Development Cooperation Handbook/The video resources linked to this handbook/The Documentary Story/We have a story
We have a story !
Well, I said … two years of salary … unless there are problems. And I see already the problems gearing up to come on board!
How will the friends of Armadilla behave now? Will they honor the agreement to keep me as the project director? Yes, it was me who wrote the project. But now the money is in Armadilla's bank account. Will they stand by their earlier words. If they want now they can appoint a different director and tell me “thank you and bye bye”. Something like this happened to me before. With Labos, an Italian social research consultancy. That also was a nice project I had written for Labos and submitted for funding to two different organizations: ISPELS, a technical organization of the Italian Ministry of health; and the European Union. Both the proposals got approved.! A real godsend ! We had the sponsorship from two different donors to do practically the same job. An ideal situation ! A lot of freedom. And a good profit margin. Too good! But, at Labos they knew that Stefano, i.e. me, will go his way. He has always been undisciplined and too passionate. And he is too much an outsider to the formal institutions. Why don’t we give the job to Claudio - they thought. He is a University professor. He does not have too much time, so he will not try to do much. His position of ‘professor’ will justify whatever he writes. He will be more disciplined to our organizational strategies. Yes. Let's give the job to Claudio and let's tell Stefano "sorry". I was then thrown outboard. I was upset. The grants arrived to an idea of mine. I tried to onsole myself with the idea that, if they do not want me as I am, then for me it is better not to work with Labos. Sure, since I liked Anna Calvaruso and her father, the Labos bosses, it was sad me to be cast aside and be substituted with an institutional cocotte like Claudio ... "do they not understand that, if we do a good job, so many interesting new avenues will open to us? Why to eat now all the seeds of the trees we could plant and grow? Why they prefer someone more adjustable and reject my adventure spirit?" I was disappointed because I liked Anna, arrogant, but sincere, inexperienced, but determined. And I liked her father, the incarnation of what an old styled socialist should look like. So I felt humiliated to be preferred to someone so insincere and so empty like Claudio, the Perugia professor. "But better not to work with those who do not chose me as I am" - I was repeating to myself - "and this is the price to pay for that.
So, once again, with Armadilla I had not ensured my position with preliminary contractual formalities. Again I did not want partners who stick along because they are tied by a contract. For me working with companions is a love affair … not a strategy of interests. Be alone! Or with those who like to stay with you for the way you are. To sell your time to someone who employees you for your time is no problem. But when it is your idea, your vocation, then the partners need to be companions.
And so it is Armadilla's turn to decide. What will they do? Will they keep me now that they have the money and can employ anyone who they want?
Those were my thoughts when I entered the Armadilla office in Rome. I had always been in contact with Vincenzo, a gentle man from the beautiful island of Sardinia, that he left in order to become a politically committed sociologist and to travel around the world, until he got stuck in Rome for his family duties, something to which he attained as only the sharpers of Sardinia do, with dutiful attendance to the daily work rituals, uncaring for toughness and boredom of the tasks. But this time however I had to meet the real boss, Marco, a tougher guy, without the academic background of Vincenzo, and quire smart in managing his organization in Rome, amongst political seduction and traps, adjusting and serving to the contemporary Roman charlatanry and yet preserving some vitality of the Roman sense of “law” as the duty for the state and the rights of the citizens. Marco still had a glimpse of th higher ethical vision of politics that had characterized older periods of this still magic city. But he was very short of money and would have done everything for saving his organization.
When I met Marco I had the impression that he had sensed my worries. "Stefano, it is you who write the project, so I am sure you are the best person to manage it. We are with you. Organize the team you want. We at Armadilla will take care of the administrative relationship with Brussels (i.e. the EU Commission). For us it is better that you lead it. Take charge of the action because you understand the project as no one else. So it is not convenient for us to change you with someone who does not know so well what needs to be done."
I felt so relived and excited! Especially for the reasons he was giving; which were not true at all. I know enough how the EU commission work. The projects are evaluated by technical experts of high profile. But then they are supervised by administrative style without much competence and commitments. They look at the “words” and not at the spirit of the projects. They search for paper work, not for facts. For them it is easier to say that everything is going one well, rather than identify problematic issues and risk risk possible confrontations. The mange a project you need to keep all papers in good order: then you are quite free to do quite little work. It is difficult to win a project. But then not so difficult to carry it trough to the end. You just need to avoid doing too evident mistakes, that’s all. At least not formal ones (especially with the administration). Marco knew much better than me how the EU works from this point of view. So Armadilla could easily change with me with someone else. Someone who would read again the project with fresh eyes. Who will look at i in this way:
"What are the formal obligations we must ensure? And how can we meet those formal obligations with the minim possible efforts? What are the difficult steps that we can avoid to take and find justification for not doing it that are bureaucratically feasible?"
Armadilla would have had no difficulty to find such experts. The best in this kind of job are those who worked at Brussels and know how to phrase all sorts of justifications in bureaucratically acceptable statements.
So Marco really wanted me to do the job. And so he really believed in the project! He wanted me because he really wanted to do it. He really thought that if we do well the project we can use the project to open new opportunities. That was really a good sign. I was so pleased with that. And I really started to be committed to it. What was "a try" had really become "a mission".
Still I had doubts. He had given me the project management. But what about video production? Will he allow it to be really under my direct supervision? There is a lot of money involved in it. And that is where most of the visibility is gained. Will he leave me free to chose who will produce the videos?
In the project it was written that part of the production was dome by the Armadilla team and partially by RAI, the Italian State television. Armadilla had a journalist friend in RAI, Fabio. They worked together in Mozambique. Marco fixed an appointment for us to meet in the office and discuss the cooperation.
From Brussels the message was clear. It is OK for us to have the RAI as associated partner but not as a full partner. That means we could pay air tickets to RAI employees, hotels, food, etcetera. But not salaries. Not editing costs. RAI had to come on board contributing with its own resources. It had to prove that they are active contributors to the project because it really interested them. They could not be subcontractors.
I met Fabio. Marco shortly introduced us and said: I hope you find an agreement. But who will decide it will be Stefano (because he knows the project well). I explained to Fabio both the spirit of the project and the administrative boundaries within which we had to move.
Fabio is a good man. But working too long at RAI had its toll on his humanity. His inquisitive spirit of journalist had finally been subjugated to the spirit of those who feel the power of deciding what to broadcast or not, what food to give to the public or not. They do not feel moral obligation to the public of the quality of what they give. But they feel the power of choosing what to give. And want to be recognized as such by those who have some interest in giving something to the public.
He was adamant with me. Stefano I will broadcast the production of this project on the national TV. So you will comply with the contractual obligations to Brussels. But you need to give me also the management of the video production that Armadilla has to do. I will take care of it in my own way.
That would have been a deadly bow to the project. The whole idea was to experiment the cooperation between two different partner organizations: a social NGO and a media company. They had to learn how to work together and verify if it was possible to arrive to a media product that was relevant from the point of view of international cooperation for development; and “marketable” as a media product in the normal media market. If we get the broadcasting opening only because we got the person in charge of putting it “on air” as the one who produces the videos … than the whole cooperation logic of the project was dead!
But that would also have been the cheap solution that an organization could look for in case it wanted to formally comply with the obligations but spend the minimum possible resources for achieving the objectives !
I decided to talk to Marco. This was the time for truth. How will he act now? I explained him that I could have taken care directly of the video production. We start in our own way - I proposed - then we call on board someone from the official media industry and share our resources with them. We should not be supine to the usual power balance: let’s at least give a try to an alternative model. We have got public money for it. It is money coming for the budget of reducing poverty in the world. Let’s give a sincere try! May be I was using a bit of rhetoric language; but I was sincere. Let’s give a chance to sincerity in the media production: then we see what happens and we share the results with the EU Commission. That will satisfy the contractual obligation, even if media industry keeps us out of the small screen. We will in any way broadcast through Internet! We will anyway find a way to reach out to the public, even if it would have been a smaller public.
It worked. Marco agreed. Ok Stefano. Go ahead like this. You know the project best. And at least at the start follow the project expected action plan (i.e. translated: I like your approach, and if you can make it do it and go to field in a attack mood ; but if you do not bring results then we will retrench on easier conventional modalities).
Now I really felt the adventure was on. Not only the trust by Armadilla on me and the sincerity of Marco to the project was verified. But also, and actually more important, I had found a storyline to narrate development cooperation projects. I would have talked about the difficulty to get to the media on board with the news of peace building and cooperation. We would have talked about media stereotypes and the difficulty to overcome them. The plot of the story would have been the challenge of making a documentary the way we wanted to do it.
We had found the story. We were the story. We had to film us living our adventure. Buona avventura Stefano (I told to myself). And good luck! (you need it)
Next ⇒ Getting partners on board