Video Warriors

In 1996, Adams Wood, Jeff Taylor, and A. Mark Liiv were working as activists on a forest defense campaign in Idaho. With a Hi-8 camera, they documented violations of timber sales agreements and confrontations between angry loggers and non-violent protesters as a way to keep people safe, as a tool in legal defense, and as an alternative to mainstream corporate media, which was biased in favor of the timber industry. The activists managed to pull off a 41-day road blockade, and the future founders of Whispered Media were shooting it. They cut their first video and called it ROAD USE RESTRICTED. The succinct but intense twelve-minute video was a great success, becoming part of several activist-run road shows and inspiring many a tree-hugger to haul it out to Idaho, which, says Liiv, "is not on the way to anywhere."

In the mid-nineties, the three makers came to San Francisco and found many activist groups in need of someone to shoot their demonstration, rally, or direct action. They rented equipment from places such as Mission Creek (owned by Paper Tiger West's Jesse Drew and Carla Leshne), worked cheaply by shooting Hi-8 and editing on SVHS, and paid out-of-pocket. Initially, this footage was chiefly a method of cop-watching or deterring police brutality at protests. Occasionally it was edited, and sometimes it became part of what would eventually become the Whispered Media archive. One group regularly documented was the pie-throwing Biotic Baking Brigade, which publicly "pied" the faces of political figures whose views they found abhorrent. After gathering a critical mass of "pie-action" footage, including the cherry-pieing of Mayor Willie Brown and the tofu-cream assault on Chevron CEO Kenneth Derr, Whispered Media cut The Pie's the Limit (Film Arts Festival 2000), which was later voted the Best Local Independent Film by S.F. Weekly. "This piece put Whispered Media on the map, at least in an underground sense," says Liiv. "Through donations made in exchange for video copies, it also became our first source of income." By 1997, Liiv, Taylor, and Wood met many like-minded folks and formed the Video Activist Network (VAN), a virtual community consisting of a listserv, Web site, and occasional live meetings. The VAN site offers resources for those looking to be more involved in video activism. Through VAN, the founders pooled resources with other groups and collaboratively solved problems such as the challenge of funding and distributing work that is part art, part documentary, and part political manifesto. One answer to the distribution question emerged out of this cooperation: 18 monthly screenings at Artists' Television Access (ATA), which included a wide range of politically oriented work, from professional to raw DIY-just-get-it-out-there. Videos such as the VAN-produced USA, INCarcerated, about the prison-industrial complex, and Viva Timor Leste! by Australian maker Andrew McNaughton, were followed by panel discussions. These Thursday night shows facilitated networking and created a sense of community, as well as inspiring many a wannabe video activist to pick up a camera or volunteer to log footage.

During one of these rousing evenings, the newest member of Whispered Media heard the call. Francine Cavanaugh says the rawness and sincerity of the work was moving, and she saw an accessibility which made her feel that she could do it too, even though she had no video production experience. Indeed, outside of a twelve-hour SVHS editing class at ATA, the members of Whispered Media are self-taught and share their skills. For most, like Cavanaugh, who began volunteering and learned on the job, the passion to capture the struggle came before any aesthetic aspirations.

La Caminata, a protest about evictions in San Francisco's MissionDistrict, is documented in Whispered Media's Boom: The Sound ofEviction.

The next Whispered Media projects, Showdown in Seattle: Five DaysThat Shook the WTO (1999, 150 minutes) and Breaking the Bank (2000, 74 minutes), offer great examples of how a network of producers can facilitate production and distribution. "It started in Seattle when the original Independent Media Center [IMC] decided the World Trade Organization [WTO] protests would be huge, and they should collaborate with other video activist groups," says Wood. "Now there are 70 IMCs all over the world. Each one has a Web site, where anyone can publish their own video, photography, or text." Cavanaugh says the collaboration also helps keep activists safe, and productive, during what can be became some pretty hairy situations. "When we'reout on the street shooting something like the WTO protests, wherepolice are shooting rubber pellets and swinging batons, we[independent video people] can watch each other's backs, in order to shoot steady footage. Later, we also can exchange tapes, skills, and contacts." Having completed their part of Showdown, Whispered Media cut a nine-minute version called Shut 'em Down, which San Francisco-based Global Exchange took on tour to encourage others to join upcoming protests of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Washington, D.C. The growing network brought even more video activists to these protests. Deep Dish TV and the Independent Media Center-DC collaboratively produced Breaking the Bank with Whispered Media, Paper Tiger TV ,Big Noise Productions ,Headwaters Action Video Collective , Changing America, Free Speech TV , Sleeping Giant, and VideoActiv. These groups produced five half-hour shows, one each day of the protests. "We shot all day, edited all night, and [the video] was uplinked to satellite in the morning," says Wood. "It went out to cable-access stations, and some PBS stations." Liiv adds, "Some of them played it all day, over and over, which was great because, of course, all you saw in the mainstream coverage of the protests was a Starbucks window being broken, a million times. Nothing about why those people from all over the world were there or what they had to say. It was amazing to see how many people came out because they had made a connection between globalization and their issue, whatever it was." Unlike Showdown, made at a frenzied pace, Breaking the Bank was produced in a more relaxed, methodical fashion, with members of Whispered Media traveling to New York to edit at Changing America and Paper Tiger TV. As Liiv tells it, "We broke it down into segments, divided up the work, and gave ourselves a week to get it out." According to Cavanaugh, "There is increasing interest and support for this work. It's clear people want to hear a different voice." Forinstance, the IMC and Free Speech TV are producing Indy MediaNewsreel, monthly half-hour compilations of the best grassrootspolitical videos. They are shown on the Free Speech TV network and distributed across the country on videotape.

Back from Washington, Whispered Media discovered a local issue that needed documenting. The Redstone building at 16th and Capp Streets in San Francisco's Mission District, where the collective has an office along with other nonprofit groups, was up for sale. Liiv also was facing eviction from his home, and five families were being kicked out of Cavanaugh's building in Oakland. "This is a crisis in our backyard. It's about our community," says Cavanaugh. "We had to start documenting this and connect it to what is happening globally." The result is Whispered Media's most recent video, Boom: The Sound of Eviction. The story for Boom (2001, 96 minutes) unfolded as Whispered Media shot actions, protests, demolitions, and the construction of numerous new live/work lofts. They learned about the large amount of venture capital being pumped into the city, the process of gentrification, and the history and methods of resistance. Liiv recalls, "We felt under enormous pressure not just to capture this or that on tape for our piece, but, as a matter of ethics, to make sure what was happening would be documented and archived-for ourselves, for our city. Some days, there were five or six different things to shoot-the Senior Action Network, a demolition downtown, a dot-com pink slip party. We would be out there from 8 a.m. 'til midnight." Wood adds, "There were new buildings and demolitions every second-totally historical stuff-and if you missed it, it was gone.

Our subject was huge-the transformation of an entire city. We started editing with 250 hours of footage." For a documentary with the scope of Boom, the tape-sharing network proved quite helpful. Sasha McGee of Sleeping Giant Productions had been shooting housing-related footage years before Whispered Media. He contributed to Boom along with Gordon Winiemko, shooters from CellSpace, and other video activists in Houston, New York, and Chicago. "Then there was the Bust," says Cavanaugh. "It took us a while to believe it had truly happened." They had scheduled an interview with a woman at, planning to shoot an office buzzing with activity, followed by a promised tour of the infamous dot-com party scene.

Instead, they found a ghost town of dead monitors and just tworemaining employees. As described in Whispered Media's press kit,Boom is "by turns humorous and scathing, delving into the ironies and contradictions of the New Economy and delivering a potent social critique that is ambitious in scope while remaining close to the human scale." The tape features seamlessly interwoven archival clips of San Francisco ('50s and '60s tourist and educational films), thorough video representation of a city in transition, and interviews with diverse voices on each side of the struggle, all set to a varied and dynamic soundtrack. Amazingly enough, the three directors and editors of Boom-Cavanaugh, Liiv, and Wood-really did direct and edit by consensus. Each would take a section to cut, and give it his orher best shot. When they each brought their segments back to the group, everything was up for discussion. This process required trust, humility, and great communication skills, and all three say they were strengthened by that process and are very happy with the final product. "You work really hard and, of course, are very attached to what you make," says Cavanaugh. "Then it gets torn apart. But if you wait and see how your contribution gets transformed and improved, you start to value that outside perspective. You become less attached, and soon you can keep that outside perspective in mind, even when you are on your own."

In terms of funding, the group lacked the time, staff, and energyrequired to write a raft of proposals. They also felt at a disadvantage because foundations generally prefer to fund either art films or political organizations that offer direct services. "For the past two years, we've been running out the door four or five times a week to shoot this crisis or that action," says Cavanaugh. "The grant writing thing just hasn't seemed a viable option. So we would just hang on until the next institutional sale or donation, buy some tape stock and keep shooting." Liiv adds, "Now that we have a major finished piece, a press kit, and good reviews, I think we can do the grant thing." Distributing Boom has presented these fearless activists with a similar challenge. Although Boom screened to great reviews at San Francisco's Roxie and Red Vic cinemas and is booked at venues in Los Angeles, distributing activist media remains difficult."We're in this duality-we're artists and activists," says Liiv."Sometimes beautiful things come out of that, but other times it's tough. But even if we never see wide distribution, if we can help other communities pull together, for us, this is success."

Liz Canning is a freelance writer and editor. She wrote about Nancy Kelly's Downside UP in the February 2002 issue of Release Print.To learn more about Whispered Media, visit

For information on the Video Activists Network, which includes links to collectives around the world, visit

Reprinted courtesy of Release Print , the magazine of Film ArtsFoundation. This article first appeared in the April 2002 issue.