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Some are slow and steady; like that of a sleepy caterpillar, leisurely morphing into its glorious butterfly alter ego.  Some are swift and unstable; like an unsuspecting packet of slicked seeds suddenly bursting into a bag of buttery popcorn. Some are simply unpredictable; like adjusting to life in a wheelchair after a paralyzing car accident, or finding out that dollar lottery ticket just made you a millionaire overnight.

There are all types of transformations. The first story I ever produced in my fledgling journalism career went through its own, with – as I look back upon it – a little bit of each of those transformational qualities. And through its painstaking (and oftentimes frustrating) process, it made me realize that the desire to do good reporting and the compromise required to see that reporting go to air demanded a universal acceptance of one thing: its transformation.

Washington Week with Gwen Ifill, a highly respected PBS publication, announced its “Voice of the Voters” feature, and I excitedly submitted a pitch. I figured, why not take a stab at producing a high-quality piece of journalism and jump-start my resume with a renowned entity like PBS? I thought the “Voice of the Voters” project was a perfect way for me to do both, while investigating a subject that was near and dear to my heart: specific issues that are important to women.

As a first-year graduate student, I didn’t really expect to be chosen to move on to final production; I was, after all, competing with students across the country, most in their final semester of their graduate programs. But upon my selection by PBS (and my initial, personalized version of “shock and awe”), I went right to work on the logistics and mapped out the entire production process for my piece. I had a vision: lend a virtual megaphone to those young women (on my USFSP campus) who had stories to share about where they stood on women’s issues in the 2012 presidential election. This group, as far as I could tell, had not been adequately covered in the local media, and for that matter [it appeared to me] the entire subject of “women’s issues” was generally glossed over on the national stage as well. My aim was to do something different; something that would elevate a set of voices and allow those voices to uninhibitedly express their concerns as they cast their ballot for the next president. The feature, after all, was called, “Voice of the Voters.”

My original pitch to PBS, I felt, accurately reflected this vision. It outlined the history of Florida’s swing-state status in determining presidents, as well as its divided and varied voting demographics. I placed an emphasis upon candidly asking how local USFSP female voters felt toward issues they believed would have a direct effect on them. PBS producers explained that while that strategy was acceptable, I should also be sure to include some statistical information in order to set up a context in which to frame the piece. I agreed, since data establishing female voting trends and figures would only strengthen my story’s authority. Still, I didn’t want the piece to be about the numbers; viewers can go to a plethora of other media sources for that. I wanted my piece to be about the people.

I wanted to explore what young, college female voters thought of the older, male candidates who were vying for their presidential vote. What mattered to them? What didn’t? Did they relate to what the nominees (Barack Obama and Mitt Romney) were saying, and more importantly, did they believe them? Did they agree with them? Did they feel adequately represented or did they feel the system had let them down? To boot, I wondered what influence the media had in shaping the political ideologies of these young women. Essentially, I just wanted to produce a piece of investigative journalism that asked those questions and relayed the blunt, genuine answers I got in return. Nothing more, nothing less.

I found the interviewees all around campus. I made sure to seek out a varied assortment of ethnicity, ages (the best I could, given the college-student environment) and political party alignments. I managed to pluck five incredibly fascinating women – all with very different opinions and positions – and have these women open up to me about a variety of political and social issues that sincerely mattered to them. Some were more vocal than others, but all were passionate about one particular issue or another (and a few were more than passionate about more than one issue). Some felt strongly about a specific candidate, others were frustrated with both. All had something important to say.

With the raw footage from all the interviews, I began compiling the first draft script and rough cut of the piece. I found that some of the women used phrases like, “We are not walking vaginas,” and “The government needs to stay the hell out of women’s bodies.” I delighted in knowing that I was giving these women a platform to vocalize what mattered to them most in the election process. I had no reservations about turning in the first rough cut to PBS, since I figured they would appreciate that kind of refreshing frankness as much as I did.

I was wrong. Very, very wrong.

I was told immediately by PBS producers that the word “vagina” was not appropriate for national television. Additionally, the tone of some of the interviewees was deemed “combative” or that they didn’t seem well-versed enough on particular political issues to be discussing them. One critique after another was hurled by the network, though most were curt evaluations of an interviewee. I was also told by producers that more numbers were needed in order to visually support my talking points. I was baffled. Does the audience really need to see the figure “52%” on their screen in order for them to understand that 52 percent of Florida’s voting population were women? I was already saying it (in a voice-over), what more was necessary?

Apparently, a lot more. The producers emphasized the need for graphics – whether charts, graphs, even the simple numerical figures themselves just popping on screen in as large of a font as possible – was paramount in making sure the audience understood what I was saying. I felt that the information was delivered with great transparency and simplicity; there was really no need for additional facts and figures. I wanted the voters (i.e. the women) to tell the story, not the boring data.

Still, there was push-back from the network. Draft after draft, edited cut after edited cut, the piece began to take a new shape; one that was losing my fingerprint and showing signs of a new owner. One by one, the interviews got cut, with producers reducing the explanations to simply, “She didn’t translate well on screen.” Whether or not my translation was accurate, it sounded to me more like “she wasn’t attractive enough to air.”

What is worth noting is that, with every transformation, the original becomes more and more a distant memory as each iteration is born. As a frequent and frustrating tug-of-war ensued, I found myself wrestling with the gutsy position of sticking to my original vision, or compromising that vision in order to have the piece garner PBS’s stamp of approval to air. All the incredibly hard work I had already put into it sprung into my head, and I quickly realized that the project now had taken on a life of its own; one that I could either chase down the street or one I could let wander and ultimately become lost. I was getting my first lesson in professional journalism: transformation is – for the most part – inevitable.

It occurred to me that the voices that amplified a blatant or unflinching or even remotely unconventional stance were the voices that became the most [seemingly] stifled by PBS. To me – and perhaps only me – the piece shifted from being about the voice of the voter to the voice of the network. It was whittled down to only two interviewees, along with an additional expert interview that PBS producers explained would be a way to assign yet another level of authority to the narrative. I found that out of the two female USFSP students left on the piece, both were attractive, Caucasian brunettes, and – with their edited and re-edited footage – neither was expressing the combative tone that was included in the original piece. Just an observation.

What I was ultimately satisfied with turned out not to be my original vision. It was, however, still clearly traceable back to what I had originally sought to explore: how women felt about what mattered to them. I wasn’t able to include all the voices I wanted, but the voices I was able to capture each emanated a distinct individual presence. One voice surprised me, and delved into the social implications of women’s equality in the workplace; a lesser discussed issue that most female voters her age never mention. Another voice began convinced of a particular stance on women’s health and abortion, then – right before my eyes and thankfully on camera – transformed [herself] from conviction to uncertainty.

I had presented a glimpse into a world that wasn’t being seen nearly enough: the young Florida female voter. The process was long. It was full of edits and re-edits, tossing in numbers, taking out footage, framing the interviews to reflect a certain middle-of-the-road, let’s-not-rock-the-boat-too much flavor. Each critique from PBS producers was accompanied by an explanation of how that particular item or quote or image had to be modified, moved or eliminated. The transformation was slow. It was sudden. It was painful. It was enlightening. And it was what the network wanted in order to fit within a certain branding that was in line with the publication’s other content. And it was what needed to happen to have my very first piece air on the national media stage.

***

Four days before Election Day, I received a congratulatory email from PBS producers in thanks for the successful submission and for the diligent reporting and production efforts that were put forth in such an abridged amount of time. The piece was publicized by PBS just in time to air for Election Day. The link to the published segment on the Washington Week site can be found on directly this blog or here.

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Selected to produce a piece for PBS’s Washington Week, I was honored to have been featured on the site’s “Voice of the Voters” segment, where I explored the battleground state of Florida; a state for most candidates to gain serious ground in electoral numbers. No time was this more obvious than in the race for the White House.

With the latest discourse on what have been dubbed as “women’s issues” surging through the national, state and local levels, questions arose as to what mantras women voters were taking into the booths with them, and in particular, what young women were thinking prior to casting their ballots for the next President.

In the piece, I take a look into how female students at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg were considering “women’s issues” – health (birth control, abortion, rape) and social (education, workplace opportunity,  equal pay),  and how these issues were influencing their vote in the presidential election.

Be sure to check out the following piece just posted on Newsweek’s online portal, The Daily Beast (thedailybeast.com) – it outlines what artists are grappling with in terms of censorship [and therefore, an uncertainty about creative right to expression] in a post-Mubarak Egypt:

Egypt’s Artists Fear Censorship by Islamists

Also be sure to follow me on Twitter to catch all my latest findings on things Mid-East, Far-East and how the West Is Winning: @2worlds1eye

As I flip through the over-glossed pages of my magazines, shuffle the varied tunes on my iPod and scroll through the list of my DVR‘d shows (admittedly, most of them are guilty pleasures), it hits me like an excessively violent stroke of Picasso‘s brush: Art is a curious and glorious thing. It can be used to make a statement, raise awareness, spark conversation or controversy. It’s universally regarded in every culture and community as a means for expression – and whether it’s suppressed or encouraged, it always exists in some form or another. Hell, there’s even those who will argue that Mike Tyson‘s inked face constitutes a fine and classy example of it.

In the US, art doesn’t necessarily have to be associated with the surrounding political, social or religious atmosphere; and while there are plenty of expressions that align with and demonstrate a particular stance on the related culture, it still generally finds itself independent of such constraints. Which definitely explains how “Drunk Girls In Da Club” became a number one hit.

Egypt’s art, however – from films to music, books to television- has always managed to precisely reflect the pulse of its people. Up until the January 25th revolution, that pulse was more like a series of heart attacks; lending itself to songs, films and books that were plugged directly into the Egyptian psyche like Dr. Frankenstein’s lobotomy prep. The momentum of the uprising was immeasurable, but Egypt’s art world was doing it’s damnedest to capture it, and more importantly, to promptly deliver it to the people with the excited rush that comes with such revolutionary change.

Before Spring, Must Come … Answers?

Before the Arab Spring, movies, music and magazines became intimately intertwined into the Egyptian sub-culture, even going so far as being referenced in daily speech. The popular 1997 song “Kamanana” by Mohamed Fouad became so successful that the word – which literally means nothing – somehow became synonymous with the word “everything” (Egyptians now use the word often in daily slang). There’s even a cosmetic store in a Cairo mall actually called Kamanana – I’m guessing since Cleo’s MakeUp Shack was probably already taken. So, even amidst the turmoil and strife of the corrupt Mubarak regime, artists still found themselves able to connect with the people, and create relatable, palpable material for Egyptian society to enjoy.

In this way, the pre-revolutionary expression of Egyptian art was one of answers, where a beginning, middle and end was established in films, books and songs that lucidly revealed the people’s mindset of the moment. Now, there is such an uncertainty to where the country is going, artists are finding the inspiration isn’t flowing so freely. A writer’s block of sorts is surfacing amongst artists, where once easily emerging creativity isn’t being produced with the same fervor as it once was.

Finding An Open Chair Once the Music Stops

As opposed to the US and the West in general, where confusion and uncertainty themselves can be potent catalysts found within the heart of the art*, Egypt is now struggling to find its artistic identity post-Mubarak era. It seems that the “magic” of the revolution has dispelled – and what’s left behind is a list of unsavory words that Egypt’s artists are straining to incorporate into their creations. Turmoil, bloodshed, unrest, the compromising of women’s safety and general miscommunication are all found on that list, replacing words like change, hope and progress as inspirations to create fresh forms of expression. Even established artists and performers who participated in creating art pre-revolution (and during for that matter) are finding themselves challenged to grasp the elusive “pulse” that once pounded so steadily and clearly within Egyptian culture.

It appears that for Egyptian artists right now, the concepts of change, of hope and of progress are easier to use as muses than are those of unpredictability, disquiet and turbulence. Before and during the uprising, there was a clamor from all artistic realms to support the protests and excite the popular mindset into a frenzied mutiny for change. Street graffiti showcased statements of rebellion, while gallery exhibits in museums displayed past revolutionary art. It seemed everyone was riding the fantastical wave of dissent, and the tides were heartily flowing with plenty of inspiration to help plug art into Egyptian life and Egyptian life into its art.

The critically acclaimed short film Interior/Exterior by Tamer Habib, starring the celebrated Egyptian actress Yousra explores a middle-aged couple’s participation with the Tahir Square crowds – but that was before the revolution ended and the dust settled. Both Habib and Yousra claim to now be taking a break from any projects having to do with the revolution, and have reportedly distanced themselves from any works involving the subject matter.

The protest movement’s most popular song was written by the little known guitarist Ramy Essam, who also composed a series of chants and lines for the crowds to wail in the middle of the square. Now, with the unified assembly of men and women dissipating, the square is becoming a place of violence and hostility, and those chants are no longer the people’s calls to arms.

Published on January 17th, 2011, immediately before the start of the Tahir Square rebellion, Revolution 2.0, by Wael Ghonim chronicles the memoirs of the then-unknown Google geek who’s Facebook page helped energize the Jan. 25th protests and who was released from 11 days of interrogation by the secret police thanks to a public outcry for his freedom. That public’s adoration was due to Ghonim’s invigorating revolutionary charisma. With no clear leader to coalesce the masses in transition from upheaval to peaceful order, it seems – at the moment – like Revolution 3.0 doesn’t stand much of a chance to be pitched as a sequel.

Even dissident veteran singer Mohamed Mounir, considered by many to be the “Voice of Egypt”, is having trouble with the composition of his upcoming album. The songs don’t seem to come easily, he claims, as each day brings with it another point of view of what should be done, and another question about what lays ahead for Egypt. “How can we in the middle of the revolution sing and dance?” Mounir poses, revealing further how engrained and in tune many Egyptian artists seem to be with their people. “The true artist is the one who sees further than the people see,” he also claims – but it is precisely this philosophy that most artists are grappling with, and what could essentially be the only way to emerge from the uncertain storm that has strangled Egypt’s artistic life-force.

What Will Egypt Paint On Its Newly Blank Canvas?

Despite the [hopefully] temporary choke-hold on Egypt’s artistic realm, there are still those who are determined to trudge through the uncertain times ahead – even through experimental measures – and emerge creatively triumphant for it. Yousry Nasrallah, easily regarded as one of the country’s most revered directors, is countering the confusion by happily tapping directly into it. He’s shooting his next fictional film project and centralizing it around the revolution. But what makes this a unique venture in Egyptian filmmaking is that he’s doing it without a script; basically recording footage as he writes, and writing as he’s recording. The method sounds similar to shooting a documentary – which is a genre that’s creating international appeal – but what Nasrallah is proposing seems to be a fused creation that would be a new art form for a new Egypt. And what better way to rise from the ashes, then to allow the phoenix to fly, uninhibited.

If the West can offer anything to the uncertain course of re-birth that has enveloped Egypt, it should be that of the emergence of a reinvigorated artistic movement; one that values and capitalizes on the strength (and potency) of rebellion. It is precisely this energy that initially gathered the masses under the flag of change, and – if thoughtfully re-imagined and re-invented – can be exactly what unifies the people to transform hope for change into attainment of change.

*Recent US examples of both fiction and non-fiction works on film where political or social uncertainty are the underlying elements of the art:
Films: V for Vendetta; Fahrenheit 9/11; An Inconvenient Truth; Avatar; Inside Job; Waiting For Superman; Wall Street
Music: ‘Meglomanic’, by Incubus; ‘Do The Revolution’, by Pearl Jam; ‘Union’ by Black Eyed Peas; ‘Information’ by Dredg
Books: ‘Revolution and Revolutionary Moments’ by James Defranzo; ‘Waking Up Strange: Let’s Start A Revolution!’ by Christopher Rothlem
 

STREET ART: Graffiti on Cairo's walls (Getty Images)

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