SDX 2000 Awards Gallery
By Dan Collison
Legend has it that certain Native American tribes didn't want their picture taken. They thought the camera would steal part of their soul.
Journalists have been stealing pieces of people's souls for years. It's not malicious, but it happens, particularly in the case of documentaries where producers spend lots of time with their "subjects." We producers get people to reveal the innermost details of their lives, take those details back to our studios, organize them in a way that hopefully makes some sense, and put the story on the air.
Then, having become intimately involved with these people, in many cases we never talk with them again. We may mean to get back to them. We might promise to send them a tape, but, more times than not, we forget and the person ends up feeling betrayed or abandoned.
That's the reason that what happened after I completed my latest documentary was so satisfying. The documentary, "Learning to Live: James' Story," is about the transition of an ex-offender from prison to the free world. After getting released from prison, James came to live at St. Leonard's, a halfway house for ex-offenders in Chicago. James stayed with the program and "graduated" with honors, having "learned to live" in the outside world.
After co-writing and then narrating the documentary, James returned to St. Leonard's house a few months later for the premiere of our documentary. About 75 people turned out members of the press, James' family and friends, St. Leonard's staff members and 20 or so other ex-offenders. We all crammed into a couple of rooms and listened.
When it was over, James got a standing ovation. Fellow ex-offenders stood and said how much James' story had moved them. It was like a 12-step meeting broke out; ore and more ex-offenders testified recounting their stories, explaining how hard they are working to stay clean and telling James that he's an inspiration.
Producers don't have to become friends with every person they do a documentary on. But when we ask people like James to open their lives to us in effect, to give us a bit of their soul we might want be careful not to rush off to our next story so quickly. The trust and, in some cases, the friendship that can result by staying in touch might last long after the radio documentary is forgotten.
Dan Collison is an independent radio and film documentary producer living in Chicago.
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David Isay and Stacy Abramson, Sound Portraits Production, Witness to an Execution
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I've walked out of the death chamber numb and my legs feeling like rubber sometimes, my head not really feeling like it's attached to my shoulders. I've been told it's perfectly normal everyone feels it and after awhile that numb feeling goes away. And indeed it does.
Leighanne Gideon, a former reporter for The Huntsville (Texas) Item and witness to 52 executions, is only one of 11 voices heard in Sound Portraits Productions' "Witness to an Execution." Originally broadcast on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," the program takes the listener through the approximately 25-minute process of a lethal injection execution at the Walls Unit in Huntsville. Explaining the process are prison employees and reporters those whose jobs included either their participation in or witnessing of executions in the busiest death chamber in the United States.
"The warden will remove his glasses, which is the signal to the executioners behind a mirrored glass window," explains John Moritz, a reporter with the Fort Worth Star Telegram, who is featured in the program. "And when the glasses come off, the lethal injection begins to flow."
It took nearly a year for documentary producers Stacy Abramson and Dave Isay to gain the unprecedented access and trust of the prison staff to create this documentary. Most of the men and women in the program had never been interviewed before, including former prison guard Fred Allen, who suffered a mental breakdown after participating in about 120 executions. He describes how he can still see the eyes of all the men he helped tie down:
Just like taking slides in a film projector and ... just watching, over and over: him, him, him. I don't know if it's mental breakdown, I don't know if ... probably would be classified more as a traumatic stress, similar to what individuals in war had. You know, they'd come back from war, it might be three months, it might be two years, it might be five years, all of a sudden they relive it again, and all that has to come out.
In a broadcast first, the warden of the Walls Unit, Jim Willett who oversees all executions in Texas agreed to narrate the program. "Witness to an Execution" received more e-mails and letters than any other program in the 30-year history of "All Things Considered."
"This piece was extraordinary," wrote the judges. "It avoided the debate usually associated with the subject and simply told the story in a specific, concrete way. It gave listeners an opportunity to learn something new about something on which they probably have opinions and need facts. It did so ... in one piece that was long enough to provide some depth but not so long as to lose all but the most dedicated listeners."
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ABC News, ABC News Special: Hopkins 24/7
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In a six-part series, ABC News gave the world a realistic, in-depth look at life in a major U.S. hospital. In "Hopkins 24/7," ABC's cameras tracked individuals that worked at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md.
Each episode of the documentary followed three or four individuals or cases, and those stories are interwoven to create a non-linear story that's difficult to turn away from. Most of the stories focus on individual doctors and the stresses and passions that come with their positions.
Dr. Eddie Cornwell, chief of Trauma Surgery at Hopkins, is one of the subjects. Viewers watched Cornwell work in the ER, but the program didn't end there. The cameras caught Cornwell's struggle to juggle his emotionally draining career with his family life. In another segment, Cornwell talks with a group of Baltimore youth about the dangers of gang violence, and he lets them talk to a patient who was wounded in a drug dispute.
To get this story, the network gained unprecedented access to the entire hospital, and their cameras were allowed where journalists normally are restricted. One of the segments examined the weekly "Mortality and Morbidity" conferences that take place in hospitals across the country. These proceedings, which are normally closed to anyone but the hospital medical staff, allow doctors to question each other about decisions, procedures and possible mistakes that might have been prevented.
ABC News took the time to examine work done in many areas of the hospital, from the emergency room to the pediatric ward to the psychiatric department. The result was a well-rounded look at the universal challenges of medicine, as well as the concerns and difficulties in each specific area.
Terence Wrong, who produced the series, said that ABC received a great deal of feedback from the piece. "Overwhelming praise," he said. "Mostly they asked that the series be continued ... Millions of hits on the Web site."
Judges called the piece "fascinating," and said the subjects each provided an important piece that made up the Hopkins puzzle.
"Comparing it to all the television fictional medical shows, the outcome is: reality is far more interesting," they said.
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Danny Schechter, Globalvision, Falun Gong's Challenge to China
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"Most professional journalists would have difficulty with this assignment produce an hour-long film and a book on a major human rights conflict in China without actually going there, with no cooperation from Beijing and without much of a budget."
Danny Schechter rose to the challenge that he described in the opening sentence of his nomination letter. In "Falun Gong's Challenge to China," Schechter examined the rise of the Falun Gong movement in China and the conflict between its practitioners and the Chinese government.
Falun Gong is a spiritual practice that started in Communist country and now has more than 100 million practitioners in over 40 countries including the United States. As it gained support and strength, the Chinese government labeled the group an "evil cult" and has virtually waged war on those who practice it. According to Schechter, the conflict between Falun Gong and the government has claimed more than 100 lives and caused the detention and torture of 50,000 people.
Besides the challenges of a limited budget and no cooperation from the Chinese government, Schechter's topic breaks relatively new ground; most major media outlets particularly in television have largely ignored the story of Falun Gong in China. In "Falun Gong's Challenge to China," Schechter examines the coverage that it has received, and he shows that much of the coverage on American television has reflected the one-sided coverage of the Chinese state media.
Schechter began investigating the Falun Gong story after an interview with Li Hongzhi, the founder of the spiritual practice.
"Like many stories that end up engaging our curiosity and passion, the story of the emergence of the Falun Gong movement in China was not one I originally pursued," he said. "Not only was it happening far away, it also had a strong mystical dimension of the kind that journalists who operate in the deadline driven world of rationality are uncomfortable with."
The piece looks at the conflict caused by Falun Gong and examines the nature of the movement's beliefs and how some of those beliefs arose from China's transition to capitalism.
Judges said the piece did a good job of using material that was difficult to shoot and acquire.
"A complex subject clearly explained and exposed," they said. "The story is fully developed historically and politically, keeping the audience's attention throughout."