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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 12:34PM   |  10 comments
Helen De Michiel, filmmaker, public media arts visionary, and innovator

Blog written by Patricia Zimmerman, professor of cinema, photography and media arts at Ithaca College and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival

Meet Helen DeMichiel

Helen De Michiel has just left her position as codirector of the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (NAMAC), a position she has held since 1996,  to pursue her innovative work in digital media, public media, arts public policy and administration, and engagement. She's also developing a groundbreaking documentary social media project called Lunch Love Community (more on that in a future posting).  Helen's experience, knowledge and insights about the massive changes in the public media landscape and its new nodes spurred me to want to interview her to learn more about the challenges of this new topography.  I'll post in three parts: a two part interview, and then an analysis of the significance of the Lunch Love Community documentary project. Stay tuned and join the conversation!

Helen De Michiel is a director,writer and producer whose work includes film, television and video installations. She is principal of Thirty Leaves, a media production company. Her 1995 feature film Tarantella, starring Mira Sorvino, has been shown, among others at the Seattle Film Festival and the Mill Valley Film Festival, and won the Audience Award at the 1996 Torino International Woman’s Film Festival. After the theatrical release it was broadcast on public TV nationwide in 1997-98 through The Independent Television Service, and is currently available in home video and DVD. Her documentary, Turn Here Sweet Corn(1990) was seen nationally on the PBS series POV, and is in distribution to environmental organizations as an educational and organizing tool. It has received awards from Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Earthpeace International Film Festival and the American Film & Video Festival. An earlier work, Consider Anything, Only Don’t Cry (1988) received the “Best New Vision” Golden Gate Award at the 1989 San Francisco International Film Festival. Her documentary The Gender Chip Project, is one of the most innovative works exploring college age women and science careers, with enormous outreach and usage within STEM communities.

Her films are included in the media art collection/archive of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Her video installation The Listening Project (1994), is part of Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center Permanent Collection and won the 1995 “Muse” Award in New Media & Technology from the American Museum Association. She has been the recipient of several NEA Awards and a Rockefeller Foundation Intercultural Film/Video Fellowship, among others. She has served as the National Director for NAMAC (The National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture), the national arts service organization for the media arts field, form 1996-2010. In 2001 she was appointed to the board of The George F. Peabody Award for Electronic Media. She has an MFA in film and visual arts from the University of California, San Diego. She lives  in Berkeley, California.

The Interview on New Nodes for Digital Futures

Patricia: How does the US public media landscape look different now than 20 years ago?

Helen: Let’s time travel a bit, since we both can still remember 1990. In 1990, indie filmmaking was new, fresh, and in ascendancy.

The Independent Television Service (ITVS) had just been funded by Congress. The Learning Channel was commissioning and running a 13-part series called The Independents, a curated thematic series showcasing independent films on cable. HBO was young, hungry, and willing to try out new projects. The MacArthur Foundation was pioneering the funding of media arts and public media organizations. Community media and public access were robustly funded by local franchise fees, and teaching citizens how to make and broadcast locally-based media.

In 1990, it really looked like emerging filmmakers could make work and bypass the clutches of the industry. It took twenty years. Now this idea of work outside the industrial system is more possible  than ever thanks to the internet and broadband capabilities.

What I find so interesting is how this wave of cultural activity in public media in the 1980s and 90s set the stage for the digital revolution we are now immersed in. What artists and filmmakers were dreaming of and talking about then -- to be able to engage directly with audiences as users and participants in the media making enterprise – is now a reality.

Patricia: What significant changes have you observed in the public media landscape?

Helen: We are coming to terms with the fact that the “nodes of entry” to a media experience, or cultural experience, are wildly proliferating (that is, as long as we fight for net neutrality and protect a free internet).

We can listen to radio, or internet radio, or Pandora, etc. We can watch TV or record it for later. We can watch everything online, or download it. We can go to movie theaters and see movies…or simulcast operas. We can get news from anywhere online for free. We can comment, add images, videos, and sounds of our own to the collective mix.

All of  this content can be delivered  through devices we put in our pockets and  can share globally in seconds. This is another way to think of “public media”—the nodes of entry are open to anyone: the whole idea of powerful gatekeepers is collapsing.

Since we are now curators of our own media experiences, it can be daunting and exhausting to stay on top of these choices and options. Here is a powerful emerging paradox:  the “public” nature of a communal media literacy is weakening. 

Do I watch an appointment television show, stream it on Hulu, get it VOD, or wait for aYouTube version? How do I watch and understand the work out there? As entertainment or education? When there is so much blurring and overlap, how do we discern between propaganda and advocacy?

As a media maker, I also have hard questions to think through. Do I toil for five years to make a long form documentary that public television may broadcast, but may not offer sufficient compensation or licensing fees. Or, do I test other ways to connect to different audience, who,  although much, much smaller, are perhaps much more devoted to the concepts and issues in the work and who will support that work through  small contributions?

We are also coming to terms with the hard reality that financial sustainability will not come from selling a media product. The new models emerging suggest that economic sustainability  for producers will be peripheral to the media object itself. 

New business models for rethinking independent and public media production are still to be shaped, ones that offer a real and authentic experience. I do believe that in this over-stimulated and noisy media environment, our future will focus on building a public media space that perseveres to create real world dialogue and inquiry.


The issue of public media is certainly a hot topic today, with the growth of corporations and advertising through social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. The world of media production and creation is changing with the influence of these mediums. It reminds me of just what we were talking about today in Film A&A section, about the recent film "Fair Game" and how it presents itself on its website. It is clearly more participatory than a typical film's website, including an interactive timeline and outside sources for those who wish to look into the issues the film addresses further. This is a prime example of filmmakers interacting directly with audiences, though in this case not for participating in the process of the film. This new interaction is important because it engages audience members in a more meaningful way, engaging their own desire to research and look into issues, rather than watch the movie and be done with it. Participant Media, an organization involved in the film, seems to attempt to interact with its audience members like this. In the previews beforehand, a film involved with Participant Media, at the end of its preview, encouraged audience members to go to their website and click on the "pledge to see the film" button. This interactive tool reaches out to audiences, lets them become more involved, and it is beneficial to filmmakers as well, to spread their word and see if the word is indeed being spread.

I agree with what Emily said about the constant changing nature of methods used for film production exposure, as well as how the website for the 2010 film "Fair Game" is a prime example of filmmakers reaching out to and engaging their audience. Like Helen DeMichiel iterated in her interview responses, new strategies that lessen the gap between producer and consumer have been revolutionized during the past decade. Consumers of media now have a smorgasbord of options for the manner in which they experience films, television and music. Technology such as TiVo and On Demand allows viewers to choose when they would like to watch their favorite programs; they are no longer confined by the network's scheduling. Additionally, viewers can choose to watch or listen to media online, on TV, or in the theater. Someone can be sitting on a park bench waiting for a bus and watching live television on their phone or iPod. Media producers, as well, benefit from the technological advances. Filmmakers can upload material to websites such as YouTube and have it seen by millions of people - the availability of exposure is incredible. Through facebook, twitter, and blog sites, sharing opinions and advertising becomes as easy as literally clicking a button. These new sources of media sharing have widely expanded an independent producer's opportunity to expose his or her social media. And these technologies are still being adapted and improved.

Public media stimulates discussion, but also twists the truth. The interview touches on the important subject of entertainment versus education and how these concepts can be blurred because of our ability to access excessive amounts of information for free, instantly. Reflecting on the last commentary's connection to "Fair Game" and Participant Media, during my class discussion it was brought to our attention that one student asked if the events in the film actually occurred. While it is encouraging to learn that some people are not easily convinced that everything is fact in the media and entertainment industry, it is also disheartening that we must ask these questions. Public media is embedded with truth, but also exaggerated tales and rumors. "Fair Game" brings this to the audience's attention when an American hero leaked cover turns her into "the enemy." Having information at our fingertips is a blessing and a curse. So how can this blurred line between entertainment and education become more distinct? Is there a way?

After reading Part 2 of the interview, I have a few more thoughts to share. Although the development of digital media has numerous strong points, such as wide exposure, opportunity for artists, and ease of access, I wonder if the negative ramifications are being overlooked. What impact will the growth of digital media have on traditional forms of media? For example, I know someone who is interested in pursuing journalism, but became discouraged after hearing about the transformation of newspapers to online publications. Someday, will current staples of everyday media be lost to faster, digital sources of information? Will magazines, newspapers, even television, become outdated and inconvenient? Today, kids are growing up in a more digital world than kids, even, ten years ago. Youths in middle school use Facebook as their main source of communication with peers. As emphasis on digital media increases, the importance of face-to-face interaction is neglected. Digital sources provide easier access to various media, but also generate an extremely fast-paced world. Is there not a sense of value being lost in the extinction of traditional modes of communication and expression?

Also, as Helen De Michiel poses in her fifth question, what will be the next big revolution in public media? Today, many people cannot imagine life without Facebook or Twitter. So what will be the next digital invention that tops even those sites? Won’t we ask the same question, “How did we ever live without this?” Well, we are living without it now, and we are functioning.

Thank you Molly, Janet and Emily for jumping in with your insightful comments exploring this emerging digital world. It is by no means an easy challenge.

I would invite everyone to step back and simply consider: how will I/we use these tools, these spaces to make meaning in the world I/we live in? Is this where I want to invest my own human capital? Can they aid me/us in contributing to the world?

Digital technologies are allowing people to come together in unprecedented ways. Digital technologies are allowing people to move away from one another in unprecedented ways.

That said, I say to myself now -- how can I invest meaning through and with tools, and ignore the rest of the noise? Since the technological landscape is always under construction, I know I need to think in new ways in order to control my relationship to it, and use it for my own meaning-making purposes.

If we all put our heads together to *not* fear or get anxious around technology, then we can focus on thinking through the broader values we want to protect and strengthen in these emerging and dynamic public spaces.

Facebook or not, people will find a way to create public, common spaces throughout the digital landscape. Who would have dreamed up and predicted the impact of Wikileaks even one year ago?

After reading this interesting post, I went to the Lunch Love Community website. The way the idea was carried out and how successful it has been is incredible. As an inspiring nonfiction producer, I view Helen De Michiel as a respectable role model. Like she said in her interview, the other ways in which a media maker can connect with different audiences, even if they are smaller, is a key significance because it can lead to more change because the audience that is paying attention truly cares.

Nice post, right to the point.

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Amazing story, I am delighted with reading. Helen is really very great person with a rich life history. It is the man who truly loves her job and feels all its subtleties. I think you could serve as good example for other people. Wish you all the best, expert.


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