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That’s one of the topics up for no doubt heated discussion at a session I’ll be chairing next week (6 Sept) at University of Wollongong. The two-day Expanded Documentary public seminar questions where the boundaries of documentary sit these days, on a spectrum from art to journalism to performance to God knows where. Great range of speakers, including keynote Ross Gibson. Info here.
My session goes back to an old but hard chestnut: where do power, truth and creativity meet in engagement with the disenfranchised. Stories will range from the Mexican Borderlands (Colm McNaughton) to new SBS Online interactive documentary The Block in Redfern, to the broader Indigenous landscape (Susan Moylan-Coombs, NITV).
To get things going, I’ve put together this ‘provocation’. Love your feedback!
To ignore and exorcise subjectivity as if it were only a noxious interference in the pure data is ultimately to distort and falsify the nature of the data themselves. (Portelli 1997:80)
An award-winning 1974 analysis of African-American slavery, Time on the Cross, written by Nobel prizewinner Robert Fogel and his colleague Stanley D. Engerman, focuses on the economics of slavery: the conditions under which slaves worked and the efficiency and organisation of Southern American slave plantations. Among their painstaking data, they note that slaves tended to be whipped an average of 0.7 times a year. That’s a fact. But it bears little relation to reality. Because NO slave could ever have been whipped 0.7 times. You were either whipped or not whipped.
Former slave Frederick Douglass was less in thrall to facts. When he set out to write his autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1892), he was advised by well-meaning abolitionists to stick to the facts, so as to gain credibility. Instead, he included observations and opinion, discussing for instance, not just how often he was beaten but the degree of sadism with which the beatings were executed. Far from being irrelevant, his judgements are both liberating and illuminating, contends the Italian oral history theorist, Alessandro Portelli. ‘The discovery of difference, especially inner difference, is the first step toward recognising the humanity of one’s oppressors and thus affirming their own, which their oppressors deny: ‘I therefore began to think that they [white people] were not all of the same disposition…’ (Portelli 1997:80)
So is difference a positive or a negative force when it comes to one person documenting another’s lived experience? And how do different differences play out in the recorded exchange: gender, class, age, culture, power?
Studs Terkel, the Pulitzer prize-winning American broadcaster and author, recorded some 9,000 interviews with people from all demographics. He did not see the everyday lives he revealed – clerks, hookers, conveyor belt workers – as ‘ordinary’, but as ‘uncelebrated’. He did not see the exchanges as interviews, but as opening ‘the sluice gates of dammed hurts and dreams’. (Terkel 1972: xx) A white, leftist, secular Jew, his work documents quintessential themes of American society, from race and class to war and capitalism, from a multiplicity of perspectives.
One of his biggest discoveries was that listening matters. Not so much WHO listens, but the act of being heard. He often talked about a poor black American woman he impulsively recorded one day. Seeing her, with two or three children, staring into an empty shop window, Terkel politely asked what she was looking at.
‘Oh, dreams, I’m just looking at dreams.’ So I’ve got my tape recorder and I switch it on and I say ‘Good dreams, bad dreams?” And she starts to talk… and when she stops talking after eight, maybe ten minutes or so, one of them [her children] says, ‘Hey mom, can we listen to what you said?’… so I play it back and she listens to it too. And when it’s over, she gives a little shake of her head and she looks at me and she says, ‘Well until I heard that, I never knew I felt that way.’
(Terkel in Perks & Thomson 2006:126-7)
So, a sense of validation can be a positive outcome for a subject of the documentarian impulse. But what if her story had been found in the archives and used as proof of, say, the fecklessness of an unemployed welfare recipient? Does the documenter elevate, mediate or misrepresent the raw data he/she gathers? And how do we know, if we only see the end product?
What of the documentarian’s duty to interpret? As Italian scholar Luisa Passerini observes: ‘All autobiographical memory is true; it is up to the interpreter to discover in which sense, where, [and] for which purpose’ (Passerini 1989:197). Does this dictum bridge the gaps across power, class, race, culture?
Portelli recently published a forty-year study of Kentucky coal miners (They Say in Harlan County, 2011). He is white, Italian, middle-class, male. His interviews with poor American miners,both black and white, male and female, in his second language, are an exercise in Otherness. Even his transcriptionist was so far removed from the territory she misheard the drawled word ‘serpent’ as ‘servant’. Yet perhaps because of this striking difference, rather than in spite of it, the book is an exemplary portrayal of an isolated community.
Fieldwork is by necessity an experiment in equality based on difference. There must always be a line of difference across which the exchange becomes meaningful, but there must also be at least a line along which we can communicate the desire for a common ground and language that makes the exchange possible – our deep-rooted common human nature.
(Portelli 1997: 60)
So how does this axis of Otherness apply when telling Indigenous stories in Australia? In 2000, Aboriginal filmmaker Darlene Johnson advised SBS that ‘issues of appropriation, of respectful cultural representation, of equity and creative control are particularly pertinent to collaborative processes in relation to Aboriginal stories.’ (Peters Little 2002). But not all Aboriginal filmmakers believe that only Indigenous people should tell Indigenous stories. Frances Peters Little, Indigenous filmmaker (The Tent Embassy) and historian, argues thus:
The notion that Aboriginal filmmakers possess a certain connection to truth and instant rapport with any Aboriginal community or individual is naive. To think that Aboriginal filmmakers can shoot any Aboriginal community and capture the core of their history, politics, culture, personal relationships and social interactions without offending or misrepresenting anyone is presumptuous to say the least. Conversely there are many examples of white filmmakers (who) have made strong connections with Aboriginal individuals asking them to expose the internal disputations within Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal filmmakers while they share in something that is essentially Aboriginal by necessity or nature does not guarantee that they make stronger, more accurate or beneficial films for the Aboriginal community or individual than non-Aboriginal filmmakers. Questions of filmmaking ability (are) involved.
Some argue that ‘prosumer’ film-making will redress power imbalance: anyone with a smartphone can theoretically make a film these days, distribute it online and even have it financed by crowdfunding. SBS is actively developing democratising initiatives in the user-generated field of documentary, as online producer John MacFarlane can testify. Other practitioners, such as Hegelian Marxist and radio documentary-maker Colm McNaughton, eschew film in favour of sound, in order to mitigate issues of trauma and power. Liz Jessen, a Danish radio feature maker, also believes radio to be a far subtler form of storytelling:
In the close-up of a talking woman we see her big mouth, strong nose, narrow eyes, strange hair-do, unfashionable clothing, or whatever else we might decide to comment on as viewers, either to ourselves or to the other people watching. Every tiny impurity in her face is magnified and may distract us. Television can turn into (social) pornography when it moves in on the favourite genre of the radio feature: close-up recordings in which people speak from the heart or body. The beauty can disappear when projected from the screen. (Jessen 2004: 5)
But how do art and aesthetics marry with politics and ideologies? These are key questions this session will raise. A final thought from filmmaker Ken Burns:
You know it’s often said that the digital revolution that puts a TV camera in everyone’s hands makes everyone a filmmaker. It’s bullshit… What makes someone a filmmaker is somebody who knows how to tell a story … I’ve been doing this for a long time, almost 40 years that I’ve been trying to tell stories with film and I still feel like a student…. and that means that it requires a kind of lifetime of devotion. It isn’t enough just to be there when something happens. It isn’t enough just to record whatever happens. We have to be storytellers and it’s just logical that only a few of us are going to be able to do that … I’m learning. I’m learning. I’m learning.
(Ken Burns 2010)
Burns, K. (2010). “Why Everyone Is Not a Filmmaker “. Retrieved 3 September 2010 from Big Think website at http://bigthink.com/kenburns
Jessen, L. (2004). “All you need is Love, God, Power or Money — an essay on radio narrative”. Retrieved 3 December 2009 from International Features Conference website on http://ifc.blog-city.com/essay_on_documentaries__lisbeth_jessen.htm.
Passerini, L. (1979). “Work ideology and consensus under Italian fascism”. History Workshop. No. 8: 82-108.
Peters Little, F. (2002), “The Impossibility Of Pleasing Everybody: A Legitimate Role For White Filmmakers Making Black Films”, Art Monthly
Portelli, A. (1997). The battle of Valle Giulia: oral history and the art of dialogue. Madison, Wis., University of Wisconsin Press,
Terkel, S. (1972). Working: people talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do. London, Wildwood House.
Terkel, S. (2006). “Interviewing an Interviewer”, in R. Perks and A. Thomson (eds.), The Oral History Reader, 2nd edn, London, New York, Routledge, pp123-128.
Every so often, the Oral History Discussion List [H-ORALHIST@H-NET.MSU.EDU] posts a hopeful query from a newbie, asking for advice on which voice recognition software to use to transcribe an interview. The last one prompted me to respond, as follows.
NO computer will register the nuanced meaning of voice tone, rhythms, breathing, expression and non-verbal utterances such as sobs or catches in the throat. The meaning of oral history is about much more than words. We’ve had this audio vs print transcript debate for decades now. I forget who said this, but it expresses it well: ‘a transcript is a map, but audio is a landscape’. Using a computer to generate a transcript would be like using a mud map – very limited sense of landscape.
I favour the timed summary-audio retrieval system used by the National Library of Australia. This allows you to browse an interview or collection digitally by keywords, then click to bring up the associated audio segment. (A print transcript may or may not be available as an ancillary text.) By LISTENING to the audio, you get a rounded sense of the speaker as well as what is said and how it is said. The keywords are manually entered by the interviewer, accompanied by a brief summary.
See here as example: interview with Howard Florey, the Australian scientist who invented penicillin.
This timed summary/audio retrieval methodology has also been built into a current major oral history project, Australian Generations (in which I play a small part as a field interviewer), led by Professor Alistair Thomson of Monash University in Melbourne. This page summarises the theoretical debates about use of audio vs. transcript. See http://arts.monash.edu.au/australian-generations/project/significance/index.php
New practitioners, brace yourselves: (1) oral history is all about LISTENING. Once, in the interview itself; and afterwards, again and again, as you seek to interpret and understand what was said. (2) There is no way of listening to someone EXCEPT IN REAL TIME. That’s partly why oral history is so revelatory – because we do someone the courtesy and privilege of listening to them wholeheartedly for an extended period, which creates an intimate and unique space between two people, and allows for openness, reflection, disclosure and discussion. To cut short the process in the second, post-interview, phase by bringing in a mechanical interpretation via voice recognition software is to traduce the human exchange at the heart of oral history.
As to what computers CAN do, check out this story:
Australian Generations is an epic oral history project – the most multi-faceted undertaken in Australia – and I’m proud to be part of it!
A team of interviewers – some of the most experienced oral historians in the country, with thousands of interviews behind them – will gather 300 Life Story interviews from Australians born between the 1920s and 1930s to 1990.
The aim is to document people’s life pathways over the last 90 years or so, and see how attitudes and experiences have changed over that time (or not). A key aspect is to explore what makes a generation actually identify AS a generation – it’s not just about having a common birth era, it’s about being shaped by seminal shared public events.
If you want to be involved and have YOUR story recorded for posterity, click here.
We’ve been swamped with applications from well educated middle-class women in their 40s and 50s (good on you) but now, to redress the balance, we’d REALLY like to hear from:
Young Blokes (20s and up)
The Induction Day at ABC Radio National in Sydney yesterday was instructive and fun. Kevin Bradley, sound preservation guru at the National Library of Australia, waxed lyrical on the project’s state-of-the-art recording equipment (called, not very imaginatively, Sound Device!).
He talked us through its use – always strange for me, as a radio person, to move from one hand-held mic to a stationary mic per person. But oral history interviews being so long (2-2.5 hours in this case), in situ microphones prevent interviewer fatigue. The separate mics also record on two distinct channels.
Besides audio engineering (don’t get him started on anechoic chambers or fluorescent lights!), Kevin specialises in making oral history AUDIO easily available online. We provide a timed summary of the interview, with keywords, and browsers can retrieve the relevant audio with a click. SO MUCH better than using those tired and misleading transcripts. As Kevin said, a transcript is just a map, whereas the audio recording is a whole landscape.
The oral history will be mined for a radio series by Hindsight EP and Project PI Michelle Rayner at ABC Radio National, and also drawn on for two books. It’s a great project, runs till end of 2013, so there’s plenty of time to put your hand up.
Imagine someone listening to the story of YOUR life in 2099!
From the elegant brownstones of Brooklyn to the chilly pavements of Montreal, my study tour of North America was an illuminating insight into how oral history and radio connect us through the sharing of personal stories. At the Brooklyn Historical Society, on the twentieth anniversary of the Crown Street riots between Hasidic Jews and West Indian and African-American communities, curator Sady Sullivan was developing the Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations project, which explores ‘mixed-heritage families, race, ethnicity, culture, and identity’. Although the demographics and history of Brooklyn are very different from here, she found resonances with my research into mixed marriage and sectarianism between Catholics and Protestants in Australia, published as an ABC radio documentary, Marrying Out. It was a thrill to learn that my experiences of interviewing were part of a training course in cross-cultural research at BHS.
At Harvard, while students lounged about the famous square and a boisterous group sang Happy (375th) Birthday to its founder, more synergies became apparent. At a seminar hosted by the Harvard University Native American Program and chaired by Professor Mick Dodson, the visiting co-Chair of Australian Studies, I played the voices of Indigenous Australians I had recorded in the West Kimberley. Native Americans listened sympathetically as they described being taken from their mothers as toddlers to be reared by Catholic nuns, losing not only their family but their language and culture. The suffering of the Stolen Generations is well documented in the Bringing Them Home Report (1997) co-authored by Mick Dodson. But even he was shocked by the conditions endured by Native Americans. In the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C., we read about the Chiricahua Apache nation, several hundred of whom – men, women and children – were removed from their lands by the US military in 1886. Some remained official ‘prisoners of war’ for 28 years.
In Washington, I visited the sombre Vietnam War memorial wall, and the memorial to the military nurses, discussed in my book Minefields and Miniskirts, an oral history of Australian women’s roles in the Vietnam war. That book was reviewed in the US by Donald A Ritchie, a prominent oral historian. Don’s day job is as US Senate Historian. So it was an extraordinary privilege to be escorted round the Capitol by Don, who has worked there since 1976, and recently edited the transcripts of the infamous Senator Joe McCarthy trials. Amidst the splendid statues of former US presidents, he pointed out a bronze sculpture of Helen Keller, unveiled in 2009 by then Governor of Alabama, Bob Riley. Don wondered if the very conservative Riley knew, as he praised the deaf and blind woman’s resourcefulness, that Keller had gone on to become a radical activist who championed the causes of women’s suffrage and workers’ rights.
The crafting of oral history for radio documentary so as to harness the affective power of voice, was a major theme of presentations I gave at places as diverse as Boston University, Concordia University’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling in Montreal, and the impressive Centre for Documentary Studies at Duke University, set in a classic Southern Mansion complete with white rocking chairs on the porch. My favourite was my talk to rookie radio makers at Woods Hole on Cape Cod, the small and charming town that is the unlikely site of the oceanographic institute that discovered the wreck of the Titanic. It is also home to Transom, a visionary public radio showcase established by the indefatigable Jay Allison, who invited me (and luminaries like This American Life’s Ira Glass) to share their passion for the medium. Jay is a True Believer in the importance of radio to serve and connect the community; over four decades, he has pioneered numerous broadcasting initiatives, from the airing of early documentaries on child sexual abuse to his current public storytelling event, The Moth, lauded in the Wall Street Journal. It was a delight to engage with such a kindred spirit – my interview with Jay and others will feature in a forthcoming book (2013).
The trip ended, fittingly, in Chicago, with a homage to Studs Terkel, whose 9,000 oral history interviews are being digitised at the Smithsonian. There I met Studs’s son Dan, at the home where Studs crafted his mesmerising tomes of American life, which revealed the ‘precious metal’ he sought to divine in everyone he met. A burglar broke into this very living-room late one night, Dan told me, and was surprised to find the sofa occupied by Studs’s ailing wife, Ida. Studs was sleeping in a chair alongside, to watch over her. He readily handed over his wallet and the burglar made to go. Then Studs politely asked the intruder if he could lend him $20 from the wallet, to buy Ida’s medicine next day. Taken aback, the burglar handed over the money. As he headed for the window, Studs intervened and cordially escorted him out the front door.
Studs’s interviews were driven by sheer fascination with the human condition. His gravestone, he once remarked, should be inscribed ‘curiosity never killed THIS cat’. In the end, Studs dispensed with any gravestone, preferring to have his ashes co-mingled with those of his beloved Ida and buried at the Chicago equivalent of Speakers’ Corner, known as Bughouse Square. After Studs’s death in 2008 at the age of 96, Dan placed his parents’ ashes in an unmarked spot in the park. It seemed an entirely appropriate place to end a trip that celebrated the politics of connection and the democratising power of voice.