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Alternative View

Five years after it ceased production, the Undercurrents video activist network is back.

The Guardian, 21 April 2004

Just over 10 years ago, when affordable camcorders were still a novelty, a small group of people - describing themselves as "a couple of frustrated TV producers and a handful of environmental activists" - set up an experimental media project from a bedroom in north London. Calling themselves Small World Media, they wanted to use their film skills to capture stories they believed mainstream media was missing.

To do so, they began to "embed" film-makers among Britain's burgeoning direct action scene. Back came coverage of the campaigns to prevent the building of the M11 link road and the Salisbury bypass, including footage of evictions and illegal arrests. Other reports covered the opposition to the criminal justice bill, police clampdowns on open-air raves, and villagers trying to stop their common land being turned into a golf course.

From 1993 to 1999, Small World produced 10 video compilations, which they called "Undercurrents". The project was born out of a frustration that, despite a huge upswelling of direct action and radical politics in Britain throughout the 1990s, very little of it seemed to be covered adequately on television news or in the press.

Undercurrents created a network of camcorder activists, providing support and media training, setting up a "grassroots protest video archive" with more than 1,000 hours of footage, printing its own "video activist handbook", and releasing video after video of alternative news. Within a few years of its inception, it was getting glowing reviews in the very mainstream press it scorned, winning international awards for its videos and blazing a trail for alternative news reporting that continues to this day.

In 1999, Small World stopped production of its compilation videos and concentrated instead on its website, media training, community projects and producing specialist documentaries. Now, though, its alternative news video is back, in the form of the newly-founded Undercurrents News Network (UNN), which was launched at the beginning of this month.

With political dissent and accompanying protest more widespread now than at any time since Undercurrents' heyday in the mid-1990s, it seems a timely relaunch. Zoe Broughton, one of UNN's co-producers, says: "There are a huge number of little video activist cells and alternative film-makers out there, many of them doing a very professional job. The quality of film is stunning, but the problem is the distribution of it. That's where we come in."

The media world into which UNN arrives is very different from that of a decade ago. A plethora of "alternative" news sources has sprung up, prompted by the growth of the internet. The most widespread is Indymedia, an international network of almost 100 websites that showcases the kind of activist writing, filming and reporting pioneered by Undercurrents. In other words, the marketplace for "alternative news" is a crowded one.

Perhaps this is one reason why the revamped Undercurrents looks much slicker than it used to. Gone are the shaky cameras, poor sound quality and dubious editing; instead, the new Undercurrents is a slick mix of news reportage, short films, cartoons and even songs. From The Meatrix, an anti-factory farming cartoon, to the story of how Harvard students ran a successful campaign of direct action against their own university to force it to increase the wages paid to its cleaning staff, Undercurrents seems to have lost none of its verve for telling stories that you won't see on TV. It is also clear that, as before, this is partisan journalism, with its head held high.

Undercurrents plans to produce three video compilations a year and show them at a rolling programme of public screenings, as well as selling videos directly through its website. Ninety per cent of the material on the first video has been made and sent in by film collectives around the world - outfits as varied as a Croatian feminist collective and an American student body - and this is the way its creators intend it to continue. How successful the project is now will depend on how much of an appetite there is out there for alternative news.

For more information, see www.undercurrents.org/unn.