By Nick Saunders

I recently completed a degree in applied theatre. Applied theatre is designed to educate and inform its audience, whilst also giving a voice and platform for its performers to express themselves. During my time on the degree I constantly shifted the focus of my work away from theatre and directed it towards film. Before coming to Warm Heart I already had some questions and ideas formed about the ethics, drawbacks and great potential of using film within an NGO.

I mulled over these questions and ideas as I looked at the Warm Heart YouTube channel which is full of videos created over the years by previous volunteers.  I was very interested in ascertaining whether or not the videos accurately and fairly portray the individuals and community depicted. Most of the videos are created in order to appeal for donations and support for Warm Heart and more specifically the children of Warm Heart.

An example of one of these videos can be seen on the Warm Heart Video channel.

In this video the specific voice and opinions of the filmmaker come through clearly. According to documentary filmmaker Kevin McDonald (Marley 2012, Touching the Void 2003), “Filmmakers shape the world in their own image,” a statement I strongly agree with. Although I personally did not make any appeal videos or any videos relating to the children, I did begin to notice some issues in creating this type of work.

The videos made by Warm Heart represent and speak for the community they operate in. When you are at Warm Heart, you share the lives and living conditions of the residents of Phrao.  Western volunteers generally make these films and inevitably express their own views which may be unfair, unethical or inaccurate. To avoid this danger, the filmmaker must try to fully understand and engross themselves in this new culture if they wish to most accurately portray it.

Films created by Warm Heart attempt to give a voice to a community that does not have the means of expressing themselves.  Whether the film is five minutes long or feature length, an audience trusts and assumes that the filmmaker is giving an honest insight which means that the filmmaker has a great responsibility towards the subject he or she is portraying.

With all these thoughts in mind, during my volunteering stint I tried to experience the culture and lifestyle at Warm Heart as openly and receptively as possible. I participated in many local activities, including funerals and house blessings. I tried as much of the local cuisine as I could handle, deep-fried frog being a particular high point!  But most of all, I tried to observe as much as possible and I did so with camera in hand.

Because of my intensive filmmaking duties on the biochar campaign, I haven’t had time yet to work on my own filmmaking. But I have endless footage of the various events and experiences which show the local community passionately engaging with Warm Heart and that highlight the vital need for the tireless work Warm Heart does. I hope to one day edit this footage into some insightful and people-focused films.

With all of these experiences now behind me, I feel I can better answer the ethical questions I had when I first arrived. The Warm Heart videos are designed to instill a certain emotion in the viewer, perhaps a feeling of compassion or injustice.  Whatever the filmmaker’s intention, I now believe their videos are fair and accurate and ethically represent this community.

The videos portray a community that is not wealthy in monetary terms but which has a wealth of caring and compassionate human beings who deserve to live without poverty and in a clean and healthy environment.  Unfortunately this is not the case which leads us back to the importance of the videos in helping to change the world in a positive way.

Just as applied theatre is designed to educate its audience through a format that is entertaining and engaging, applied filmmaking has the potential to do the same. I believe the films made by Warm Heart are important and deserve to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.  I’ve therefore put a lot of time and effort into making the YouTube channel more accessible and better formatted and hope someone can continue this work.

Most of all, I hope that ethical films can continue to be created that accurately portray the important work Warm Heart does in this special community.

If you wish to view any of the films I created during my time at Warm Heart they can be accessed here

(Nick Saunders recently completed a three-month stint at Warm Heart)