Storytelling Adventures from the Amazon: On The Ground

When creating stories on a budget, planning, collaboration and flexibility are key to success.

Read Part I in the Storytelling Adventures from the Amazon series here.

Indigenous people who live in the Amazon hold the key to unlocking the healing power of the rainforest’s medicinal plants. But destruction of the forest is pushing their communities to the brink of extinction. The Sapara people of Ecuador and the Shipibo of Peru of have joined forces with scientists and entrepreneurs from the U.S. to share their knowledge with the world.

Doug Hattaway
twitter.com/DougHattaway

Doug has nearly three decades of experience working with high-profile leaders in politics, government, business, advocacy and philanthropy. He leads and advises project teams to create research-based strategies, content and campaigns, and is passionate about adapting insights and innovations from the social sciences to enhance the power of strategic communications.

This series of articles shares practical lessons from Hattaway Communications, which has worked with the participating organizations—Runa Foundation in the U.S., Naku in Ecuador and Rios Nete in Peru—to produce a video and fundraising campaign that will help build the world’s first centers for the practice, research and preservation of Amazonian plant medicine.

Part 2: On the Ground

Key ingredients of a storytelling video are advanced planning, collaboration and flexibility. This article shows the importance of all three in shooting a video on location in the Amazon, with collaborators in three countries and a very small budget.

Planning

Producing a good story requires planning. Our storytelling team did a lot of preparation in advance of a week-long video shoot in the Amazon. The members of the production team had never met in person before we arrived, but we held conference calls to get everyone on the same page about the story we wanted to tell.

We had one trip and a fixed timeline for getting all of our footage and interviews, so we had to think ahead. It would not be easy to go back if we missed anything. Together, we created a toolkit to guide our work, including a story map, a script for the video story, an interview list and a shot list.

Story Map. The team at Runa used the Story Map on Hatch to think through each step of the narrative. The Story Map draws on a classic model of storytelling used by Hollywood filmmakers to craft compelling narratives.

Script. Guided by the Runa team’s map, the team at Hattaway Communications drafted a script for the video. Our narrator, Channing Tatum, would read the script to record the voiceover. The script guided us in planning for the interviews and footage we would need to collect during our video shoot in the Amazon.

Interview list. The script helped us determine who to interview and what to ask them. We produced an interview list naming the people we wanted to talk to and the questions we would pose to each of them. For example, we hoped Manari Ushigua, a leader of the Sapara people, would tell a story about healing a villager using a medicinal plant.

Shot list. Along with the interview outline, we drew up a list of shots we envisioned: pans of the jungle canopy, close ups of medicinal plants, and direct-to-camera shots of people’s faces (to help the audience connect with the people featured in the video). The shot list gave direction to the camera operator and provided a checklist to ensure we had the right footage to tell the story we wanted to tell.

Collaboration

Our team included a photographer, a translator, a logistics coordinator and myself, acting as director and producer. Each of us had distinct skills essential to the success of our mission. Our photographer was Lucas Foglia, who is based in San Francisco. Lucas was shooting photographs for National Geographic, in addition to filming our story. He has traveled all over the world documenting how people live. He is comfortable interacting with people and quietly observing them. The villagers seemed to forget he was watching after a while, which allowed him to capture more authentic images of their life in the Amazon.

Sydney Nilan was our interviewer and translator. She works with RUNA Foundation and Rios Nete in Peru. It’s important for an interviewer to put people at ease when they’re answering questions under the gaze of a camera. With her warm demeanor and command of Spanish, Sydney got the interviewees talking and drew out rich answers.

Raine Donahue helped think through the questions and took detailed notes of the interviews, which enabled Sydney to focus on the conversations.

I acted as the director of the video, working with Lucas to select locations for the interviews and set up the shots, giving Sydney input on the interviews, and otherwise helping the team gather all of the footage and interviews we would need to produce the final product.

At the end of each day, we compared notes about the footage and quotes we had gathered to determine what would be most useful. Based on that discussion, we made a plan for the next day. We always referred back to our script, our interview list and our shot list, to make sure that we were gathering the necessary ingredients for our story.

Flexibility

We had a detailed plan of action when the team converged on the Sapara village deep in the rainforest. It’s great to have a game plan, but as we soon found out, when you’re engaging with real people and hearing their perspectives, you need to go where they lead you.

Our very first encounter on the ground began to change our thinking about the story we wanted to tell. In welcoming our team to his village, Manari said something we hadn’t heard before: The Sapara people were driven to share their knowledge of the rainforest because they felt that the Sapara, themselves, were in danger of “disappearing.”

Their knowledge of medicinal plants isn’t stored in a library. It has passed from generation to generation over thousands of years, and exists only in the memories of the remaining Sapara healers.

Manari’s insight lent a greater sense of urgency to the undertaking. This was more than an intellectual pursuit of knowledge about medicinal plants—it was a story about people in a race against time to save that precious knowledge before it disappeared forever.

Manari’s words became the opening of the video, superimposed over a scene of the misty forest: “Even if we disappear, we want to leave our knowledge for the world.”

Stay tuned for the next part in this series.

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