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Miramar Works Both Sides of the Digital Divide:
A Video Studio with a Social Conscience
By Stephanie Rapp
Move over, multimedia gulch. There's another hub for digital production in town, and it's right here in Noe Valley.
Located on Church at 29th Street, documentary producer Studio Miramar is riding the crest of the digital wave. For over a decade, Miramar has been at the forefront of the movement to combine video and computers as a media tool, one with the potential to highlight issues of equality and social justice.
Husband and wife David Bolt and Sue Ellen McCann founded Miramar, named after the street they were living on, in 1990. "There was no need for us to be in multimedia gulch," says Bolt. After losing their Potrero Hill lease, Bolt and McCann moved to Noe Valley in 1998. It was an easy decision for Bolt, who had fond memories of the neighborhood from his brief stint as a resident in 1980.
Though he notices the dramatic gentrification that has occurred in his almost-two-decade absence, he thinks the neighborhood still retains its unique character.
"We love being here in this part of Noe Valley," Bolt says. "Everything we need is right here." Many of Miramar's nonprofit clients prefer to take public transportation, and the J-Church stops right outside the studio's door.
The staff also appreciates the community of media professionals who call Noe Valley home. "San Francisco generates an independent film community that is recognized throughout the country," Bolt says with pride.
Studio Miramar has been the source of dozens of projects that focus on themes of participatory democracy. Its most recent production, a four-part PBS series titled Digital Divide: Technology and Our Future, aired nationally in January and locally on KQED in March.
Bolt is executive producer of the documentary, which examines the chasm between those with computer skills and access to technology and those without. The divide between the information haves and have-nots is growing, he says, and it often splits along racial, economic, educational, and gender lines.
For example, white Americans are twice as likely to have access to the Internet from home as are African Americans or Hispanics from any location. Households with incomes of $75,000 or more are nine times more likely to have a computer at home and 20 times more likely to have access to the Internet than those at the lowest income levels.
The series, which focuses on children, questions the widely held belief that technology is the great social leveler, an issue that is particularly relevant in the Bay Area, the nexus for the high-tech revolution. It also spotlights the importance of training teachers in the use of computers, and explores some innovative programs that are doing just that.
Bolt says that although the divide might seem insurmountable, there are many ways that individuals can work to increase access for students and young people. He suggests volunteering at public schools, to enable them to keep their computer facilities open after hours.
Bolt also encourages people to find out where their closest computer technology center (CTC) is. "The Boys and Girls Club in the Mission has an ongoing program, as do local YWCAs, the NAACP, and the Urban League," he offers.
"We try to encourage adults to share how much computers have changed their work lives. Young people learn that it is not just about becoming computer programmers. Every profession has been transformed by the digital revolution."
Narrated by rap star Queen Latifah, Digital Divide took three years to create, from initial funding to national broadcast. Bolt and McCann began circulating the proposal for the documentary in 1997 and won backing from the Independent Television Service (ITVS) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The original program is four hours long; Miramar had to edit the film down to a two-hour version for KQED, although many stations decided to air the piece in its entirety.
Making video documentaries is an inherently collaborative process, involving dozens of people in writing, production, fundraising, and editing. The core Miramar team includes Bolt, McCann, Colleen Wilson, Marissa Vitello, and Gretchen Stolje. For the Digital Divide series, they worked with literally hundreds of contractors and consultants.
Wilson moved to San Francisco to work on Digital Divide. Canine-friendly Noe Valley appeals to Wilson, who brings her dog to work with her. According to Wilson, documentaries are often about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. "A good documentary requires the filmmaker to have rapport with the subjects and an ability to tell a compelling story."
Right now, Bolt is raising money to continue outreach efforts on behalf of the series. With the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ford Foundation, Bolt is able to take the year off from making films to promote the program.
But Digital Divide is much more than a television show. It has spawned a book, co-written by Bolt, who will be going on a book tour later this year. It also has been a catalyst for community events and forums around the country. In San Francisco, educational events were held at KQED, San Francisco State University, and the children's technology museum Zeum.
Bolt and his team are launching a follow-up series, which will explore the impact of the digital divide on adults. The first episode will cover workforce development. "In the future, everyone, from cutting-edge programmers to the average Joe or Jane, will need to repeatedly acquire new skills," he maintains.
Bolt was working at the George Lucas Educational Foundation when he and McCann decided to found Miramar. They started out producing projects for nonprofit groups, but soon shifted to creating their own projects.
The Digital Divide series was a natural outgrowth of Bolt and McCann's background, as well as their son's interests.
"Our son grew up on the right side of the digital divide," Bolt says. His exposure to computers and technology began at Lowell High School. He then studied computer science at U.C. San Diego.
Bolt's own past jobs included a stint as vice president of technology at the California College of Arts and Crafts. As executive director of the Bay Area Video Co-alition, he pioneered a program teaching people how to use digital technology to produce short pieces for local nonprofits.
McCann, now on sabbatical from Miramar while working as an executive producer at KQED, has produced documentaries for the television series Frontline. Her credits include Global Dumping Ground, Little Criminals, and The Best Campaign Money Can Buy.
Issues of social justice remain at the core of Studio Miramar. While the studio does have a few commercial clients, including Sprint and Lockheed, its clients are primarily nonprofit organizations.
Bolt has documented an indigenous irrigation project in the Himalayas for the Food and Agricultural Organization and taught journalists in Nepal to create their own environmental television series, today one of the most highly rated programs in the nation. A less exotic but equally important project was creating educational kiosks about HIV transmission among African-American men.
Studio Miramar gives Bolt an opportunity to combine his commitment to community activism with his background in multimedia production. And if he continues to produce programs like Digital Divide, he can be assured of a winning combination.