Filmmaker's work is a call to action

Bruce Orenstein has written and produced three documentaries and more than 50 videos over the past 15 years.

But filmmaking is not really at the heart of what he does.

Orenstein, who founded the non-profit Chicago Video Project in 1990, has loftier goals.

"At heart, I'm really an organizer, not a filmmaker," Orenstein says.

With roots in community organizing, Orenstein's films are designed to get people to act and to give low-income communities a high-tech way to organize.

"I wanted to provide that kind of technology ... for low income people to compete in a world where ... virtually every major corporation in the country has their own in-house video production facility and they use it to project a message, to shape an image..." says Orenstein.

With 14 years experience in community organizing in Chicago, Seattle and Fort Wayne, Ind., Orenstein's focus on bringing hope and change to struggling communities has long roots.

Orenstein has no formal training in filmmaking, however, and didn't even own a video camera when he started the Chicago Video Project.

"So I looked at it as a tool to help people in their organizing," he says.

Orenstein's documentaries, "American Idealist: The Story of Sargent Shriver," "The Democratic Promise: Saul Alinsky and His Legacy," and "No Place to Live: Chicago's Affordable Housing Crisis," focus on ordinary people and forgotten historical characters like Peace Corps founder "Sarge" Shriver and grassroots organizer Saul Alinsky.

"The over-arching goal was not necessarily to solve the issues, the idea was to build power, to build power for change," Orenstein says of his films. "And if you have power to create change, you can address the issues of homelessness and the issues of poor education in the community."

Orenstein has also produced what he calls short organizing videos. Cindi Canary, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, recalls working with Orenstein in 1997 on a 12-minute video that told the story of how money generated by ATM fees, a rented apartment, or a student loan was related to a special interest lobby.

The video was shown to legislators, community leaders and in town hall meetings. Its call-to-action generated interest and energy, Canary said.

"I think in a lot of ways it was a mobilizing factor in getting our organization off the ground, because it was like, 'Who were these people? What were they trying to do?' " she said.

"This video, in a concise and energetic way, told the story ... and put everyone on an even playing field for the dialogue."

Orenstein says he has turned down requests when there was no organizational capacity to put a video to good use.

"I've turned down a lot of fundraising videos," he says.

"I turned down videos ... when a group doesn't have a good idea of what they want to do with it, because everything, all these pieces I'm making, are strategic organizing pieces."

Orenstein says he turned to community organizing as a reaction to the frustration he saw in his father, who drove a cab and ran a small delivery service in the city. His mother worked in a department store.

"My father was kind of powerless in his work and was very frustrated and angry all the time and I think that some of that rubbed off on me, not wanting to be powerless, frustrated and angry, wanting to have an avenue to express myself and express my dignity because he didn't have that," Orenstein says.

While his parents weren't politically involved, Orenstein, 56,  says he was influenced by the civil rights movement, the war on poverty, and the Vietnam war. His office is decorated with pictures of former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington and a poster of the AFL-CIO Central Labor Councils that reads, "Organizing for Justice in our Communities."

Recently, Orenstein worked with Students for Barack Obama to produce a short pro-bono video. His relationship with the Democratic presidential candidate goes back to their organizing days in Chicago.

"The video was made to get people to act, to engage them, to challenge them, to inspire them, to get them to take the responsibility, to feel the responsibility for building the better community," says Orenstein, adding "that's Obama's message by the way."

Orenstein says his goal is to create a dialogue in which citizens become engaged in their communities and the world.

"The theme of everything I do is engaging people in their political world around them," he says. "That's the way we're going to have a vibrant, healthy democracy - when we get people to act and engage on their own behalf."