On Location: Study Abroad Filmmaking for a Cause

In just over two years, Actuality Media has gone from a budding dream to a thriving production company that has already produced 14 documentaries highlighting altruists around the globe.

Founded by husband and wife Robin Canfield and Aubrie Cambell, the pair’s philanthropic production company leads student-based film crews around the world to recount the stories of individuals and organizations that are leading sustainable initiatives to thwart chronic social and environmental problems.

Actuality Media has tackled a diverse set of 21st century challenges. The documentary A Model for Change addresses deeply rooted poverty cycles in Colombia, while CoopeTal: Fueling Talamanca explores sustainable energy alternatives in Costa Rica. Actuality Media’s film, Our Daughters For Sale, won an Atom Award for its coverage of sex trade in Thailand. All of Actuality Media’s films are released for free download under Creative Commons, allowing each feature’s message to reach as many people as possible.

Aubrie Cambell CanfieldAubrie Cambell CanfieldAubrie Cambell’s  life has almost always revolved around the film industry. She began assisting her father, a cinematographer, when she was just in middle school. Robin Canfield, on the other hand, did not have any experience in film prior to co-founding Actuality Media. However, his passion has always drawn him to the art of storytelling. Studying English at Oregon State University, he wrote for the OSU Daily Barometer and found profiling the stories of locals to be truly compelling.

The couple met just as Cambell was about to land a lucrative career in Hollywood—when a “quarter-life crisis” made her realize how unsatisfied she was with the stress and abrasive personalities that pervade the industry. It was around this time that Cambell was introduced to the idea of social entrepreneurship by reading How To Change The World by David Bornstein. Compelled by the ways the movement’s individuals and organizations were using the power of enterprise and innovation to solve today’s societal problems, she partnered with Canfield to plan how they could more actively support this cause.Robin CanfieldRobin Canfield

The pair initially thought to form a volunteer film corps that would seek out filmmakers willing to donate their time to document the untold stories of community changemakers. While this plan had only the noblest of intentions, the reality of financing such endeavors proved to be unrealistic.

Cambell began contacting organizations like Idealist.org and asking how she could become more involved, but her background in film never left the back of her mind. Cambell soon realized that the greatest asset that she and Canfield could provide to altruists and social entrepreneurs was the power of documentary film, “as a vehicle to tell the real life stories of people who are changing the world.”

Things began to pick up speed for the Canfield and Cambell when a mentor—who also happened to be a business professor—was seeking a unique international project for her students. The couple designed a program that brought five business students from Oregon State University to film a documentary in Guatemala. Despite their film crew’s lack of experience, Canfield and Cambell successfully produced a documentary examining the lives of coffee farmers in Antigua. Canfield remembers, “Of course we couldn’t foresee complications until they came up, but once we’d gotten past them or worked them into our program, we were amazed at how well everything worked.”

Emboldened by the success of their first short documentary, the pair dove headfirst into finding the right niche to fill in order to make documentary films full time. Their research revealed a need for high quality study abroad programs for emerging filmmakers. Canfield and Cambell’s eureka moment occurred when they identified an opportunity to bring awareness to changemakers through designing a program that gave film students and recent graduates valuable field experience. The shared deficit between students needing experience and changemakers seeking exposure gave Canfield and Cambell a clear idea of what their business plan would be. Cambell says, “It seemed a perfect marriage to connect the two and oversee the process.”

CoopeTal - Fueling Talamanca from Actuality Media on Vimeo.

Actuality Media was formally founded in early 2011, when Cambell and Canfield chose three South American locations for their first films. Their company began with just a humble website and some flyers, but a unique vision and countless hours of correspondence with film schools soon began to payoff. Canfield says, “We knew we could make it work, but not until the first applications started coming in did we get confirmation that other people thought a service learning documentary production program was as good of an idea as we did.”

Actuality Media’s business model blurs the lines between the non-profit and a privately owned business. The company’s unique approach is grounded in its foundations in social enterprise. Cambell describes, “Our measure of success is not just a profit bottom line, but also the impact our services have on our students, the changemakers, and the general public. A social enterprise can find other ways to support its social or environmental works, instead of writing grants and relying on donations. It allows the good works to scale up at a much faster pace.”

This hybrid approach to business has led Actuality to adopt a progressive business classification referred to as a Benefit Corporation. Benefit Corporations are legally recognized by the state they operate within based on a company’s pledge to consider its impact on the community and environment as opposed to solely the profits of its shareholders. As a benefit corporation, Actuality Media publicly relays its social and environmental impacts according to established third-party standards. Canfield explains, “It was an easy choice for us to help demonstrate our goals in a way that anyone can easily look into.”

Actuality Media’s films initially covered countries in which Cambell and Canfield had travel experience, but their search for compelling subjects now has no borders. Cambell states, “We have an open invitation on our website for organizations around the world to make themselves known to us, but we probably aren’t on their radar until we’ve already reached out to them – or at least until someone they know tells them about us.” The team conducts exhaustive web research in pursuit of potential subjects, but Actuality Media often get its best subject suggestions from word-of-mouth communication. Cambell continues, “We look for a connector in each region who has long term relationships with people doing development work and ask them for initial recommendations.”

The task of narrowing down candidates is one of the most difficult decisions that Canfield and Cambell make for Actuality Media. Canfield explains, “We’re looking for the best possible stories, but also determining which changemakers will best be able to take advantage of having a short documentary made about them.”

“When they travel with us, it is usually the most intense travel experience they have had thus far, pushing them way out of their comfort zones. But you don’t sign up for a program like ours unless you have a sense of adventure.”

“There are millions of changemakers around the world,” Cambell says, yet not all altruists are capable of articulating a mission. She notes, “We have found that when organizations have not yet found a way to measure impact, it is more difficult to tell a compelling story about their work.” In order to determine a film’s subject, Canfield and Cambell request a reflective survey from potential subjects and look for altruistic work that can function within a cohesive narrative. “The most compelling documentaries have a dynamic character who is struggling against adversity to achieve a worthy goal. Those elements are already baked into the story of every changemaker.” 

The prospect of guiding college students around the world and making them responsible for producing a film seems rife with opportunities for disaster, but Cambell and Canfield have yet to encounter any problems when working with their young filmmakers.

Cambell states, “In each program we set the expectations higher and higher, and the crews always seem to be able to meet them. When they travel with us, it is usually the most intense travel experience they have had thus far, pushing them way out of their comfort zones. But you don’t sign up for a program like ours unless you have a sense of adventure.”

Canfield and Cambell do take some preliminary steps to ensure that their film crews are able to work in an efficient manner. Canfield explains, “Before our participants arrive, we interview all of them to get a feel for their personalities. It’s a way for us to decide who should be teamed up with who and makes for better functioning crews. Lastly, and I think most importantly, we make it very clear to our participants that we expect a lot from them. We’re there to help, but it’s their project, they’re making the decisions and they are doing the work.”

Canfield and Cambell stress that their purpose in the field is only to guide students to have true experiential discoveries. “There are revelations on each program for both the students and myself. Each crew is different, offering varied strengths and weaknesses.” Cambell continues, “I aim to leverage their strengths to help them produce the best film, but also to improve the areas in which they are weak or inexperienced.”

Sarah Megyesy in Quetzaltenango, GuatemalaSarah Megyesy in Quetzaltenango, GuatemalaSarah Megyesy, director of Actuality Media’s Why We Hike, recalls her experience: “It was my first time out of the United States and was the best way to start my international travels.” Any fears of working with a group of strangers were quickly forgotten as they “all became close very quickly,” spending “every waking moment together.”

Sarah bonded with her fellow filmmakers during long hikes in the mountains, of which her favorite was a two-day hike from Xela, Guatemala to Lake Atitlan. She says, “It was exhausting, but worth it to see the beauty of that lake at sunrise and a great thing to film.” She also enjoyed living in the city Xela for a month, where she became friends with some of the locals. She says, “I felt I really got to experience the city as someone living there and not just a visitor.”

Actuality Media’s highest priority with their participants is to provide high-quality educational service-learning experiences. Sarah’s introduction to Actuality was a profound lesson. She admits to learning about “creating a story and characters within a documentary instead of just relaying information to the audience,” saying that the group “set out to go deeper within the overall picture by finding an individual or organization’s story that could also relay information about the bigger picture.” Sarah concludes that she “became a better filmmaker in that month’s time,” carrying with her the lessons of her project with Actuality Media.

The dynamic nature of every production brings new experiences and insight that constantly evolves the methods used in Actuality Media’s productions. Canfield and Cambell invent or improve exercises in the field to help students hone their skills.

Cambell recounts one such innovation: “At the very end of one outreach I volunteered to shoot some footage for a social entrepreneur who I discovered during the trip and with whom we were not already working. I asked the students if they wanted to join me, and with little preparation we spent half a day shooting an event in a small nearby village. I acted as the director, but used every opportunity to help my students discover the most cinematic and story-focused moments.”

In directing this sequence, Cambell realized that students were much more engaged in learning through an impromptu shoot than the introductory camera tests with which they began their program. Cambell states, “I immediately regretted not going through this exercise before the students began shooting their films. We now require all of our students to participate in an impromptu shoot instead of a camera test, and we have eliminated a lot of the mistakes that were common on the first official day of shooting a film.” She humbly concludes, “I would not have discovered this great exercise if the students hadn’t been so willing to participate in the initial experiment.”

In all of their travels, Actuality Media has managed to stay clear of most precarious situations. Canfield kids, “There’s a joke that’s come up on several projects with different cinematographers, usually ones who have brought one of their own cameras to work with in addition to ours: ‘If I fall, grab the camera.’ It’s a fun joke because nobody expects anything bad to happen, and they’re partly serious. Thankfully, nothing bad has ever happened. There have been a few slips and trips, and once I did actually have to pluck a camera out of the hands of a cinematographer who was taking a tumble down a hill. Luckily that cinematographer was pretty good at tuck-and-roll and all that had to be done was a quick dusting off of the camera.” He concludes, “We’ve had crewmembers be victims of pick pocketing a few times, and that’s about it. Basically, I’d be much more concerned about walking around the wrong part of Los Angeles or Philadelphia than in the places we travel to for filming.”

Canfield and Cambell’s immersive adventures create lasting impacts on the lives of their subjects and on students who travel with them. Canfield’s favorite part of working with students is, “knowing that I’ve reached some of them, and the random reminders that pop up, like when I get to meet up with former students in New York City or other places where they are working, or when I’m walking down a street and get a call from a number I don’t remember. When I answer the phone it’s one of our former directors saying ‘I just won this contest, I have this much money, and I’m standing in a camera shop. Which camera should I buy?’” 

RELATED: Documentary filmmaker Kip Pastor left a thriving career in Washington, D.C. for Hollywood, hoping to have a greater influence on public policy and debate. 

Cambell and Canfield have accomplished a great deal with Actuality Media, but they’re definitely not resting on the laurels of their current success.  Their immediate future includes shooting three new programs that return to South America, embarking on new initiatives in Kenya and Turkey, as well as working to establish a greater collaboration with universities. 

It seems that the only thing that matches the couple’s penchant for wanderlust is their astonishing work ethic. Canfield beams, “We want to get enough of our one month programs running that we have them year round so that we have them running simultaneously.” Canfield continues, “We’d also love to get out and make our own feature documentary. We’re always keeping an eye out for just the right feature subject, and we definitely have other ideas for more businesses.”

In founding Actuality Media, Cambell and Canfield have shed the comforts of western lifestyles in the hope that more people will take action to address looming environmental disasters and unspoken social inequalities. Over the past two years, Actuality Media has transformed from a service learning experiment to an award-winning film production company. The couple’s actions have aided in immediate change in communities around the world, but their most lasting impact may very well be having bred a culture of filmmakers who are ready to change the future.

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