Global Lives – collective production, open video



Since 2004, getting on for a thousand filmmaker volunteers have between them recorded, translated and assembled footage following one day in the life of ten world citizens, chosen to reflect key global demographic realities. Decisions in the project are made by a collective. All the content is licensed under Creative Commons and is going to become an open archive. The ten twenty-four hour films made so far have been combined to produce an immersive installation in which gallery visitors wander among big screens on which these everyday lives play out in real time. An open source package is in the pipeline so that anyone can mount their own exhibition. And that’s just part of the story so far…

I’ve written about Global Lives on the CollabDocs blog a number of times ( Nov 10Jan 11) and have been keen to understand more about how the whole thing works, so was thrilled when Global Lives’s Founder and Executive Director, David Evan Harris, found the time to talk to me via Skype.

Harris came up with the idea in 2002, inspired by the open source ethos of the web and by his experiences of collective and open organisational structures in a co-operative student house, in the Global Justice Movement and at the World Social Forum. The aim, as described on the website, “to collaboratively build a video library of human life experience that reshapes how we as both producers and viewers conceive of cultures, nations and people outside of our own communities.” The idea of Global Lives is to bring the audience up close with other lives as they unfold in detail, through an ordinary day. There is “no narrative other than that which is found in the composition of everyday life…we invite audiences to confer close attention onto other worlds, and simultaneously reflect upon their own.”

Harris had studied abroad as a Berkeley undergraduate within a unique programme which involved staying with families in their homes in diverse settings – in Tanzania, India, the Philippines, Mexico and the UK. When he got back to the USA, he “wanted to communicate not just the political and social justice issues and deep inequality that I had seen, but also the emotional side of this experience of travel and life outside of my tiny bubble in the US, which is something that I was feeling unable to do as a student of the social sciences. “

Harris had almost no formal training in video but had the idea of applying the collaborative, open ethic he saw emerging in web projects to video production. As Harris says, “The film and video industry is extremely hierarchical and very top down, a somewhat rigidly structured industry. And, you know, these models like Wikipedia and Linux and Free and Open Source software, all those things haven’t really reached the world of video, and they definitely hadn’t in 2002…We did the first shoot before YouTube even existed…”



In 2004 Harris and a video producer friend together produced the first Global Lives film, a record of twenty four hours in the life of San Francisco tram driver, James Bullock. Then followed two shoots produced by Harris’s network of friends and contacts. When one of them wanted to produce a film in Japan, Harris cast the net wider. He put posts on a number of social networks and sent a mail out to everyone he knew that read; “Do you know a filmmaker in Japan interested in social change?”” They got more responses than they could accept. Those who have got involved have included lots of amateur and professional video makers, artists, academics, and students.

One of the very interesting things about Global Lives is the way it’s evolving. It’s an emergent project, with unforeseen outcomes and benefits that are coming about, partly because the footage is Creative Commons, partly because the global community of collaborators are acting as advocates for the project in their own regions and contexts. For instance  –

  • The Wikipedia community plans to use Global Lives footage to illustrate articles.
  • The Producer of the Indonesian footage presented the project to the National Teachers Union resulting in plans to use Global Lives video as part of the curriculum in schools across Indonesia.
  • Nearly five hundred volunteer translators have painstakingly transcribed and translated about 80% of the 240 hours of footage. In some languages, this has resulted in an unprecedented asset. Harris has been told that the translation of the Chichewa, the language spoken on the Malawi shoot, is the longest in the history of that language, especially valuable as it is not a translation of a book but corresponds to sound and to video. As Harris says, “This could be the beginning of building a corpus for the language – a set of words and word usages used to develop things we take for granted in English like spell checkers and grammar checkers that really work, or even voice recognition.”

Patricia Zimmermann has described the way that certain emerging documentary practices work as “a politics of convenings”. It’s a resonant term for these projects where the meanings and impacts don’t reside in a single documentary “text” but are made within encounters – between collaborators, in interactive and gallery settings, across a variety of platforms. Global Lives is all about convenings, it seems to me, of conversations about everyday life experience and advantage/disadvantage prompted by the footage, and of communities and networks among the collaborators.

It’s interesting to think of Global Lives in relation to the questions posed by Arneu Gifrau Castells regarding the development of a taxonomy of Interactive Documentary. Does / how does Global Lives fit within a taxonomy of Interactive Documentary? As a number of linear films presented in a gallery it seems to have more in common with video art than with an interactive online piece. It’s clearly an example of collaborative making but does that attribute alone make it an Interactive Documentary? (I suspect not. If we accepted that logic then we’d be harnessing Community Media and Access TV within the term.) The issue of how meaning is made within the work seems to me important. The “convenings” of  Global Lives are encounters –  a relational framework, drawing on Bourriaud’s term. But how do we draw a line between Interactive Documentary and Relational Art?  Should we be creating a new category of Relational Documentary?

So by posting this here I’m not suggesting that Global Lives can be simply categorised as an Interactive Documentary, though I look forward to the opportunity provided by iDocs to take that discussion further. For now, I offer you Global Lives, as a very unusual example of collective production, and as a project born of the ethics of the open web. Here’s the interview.

Mandy Rose