Cycles of Change Producer Robin Canfield on the Future of “Bicimaquinas”

Posted by Daniel Salazar, February 7, 2018

By Daniel Salazar

Robin Canfield, whose film Cycles of Change will be screened in Cinema Verde this Friday, February 9th, at 3:00 pm at the Hippodrome, took a few moments to talk with us about his company Actuality Media and the genesis of his work.

Actuality Media was born out of a marriage of co-founders Robin and Aubrey Canfield’s respective specializations. Robin Canfield had studied journalism at Oregon State University, and Aubrey Canfield had studied film at the University of Miami. “We had met in Oregon many years ago and started working on a project idea together,” Robin Canfield explained, “and between journalism and film was documentary.”

They founded Actuality Media with the intent of bringing attention to “changemakers” in developing communities around the world through the creation of film. A changemaker is a non-profit organization, company, or even an individual who are affecting positive change in their communities through innovative solutions to social and environmental problems.

Actuality Media’s Documentary Outreach program takes a crew primarily composed of film students to developing communities. This year, for example, they will be taking students to Cambodia, Guatemala, India, and Zambia. Actuality Media then helps them find local changemakers and guides them in producing a ten-minute documentary.

Cycles of Change, a Cinema Verde and Changeville official selection, is about bicimaquinas, bicycles pedal-powered machines that can be used to power water pumps, grinders, and even blenders to make anything from shampoo to margaritas. Cycles of Change will be screened this Friday, February 8th, at 3:00 pm at the Hippodrome. Robin Canfield will be present for an audience Q&A after the screening of the film.

In anticipation of the festival, we had an interview with Robin Canfield about Actuality Media, their Documentary Outreach program, and the making of Cycles of Change. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our Q&A with Canfield.

‘We’re usually 98-99 percent finished [with the film] by the end of the trip’

How is Actuality Media’s Documentary Outreach program generally structured?

First, we find the changemakers, which can be NGOs, social enterprises, or even individuals if there’s someone with a really good idea that seems like it’s working. There are different metrics for how we judge whether we will be able to work with them to create a good film with our crew.

Every person in the crew has a specific role–director, cinematographer, editor, producer–but when it comes to being at base camp and working on stories, it’s really more of a roundtable discussion. They should all be working together to make this efficient. But then when they go out into the field, they are in their role.

It’s generally a four-week project to find and meet the changemakers, do research with the group, write out a plan for filming, shoot the film, edit it, and be done. We do all that in 28 days.

Wow. So you do the post-production in the country?

Yeah. This is a very basic outline: the first week is research, the second week is planning, the third week is filming, and the fourth week is editing, though really, the editor starts working the second day of filming week, organizing and compiling the different footage that we bring in. Then the fourth week, really, the film has already reached a basic visual assembly, so the editor is mostly trimming and adding the final touches to the film.

We’re usually 98 to 99 percent finished by the end of the trip. It would be 100 percent, but we also do a screening with the crew and the organization on a bigger screen. Once we view the film on the screen, we usually notice that “Oh, that audio level is not quite right,” or something in the credits isn’t spelled correctly. There’s always something that needs to be fixed, so we never say it’s 100 percent finished.

We might do a few tweaks after the screening, but we never go in and change the story. That is all on the student crew, and they decide what the final product is going to be. What we end up doing is a lot of critiquing and guiding towards getting the best product that they can create.

‘We really empower the crew to be in charge’

So usually your role is usually guiding and helping the students, but you let the students be the creative voices?

Yes. Usually, we also have two people on the trip that we call Production Supervisors. They lead what we call briefings, which are meant to focus people on the elements of film and the story that they need to work on. We give them a basic framework to build their story off of. We give them a version of the hero’s journey, but condensed because we’re never aiming for more than ten minutes on a film.

So we do give them plenty of lessons at base camp, but then once they’re out and about, though sometimes we check in or answer a question, we really empower the crew to be in charge.

What do you usually look for in a candidate for your Documentary Outreach program?

We’re fortunate that a lot of the people who come to us are pretty excited and energetic. They’re ready to get out there and do the project, so we don’t have to be worried by the time they’re coming to us whether they’re really going to be into it. However, we do a full application online for people and follow that with an online interview, preferably on Skype so we can talk face-to-face with people. We try to get a gage on their personality.

Going to another country is already stressful, and we’re usually in places we call developing communities. You don’t have all the amenities that you have at home, so people sometimes just have a harder time. Working with a group of people that they have probably never met before brings in another level, so we try to make sure that everyone is going to get along. If we get someone who has a lot of film experience and has directed some really good documentary films, but comes in and says, “Well, I wanna go do this, and the rest of the crew is just going to have to listen to me because it’s going to be my way or we’re not doing it,” and we get someone else who has less film experience but are really good at working with people, we’re probably going to go with the second person over the first one.

‘We teach storytelling rather than film.’

For every five or six people with film experience, we also get a one-off, kind of random person without film experience but who wants to be involved in what we are doing. We definitely take people’s experience into consideration, but if I can get a crew of three people who are pretty experienced and then mix in one person who has no experience but is really into it, it makes for a lot more interesting discussion during the planning stages. They consider ideas that maybe the rest of them haven’t.

We’ll never put someone who has never used a camera in the cinematographer position. However, I’ve seen a lot of especially business students come in and be really good producers because they are just naturally organized. We’ve had directors with all kinds of different backgrounds. Once, we even had an editor who was a working biologist but wanted to bring film into some of what she was doing. We explained to her how the editing program worked and it just clicked in her head. Whatever she was doing in biology translated really well to editing, and she did a good job.

Actuality Media offers a scholarship to allow someone to go on the Documentary Outreach program with their full expenses paid. What do you look for in a candidate for the scholarship?

It’s all about the film. Obviously, we expect there to be room to grow, since otherwise they probably wouldn’t be that interested in traveling with us. We say that, more often than not, we teach storytelling rather than film. We’re really trying to get powerful stories in each film, as the films are made to pull in new audiences. So when we’re watching the films for the competition, the thing that I am most looking for is that there is a story there, even if it is short. It shouldn’t be just about what the organization is doing, because we are not about creating promotional videos, either, but something that has a beginning, middle, and end that you can follow as a story.

Now, to talk more specifically about the film we are screening in Cinema Verde, how did Cycles of Change happen?

I didn’t see my first bicycle machine until a few years after starting Actuality Media. I think the first one that I saw was in a hostel in Guatemala by the airport. They had one in the lobby. It was there so people could blend their own margaritas. I started asking them about where that kind of thing came from and they pointed me to Antigua. I started reaching out to different groups and it just happened that one day, Carlos, who is the bicimaquinas tech in the movie, came to give a talk where I was. We talked, but he left for Africa shortly after. It then took a year and a half, maybe two years, for us to come back to Antigua with a student crew to make a film. They were always interested, and I never forgot them because I think those machines are awesome.

‘[Bicimaquinas] are a growing thing’

What do you see as the future of bicimaquinas?

Carlos has been brought to the US on a tour of different bike shops around the country. Bicimaquinas are really starting to catch on. I don’t know how many of them are in the US, but they are a growing thing. I wouldn’t be surprised to run into them here.

We also found that our film had been taken by a Spanish-language video creator who chopped some parts up to make a bicimaquinas promotional video that already had about a million views. I had to reach out to them and say, “Hey, that’s great, but can you let us know if you’re going to use the film since you’re kind of violating copyright?” They apologized and put a link to our film in the description, but the point is, it picked up a lot of attention really quickly. We know there’s a lot of people out there with an interest in expanding this kind of technology.

Bicimaquinas are not the most pressing of issues. It’s not a refugee fleeing from a war-torn country. We have done films with people like that, as well, but some of the bike films are just so cool and inspiring. It’s something that everyone could see themselves working on. I always try to find a balance between these, and I will always be pushing for not just bicycles, but these kinds of stories and initiatives that everyone could get involved in if they want to.

Cinema Verde tickets can be found here.

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