On Auroville's 40th birthday more than a hundred photographers and twelve TV and film crews attended the bonfire. Facilitating the incoming numbers of media-persons visiting Auroville is the challenge for the Auroville OutreachMedia team.
Mauna has been with the team from the beginning: “OutreachMedia (then still simply called ‘Outreach') was formed more than ten years ago at the request of many residents to regulate the ‘nuisance' of the Press,” she says. “At that time filmcrews just wandered around. They would enter communities and put their cameras and microphones under the nose of everyone. Many people did not like this. The journalists were curious about Auroville, but did not know where to start.”
The OutreachMediateam. From left to right: Tim, Cecilia, Robert, Ann, and Mauna. (Not in photo: Fabienne, Tapas Bhatt and Vinodhini)
The OutreachMedia team is composed of Aurovilians who are multi-lingual and multi-cultural; some have a media-background in journalism or public relations, like Ann, Cecilia, Tapas, Tim and Robert, but there is also a lawyer in the team, Vinodhini. At the moment OutreachMedia is answerable to Auroville's Working Committee.
“OutreachMedia provide factual information on all aspects of Auroville. We try to ensure that the ideals of Auroville are respected by the visiting media, as The Mother has clearly expressed that there should be no publicity,” says coordinator Fabienne. “We receive many requests from national TV channels wanting to promote Auroville for tourism. It is not always easy to convince them that the township is not a holiday spot or for day trippers!”
For print media journalists, the first step is to contact OutreachMedia. Nowadays this mostly happens through email. The team provides information to the journalist on the steps to be taken and connects them with the key people in the fields of the journalist's interest. For television or film crew the situation is more complex. While the Indian crew only need filming permission from the Auroville Foundation (which goes through OutreachMedia), foreign filmmakers, in addition, need to follow the procedures required by the Government of India to film in India. In addition they need to provide a full synopsis of their film, obtain a recommendation from the Indian Embassy in their country, with full details of the filming crew, and submit this to the Indian Government, through the Auroville Foundation.
On the day before Auroville's birthday, an early press team arrives to document preparations at the Amphitheatre
OutreachMedia not only facilitates the logistics of the arrival and stay of the journalists and film makers, but also assists in shaping the film's scenario and introducing the crew to relevant parties. Because of financial constraints, crews rarely come beforehand to prepare the ground. Outreach-Media's logistical support helps the team to start shooting from day one, accompanied by a member of the team who shows them around. Aurovilians, OutreachMedia notices, feel more confident to talk about their work or personal experience knowing OutreachMedia has done some pre-screening.
But the services from Outreach-Media do not come for free. “We must keep the service unit rolling,” says co-coordinator Cecilia. “We have expenses, that's why we ask a contribution from the journalists. Of course we try not to charge poor film students for example, who may have no production company or television-stations behind them.”
A contribution is also being asked when magazines ask for photographs in high resolution. With Auroville's professional photographers, the team wants to set up a databank of images. “It is only fair that they also are being paid for their work.”
Another question that constantly comes up is how to protect Auroville's integrity while being open to media. Cecelia says: “We think there need to be some guidelines that would regulate the service we are offering. The question is how we can do that without being perceived as ‘censors' by the outside media.”
Sometimes OutreachMedia has to manage the chaos from over-zealous press attention. Fabienne gives the example of the bonfire on Auroville's 40th birthday that was such an occasion. “To meet the demand for filming and photographing the event, and to prevent disturbance to the thousands of visitors attending the ceremony, we arranged a high, partitioned section in the amphitheatre. And this was much appreciated by the press though, it was perceived to be restrictive by Auroville's professional photographers.”
Recently the team held their first meeting for the Tamil Press. A PowerPoint presentation by governing board member Ameeta Mehra was shown and the journalists were informed about the ‘why' of Auroville. A panel of Aurovilians was available, each member a specialist on topics such as village relations, governance, education, economics, town planning and land purchase. Fabienne says: “It was quite successful and for days after the meeting there was a stream of positive reporting about Auroville in the local papers.”
Mauna says that after all these years she still enjoys showing the press-people around. “You work for five or seven days very closely together with visiting journalists and film-makers and this creates a bond. Sometimes years later you still receive emails, interesting articles or a photo.
“But the work is not always easy. For instance when a journalist, seeing all this gold on the Matrimandir, or the many photos of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo all over Auroville, asks how he can explain to his readers that Auroville is not a sect. Answering such a question needs some insight and definitely sharpens the mind.”
Photo credit: Photo Giorgio