Somber music plays as the camera slowly pans the base of a cement wall. The music continues as shots of barbed wire and watchtowers reveal a landscape ravaged by strife. The visuals unfold, exposing miles of land bisected by the wall as a voice-over explains why it's there and what it means-an explanation likely to infuriate some and satisfy others.
The name of the film is Wall of Shame, a documentary about the wall being built by the Israeli government on the West Bank to keep out Palestinian insurgents. The film is a product of the group Alternate Focus, a San Diego nonprofit organization that produces films interested largely in Middle East issues. The group's founders are an amalgam of religions: Christian, Jewish and Muslim. Fed up with what they describe as the blatant bias of mainstream media, especially when it comes to reporting on foreign affairs, Alternate Focus is the end result of their desire to "tell the other side of the story." However, the crux of their work is to draw attention to all Middle East issues that are overlooked in mainstream American news. These voices include Iraqis, Israelis, Palestinians and Americans of Middle Eastern origin who have experienced discrimination and civil-rights violations while living in the U.S.
Ed Sweed, one of the founders of Alternate Focus, is a vivacious retired school principal. The way he sees it, the documentaries produced by Alternate Focus are "just the means to an end. The end is to disseminate out to the receptive mind a new look at Middle Eastern issues. The goal is the education of the American mind."
The producers consider it their duty to speak only for those they advocate. As a result, most documentaries are deliberately one-sided. For example, Right to Return, a 30-minute documentary about the contested right of Palestinians to return to their homes in Israel, is told only from a Palestinian perspective. The bulk of the footage contains interviews with only two men, one a Palestinian refugee and the other a spokesperson for al-Awda, a group dedicated to helping displaced Palestinians return to their homes. Likewise, two of the three interviews in Wall of Shame-one with a young activist with the International Solidarity Movement and the other with a Palestinian attorney-contain highly inflammatory language against Israelis that include terms such as "colonial expansion," "fascists," "isolation cage" and "imprisonment." Within the film there is no attempt to explore Israeli sentiments about the wall or the motivations behind its construction.
Ultimately, it takes a responsible viewer to constantly remind him or herself that, according to the Alternate Focus mantra, they are watching a film that is intentionally biased-they aren't meant to be learning the whole story. Theoretically, viewers are supposed to understand that they're simply being exposed to voices that have been stifled by the political and economic powers that be.
Not all the films could be considered divisive. Gandhi in Jerusalem is essentially an interview with two men, an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Muslim. Far from being enemies, they belong to an international group called Parent's Circle that brings together relatives of victims on both sides of the Israel/Palestine conflict in an effort to reach peace and understanding. Unified by a shared loss of family members to the violence between the two countries, the subjects of the film represent the possibility of peace.
Other films speak to issues far removed from the Israel/Palestine conflict. Wrong Turn in America tells the story of an Egyptian immigrant living in San Diego who, on his way to a painting job in Oceanside, accidentally turned off at Camp Pendleton. He was imprisoned for more than a year and eventually deported. Amy Goodman: Alternative Media are the Message is footage of a speech that Goodman, of Democracy Now!, gave in San Diego in October 2004. The Empire Strikes Out looks at the war in Iraq, examining the history of the region and points to American oil interests as a likely motivation for war.
Comparisons to Michael Moore and his Fahrenheit 9/11 are inevitable when talking about documentary filmmakers of this genre, and the producers take it in stride.
"We don't mind being compared to Michael Moore," said Andy Trimlett, an Alternate Focus volunteer. "Although his only focus is on Iraq and we look at the entire Middle East, we share many of the same goals. But our stuff isn't as gimmicky as his."
Alternate Focus began two years ago when Sweed sought a meaningful way to nurture his passion for filmmaking. After helping a UCSD professor with a film about local labor issues-a film that was shown on local public-access television-Sweed's vision for Alternate Focus began to take shape.
"I filed this idea away that political people can use cable for free," he said. "Bypass the newspapers; tell the story your own way. Everything is uncensored in terms of political content. I became interested in Middle Eastern politics and began to think of focusing my video inclination into Middle Eastern issues."
In this heady time of "homeland security," Alternate Focus has received no government attention-though that's not to say that somewhere, in some underground government office, there's not a secret Alternate Focus file. In the meantime, public-access television continues to offer them a legitimate means of exercising their right to free speech.
Nina Ghannam, president of Imagine Life, a nonprofit organization that produces public-service announcements about human-rights issues, collaborates with Alternate Focus.
"Alternate Focus [has] the unique opportunity to reach out to local residents, to basically be able to educate them, to give them a deeper understanding of these issues, without having to pay $700 a minute," she said.
Ghannam pays that amount to broadcast her PSAs on Fox, ABC and MTV to reach those networks' bigger audiences. But at that level, censorship is absolutely unavoidable, she said.
"When we air the PSAs on major networks, there is definitely censorship," she said. "Certain things can or cannot be shown regardless of the truth. It can be controversial talking about anything that is often left out of the story."
Sweed spent a year searching for like-minded colleagues who could help make his vision a reality. He met George Nasser, a real-estate businessman and Palestine-born Christian who took on the role of business manager and liaison to the local Arab community. Nasser introduced Sweed to Al Maaz, a broadcast entrepreneur and Lebanese Muslim, who provided the group with an editing facility and contacts with the Arab community in the Middle East. Six months after Alternate Focus got started, British-born Christian John Odam joined the group as the website designer, principal videographer and artistic editor.
"It took about six months of meeting and organizing before we were actually on the air," Sweed said. "When you go to Time Warner [cable], you need to have a supply of shows in the pipeline. We wanted to be there year in and year out, so we had to have a plan for a whole supply of shows.
"The deadlines are relentless," he added. "Once you start, you never rest. "Where are the next four shows?' That never ends. You need more and more people each doing shows simultaneously."
It soon became clear that in order to keep producing new material on a weekly basis, they were going to need a bigger production team.
Sweed posted a link to Alternate Focus on the alternative-news website Indymedia.org and tapped in to a contingent of energetic, educated people in their 20s, most of whom work in the service industry but who also have a passion for politics or filmmaking-or both.
"It seemed like Alternate Focus was doing something that very few groups were doing," said Aaron Seeley, a 25-year-old Alternate Focus volunteer who holds a bachelor's degree in global studies and works at Trader Joe's. "PBS is not fulfilling its mission, and hardly any other truly alternative voices exist out there. Broadcasting on public access, you don't have to worry about censorship. To be able to tell the kinds of stories and explore the kinds of topics that I can with Alternate Focus could take years if I went the conventional route by working in television or newspaper journalism.
"I think it's great that I am just another average guy that works at the grocery store," he added, "but from my little tiny bedroom I can produce a show from start to finish that can now be seen in eight cities and might eventually be seen nationwide. There aren't too many other ways for the little guy to take on the big guy, but if we can just chip away at him, it's very rewarding."
Other volunteers echoed Seeley's sentiments.
"Everything I learned while getting my master's degree [in Middle Eastern studies] was shocking when I compared what I was learning with what the national media was telling everyone," Trimlett recalls. "I realized that American policies are so bad and misguided because nobody has the information to make better decisions."
Trimlett, 26, also worked at Trader Joe's before Maaz hired him to be an assistant at his broadcasting company.
Sweed says the idealism expressed by his young volunteers has been a significant component in Alternate Focus' success. They usually have 8 to 10 volunteers on staff at a time.
"These kids are already activists, and we're teaching them a lot of technical and organizational skills. When we get too old for this, we have a group of people who can pick up the gauntlet and carry it forward."
Nobody gets paid for the work they do for Alternate Focus. But for now the volunteers are content to sustain themselves in service jobs.
"If we got a million-dollar grant, then I could have a real job with Alternate Focus," Seeley mused. "That would be ideal. It's hard to say for sure what I want to do next in life, but I do like working with Alternate Focus because it allows me to do what I do best."
Even with the additional assistance of the volunteers, the crunch to come up with new material on a weekly basis can be apparent in the quality of the documentaries. While each 30-minute film is packed with information, the presentation is often difficult to process mentally. For example, in Wall of Shame, UCSD economics professor James Rauch lectures the camera for interminable stretches of time, referencing treaties and historical resolutions that the average viewer likely knows little about. And, to meet looming weekly deadlines, some programs are simply a 30-minute speech by a congressman or activist, or someone from the Middle Eastern community talking about their life. Other films, however, are more polished and include multiple sources, graphics and footage from the heart of the action.
Ultimately, Alternate Focus' success depends on whether their films can grab the attention of a channel-surfing cable-TV watcher. People either have to be regular public-access watchers or become immediately engaged as they flip through the channels. But when it comes to the demographics of their audience, the producers can only speculate.
"I'd love to know how many people are watching," admits Sweed, "but you can't quantify feedback. It is a disadvantage that cable provides us no figures about audience. I can't tell you if 50, 500, or 5,000 people watch the show each week."
Broadcasting on public access, then, seems both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it's a low-cost, uncensored medium with the potential to reach thousands of viewers. But how many people watch public access TV on a regular basis?
"Part of the problem is that public access has such a bad rep, and deservedly so, because most of what's on it is crap," acknowledges Seeley. "Public access is like wine in a box. It's not that boxed wine sucks; it's not the box's fault that the wine is bad. If you put good wine in a box, it's still great and it has a lot of advantages. Public access is a channel like any other channel-it just has a history of very bad programming, and we're trying to change that."
Cox public-access coordinator Ken Shwarz, whose job it is to screen all public-access programming for pornography and financial solicitations, believes that Alternate Focus productions could set the bar for a new kind of public-access programming.
"We have ethnic programming, but Alternate Focus is unique in its niche," Shwarz said. "Technically, it is very well done, and the quality of the shows is definitely above the curve."
To expand its viewing audience, Alternate Focus must find people in other cities willing to sponsor the show. Jennifer Green, who lives in Long Island, already sponsors her own show on public access. While searching online one day, she found Alternate Focus' website. She said she's an advocate for more coverage of Middle East issues, so she encouraged a friend to sponsor Alternate Focus.
"Sponsoring a time slot means you reside in the viewing area and you fill out an application," Green said. "It's free, and you are entitled by law to control a time slot on public access. You secure a time slot with which you can do anything you want," she explained. Alternate Focus then sends over videotapes that the sponsor takes over to their local public-access station.
Two national human rights organizations, Imagine Life and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, plan to sponsor Alternate Focus in New York and Washington, D.C. And, in August, Alternate Focus shows will air weekly on a new satellite-TV channel called Free Speech TV.
Jim Basili, a board member of the New York branch of the ADC, said Middle Easterners living in the U.S. often have problems adjusting to life here. Alternate Focus programs speak to those issues.
Innovations in digital technology that have made filmmaking accessible to the average consumer provides further incentive for other groups to seize this opportunity to reach out to people. Digital cameras are relatively affordable, user-friendly and can produce professional-looking results. Editing is made easy with computer programs like Final Cut Pro and Premiere. Sweed and Seeley both do the editing for Alternate Focus out of their bedrooms.
"I think there's definitely room for people to produce their own local stories and get them out there," Seeley said. "There's a need for more sources of information because the more and more that mainstream media consolidates itself, the less information we're all going to have. If we have to counter that one crappy bedroom at a time, we'd better get going."The Korova Coffee Bar in University Heights, 4496 Park Blvd., will screen Alternate Focus programs on Friday, June 24, beginning at 7 p.m.