Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

Tag: Focus/Forward

What Motivates a Change Artist?

What motivates a change artist? I’m sure part of it is a sense of positive power and a belief that the actions of one person can create change. Perhaps it’s an ability to see things differently than everyone else and a desire to realize that difference. Or maybe it’s just a deeply felt sense of fairness – and outrage when innocent people are hurt. Perhaps for all of these reasons this man, Hong Kong native Deng Fei, is a change artist extraordinaire.

Spanish People Daily

Investigative Journalist Deng Fei – from the Spanish People Daily site

His story starts a few years ago, in rural China.

Tricia Wang3

photo by Tricia Wang

Here’s some background to the problem he tried to solve, by NPR’s Louisa Lim.

For 10-year-old student Xie Xiaoyuan, just getting to school is an ordeal. On a recent day, her frostbitten ears are testament to just how difficult the trip is.

“I get up at five o’clock,” she says, “then I comb my hair and start walking.”

w680a npr site

Xie Xiaoyuan walks to school – from the NPR site

Xie navigates a mountain path in China’s remote Shaanxi province in the dark, trudging through snowstorms and mudslides. Then she has to get a bus for about 10 miles. She hasn’t time to eat breakfast.

“For lunch, I spend 15 cents on two pieces of bread and a drink,” she says.


Xie arrives at school – from the NPR site

For Xie, those two pieces of bread used to be all she ate until dinner at home at 5 p.m. That’s all her family can afford, with their combined income of about $120 a month providing for five people.

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Xie’s classroom – from the NPR site

Many of her fellow students at Hujiaying primary school in Shaanxi province’s Nanzheng county go hungry every day.

A local group tried to get news organizations to report on the children’s plight.  One of the journalists they contacted was Deng Fei.

from the site

In his mid-thirties, Deng Fei worked for Phoenix Weekly Magazine, written in Hong Kong and distributed on the Mainland. For ten years he investigated and delivered over a hundred articles exploring some of the dark recesses of Chinese society.

He wrote ground-breaking articles about China’s social issues, especially hardships faced by the nation’s women and children. He also published his pieces via his microblog on  – people trusted him and he’d gained a following.

Becoming a Change Artist

Everything ramped up in 2010 – when he became a change artist. Deng had learned that two young women, fighting to keep their home from being expropriated, were on their way to petition the government when they were waylaid by a local official in an airport bathroom and prevented from leaving.


Deng called the young women and started live blogging about their situation. Here’s what happened next, reported by the Christian Science Monitor:

Learning that three of the women’s relatives had set fire to themselves to protest the destruction of their home and that two of them required hospital treatment, he asked people who had followed his live blogging to send him money to pay for the women’s medical care. They did.

Shanghai Daily

Deng Fei – from the Shanghai Daily

“That was when I saw the power of new media to organize and encourage people to do things in line with the public interest and human nature,” he says. “This may change the definition of a journalist.”

“In China you can write articles, but they don’t often change things. We need action, and the government reacts very slowly to social problems.”

Serving Hungry Children

The next year he learned about Xie Xiaoyuan and the many poor rural children who went without lunch at school – drinking cold water to fight off their hunger.

After visiting some schools he realized it was a national problem.

Through his microblog he reached out to his followers, encouraged other reporters to write about the problem and posted pictures of hungry children. Then he did something extraordinary – he left his position with Phoenix Weekly, opened a bank account and asked his Weibo followers to contribute to help feed the kids. The money poured in.

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photo by Tricia Wang on location with Deng Fei

He also set up an elaborate system to guarantee transparency and ensure that all of the money he raised went to feed the school children.

Tricia Wang

photo by Tricia Wang on location with Deng Fei

Within six months he’d raised $3.7 million. Each of the 110 schools his charity helps must have their own blog and post details showing how much money they receive and how it’s spent.

China today website

from China Today

The publicity surrounding his efforts spurred the government to get involved, announcing it will spend $2.5 billion to provide a basic lunch to 26 million rural schoolchildren. All because one man took it upon himself to act.


from Focus/Forward Films

Deng Fei’s Story Captured in Video

Deng Fei’s story was captured in a video from GE’s Focus/Forward films. The video images of children baking potatoes illustrate what served for a meal for many of China’s rural schoolchildren before the free school lunch program was set up. As you’ll see, the video is well constructed and celebrates Deng Fei as a change artist.

Operation Free Lunch | Lixin Fan from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

I found Lixin Fan‘s video very powerful –  fast moving, well shot and edited, the images very compelling and the portrayal of Deng very heroic. But it makes me a little uneasy, as if the filmmaker edited the story to put forward his own political point of view – touting the journalist as the lone figure standing up to government ineptitude. In emotional tone, the visual portrayal of Deng Fei reminds me of a political candidate’s biopic.


filmmaker Lixin Fan from the Eyesteelfilm site

Visually and emotionally, I was moved by the piece and found the images of Deng Fei in the city, standing alone as the great man, very heroic. I’m sure it took some effort by filmmaker Lixin Fan to find a spot where he could portray Deng as the lone hero standing out from the crowd. It’s powerful filmmaking and a theme familiar to Western ears and eyes. But is there a little too much emphasis on Deng as heroic figure and too little on his motivation to make a better world?  I’m not sure – perhaps there’s something important here that’s lost in translation or misinterpreted on my side of the cultural divide.

What Motivates a Change Artist?

But either way, I certainly don’t want to diminish what Deng Fei was able to accomplish. I salute him for his courage to make a difference. Perhaps in the end, that’s what makes a change artist, the need to act and make the world a better place.

byLouisa Lim

from the NPR site

Deng Fei, from China Today:

“It brings me a warm glow of accomplishment. Having previously had limited influence on readers and society as a journalist, I find microblogs are an effective tool for mobilizing people and accumulating resources to solve problems. China has no lack of writers, but what it needs is people who take action.”

So what do you think? Share your thoughts and leave a comment.

More on the Art of Storytelling

The Honor Code

Still frame from Katy Chevigny’s video for Focus Forward

Recently I went back to the GE Focus Forward site to explore their short films on big ideas. It’s quite a challenge to tell a compelling story in three minutes, especially with a complex subject. You’re taking viewers on a journey that arcs across a very short timespan. So what do you put in, what do you leave out? How do you express the ideas and visualize your story?


from “The Honor Code”

As you keep your focus on the big picture you can’t ignore the human dimension. Big ideas that work well in print are often difficult to express in video, unless you personalize them. The more your viewers feel involved with the person telling the story, the more they’ll give themselves to the information. That’s one of the keys to good storytelling – create a bond with your viewer and they’ll stick around to discover what’s next.

I’d like to introduce you to The Honor Code by accomplished social documentary producer/director Katy Chevigny. She’s a co-founder of Big Mouth Productions and IMDb has her down for producing or exec producing ten feature documentaries.

Katy Chevigny

Katy Chevigny

For Focus/Forward she set quite a challenge for herself, as her piece explores an innovative approach to an old and troubling concept.


Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah

Her video focuses on how we view and maintain honor, sending us on a journey of ideas with Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, who wrote a book on the subject. He’s published widely on cultural and racial identity, political theory, and ethics and serves as the storyteller for the piece. I really like how Chevigny uses his thoughts to construct her video. But you may be wondering, how will she go beyond a talking head to make something visual about honor?

You’ll find an innovative answer in The Honor Code.

The Honor Code | Katy Chevigny from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

I like the way the ideas build one upon the other to create a foundation for Appiah’s argument. His direct, low-key delivery makes it easy to follow him from example to example as he makes his case for changing how we think about honor. And each thought is packaged within a new visual scene. As the ideas build, so do the scenes, be they text on the screen, Appiah on camera, or the short animation packages – in all, an excellent way to create a conceptual piece.

The animation by Ace & Son Moving Picture Co. is simple, effective – even playful as words and images float in the air as little bubbles of thought. The simplicity draws you in and holds your interest. Often the animation starts with a detail, then moves wider to reveal the scene, teasing your eye as it stimulates your curiosity. You don’t know where you’re going until you get there.

Here’s how Ace & Son describe their work:

We wanted the animation to open the space of the screen… we employed a fluidity within the animation by substituting drawn transformations for hard cuts. In this manner the picture acts as an agent of the content.

The animated transitions flow with the rhythm of Appiah’s words, there are no abrupt cuts from scene-to-scene. The animation may launch in a frame featuring Appiah on camera, or end like a little wisp of smoke outlining his image – a delicate approach that helps unify the visuals and tie everything together. That’s what the animators mean by “open the space of the screen” as their visual treatment and Appiah’s ideas come harmoniously together.


from “The Honor Code”

Consider the setting for the interview.  Everything is shot in brown tones with the background textural but muted. The effect is Appiah talking to us within his own abstracted world, making the vibrant animation and the ideas portrayed even more appealing. Conceptually and structurally, The Honor Code is a powerful, well-executed piece.

Chevigny’s structure shows how to build a compelling argument as part of telling a story.  If she started her piece talking about honor killings, there really wouldn’t be anywhere to go other than to condemn them. Instead, she leads us step-by-step though Appiah’s reasoning until we’re able to embrace his innovative ideas that may well turn honor on its head.


from “The Honor Code”

GE and Cinelan Create Some Magic

Creating video in the service of ideas is a lot harder than it looks. Telling a great story takes skill, talent and the right subject to make it all work.  When you have to do it in 3 minutes, it takes a real pro to create something special.


The three-minute rule is becoming standard for web videos.  Last year I helped create 15 web videos for the MacArthur Foundation’s MACEI awards for creative and effective institutions.  For each video we had just three minutes to describe the organization’s mission, its impact, why it won, and what it hoped to accomplish.  To be successful, each piece had to quickly get to the heart of the matter, focus on a few key facts, and streamline the story.


That compressed approach to non-fiction storytelling inspired the launch of Cinelan a few years ago as a “publisher” of short documentaries. And while their early films were well made, they were all over the map.  The only common connection was their short length.

Then Cinelan created a partnership with General Electric in August, 2011 to feature mini-documentaries “focused on the incredible human power of ideas and invention.”  With that, they launched a terrific collection of videos under the umbrella of GE Focus/Forward.


I want to introduce three of them, because they offer three different approaches to telling a story and they’re each very successful in their own way.

Good Bread | Eddie Schmidt from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

I wrote a post on The Vision Thing about Homeboy Industries last year. This video by Eddie Schmidt brings Homeboy to life as Noe shares his life story as a former gang member who’s forging a new path with his first job baking bread.  The piece is constructed in a classic documentary style and it’s very visual as you witness the bread-making process.  Watching the transformation of raw dough into finished loaf, you also get the story of Noe’s transformation, aided by Herb and Homeboy Industries. I like the way the filmmaker interweaves the visuals, the little blips of actuality sound, and the comments from Noe and Herb.  The video has heart and, through Noe’s comments, gives you a window into what Homeboy has to offer.

Take a look at the next video and think about how differently it’s put together.

Fire With Fire | Ross Kauffman from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

Ross Kauffman’s video uses three doctor interviews to tell the story.  Most of the visuals are quite abstract, with some actuality footage of Emma, the patient.  The story is quite dramatic, with interviews structured so you get Emma’s problem, learn the difficulty of overcoming her illness and the experimental nature of the solution. The amazing medical outcome delivers a real sense of success and a magical cure. Dr. June is almost overcome with the emotion of it all, bringing everything back to a human level as the piece moves to its conclusion. The video is beautifully constructed and leads you simply and gracefully through a procedure that could be quite complicated and confusing. The doctors’ comments play well over the abstract visuals and the soundtrack is very powerful with music composed just for the video.

The third video, from Sweden, is more nuanced and experimental.

The Invisible Bicycle Helmet | Fredrik Gertten from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

Inventors Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin started working on the concept of an invisible bicycle helmet as their masters thesis in industrial design and created their company Hovding to manufacture them. I like this film for several reasons. The information gently unfolds, it’s not linear in its construction. There’s a soft, dreamy quality that adds a little mystery to the visuals and aids the storytelling.  You may want to watch the piece more than once to absorb how it’s put together.

I like the woman power subtext and Anna and Terese’s determination to “think big and aim high.” I like that the invisible helmet isn’t visible until the end of the piece. It’s there all the time but we don’t “see” it, which makes it all the more impressive when we realize what they accomplished.  And your view of the two women changes as you come to appreciate them as innovative entrepreneurs.

I’ve looked at quite a few of the offerings on the Focus/Forward site and I’m sure there are others you will like.  The Honor Code is a commentary with animation and the concept is quite interesting.  Hilary’s Straws  celebrates the human spirit.  And Panmela Castro features a feminist activist who uses graffiti art to raise awareness of violence against women.

Finally, kudos to Cinelan and GE for bringing these bite-sized chucks of the world to our fingertips.