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Filming a Forum

By Jon Reidel Article published February 14, 2005

Kesha and friends
Honors College Students Lindsey Bryan, Devin Klein and Kesha Ram spent a week at the World Social Forum in Brazil researching a film about issues facing young people around the world. (Photo: Bill DiLillo)

Though prepared to experience anti-American sentiment during their trip to the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil in January of 2005, first-year students Kesha Ram, Devin Klein and Lindsey Bryan were nonetheless surprised at the disdain their international counterparts expressed for the United States.

The three UVM Honors College students spent most of their time at the forum participating in the Intercontinental Youth Camp, an outdoor area where 35,000 young people from around the globe discussed social, environmental, political and economic issues. The forum, which drew more than 200,000 people including UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, was created to counter the World Economic Forum by pushing an agenda that puts social issues and environmental protection over economic interests.

Ram wants to share her experience by producing a film about the WSF. Her hope is that the film will educate students in the United States about the struggles facing other countries and how they can help bring about positive change through activism and responsible consumption.

“People are angry at the United States,” Ram says. “Some students said they’d never felt so much anti-American sentiment before. It was overwhelming. One of my friends was accosted just for being from the U.S. But most of the people were really happy to see us, because the WSF allows people from all over the world to be in a dialogue together, and unfortunately, the hardest people to put in that dialogue are those from the U.S.”

Part of the reason that Ram, Klein and Bryan heard a lot of negativity toward the United States, especially its involvement in Iraq, was because they asked for it, literally, in the form of questions for a film focusing on youth issues and empowerment based on their experiences at WSF. One of the questions they asked was how young people from other parts of the world viewed America and its youth.

“They would say things like ‘we know not everyone in the United States is the same, but what we get from your media is Britney Spears, President Bush and war,’” Ram says. “When they want to protest something that the United States is pumping out into the world, be it political or social, they go to McDonald’s or Wal-Mart because that’s what they view as America.”

Bringing images back home
Bryan says that the general beef with the United States at the forum was that it “deemed itself ‘global policeman’ and thinks it can boss everyone else around.” But the documentary won't emphasize those points. When the seven hours of footage is distilled to the final cut (with the editing help of first-year student Rob Andre, who makes amateur films on campus and does commercial editing work locally), Bryan says the film will focus on issues facing people of all nations. “Most of the people talked about how all races need to help each other and learn to live together as brothers and sisters," she says.

WSF organizers aim to promote that message by holding the event in developing countries to highlight the problems the people face in those places, a strategy the UVM trio found powerful and effective. “You heard things in the conference like 1.1 billion people don’t have clean water to drink, and then walked outside and saw people drinking out of the gutter or living in garbage,” says Ram, who found it difficult to film some of these scenes and often felt disrespectful doing it.

Ultimately, though, she felt it important to bring home a visual record of the level of poverty and environmental degradation and that hundreds of thousands of people are trying to do something about it.

Ram, who is pursuing a grant through the Center for Cultural Pluralism to support the film, says she doesn’t expect the documentary to spur thousands of Americans to attend WSF conferences, but does think it’s a way for people to become educated about the effect the U.S. could have on the rest of world.

“Education is the first step,” says Ram. “I’m involved in things like trying to get fair trade coffee on campus, having local organic foods, and other concrete ways of addressing these issues. I don’t want to sound preachy, but I think it’s important for people who may not understand these things, and how they can make a difference, to get that education. And then from there, it’s really up to them to do what they want with it.”