Stefan Kaspar is building the capacity for broad video literacy in the Andean region, creating both the infrastructure and the content to catalyze the engagement of a generation of otherwise information-marginalized citizens. He has created a network of microcinemas that reaches practically every corner of Peru. There are 320 microcinema managers currently expanding Stefan’s model and training others to join the network.
Stefan is turning films and documentaries into powerful tools for people to engage with and confront their societal challenges. With the support of Grupo Chaski, Stefan’s nonprofit, he is expanding a microcinema network to facilitate the distribution, production, and effective use of audiovisual materials to address important social issues in Peru and elsewhere in the Andean region.
The aptly named Microcinema Network serves both as a much-needed alternative distribution channel for films, videos, and documentaries addressing relevant social issues and as a community forum to discuss them. The network offers citizens in rural areas, on the peripheries of major cities and in some isolated settings, such as prisons, access to a diverse range of films and documentaries by Peruvian and other developing country directors usually excluded from the main film distribution channels. These channels are owned by international companies and target more affluent audiences in Peru’s cities. The network features films that explore social themes of local relevance, thus offering an alternative to the usual mainstream American pop culture showcased in most movie theaters. Stefan uses these films to explore issues related to human rights, strengthening local identities, and transforming peoples’ self-perceptions, to spark discussions, critical thinking, and civic engagement among audience members.
New digital technologies make it possible to expand the network of microcinemas. All of the films distributed by the network have been converted into DVDs in order to reduce transportation and presentation costs, and Stefan and his colleagues are currently exploring the possibility of uploading the films on the network’s website.
The network is also training people in the communities it serves to produce, with hand-held cameras, their own videos that document or otherwise treat issues of particular relevance to their lives and needs. The resulting products are then shown to network audiences with the aim of stimulating greater civic engagement in addressing the relevant needs, and the new “social communicators” thus trained to help replicate Stefan’s approach in Peru and neighboring Ecuador and Bolivia.
In Peru, decades of dictatorial rule and control of political and economic processes by a powerful elite class have severely restricted opportunities for civic engagement for large segments of its citizenry. Even in today’s more open political environment, media is still dominated by elite-owned media empires, and the voices of Peru’s marginalized are seldom heard.
For the larger part of the country’s history, technological and economic barriers have made it impossible for voices outside the mainstream to be heard beyond their communities. The resulting gap in communication has meant that issues and concerns consistent throughout Peru’s fragmented geography have remained isolated from public discourse. Marginalized groups are often unaware of the power of media tools, such as video, to influence important social issues or to speak out against social injustices and human rights abuses. Moreover, they are usually not aware that their stories are worth being told.
Many people in Peru do not have access to alternative sources of information often presented in independent films and documentaries. Movie theaters are usually located in the country’s biggest cities, are owned by big international distribution companies, and remain unaffordable for most Peruvians. In the early 1990s there were 280 exhibition points for films and documentaries and by 2009, as a result of President Fujimori’s economic reforms, only 37 cinemas remained, most located in Lima and other major cities. There have been attempts to rebuild a sustainable network of cinemas, but they have failed primarily due to the difficult geography of the territory, the widespread poverty and violence, and the high transportation costs for conventional film reels.
Due to these barriers, the movies and documentaries Peruvians have been exposed to lack diversity and usually come from large U.S. production companies, thus showcasing themes and social realities that are rarely relevant in Peru or Latin America. Independent features and documentaries, especially those from Peru and elsewhere in Latin America, are rarely shown. Moreover, those films exploring social issues or offering diverse perspectives are even harder to come by. The films currently projected usually showcase an “American way of life” that Lima’s elite may identify with, but is not the reality of people in rural communities, the urban periphery, or of indigenous, black, and mestizo emigrants in the capital.
The government has shown little interest in integrating audiovisual literacy into the educational system or expanding the range of issues explored in the public discourse. As a result, the potential power that TV programs, films, and documentaries have for strengthening identity and promoting critical thinking has remained reserved to a few elite groups in Peruvian society. Compared to other countries in South America, Peru has a long way to go in providing new alternatives to make media tools more accessible to marginalized populations.
With the support of his organization, Grupo Chaski, Stefan created the Microcinema Network in 2006 to reach four goals: To make diverse, socially-focused, audiovisual content more accessible to marginalized populations; to establish an alternative media distribution channel; to promote video literacy and debate; and, to train people to use digital technologies to create their own films and documentaries. Recognizing that new digital technologies offer opportunities to increase peoples’ access to such resources, Stefan has been solving the existing problem of distribution, access, and production of audiovisual content in Peru. Moreover, Stefan is engaging marginalized groups as active citizens by helping them to create their own films and documentaries, which he uses as educational tools to promote culture and civic participation.
Stefan is expanding distribution channels and building a market for socially-focused films and documentaries by using inexpensive DVDs and the Internet to disseminate content through his Microcinema Network. Stefan’s growing network, now reaches 35 communities in eight regions of Peru, thus allowing his movies to reach new audiences outside the cities. In marked contrast with conventional movie theaters, microcinemas are community-run spaces for stimulating audiovisual literacy, critical thinking, and open discussion. Each microcinema has a monthly program organized by theme-e.g. ecology, human rights, films made by women about women, and so on. The microcinema groups receive thematic kits from Grupo Chaski containing four feature films, four documentaries, and one animated film as well as a discussion guide and an edition of Nuestro Cine newspaper. The films presented are part of Grupo Chaski’s growing collection of independent films and documentaries by Peruvian and other “Southern” directors that address pressing social issues. Stefan obtains the author’s rights for these films and, with the consent of the directors, he digitalizes them to facilitate widespread distribution.
To foster critical thinking and a deeper understanding of Peru’s social, political, and economic realities, after each movie, audience members participate in group discussions and reflections which form a starting point for active engagement in locally relevant social issues. Participants share their reactions to the films and to the social problems they explore. They also discuss the way Peru’s mainstream media covers those important social issues. The number of audience members served by the Microcinema Network has grown from some 18,000 in 2007 to more than 34,000 in 2009. By enabling previously marginalized sectors of Peruvian society new opportunities to help shape public discourse, Stefan and his colleagues are fostering a deeper understanding of Peru’s most pressing social issues.
In addition to disseminating existing films and documentaries to address important social issues affecting the communities Microcinema Network serves, Stefan also recognized the potential of locally produced audiovisual materials to enable local communities to cope more effectively with pressing problems and needs. Accordingly, he and his Grupo Chaski colleagues are training growing numbers of community-based audiovisual educators to use video to document and share their own realities, stimulate effective action in response to community needs, and contribute to the development of a more inclusive information society.
To assure the effective management and full utilization of his rapidly expanding Microcinema Network, Stefan has recruited and trained growing numbers of microcinema managers, committed citizens and community organizers who as “cultural entrepreneurs,” establish new microcinemas and develop new programs to engage community members. Microcinema managers are trained to run their microcinemas as established sustainable social ventures, to guide the discussion sessions, and to teach interested participants how to create their own documentaries and other audiovisual products with simple handheld cameras. After a two-year training program, these individuals are equipped with the technical knowledge to teach others to value and critically assess the videos they see, and to create their own socially relevant audiovisual work.
By mid 2009, 32 groups comprised of 10 to 15 people who had been trained to make their own documentaries and other audiovisual products, had been established in eight regions across Peru. These groups operate in diverse settings. One of them is set within a women’s prison, another in a high school, and several have been established in indigenous communities. All of them, however, share the same goal: To produce digital films and documentaries as tools for broad citizen engagement in social change. The breadth of these groups is intentional: Stefan aims to reach across the whole of Peruvian society and encourage citizens to reflect critically on their world, using video tools to produce content that represents the diverse perspectives and challenges of the nation. Several of the documentaries that emerged from the early group efforts were presented at the first nationwide event of the Mincrocinema Network Forum in 2008, in which 40 representatives participated of the 20 initial groups. There are 320 microcinema managers currently expanding Stefan’s model and training others to join the network. Stefan and his colleagues also have established partners in Bolivia and Ecuador who are replicating Stefan’s alternative digital distribution channel and the discussion sessions. Soon, they will implement Grupo Chaski’s training program for microcinema managers. In addition, in an effort to stimulate the replication of his model in more distant and hard to reach locations, Stefan plans to develop on online “distance learning” program to train microcinema managers.
Stefan was born in a small city in Switzerland, where he had the privilege of living in comfortable circumstances and a stable home. As a young man, in response to his strong interest in issues of social justice, he went to Israel to work on a kibbutz. Stefan’s work in that setting was interrupted, however, by the Six-Day War between Israel and the armies of the neighboring states of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. In the wake of that war, he went to the Sinai desert as a volunteer to assist in reconstruction efforts. The marked contrast between Switzerland’s way of life and his experience in Israel greatly impacted Stefan and opened his eyes to a different reality. How the Israeli media covered the Six-Day War and other social matters also made a lasting impression on him and seeded his conviction that the media can and should be used as a powerful tool to address injustices and give voice to excluded groups.
In pursuit of the latter conviction, Stefan returned to Switzerland to study communications and gain field experience. In various collaborations with local newspapers and with a television news program, he honed his data collection, interviewing, and writing skills and acquired valuable experience in producing videos, films, and TV programs. As a member of the Declaration of Berne organization, Stefan also got involved in an awareness project for children focused on social conditions in developing countries. In pursuing that assignment, he was particularly impressed with the story, The Little Boy Close to the Sky, by Peruvian author, Enrique Congrains. With the aim of making that story accessible to a wider audience, Stefan wrote a screenplay based on the story, and in 1978 he traveled to Peru and turned it into a widely circulated and highly acclaimed film.
With that very satisfying experience behind him, Stefan decided to make Peru his home and to work there on developing the country’s independent media and audiovisual literacy. In pursuing those objectives, he created an organization of “social communicators” called Grupo Chaski in 1982. He understood then that Peru’s audiovisual industry, its legal framework, and its access to media tools needed to be transformed and expanded to enable it to serve its social purpose effectively. Since 2006, he has been fully engaged in establishing and fostering the growth of Peru’s Microcinema Network In 2007, Stefan won the Moviliza competition organized by Ashoka’s Citizen Base Initiative.