Sumita Dutt-Chatterjee – “Challenge For Change”: The Fogo Process

Today few people on Fogo speak often about the filming, yet many believe their lives were changed enormously by it. This can never be accurately measured. But it is certain that the fishermen formed an island-wide producer’s cooperative which handled and processed large catches, enabling them to keep the profits on their island. Unemployment of able-bodied men disappeared, and government directed their efforts to helping people stay… Films did not do these things: people did them. There is little doubt, however, that film created an awareness and self-confidence that was needed for people advocated development to occur.
-Don Snowden, 1983 Source

The Newfoundland Project in Fogo Island was one of the first programs undertaken by the Challenge For Change platform. As Colin Low, the founding member of CFC and director of this program described, “the Fogo Island Project, which became a cornerstone…,was like one of those events in science where conditions come together and seem to prove something fundamental. But then, try and duplicate the results in another laboratory!” (Low p. 17) Despite Low’s misgivings about replication of what came to be known as the Fogo Process, this was in fact copied in parts of the world – United States, India and Bangladesh. So what was the Fogo Process, how did it emerge and what were its strengths and weaknesses? To what degree does this process shed light on the role of the camera, the documentary method, video technology, representation and media generally in creating particular spaces, dialogues and means for social change?

The Fogo Process evolved organically as video and filmmaking was brought into a remote fishing community of Fogo Island, Newfoundland. Canada. Fogo Island was chosen because it had several problems that the Challenge for Change initiative wanted to address – namely its sharply declining fishing industry – the main economic activity of this area, small local communities marginalized from mainstream society and economy, living on welfare and remote at many levels. The effort was to find alternative solutions to the processes of modernization that had marginalized such communities, and find answers from within for sustainable solutions of such “remote” communities. Remoteness was often not merely geographic isolation but also political, economic and social invisibility. (Crocker p. 60) The Fogo project, and the ensuing process was one way to use technology – portapak and video in this context, to create effective bridges between far removed communities and bureaucracies to bring about positive people driven social change.

Here is a summary of the essential elements of the “Fogo Process”:

1. Creation of effective partnerships: creating vertical and horizontal networks.
In the specific case of the Fogo Project in Fogo Island, Newfoundland, Canada – alliance between institutions such as National Film Board and Memorial University, and with local resources and people such as between CFC and Fogo Islanders and activists such as Fred Earle, University professor and development practitioner Don Snowden and film maker Colin Low.

2. Extensive Study of the Fogo Islands: social, economic, political issues and problems.
Goals enumerated at the outset: aesthetics less important than using this medium and technology to facilitate community dialogue and development. Even a cursory look at the titles of the short films in the filmography section at the end of this article illustrates that the films tried to capture the multiple narratives that make a community and a people.

3. Importance of flexibility and adaptability.
Colin Low’s initial goal was to create two or three films but this was soon given up as he found that the people of Fogo responded more effectively and engaged better with what came to termed as “short vertical films” that were not issue based (as traditional documentary method often espoused), but focused on either a single person interview or a particular occasion.

4. Creation of the “loop”: Horizontal, vertical and exchange learning.
Horizontal learning and exchange of ideas between different community groups facing similar issues, dialogue and communication vertically between local groups and remote institutions such as large banks, bureaucracies etc.

5. Film making as locus of building community and people centric solutions.
Under the banner of the CFC, and beyond the Fogo Project, this process would make different styles of films – films explaining problems to different government departments and to the public, to social and community workers and film made by “remote” communities themselves. (Crocker p. 64)

6. Importance of “communication processes over product” and significance of the community worker.
This process created the earliest mechanisms of participatory communication, and feedback between key players in bringing social change: between and amongst villagers, and with institutions and bureaucracies. The community/ social activist or change maker was key facilitator and bridge between these different key constituencies and in demystifying technology of video. (Snowden, n.p)

In retrospect, did the Fogo Process prove to be an effective catalyst for change? Was it sustainable? Did it provide solutions for the people of Fogo Island and in other regions where this was replicated? Perhaps it is difficult to give an exact answer – it was neither a complete success that could be replicated exactly, nor was it an absolute failure. What the Fogo Process created was a new way of exchange between two “remotes”: specific local communities on the one hand and institutions such as government bureaucracies, filmmakers, universities on the other – exchanges through film that made each less remote and provide effective people driven solutions to their problems: moving away from a top down development approach to a bottoms up method instead.

Colin Low, the director of the Fogo Project (27 short film on the Fogo Islanders) perhaps sums this organic evolution of a film method, “the Fogo Process” thus:

It was a community development program in Newfoundland, well planned and well funded, that used film as a catalyst to generate local debate – to give local people a voice and even editorial control – and to provide those people with access to people in power, via film. Not one film but a whole series of mini-films. It was meant to be a step incorporating media into the democratic process. The creation of a communication loop, as we called it….It seemed to work. It seemed to foster positive, creative social change. But there has never been any way of proving that film caused the change….
Fourteen years later, Fogo Island is one of the healthier communities in Newfoundland, and we can’t say for sure why it is that way.
(Low p.17-18)

The arrival of the “portapak” 8mm video technology fostered methods such as the “Fogo Process” creating democratization and demystification of media technology, and its use as a tool/catalyst for change in the late nineteen sixties. Today we face yet another radical moment in new media – live streaming video, cell phone cameras, and 24/7 online connectivity through social media platforms such as facebook, twitter, snapchat etc. The question to ask and is pertinent for our times – can the Fogo Process, now almost six decades old, give us clues to the challenges of the social media saturated world of our times? Can these new media of our times be used effectively for creating a more just world?

The Newfoundland Project (The Fogo Project) filmography:

1. Citizen Discussions
2. Andrew Britt at Shoal Bay
3. Jim Decker Builds a Longliner
4. Billy Crane Moves Away
5. Joe Kinsella on Education
6. Tom Best on Co-operatives
7. The Fogo Island Improvement Committee
8. Two Cabinet Ministers
9. Dan Roberts on Fishing
10. The Children of Fogo Island
11. Fogo’s Expatriates
12. The Founding of the Co-operatives
13. William Wells talks about the Island
14. Thoughts on Fofo and Norway
15. Jim Decker’s Party
16. The Mercer Family
17. Discussion on Welfare
18. The Songs of Chris Cobb
19. Brian Earle on Merchants and Welfare
20. The Story of the Up Top
21. McGraths at Home and Fishing
22. Some Problems of Fogo
23. A Woman’s Place
24. A Wedding and Party
25. The Merchant and the Teacher
26. Fishermen’s Meeting
27. Introduction to Fogo Island

Source: Challenge for Change/ Societe Nouvelle (1967-1980) Filmographies


Annual Reports (Excerpts) for CFC and SN (1969-1980)

Challenge For Change Filmographies (1967-1980)

Chatterjee, Sanjeev. Interviews with CFC members conducted in June 2015.

Crocker, Stephen. “Filmmaking and the Politics of Remoteness: The Genesis of the Fogo Process on Fogo Island, Newfoundland.” In Shima: The International Journal of Research into Island Cultures. Volume 2, No. 1 (2008)

Low, Colin. “Grierson and Challenge For Change” in Waugh, Thomas, Michael B. Baker and Ezra Winton edited, Challenge For Change – Activist Documentary at the National Film Board of Canada. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010.

Snowden, Donald. “Eyes See; Ears Hear”, Memorial University. 1984.

Waugh, Thomas, Michael B. Baker and Ezra Winton, edited, Challenge for Change – Activist Documentary at the National Film Board of Canada. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010.

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