Let's just say the subject matter of the Sex Workers Arts Festival last November got under the collar of some of Tucson's less-than-open-minded residents. Despite successfully screening videos the year before, Pan Left Productions had to navigate the mainstream media circus that caused such a stink for their second festival.
KGUN News 9 cocked their pistols. The rest of the local yokels sent their blindfolded reporters to sniff out a "story." CNN even showed up. Elizabeth Burden, Pan Left's executive director for the past two years and the media collective's only paid staff member, stepped into the middle of the ring and diplomatically iced the pinched nerves.
"In the best of all worlds, we wouldn't need an organization like Pan Left," says Burden. "But we're up against this conglomeration of media outlets all knee-jerking like crazy. To just stand by and do nothing is a problem."
Pan Left collected itself together nearly 10 years ago, launched by two energetic graduates of UA's Media Arts department--Lisa Wise and Jeff Imig, both of whom are still involved in the media collective.
"Certainly part of the reason Pan Left has persisted and stuck to our ideals is the stubbornness of a group of people," says Imig. "But it's bigger and deeper than that. Tucson has a history of dynamic artistic expression and especially progressive political action."
Adds Burden: "Plus, people need a place to come together and feel a sense of belonging." "And video is just one form of story telling. A lot of us use it as a vehicle to find our voice and tell our stories from our own perspective."
There's a core group of producers cranking out projects. Currently, Pan Left has 10 works in production, plus independent videos they lend support to--the greatest number of works in progress in the collective's history. Maybe it's due to the fact that, now more than ever, anyone can grab a camera and dump the footage into user-friendly Final Cut Pro to produce their video.
"But the progressive movement in Tucson has been very successful at building coalitions," offers Imig as another reason the organization is still around and now on such a production curve. "Pan Left was born of this movement. We came out of the progressive, artist, working-class, feminist, gay liberation movement, and we've remained there. The desire to express personal and political stories that may otherwise be ignored or forgotten is a powerful driving force."
Burden sees Pan Left continuing to play a dual role. "People join us with stories to tell who need access to equipment and some help getting started. But we also take the stories generated by other groups and match them with the right media makers. So, for example, our collaboration with Coalicion de Derechos Humanos resulted in the documentary, Border Crossings/Cruzando Fronteras."
There's no shortage of events and political issues to mold into a documentary or narrative feature--or even an experimental hybrid. Pan Left's mission, says Burden, is to educate the public.
"Our collective members are working on videos about labor issues, environmental rights and justice. But they're also exploring border and human rights violations as well as voices outside the mainstream--women, gay people, transgendered folks."
She adds that political events this spring provided not only a wealth of material for media makers to address, but also conventional media coverage to react against.
"A couple of our members, who are also working with the Arizona Independent Media Center--Sonya Diehn and Jeremia Burnett--went up to Phoenix for an anti-Bush demo, and there happened to be an evangelists' event going on simultaneous to the protest. It was so funny; one of the evangelists yelled out to the anti-Bush protesters, 'What's wrong with you, you full of the devil?' That just had to be the title of their video."
Burden says Full of the Devil is one result of what happens when you hold up a camera and join the video revolution.
"Video-making is about bearing witness. With so many things happening in our world today, it shows the power of what's really happening, what people are doing and thinking and feeling."
Pan Left producers get a twice-yearly showcase for their work. Feature This! screens the local labors of love. This year, the nonprofit collective stepped in to help organize the eighth annual Wingspan Film Festival--four days of films, videos and panel discussions focused on the LGBT community here and internationally.
"There's a bazillion stories to be told and lots of room for telling them. It only expands the audience's appetite," explains Burden.
Pan Left helps people with the craft of getting nascent ideas onto screen. They also dispel the myth that working in a collective is impossible.
"The challenges are less internal than external," Burden offers. "Funders are used to a conventional, hierarchical structure. To explain that our members make decisions and that the board answers to them--not the opposite--is baffling to them sometimes."
She adds that her own challenge is to walk the talk. "For me, as the only paid staff, it's sometimes difficult to enact the organizational process that I've been advising other nonprofits and collectives to follow."
While media-making technology has gone democratic in recent years--small cameras to capture footage and software and computers to churn out a polished video are quite affordable--Burden acknowledges that anyone can make a film.
"Yes, you can do it individually, even distribute it on your own Web site, and there's value in that. But Pan Left brings people together. We want to share that. And maybe there's even a greater synthesis once you do that.
"Everything's moving so quickly--political events, but also the quality and speed of technology and the equipment used to make media. There's this combination of our current political administration and people really feeling under represented. Coming together as a group can help address these struggles."
Pan Left's collective ethos culminates in several festivals this coming year. There's another Feature This! planned for the fall, and in March, it's the ninth Wingspan Film Festival. Sometime later in 2004, Pan Left launches a multi-day, 10-year anniversary festival.
They're sure to be the best progressive, collective, witness-bearing shows on Earth.