Compelling Videos About a Complex Subject

We the Economy is a series of 20 web videos on the economy covering everything from globalism to navigating supply and demand curves. The series is a pastiche of approaches transforming dry information into something at once witty, informative and fun – some pieces are excellent examples of how a video can wrangle its subject matter to both entertain and educate.

In a series of five posts, TheVisionThing will critique the most successful programs to show how filmmakers fashion work that is a once provocative, informative and stimulating. The first post explores using actors, the second animation, the third using a host and this one looks at documentaries.

Miao Wang’s Powerful Documentary

I was so surprised by this documentary on globalism I had to watch it a second time just to absorb all it had to say.

Ep. 17: MADE BY CHINA IN AMERICA | Miao Wang from We The Economy on Vimeo.

Documentary filmmaker Miao Wang was born and raised in Beijing and works in New York. Her film Made by China in America clearly shows that the key to making a powerful documentary is a good story well told.

From the We the Economy website:

miaowang_page22nyc website

Miao Wang, photo from page22nyc website

When I was first approached to create a short film on the monster-sized, complex global topic of explaining China’s economic boom, trade, and its impact on the U.S. economy – I had a flashback to the intensity of cramming for exams at the University of Chicago, where I graduated with a BA in economics. I couldn’t say no to this challenge – a project that aptly combines my background in economics and film.

Exploding Expectations

Miao Wang’s video starts out as a typical bad news documentary. You meet a range of South Carolinians who were once involved in the area’s booming textile industry. They walk through abandoned factories and speak about broken dreams.

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Frame grab from Made by China in America

With this approach, you expect the rest of the documentary will focus on the devastation caused by the loss of American jobs migrating overseas. Just as you settle back to hear that very familiar story the documentary takes a sharp turn and shows a growing Chinese investment in American workers and businesses. You learn why it makes sense for China to build factories here and how they’ve reshaped the local landscape by bringing back jobs, rebuilding lives and reinvigorating the American Dream. It’s an amazing story and one rarely if ever reported.

What Works and Why

Miao Wang structures her piece very effectively, setting up your expectations for one story and then making a turn towards a better one. Her graphics are powerful and a strong conceptual element in the story, although there’s so much going on it’s hard to absorb all the information.

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Frame grab from Made by China in America

Still, they support her story and the visual treatment works elegantly within the documentary style. The sound bites are well chosen and the camera work, while at times crude, manages to create a strong visual presence – especially in the wide shots. It’s very moving to go out into the field and get a first hand view of abandoned factories, the people left behind and the struggle to put their lives back together. Documentaries are very powerful for that reason – they plunk you right in the middle of the action, introduce you to real people and show you the challenges they face.

Miao Wang fashions her documentary with a light touch – she lets the process evolve naturally to capture our interest and curiosity. In making her documentary Miao Wang has a point of view, but wisely keeps it in the background as she unfolds the story bit by bit. Her piece is so compelling, it makes us change our preconceptions about China’s impact on America’s economy.

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Frame grab from Made by China in America

From the CNBC website:

Miao_Wangphoto by Jake Price

Miao Wang, photo by Jake Price

I see Chinese investment in the U.S. as a positive opportunity for the U.S. as well as China. After all, these Chinese companies have to operate on the U.S. playing field, under U.S. regulations, contributing to the local tax base, and hiring Americans. The U.S. has the responsibility and advantage to guide these companies to better governance practices. In turn, China could play a role in helping to revive the U.S. economy.

A Chinese proverb goes, “If you want one year of prosperity, grow grain. If you want ten years of prosperity, grow trees. If you want one hundred years of prosperity, grow people.”

You can check out Miao Wang’s other video projects at her company site, Three Waters Productions.

Albert Hughes and City on the Rise

City on the Rise is another form of classic documentary, a strong emotional piece with a lot of heart. It also focuses on globalization – what happens when jobs go overseas.

We The Economy: City On The Rise from Eric Alexander-Hughes on Vimeo.

America’s industrial revolution was launched in cities like Detroit, once a center for technology and innovation. Albert Hughes goes back to the city of his birth to explore what happens when jobs disappear.

Director Albert Hughes, from the We the Economy website:

"The Book of Eli" - Photocall

Albert Hughes from website

Anything having to do with money or the economy has always been totally foreign to a person like me. I don’t even live in the U.S. anymore and rarely carry more than 20 bucks in my pocket! I kept thinking about it but just wasn’t able to wrap my head around such an abstract subject. And then it finally hit me… Detroit, the place I was born. A place that would be the perfect case study for what can happen to a society when the bottom falls out — whether it be from the effects of globalization or automation eliminating countless manufacturing jobs.

What Works and Why

Early on Albert Hughes made some choices for his video that help heighten its impact. He uses stock footage newsreels to show the early days of Detroit. The stock footage was shot in black and white and Hughes decided to turn his present day exteriors black and white as well. That choice creates a strong visual consistency, especially since the bulk of the story is centered in the past, with the loss of jobs and decline of the city – all fairly dark subjects and well-suited to a monochrome treatment.

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Frame grab from City on the Rise

City on the Rise is well-structured, as it first shows the rise of industry and a flourishing city, then the decline, and finishes with a positive turn and signs of recovery. The visuals are so compelling that part of the story is simply told with text on the screen and stark images of decay. And then there’s the personal stories.

Albert Hughes:


Albert Hughes, from the website

The whole story was suddenly there for me — and hit home in a very personal way as my father was once an auto worker, as well as many family members. I tried my best to tell the story on a personal level and hear from the former auto workers as well as city officials. I didn’t want to wallow in the glut of the city or the doom and gloom everyone has become so familiar with. I wanted to show the city in a new light.

The people featured in the video are eloquent advocates for their own stories as well as the larger theme of the city’s decline and hopeful return. Personalizing the story with the two workers makes the piece more emotional. Ultimately this documentary is about people’s lives, not statistics, and making that the focus is key to its power.

The interview settings work well with an abstract environment that visually supports the story’s content. The interview setups are well-framed and free of clutter and distraction.

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Still of Kathy Milam from City on the Rise

You learn from former autoworker Kathy Milam how she adapted to the challenges thrust at her when she lost her job. In telling her story, she also becomes a symbol for a city fighting its way back.

The piece was edited by Albert’s son, Eric Alexander-Hughes. The pace moves along but also gives you time to absorb the content. The music stays more in the background but still makes its point by helping create the mood. The images work well – you see the devastation in the abandoned buildings and later on, the hope and excitement in the faces of Detroit’s people.

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Still from City on the Rise

Although Albert Hughes obviously has a point of view, like Miao Wang, he kept it in the background. Instead, you feel the immediacy of the story told by people who are living it. You feel their passion and pathos – they become your guides to understand what has happened and their dream for a better life still to come. This is another strength of documentary – it can put you right in the middle of things and make you feel you’re part of the experience.

Together, these documentaries convey their information with passion and conviction as they show how the loss of jobs impacts a community and the people who live there. They both raise up positive stories from the depths of a ruined economy – offering hope where others only find despair. They tell engaging stories, moving from place to place as each new story element serves the next until you arrive at a deeper understanding of the issue. City on the Rise and Made by China in America are two excellent examples of powerful documentary storytelling.

This is the fourth of five posts on how master communicators use video to inform or educate. You can find an earlier post on using actors here, on using animation here and on using a host here. Next week we’ll look at an excellent advocacy video that engages you as it reveals a powerful story. Please share your insights and thoughts in the comments section below.