the concept is simple, to shoot smooth, professional-looking shots is actually quite challenging, as the smallest quiver or shake of the camera in your hands can lead to footage that looks like it was shot during an earthquake!

IMG_2900_retouched_webWhile most of the participants had little to no experience with cameras before, it was truly amazing how much they learned-by-doing in just a few hours time. The earnestness with which they took on this challenge can be seen in their faces as they focused, framed, and followed their shots. And in the end much of the resulting footage was truly astonishing… rock solid and stable! As a result, the students finished the class with a real feeling of confidence in what they had achieved, and hopefully also inspired to further pursue their interests in camerawork and filmmaking.

One of the goals of Bent Marble workshops is to bring filmmaking to the common man/woman/child, and demystify what may seem like an intimidatingly difficult form of art. We strive to have our participants experience the joy of success, before they have time to doubt themselves. And with such success comes snowballing confidence, creativity, and learning. Camerawork, for instance, may seem complex, and many may initially feel that they “don’t have an eye for it”. But in our class we briefly provide a few pointers and then encourage our students to try. And they soon realize that it isn’t rocket science after all… just a whole lot of fun!


Like cinematographer or videographer, an “operator” is one of the names given to a professional cameraperson. And while none of the youngsters we had the pleasure to work with at Jodie O’Shea Orphanage are professionals, just yet… boy were they super smooth!

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Many, MANY Thanks!!

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At the end of each two-week series of creative documentary workshops we have a special film screening event, where students share the fine works they have created in a festive, celebratory atmosphere. Each time we do this I am always amazed at how much the participants have learned about filmmaking and how much their confidence has grown as digital media makers, in such a short period of time.

At the recent screening event with Children’s Paradise Montessori School, however, there were even more pleasant surprises awaiting me. The last film shown, made by students Aidric, Feivel, and Karl, turned out to be a tribute piece to me, for all the work, energy, and love I had put into the workshops.  They interviewed their fellow students and teachers alike and edited together an extremely touching piece that brought tears of joy to my eyes. Equally impressive was how they had made this film, literally under my nose, but without me having the slightest idea what they were up to! Well get out your box of tissues and have a look at Aidric, Feivel, and Karl’s heart-melting handiwork:

After the films were shown I was also presented with a bag of gifts from the students, teachers, and administration. The crown jewel of the gift bag was a giant, handmade card made by the students, that unfolded like a giant filmstrip! So many wonderful thoughts and feelings were shared on its numerous pages, this time using handwritten and drawn (not digital) techniques. Have a look at the moving images and words they composed via this gallery from our FaceBook page:

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On a related note, I am currently about six months into this new venture of volunteering internationally, offering free creative documentary filmmaking workshops. While I know through this I am following the deepest yearnings of my hear and mind, it still hasn’t always been easy. At times being a foreigner in constantly new countries, cities, and towns has been physically and emotionally draining. More than once I’ve faced struggles in finding organizations to partner with and a “flock” to teach, sometimes leaving me to wonder if the world really wanted what I had to offer. Given all this, though, it really meant the world to me to receive such a tidal wave of appreciation and gratitude from all the good people at Children’s Paradise Montessori School. It was a clear and much-needed reminder that I am on the right path and making a difference. So for all that they have done for me in return, I too offer many, MANY thanks!


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Raining, Cats, and Dogs

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Well for the last week it truly has been raining a lot here on Koh Samui.  But other than having to break out our ponchos and stay indoors a bit more than usual, we really haven’t minded.  “Why?”, you might ask.  Well, because we’ve been hard at work editing a video for our favorite nonprofit here on the island, the Dog and Cat Rescue Samui Foundation.

While Bent Marble’s primary mission is to teach creative documentary workshops that foster cross-cultural understanding, we are also filmmakers ourselves, and look forward to those opportunities when we are able to use our cinematic skills to help like-minded organizations and friends.. be they two-legged or four:)

Have a look at the video we made, hot off the press, and posted on the YouTube channel of Brigitte Gomm, the organization’s founder.  Let us know what you think, or better yet head to their website and learn more about how you can lend a helping paw… err hand!

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Howdy, World!

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One step forward, one step in.
The marble ‘neath my finger bends.
          I push it out into a roll..

It’s hard to believe that this venture began with a poem that began like that so, so many years ago.  Since then there’s been a lot of dreaming, perhaps a bit too much thinking and rethinking, and a lion’s share of waiting.  Although I learned once, from a good friend’s example, that sometimes the bestest ideas need a big bit of time to germinate:)

Sometimes when it’s hard to move both forward and inward, we need to move outward first.  With this in mind, I feel it was somehow important for me to leave my former and familiar surroundings in New York City to finally be able to get this Bent Marble rolling.  New environments can help us find or further develop strengths within ourselves, and to adapt and evolve as individuals.  They also push us to open our hearts and minds, reach out to the world, and make new connections and friends.

This idea of making friends in new places is the core, the seed, of the idea that Bent Marble has become.  And here in Saint Petersburg, Russia the idea has finally begun to grow!  We have a new logo finalized and new website under construction.  We are also tip-toeing into the world of social networks and invite you to join us there.  Perhaps most importantly we have our first Clackumentary (creative documentary) workshops beginning tomorrow with students from the English First language school here in Saint Petersburg.  We’ve been working hard, and have a lot to be thankful for.  The ball.. err marble.. is finally rolling!