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Democracy--Caught on Tape

Of the 10 amendments that comprise the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights, the one that most Americans are likely to know--most red-blooded, TV-watching Americans--is the Fifth, which guarantees, among other things, that we cannot be compelled to witness against ourselves in a criminal case. Though most of us stand ready to "plead the Fifth," it's unlikely we'll ever utter those infamous words as answer to any question other than, "Did you seriously eat all the leftover pizza?" Assuming you manage to successfully avoid the justice system (or at least the inconvenient side of it), there's no amendment you should know or love more than the First, which guarantees freedom of speech, press, religion and petition. No other single amendment will have as much impact on your understanding of the world, the decisions you make and the life you ultimately lead.

"When we talk about the First Amendment," says Pan Left Productions Executive Director Elizabeth Burden, "there are several key things that are a part of that, of which access to being able to make media is as important as access to see it and the freedom to present it. What if I don't have a way of making something to get to the masses, or I can make it but not distribute it or cultivate an audience to see it? People making their own media with all this new technology brings free speech back to the way it was meant to be."

And "bringing free speech back to the way it was meant to be" would be an accurate, if somewhat clunky, motto for Pan Left Productions, a local, nonprofit media arts collective that was started 10 years ago by two then-UA media arts students--Jeff Imig and Lisa Wise--who were looking for ways to support media and progressive activists within the community.

"Mainstream media is becoming more centralized and more homogenous," says Burden, "and as that occurs, we're being fed more and more myths, fairy tales and lies. We feel that people making their own media provides an avenue to get real stories about real people out into the community. Our videos, whether through screenings or by making them available on the Web, are really about trying to turn television sets and computers into tools for social change. A documentary can be entertaining and informative and inspire people to act to make a difference in their community."

Pan Left's membership includes people as young as 14 and as old as 70, most of them without a background in film or media arts.

"What a collective really does is give people access to the tools of video-making, people whose stories are often left out of the mainstream media. We help tell the stories of low-income people, people of color, elderly people and others whose stories are rarely told. Someone comes to us with an idea for a video but without the background or know-how to do it themselves, and we provide the individual with informal training on how to use the camera, how to put together a good story in video format, the basics of shooting, the basics of editing, and then give them access to the equipment and mentoring to help them finish it."

Pan Left members, says Burden, come in two kinds: project members, who show up, do their project, then leave; and core members, who "stick around to mentor and work on their own special projects ... our core membership stays at about 20 people; our overall membership right now is about 40, and our friends and supporters are much larger than that. Some of the faces have changed over the years," Burden adds, "but the energy of the membership is always there and for the most part, when people become a member, they stay connected in some way, even if they move out of state. The beauty of Pan Left is that it existed for its first seven years as a primarily volunteer-driven organization, and it really still is that."

Pan Left receives grants from the Tucson Pima Arts Commission and the Community Foundation of Southern Arizona, and conducts its own fund-raising events to cover the gap. Their next event, Four More Years: Artists Respond to Bush, will run from 7 p.m. to midnight Saturday, Jan. 22, at Fractur'd Conceptz Studios (262 S. Plumer St.).

The event "isn't really designed to be an art happening," says Burden, "although it is video screenings plus visual arts, plus music, plus spoken-word. It's really in response to the inauguration; we see it as one of the counter-inaugural events happening in Tucson. The responses you'll see are both challenges to the Bush agenda as well as affirmations of community and community spirit.

"Within a democracy," Burden adds, "it is important for everyone to see and hear different points of view. That way, we can make informed choices about how we live, how we act, how we buy products, how we vote, how we are in the world. We have to hear to voices that we're not hearing in other places, especially in mainstream media. And it's as important for individuals to give voice to their story as it is for others to hear about it.

Doors open at 7 p.m. with music by DJ Francisco; a screening of 11 short videos (including Pan Left productions and videos by media activists with Brooklyn-based Rooftop Films) begins at 8 p.m.; spoken-word performances begin at 9:45 p.m.; and DJ Francisco returns at 10:45 p.m. Admission is $5; call 792-9171 for additional information.

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