Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Love Letter to the Latest Training

We recently returned from Ukraine due to recent visa issues, but prior to that trip Ashley and I were able to attend the most recent worldwide training meeting. I find the concept of these trainings to be fascinating and extremely promising, though I must admit that the execution up to now has caused me frustration and disappointment.

I gladly reemphasize, however, the phrase "up to now."

This training, which focused mainly on the importance of family from a doctrinal as well as pragmatic standpoint, was a significant shift from previous attempts. The training from two years ago was quoted in our stake for at least a year — or at least Elder Bednar's talk in the training was. That talk was even cited indirectly in this year's training. From a "true doctrine, understood" perspective, the previous trainings have been insightful and, in due measure, effective in "changing behavior better than the study of behavior." However, from a formal standpoint I have found the grammar retroactive and counterproductive to the goals of such trainings. I thought this a good place to outline the differences and the effects of those formal changes.

The largest difference, noticeable to the the most lay of viewers was the obvious time difference. This training, though broadcast 'live' from Salt Lake on Saturday, stated that President Hinckley was the living Prophet of our times. This was, as stated by president Holland at the end of the broadcast, due to translating needs so that the worldwide broadcast could more easily and more effectively reach the church members in more than 80 languages (I believe the number to be 89 currently). I used to be a translator for the church for a number of years and I had the occasion to interpret one of the first such trainings without any text. I can assure you that the results were not pretty. I'm sure it could have been worse, but no membership of the church deserves that just because they don't speak English fluently. So that was a VERY welcomed change in my (and, I assume, the majority of the Church population's) opinion. So first of all, the translation was made easier, but this change signals two more important changes.

The first of the two is that there was a larger focus on the differing cultures that this broadcast was intended to reach. Aside from the first two speakers (Elder Holland followed by Elder Packer — the then 'acting' president of the 12 — both comprising less than 20 minutes together) and the addition of President Monson's address as Prophet (which was around 5 minutes), the 2 hour broadcast consisted fully of a panel discussion with three women and two men (Elders Holland and Oaks as well as the presidents of the three female-headed auxiliaries). Elder Oaks made the remark to describe their comments that "We are general officers, so we are making general comments" and acknowledged that there are always extenuating circumstances and cultural differences. Likewise, Elder Holland, quite surprisingly, added that to some cultures it may seem inappropriate to sit on a panel and speak openly with women, but that this is the way that the church should be operating. He said this with specific application to Ward and Branch councils. I thought the comment was especially sensitive, and posed options that I for one had not considered. However, he attributed the policy to a 'Gospel Culture,' whereas I might have attributed it to a current western, upper-middle class mentality (which is not to say that it is not the way that the church needs to function, but I find nothing about those procedures in the "Gospels" as I understand the word). He is the Apostle, however, and I am not. The point is that this broadcast, more than any other in my knowledge, was aware of a non-American church. These are problems touching nearly every culture I know of where the church is prominent. Though it is as large a problem in Utah valley as anywhere else, the shift to being aware of other cultures was extremely welcome here in Poland where an American working temporarily in the Polish-American Embassy just replaced a Polish district president (the developing church's equivalent to a stake president).

The second of the two important changes is the one I find most interesting and fulfilling. the delay in time allowed for more than just translation, as Elder Holland suggested. The previous trainings have caused me deep sorrow and even slight anger due to their formal language. The 'trainings' were structured and filmed like infomercials. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, they are the paid television programming designed to look like a daytime show, when their real aim is to sell an otherwise obscure product. The camera angles, the camera distancing, the pacing, the audience reaction shots, the scene length and macro-structure, but above all, the canned "informative" dialogue that is meant to sound improvisational. All of this has previously been too distracting to me to get anything doctrinal from these trainings. I will oppose anyone at anytime who suggests that the gospel of Jesus Christ is something to be 'sold.' I don't know that I wouldn't have been more offended by logo placement in the background. It might have been something else if these trainings had been for a non-believing membership, like the Conference Center films, but the audience here is not only membership but church leadership. However all of that changed in this last training.

The camera was on a constant medium shot for the speakers, as opposed to alternating between three separate camera angles and varying distances that we are all used to for General Conference. I found the stasis refreshing (partly, I'm sure, due to the fact that our daughter was dancing in the dark on my lap as the first two speakers addressed us). I found myself feeling confronted and challenged by what they were saying rather than being lulled into what they where saying during Conference.

For the round-table discussion there was one camera with a master shot of all the participants (and, as far as I can tell, this camera varied that position twice for a tighter frame on three of the participants), and a camera in medium shot on each person at the table. Aside from a few odd zooms and slight pans, I didn't pick up any camera movement whatsoever. How refeshing this was. What a discovery! That there is no need for any camera movement because it is meant to be pure dialogue. Why try to hide it? Did someone at the communications department discover Ozu this year? Let us hope that it's true.

There was no selling whatsoever. There were no forced statements formally or doctrinally. So what did the delay give us? It gave the editing team quite a bit more leeway and freedom to construct and edit something that otherwise has been extremely scripted and canned. The format of the conversation appears to have been far more conversational and spur-of the moment. The presentation of the conversation, however, was crisper, clearer, and more cohesive than even the scripting of the previous trainings could have been. Though the form allowed for tangents and slight diversions, there was no dead time in this broadcast. Any lulls or awkwardness where two or more people might have been talking on top of one another where beautifully edited out. Now, instead of dead, boring, or uninspired (uninspiring) exposition for the duration of the conversation, the dialogue consisted of stories, anecdotes, and surprising scripture references that were personal and actually meant something to those saying them. If nothing else, we were again reminded that general officers of the church are called to such positions because of their spiritual maturity and their abilities to serve, love and teach the general body of the church and not for their acting ability or their selling talents. I can't say enough about this new change.

Kiarostami reminded us that profundity is to be found in cliché, but this training reminds us that we must be very careful which clichés we embody: nothing that is canned can be led by the Spirit. Do we agree on this? Can it be any other way? Likewise, our church has no business, I assert, speaking in a language created for financial gain. There is no room for that.

Ionesco stated that there are some world views so complex that they cannot be expressed in any other way than through plays, or essentially dialogue. The creators of infomercials are well aware of a perversion of this concept: that they have more convincing power when two people are talking and they are both convinced ("Isn't that right, Bob?" "Yes, that's exactly right, Alan." or "I can't believe its true! 2 knives for the price of 1!?" "Yes, you've got it, Bob, 2 knives for the price of 1!"). But this last training on the family seemed to me to get it right. The most complex concepts were saved for the table. They talked about idealized versions of romance as well as harsh realities of the need for work in marriage. There was an exciting balance between pragmatics and idealizations while making room for exceptions. Though the stories were often centered in an American Bourgeoisie background, there were many encouraging things said about single women and widows and broken homes.

Needless to say, I can't wait to see what further step the Communications department will take next.


whitney said...

I'm not familiar with these training films, but what you're talking about reminds me (really vaguely) of this movie we watched yesterday in class called Blue by Derek Jarman. Are you familiar with this one? Basically, it's just a projected blue screen the entire time that forces you to pay ultra-attention to the dialogue and poetry in the film. Jarman made it as he was going blind from AIDS. I thought you might be interested in it as a form of religious film.

Trevor said...

I've not yet caught up with Blue, but I have read a great deal about it, however I didn't know that it was because he was going blind. If you know how to view a copy, let me know. I am also really excited to read it as a religious film.

Second Run out of the UK just released Black Sun by Gary Tarn which is a movie he made after he went blind.

)en said...

Trevor, this was great. I, too, thought the broadcast was really great and inspiring. I only caught the last hour though.. the round table+. But yeah, it was very refreshing and i loved the format, the "candor" (you know, since it was scripted to some degree, right?) etc.

I really like this bit from your post:

"I found myself feeling confronted and challenged by what they were saying rather than being lulled into what they where saying during Conference."

So great, and so true. Lulled... ha.

Anonymous said...

I really appreciated your analysis of the recent worldwide training meeting. I don't know how conscious participants or audience members are about form--the discussion format or the filming techniques--but I'm sure that everyone sense that things worked better, and you helped us to understand why. Keep up the good work!