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I was all set to have my birthday (10 May) at MONA, the fabulous new contemporary art museum in Tasmania, when I got word that Eat Pray Mourn, the audio feature I made with Jacqui Baker about crime and punishment in Jakarta, had been selected to be ‘screened’ at the renowned International Features Conference in Leipzig, for its fortieth year: too good to miss. My husband Chris kindly offered to defer MONA – we would finally get there on Christmas Eve..
Leipzig was lovely – history at every corner, and small enough to walk around. Here was the church where Bach was cantor for 27 years, a choir performing gloriously as I arrived. There’s St Nicholas, where peaceful Monday Protests began in 1989 that ended with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Goethe studied here, and Martin Luther gave a speech, and Mendelsohn composed.
On it goes – but once the IFC convened on 11 May, there was no time for tourist stuff. It was wall-to-wall LISTENING. What an experience! Some 300 audio makers, from venerables like the elegant Rene Farabet and the very proprietorial Leo Braun to acclaimed current Prix Italia, Marulic and Europa winners to emerging artists – all of us immersed in 18 audio works over 4 days. After each listening session, we repaired in small groups for robust critiques.
My group was led by Canadian Chris Brookes, whose input was always perceptive and respectful. It was a revelation to see how the same work could polarise opinion. One person would applaud the rawness of a personal narrative, while another would lambast the producer for not introducing complex textures. We agreed on some things: the power of Hugo Lavett’s glacial pace and beautiful composition in Woman Found Dead By Lake Shore (so gripping some of us Googled to find out whodunnit), the humour in Brett Ascarelli’s attempts to prise revelation from a stubbornly unforthcoming interviewee (‘It’s Private’), the high octane adrenalin feel of Kathy Tu’s US fighter pilot, the lyrical writing of Rikke Houd’s The Woman On The Ice.
As for me, I was mortified to realise I had stuffed up in preparing the required 25min excerpt of Eat Pray Mourn. I missed the bit about it being linear – an uninterrupted sequence – and, working hastily to meet the deadline, essentially created an extended trailer of the 50min program. Three distinct protagonists and settings were butted up against each other, allowing no sense of light and shade, or narrative flow. Given that THE buzzword at IFC is Dramaturgy, or how the narrative is dramatically executed (great article on that HERE), Eat Pray Mourn could not be properly assessed. Micro aspects could be evaluated, such as sound design of a particular scene. Here too, I cringed. Listening back to the Day in the Life of a Kampung which I had so enthusiastically choreographed from Jacqui’s description of hawkers and rituals, and which ace ABC sound engineer Louis Mitchell had smoothed and enhanced, I was acutely conscious of how over-dense it felt. Let it breathe!, I admonished myself. At the time of mixing, it seemed to aurally evoke, as intended, the chaos and colour of these slum neighbourhoods. But now – coming directly after the careful stillness of Woman Found Dead By Lake Shore – it sounded over-literal, more Tell than Show. As Rene Farabet commented, in some frustration, ‘I feel as if I’m in a train travelling through a beautiful landscape, and I want to shout, “STOP!” I want to get off.’ I also grimaced at one point where I had looped the trenchant sobs of a woman – TOO MUCH, I realised now, wishing I could live-mute the track. But such is the reality of making a program to a deadline. A final mix has to be delivered – and lived with.
And there were positive comments too. Some of the younger Scandinavians, schooled in mindful dramaturgy, were unfamiliar with my rendition of a Kafkaesque bureaucracy through a kaleidoscope of office sounds mixed with surreal snippets of altercations. This piqued their interest, and led to warm exchanges – the heart of what IFC is about, a communing of like audio souls.
But the IFC was also a vibrant showcase of distinctive cultural traditions of audio storytelling. The Poles’ secret was based on ‘talent, vodka and patience’, declared acclaimed Belgian producer Edwin Brys, over dinner in a historic Leipzig pub. Others mentioned their history of political oppression, which led Poles to disseminate vital national narratives as deceptively apolitical radio stories, which passed under the radar of the TV-censoring authorities. The Germans had a thriving output of sophisticated radio features from their many well-supported stations, while Bulgarian producer Nikoleta Atanasova was part of a tentative new movement, her piece exploring a young woman’s scary brush with trafficking.
The BBC features tended to be shorter, reflecting broadcast slots of 30 minutes, compared to the more common European duration of 50-60minutes. Francesca Panetta, the innovative multimedia producer at The Guardian, showed us how genres were being stretched and blended – her works such as Firestorm are among my favourite, and it was a great treat to share dinner with her, and to hear her affirm that no matter how hi-tech digital media gets, AUDIO is always the narrative backbone and emotional heart of a complex story. And IFC Leipzig gave us plenty of proof of that – so thanks to Peter Leonard Braun for starting it all back in 1974 and long may its fellowship and robust criticism endure.
A whole year since my last post! Among the highlights: four stolen days in Paris (good as when I last visited 30 years before), Leipzig (first experience of having a radio feature I produced critiqued by peers at the IFC: intimidating but valuable), contributing to my first MOOC (about transnational audio storytelling) and settling into our new home – still astonished by the endless horizons.
2014 kicked off with an invitation to be the first lunchbox speaker of the year at the very civilised Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. My talk, The Affective Power of Voice, was a chance to play some choice clips to a large and engaged audience, and reflect on why and how the audio medium has such a singular impact. Serendipitously, it was national Sorry Day, and people listened to my clips of the Stolen Generations with special interest and empathy.
March/April was a hugely exciting period: the publication of the first RadioDoc Review critiques! As the paired reviews went online, with links to the audio feature, my tweets and Facebook posts were picked up and shared by the audio storytelling community around the world. Alan Hall of Falling Tree Productions summed up the elation many felt at having the opportunity, at last, to read deeply perceptive analyis by people who understand and appreciate the aesthetic and production aspects of the crafted long-form audio feature. ‘This is invaluable’, he tweeted, of RDR’s first reviews, of Pejk Malinovski’s languid exploration of Poetry, Texas.
Every one of the ten reviews in Issue One brought some fresh insight. ‘Sound is a partnership between memory and imagination’, mused Seán Street. Poetry, Texas has ‘style and substance, enamoured equals engaged in a delightful dance’, observed Kyla Brettle. Sharon Davis saluted producer Laura Starecheski’s ‘endurance and commitment’ in tracking a confined paranoid schizophrenic for some ten years, but queried the efficacy of the narrator-driven American storytelling style of The Hospital Always Wins. Michelle Boyd found much to praise, but asked why the program erased race – given that the protagonist was black, and that race was subtly implicated in his treatment. The next program reviewed, Children of Sodom and Gomorrah, made by German producer Jens Jarisch and reversioned in English by Sharon Davis, elicited awe, admiration – and suspicion – for Alan Hall. He queried Jens’s transposing of his actual response to witnessing an African boy bludgeoned to death, and repositioning it to crank up the listener’s emotional reaction. When I met Jens, at the International Features Conference in Leipzig in May, he was greatly exercised by this challenging critique, and grateful for the unflinching commentary of another accomplished feature maker such as Alan. ‘He gets what I am trying to do, and makes me think’, he told me.
In the second review of Sodom…, Virginia Madsen drew on diverse artistic works to probe its complexity. Bruegel, Bosch, Dante, and Dostoevsky all illuminate this ‘pilgrim’s jouney between heaven and hell’, she suggests. Russian literature was more directly invoked in Tim Keys and Gogol’s Overcoat, a clever, surreal blend of fact and fiction that was also blessedly funny. And as Kari Hesthamar pointed out, it’s harder to make radio features that make people laugh, than cry. Michelle Rayner also saluted this ‘tantalisingly unreliable’ production.
It wasn’t all contemporary audio. Norman Corwin, the US ‘Bard of Radio’ beloved by Studs Terkel, had his 1944 ‘folk-cantata’, The Lonesome Train, receive searching attention. David K Dunaway, a radio DJ for over 40 years and the biographer of the great Pete Seeger, pondered the tensions between history and documentary, in this show about the repatriation of Lincoln’s body. Tim Crook, meanwhile, deconstructed the program using RDR’s brand new Review Guidelines, devised by Gail Phillips, Michelle Boyd and me. His eloquent analysis got traction on Twitter from a Professor of Democracy. I’m sure Corwin would have been delighted!
RadioDoc Review (RDR) was officially launched in April 2014 at the University of Wollongong by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research, Prof Judy Raper, to mark Open Access Week – a great honour. It’s a particular thrill for me that the whole endeavour is pro bono, emerging from the generosity, insight and commitment of audio scholars and producers. Clearly that enthusiasm and knowledge should be freely available, not hidden behind subscriptions and paywalls.
RDR was barely published when I heard I’d been named the inaugural Anne Dunn Scholar of the Year. This award, administered by the Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia and the Australia and New Zealand Communications Association, commemorates academic and former ABC broadcaster Anne Dunn, whom I had last seen at the JEAA conference in 2010, when she had warmly encouraged me in the closing stages of submitting my doctorate. This was typical of her, and I was humbled to have my work in establishing RDR, among other things, acknowledged. Anne had been hoping to attend my Writing for Radio week at Varuna Writers’ Centre in Katoomba, 2012, but sadly became ill. She will be fondly remembered by many of those she mentored and supported.
2013 has been my YEAR OF AUDIO – making it, listening to it, teaching it, writing about it, and best of all, through the newly founded journal of radio documentary studies, RadioDoc Review, discovering a community of kindred spirits around the globe who share my passion for audio storytelling.
We audio producers use the intimacy of the medium to transcend logic and cognition and go further, to gut feeling. As invited eavesdroppers, we feel part of the lives of those we are hearing, and we care deeply about them. For me this year, this was especially true of Hector, an old man from Tennessee, who read aloud an extraordinary cache of letters: correspondence between him and the man who raped and murdered his daughter. As a journey of reconciliation and redemption, it was heartstopping – heard on an episode of Radiolab called, simply, Blame.
Hector Black, with reporter Bianca Giaever, from ‘Dear Hector’, part of ‘Blame’ on Radiolab.
Another moving audio story on the edifying power of forgiveness came from The State We’re In, the Radio Netherlands show that has sadly had its funding cut. Heard on Re:Sound, the remix showcase of great audio stories and sound from around the world compiled by the always diverting Third Coast Audio folk in Chicago, Two Enemies, One Heart was an astonishing tale of how nobility, evil and luck intersect in the lives of two men caught in the Iraq-Iran war.
But how do you keep abreast of the really compelling, memorable documentaries being broadcast every day? And what is it that makes the good ones so good? What is the secret to storytelling through sound? Sure, some shows such as the hugely successful This American Life or ABC RN’s 360 Documentaries have a consistently high standard. Winners of prestigious prizes such as Prix Italia or Third Coast Audio are also likely to be excellent. But why isn’t there a go-to site for audio documentaries where eminent critics list their favourite program, tell us why it merits selection and deconstruct how it achieves its impact, just as film critics do? That was the Eureka moment, when RadioDoc Review was born.
In July, at an international radio conference in the UK, I convened a meeting to discuss the creation of a new online journal to fill this clear gap in radio documentary studies. Excellent radio documentaries would be identified and critiqued by those best qualified for the job: award-winning producers, eminent radio scholars and significant broadcast industry figures. Key individuals volunteered, others I recruited later. By October, RDR had a website, hosted by University of Wollongong, and an international editorial board of truly impressive and diverse ‘elders’ of radio documentary – a rich store of collective expertise about, and commitment to, the extraordinary power of audio storytelling. Each nominated one documentary for the longlist, and from that, the four most popular shows were assigned two reviewers. A fifth program, designated a historical spotlight, will be critiqued each issue alongside the more contemporary works.
Photos: Jens Jarisch
For our first issue (due March 2014), the works to be critiqued range from a startling investigation of the surreal and hellish slum where African children snatch a living by recycling First World e-waste (THE CHILDREN OF SODOM AND GOMORRAH) to a languid, charming exploration of a little town in Texas with the unlikely name of Poetry (POETRY, TX). They include the rare and shocking perspective of a paranoid schizophrenic, whose redemptive journey is tracked over ten years (THE HOSPITAL ALWAYS WINS), and a witty and delightful revisiting of the absurdist Russian writer, Gogol, through the lens of a shambolic London comic (TIM KEY AND GOGOL’S OVERCOAT). In the HISTORICAL SPOTLIGHT is one of the great names of US radio, Norman Corwin, and his landmark program, THE LONESOME TRAIN, about the train that bore the remains of the assassinated Abraham Lincoln home for burial. Full details of programs and reviewers HERE.
The works critiqued in RDR will be preserved along with metadata, both online at RDR and in hard copy at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (rights permitting). This emerging canon will be a valuable resource for all those who share a passion for great audio documentary.
But this is only the start of where RDR can go. I hope it will also become a platform for ideas and initiatives around audio storytelling, as an aesthetic and journalistic practice, as academic scholarship, as teaching and as community building. RDR welcomes articles and essays on these topics, or you can join the debate on Twitter (@RDREditor) and Facebook, or add comments on the RDR Journal page. We’re also happy to receive notices of relevant news, events and publications.
Documentary and feature occupy a spectrum from straightforward reportage to poetic, highly crafted sound-rich mélange. See the RDR Bibliography tab for articles on this theme (coming soon!) or listen to RDR Board member Alan Hall’s beguiling radio program on the topic, The Ballad of the Radio Feature (BBC 2008). We have set the parameters for long-form documentary/feature at (an admittedly arbitrary) 25 minutes, to allow a program to develop complexities of character, unfold story and embed research to a solid and satisfying degree. As RDR Board member and scholar David Hendy writes, “time… is the strongest tool in the documentary-maker’s kitbag”. But shorter audio stories are of course also highly effective. To salute this movement, RDR commissioned Chicago radio scholar Neil Verma to attend the ShortDocs Feast at the Third Coast Festival this year. His perceptive and engaging review captures the versatility and impact of the form.
Since RDR went live with our shortlist this month, it has already attracted a strong Twitter following, from Berlin to Vancouver, a fabulous and eclectic mixture of audio lovers and producers, from the World Listening Centre to Pedagogical Arts to the LondonSoundSurvey. In 2014, I aim to develop practical aspects of audio storytelling to complement the unfolding critical analysis: first up, a series of workshops to teach the genre, particularly to those from a disadvantaged or disenfranchised background, so that they can tell personal narratives of their own communities, and explore the ideas and cultural issues that matter to them.
And to those who thought radio was a dying medium, see my article in The Conversation, A Word in Your Ear: How Audio Storytelling Got Sexy. It’s been tweeted around the world. As that and RDR show, radio ain’t dead yet!
About to publish an unusual interdisciplinary research project, ‘Eat Pray Mourn’…, which seeks to convey scholarly anthropological research as affective audio documentary.
A two-year collaboration between Dr Jacqui Baker, a Research Fellow at University of Wollongong’s Centre for Transnational Crime Prevention, and myself, the project received considerable attention from the Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC), given the sensitive nature of its themes: extrajudicial police killings, lynching, and women mourning the violent death of loved ones.
One of our aims was to give voice to those normally marginalised – the self-styled ‘coolies’ – and use the intimacy and accessibility of radio documentary to stimulate Australian and Indonesian audiences to ask what kinds of violence we tolerate in a democracy, and against which groups. We successfully argued to HREC that in order to achieve that, we had to be permitted to turn research data into compelling narrative, which necessitated the building of ‘character’ and place, and the presentation of rounded individuals, who should, if they so chose, be allowed to keep their names, having opted from an informed perspective for a level of risk. It may be the first time an ethics committee was exposed to alliteration, as I described the cultural and phonic reasons why I needed to keep an anecdote where all names began with Y.
The resulting documentary, ‘Eat Pray Mourn: Crime and Punishment in Jakarta’ airs on national Australian radio Sunday 7 April 2013, on ABC Radio National’s flagship 360 Documentaries program. A Bahasa-language version is expected to air in Indonesia later this year. Program information and podcast available here:
Jacqui and I are preparing journal articles about the considerable learning the project provided: around ways of listening and hearing, about public and private memory, about cross-cultural storytelling, and about the role media can play in disseminating knowledge and effecting change. We believe the radio documentary form is a particularly effective paradigm for conveying scholarly research and honouring our duty as academics to pass on knowledge to the community. After all, you don’t even have to be literate to ‘get’ radio.
In late 2012, I participated in a crossover event at RMIT University, Melbourne, called NonfictionNow 2012. The organisers described it as ‘one of the world’s most significant gatherings of writers, teachers and readers of nonfiction’. They would say that, wouldn’t they – but in this case, the hype was justified. Organised in partnership with Iowa University and Barbara Bedell, the Copyright Agency, Wheeler Centre and ABC Radio National, it was a rich and stimulating event, as ‘400 conference delegates joined an additional 400 members of the public for three full days of panels, exhibitions, readings and public events centred on the practice, thinking, communication and writing of nonfiction in all its forms… The event enabled a diversity of leading Australian voices to be heard in this unique conversation, which bridges between the academy and the arts and industry.’
David Shields kicked things off with a witty and well judged provocation that revisited themes from his book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, about remixing, plagiarism, non-fiction, reality, and the culture of appropriation. He quotes Malcolm Gladwell in “Annals of Culture”, New Yorker, on the thin line between legal and moral plagiarism: “When I worked at a newspaper, we were routinely dispatched to “match” a story from the Times: to do a new version of someone else’s idea. But had we “matched” any of the Times’s words – even the most banal of phrases – it could have been a firing offense. The ethics of plagiarism have turned into the narcissism of minor differences: because journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality on the level of the sentence.’ Shields calls this ‘Trial by Google’.
Falling in behind him in the (very long) line for drinks on the first evening, I pressed him on the serious issues behind his breezy bricolage. In Reality Hunger, Shields assembles other folks’ memorable thoughts and aphorisms as an enjoyable enquiry into contemporary cultural forms. But what if, I asked him, someone gouges juicy bits from a non-fiction writer’s hard-won research, and recycles them, thinly veiled, as their original fiction? Is this remix or rort? He frowned, confessed a lack of knowledge of Australian copyright law. Morally, though, he offered a judgement. If the usage of the ‘borrowed’ material was transformative – that is, if it was not used in a similar context as the original, pertaining to similar activities and situations, or for a similar purpose, then, Shields told me, it could arguably be acceptable re-use, justifiable in the service of creating a totally new work of art. Otherwise not.
We reached the counter, where he confronted a new dilemma – whether to tip the bar worker who handed him a can of VB beer. That, at least, was easily decided. No, the waitress said. But her reply needed historical context. I quickly filled him in on the stonemasons who in this very city in 1856 had won the world’s first eight-hour working day, ensuring a tradition of respect for working conditions that had led to award wages that would be the envy of the diner waitress we met in Chicago in 2011, who had to rely on clients’ tips to supplement her menial $2.50 an hour wage. The morning we had breakfast, five tables of Danish students and their minders had just stiffed her. By this stage, Shields was looking edgy, so I ceded the space to his circling fans, and headed to a corner of the rooftop terrace to contemplate the view of Melbourne below, and the rubbery nature of ‘remix’.
Next day I joined ABC radio/online producer, film-maker and RMIT lecturer Kyla Brettle, RN producer and ABC Pool co-founder Sherre DeLys, and University of Iowa scholar Jeff Porter for a panel on Sonic Writing: Radio Nonfiction, chaired by Professor Ross Gibson of University of Technology Sydney. We were there to discuss the expressive nature of sound in relation to other media in the context of radio nonfiction, a genre that shares with literary journalism and documentary film the common goal of examining and constructing unfamiliar worlds that have special relevance to a broader understanding of our collective selves.
Radio nonfiction (particularly the radio documentary) is unique for asking us not to read or gaze at its subjects but rather to hear and listen to their divergent voices and unique soundscapes. This panel discussed the emergence of the radio documentary as a noteworthy turn in the growth of contemporary nonfiction. In particular, the focus was on the way sound interacts with words and influences the meaning of a radio text in surprisingly powerful ways. As many sound makers testify, spoken language is only part of the mix: the editing and layering of sounds, music, voices, and ambience more often than not will reshape the narrative dynamic of any documentary radio text. More by serendipity than design, the presentations extended and complemented each other, though the too-brief time for questions afterwards was disappointing. AUDIO of panel here. Order: Kyla, Siobhan (15 minutes in), Sherry, Jeff.
Later in the week, Helen Garner, as surprised as the rest of us to find she’s almost 70, revealed delicious trade secrets. Age only deepens her insight, her writing these days a killer combination of observation and understanding, as she teases out complex human dramas with wisdom, anger and compassion. Video of her talk HERE.
Margo Jefferson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic and former staff writer for The New York Times, responded drily to her fulsome introduction by quoting the French writer Collette: ‘what a wonderful life – I wish I’d noticed!’ The Chicago-raised African-American tackles head-on cornerstone issues of US society such as race, and told us she wants to reclaim ecstasy in cultural criticism: the ecstasy of curiosity, and of loathing. Margo’s talk here.
Final session, ‘Out of Place’ had an (unexpectedly) delightful panel linked to Canberra (hence the unexpectedness). Partly due to the range of speakers, from the chair (cartoonist Judy Horacek) to the themes (Francesca Rendle-Short on her unusual family, Kim Mahoud on occupying a strange white/blackfella interface, Robyn Archer a forcefield on 100 years of Canberra). All rounded off by a brilliant presentation by Margo Neale, Indigenous art curator at National Museum of Australia, which showed, clear as the nose on your face, through juxtaposition of slides of remote Indigenous-occupied Australia and paintings and drawings of those scenes and locales that, as Margo said, Indigenous art is not about country – it IS country. Go Margo! Thanks for that revelation: simple but stunning.
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.
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.