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OHR Third EditionI am thrilled to report that my article The Affective Power of Voice: Oral History on Radio, has been included in the forthcoming edition of The Oral History Reader (Routledge 2015). This comprehensive anthology (722pp) is undoubtedly the most important collection of articles by the international community of oral history scholars and practitioners. I am humbled to be in the company of such giants of the genre as Sandro Portelli, Michael Frisch, Studs Terkel, Paul Thompson, Sherna Berger Gluck, Valerie Yow, Doug Boyd, Paula Hamilton, Steven High, Linda Shopes and of course the editors, Australia’s Alistair Thomson of Monash University and the UK’s Rob Perks of the British Library.

 

2015 has been a good year for publication of my oral histories. The City of Sydney has done a fine job of placing online the archive of interviews with residents at Millers Point Sydney, done by me and coordinating oral historian Frank Heimans back around 2006. These interviews capture the rich harbourside community life of one of Sydney’s oldest suburbs, where men worked on the wharves (stevedoring) under tough conditions, and women raised families in cramped public housing. One of my favourite quotes was a woman who laughed that yes they did have running water back then – you ran in to the laundry, filled a bucket, ran back out and threw it into the bath! There are also great interviews with sports journalist legend Frank Hyde, a gentle man with a lovely sense of humour who sings Danny Boy on the tape; Jack Mundey, trade union leader extraordinaire, whose Green Bans movement stopped the proposed demolition of these inner Sydney ‘slums’ and kept the community intact; and Bill Ford, who grew up swimming off the steps at the ‘Met’ wharf and went on to be part of the famous US Freedom Ride that was mimicked in New South Wales in 1965 in a push to end discrimination against Aboriginal Australians.

INA launch

With Denis O’Flynn, President INA, Dr Richard Reid, Michael Lyons and Dennis Foley at the launch of the INA Oral History, Nov 2015

My other big project this year brought me full circle: recording the oral histories of prominent Sydney Irish and Irish-Australian members of the Irish National Association (INA), which has its centenary in 2015. As an accidental Irish migrant who has now spent just over half her life in Australia, it was fascinating to hear stories of similar migrants, and what they felt they’d gained and lost in the process. The project explores how the INA upholds Irish culture and heritage, through activities around music, dancing, teaching the Irish language and maintaining an awareness of Irish history and politics, through events like the annual Easter oration at the wonderful Waverly cemetery monument, the St Patrick’s Day parade (revived in 1979) and the Famine Memorial event at Hyde Park Barracks each August. The interviews were commissioned by the National Library of Australia, which has placed some of them online in full. You can browse the timed summary, where a keyword or phrase will take you direct to the audio, and even provide a citation. Try Bishop David Cremin recalling how he held a controversial Requiem Mass for Bobby Sands, the first of the IRA hunger strikers to die in 1981. Or Maurie O’Sullivan, passionate Irish cultural advocate, describing how he talks Irish to his dogs and his horse to keep up his language skills! There is also Tomás De Bháldraithe, whose father wrote the first Irish-English dictionary, reflecting on the prominent role his family played in the public intellectual life of the nascent Irish state.

My next oral history project promises to be exciting and very different. It’s an investigation into the relational aspects of how contemporary Aboriginal art is produced, funded by the Australian Research Council. I’m part of a team with noted art historian Ian McLean and Indigenous Curator at the National Museum of Australia, the indefatigable Margo Neale. We’re seeking to understand how Indigenous artists work with non-Indigenous art centre staff and dealers, and in conversation with other artists, both Indigenous and non, and how these relationships affect the art that emerges. We’ve already visited two remote communities and it’s been a revelation. No wonder I love oral history – you get to hear the life stories of the most extraordinary people. And I agree with Studs – there are no ordinary people; just the uncelebrated. Let’s get celebrating!

Field research with Margo Neale and Prof Ian McLean

Field research with Margo Neale and Prof Ian McLean

famine memorialMemorial to the Great Irish Famine, Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney.

Lots of Famine-related events lately. My radio documentary, The Famine Girls, features descendants of the 4000 orphan girls sent out from Ireland to escape the famine in the 1840s, and a fascinating interview with noted economics historian Cormac O’Grada, about the nature of collective memory around the famine. It was broadcast on ABC RN Hindsight, 11 Aug 2013.  Audio and info HERE

Conlon book Publication of the amazing Atlas of the Great Irish Famine by Cork University Press, with maps that give unparallelled insight into what happened, at micro-level.

Great speech by Tom Keneally at the launch at the State Library in Sydney, and fascinating yarns with cartographer Mike Murphy afterwards.

Iveragh Final

Irish writer Evelyn Conlon’s new novel, Not The Same Sky (Wakefield Press), explores the journey of some of the orphan girls, within a contemporary context.

 

BANISHED WOMEN

And a new series on TG4, Irish-language television in Ireland, Mná Díbeartha (Banished Women), starts 25 September.

I’m one of many historians and commentators interviewed (Episode 4), in a beautifully filmed work that questions why Irish women sent to Australia in difficult circumstances were so maligned.

“It rescues them from obscurity and restores their historical importance in building the Australian nation, the young orphan girls viewed as “the moral dregs of the workhouses – the most stupid, the most ignorant, the most unmanageable set of beings that ever cursed a country by their presence”, and the transported women, who, because of contemporary attitudes towards them and the shame of the convict ‘stain’ have not gained any place as pioneers in the legends and histories of their home and adopted countries.

The series is a testament to the lives, struggles and legacy of these 18th and 19th century women and girls but it leaves us with a question – what have we learned from the experience? What is it in our own culture that has allowed us through the 20th and 21st century to continuously banish from our midst, those who make us feel uncomfortable, or are considered undesirable in our communities?”

Hibernian macaroons at State Library of NSW

Hibernian macaroons at State Library of NSW

And a final Famine link – a lovely evening of Irish-Australian song, poetry and story at the State Library of NSW on 24 October with actor Maeliosa Stafford, co-founder of Galway’s Druid Theatre and   frequent actor with the Abbey Theatre Dublin, but living in Sydney since late ’80s, and singer Freddie White, whose gravelly voice I used to play on Breakfast Radio on RTE in the ’80s, and who has moved here with his wife Trish Hickey, a wonderful singer herself. Maeliosa paid tribute to my Famine Girls doco, noting how these stories of ordinary unsung heroes such as Eliza Fraser had moved and inspired him. Maeliosa has often played Irish parts in historical re-enactments in my documentaries, and we actually know each other since Galway in 1978, so it seems fitting that our lives should intersect artistically at the other end of the world some 35 years on. A tricolour plate of macaroons provided a fitting end to a stirring night.

Here’s our say: WATCH OUR SEMINAR  on the making of Eat Pray Mourn

And here’s yours –  so far, you like it!

Check out these unadulterated comments from the 360 Documentaries website on Radio National (http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/360/eat-pray-mourn/4598026):

db :
05 Apr 2013 10:41:46pm


           Powerful documentary, brilliantly executed. Cuts right through to the core of the matter, and gives a voice to a few of the zillion people who call Jakarta home. As this documentary shows, life is hard going and unfair for 99% of Jakarta’s residents. If you visit, or work as an expat there, you tend to live in a bubble of sorts. This documentary well and truly pops that bubble. Good show. 

Mark Gregory :
07 Apr 2013 3:24:58pm

 Very moving and informative exploration of Indonesian politics and life, this shows the power of radio documentary making use of all the possibilities of interviews, narration, street soundscapes and music, when painstakingly and lovingly combined. And I loved the finale where in court the sister of the victim of police brutality raised her fist and shouted “Victims we will never be silent”. Encore!


IW :
07 Apr 2013 4:01:52pm


           Excellent journalism. Intimate stories that reflect the views of the little people, in their words. A good reflection of the improvements in Indonesian civil society. Small people are now prepared to stand up. The story had an excellent historical and development context.


r manning :
07 Apr 2013 4:48:23pm


Absolutely brilliant! It is the story of something so very wrong which cries out to be redressed. When you believe you have right on your side, it brings out the courage, tenacity and confidence to stand your ground. One woman’s story was beautifully told to show an insight into an all pervasive practice condone by people in power. Well done to the production team who told the story. This should be a fine example of bravery to all the voiceless people around the world who have suffered and/or suffering injustice.

Christine Croyden : 08 Apr 2013 2:36:52pm

I loved this documentary. The sophisticated and vivid story telling is engrossing, and the Indonesian voices and sounds cutting through the narrative give it such a strong sense of place.
Begs the question of how things will go for Afghanistan, considering its 15 years since Indonesia became a democracy and the road ahead is still so precarious … with feral police, superstition and its bloody history. Yet, it seems the people are hopeful and beginning to claim their human rights… great to see/hear/learn.

Allan Gardiner :
28 Apr 2013 5:15:10pm


Only a paucity of Indonesia’s fragmented folk ever get to hear of the atrocities fomenting the home-grown strategic stranglehold there, and not until this sordid stricture’s sufficiently throttled back will this strangely strung-out archokedipelago ever have hope of becoming a decidedly decongested democracy, and even then it’d still be perceived for quite some time thereafter as being but a struggling phlegmocracy at b_est’ranged.

RADIO YOU CAN”T SWITCH OFF

More casual but no less heartfelt comments came in via the ABC’s general feedback site. One listener, Fiona, wrote:

Hi, I have listened to the above radio program and wish to compilment the producers and all those involved in this program. I was riveretted to the program and put off going out so I could listen. A great story, i really enjoyed to background history of Djkarta which helped put the story into context. I often the background sounds and music to these radio documentries annoying, but in this case they really enhanced the time and place and reality of the family and their struggles. Excellent work. I love 360 documentaries! And please excuse my very poor spelling!

I’m heartened by Fiona’s response. As she says, her spelling may not be 100%, but she engaged with the program with alert ears and an open mind – and the best compliment any radio maker can get is that someone is held spellbound by the program, and cannot leave. The power of radio to reach so many diverse listeners was echoed by another comment on the website, from an academic, Professor Craig Reynolds, a historian of South-East Asia, at the Australian National University. While it was great to hear a specialist of his standing praise our content, what was also interesting was that at one level his response was similar to that of Fiona – getting sucked in to listen: ‘I thought this was compelling radio that showed a side of Indonesia invisible to most outsiders… I came upon the program quite by accident and found I couldn’t leave it!’

Mourners walking to Yusli's grave

Mourners walking to Yusli’s grave

RADIO FOLK LIKE IT TOO

Most listeners, understandably, don’t know how a radio documentary is constructed – who is responsible for what, and how it’s put together. E.g. Jacqui did the field recordings, drawing on her in-depth knowledge of the culture to get close to our informants, but it was my task to distil a 50-minute coherent narrative out of over 30 hours of tape, and to do so in a way that allowed the personal stories to unfold as intimately as if they were speaking directly to the listener. So it was gratifying to get feedback from radio practitioners, alive to the complexities of sounding simple!

 John Biewen, editor of Reality Radio and an accomplished documentary maker and teacher at the Centre for Documentary Studies at Duke University, North Carolina, wrote:

Talk about sure-handedness! It’s a pleasure to listen to a piece so skillfully made — the deft blending of evocative ambient sounds, voice and voiceover, narration and music…. And the content is riveting. This was all news to me… Fascinated by the rhythms and surfaces of life in Jakarta (such nice writing there), then gradually absorbing the enormity of the dark underbelly. The story of the neighborhood lynching is grippingly told. And Yeni is a wonderful find. Love her bravery, and her optimism (“Indonesia is changing”), which can seem poignant at first but struck me as justified precisely because of what she herself was doing.

Colm McNaughton, who has made acclaimed, edgy documentaries about fraught political/security situations in Mexico, Guatemala and Northern Ireland, called it ‘a powerful and compelling piece of radio. Many of the ‘episodes’ weave narration, wild sounds and interviews with real mastery.’

But one listener at least was immune to the charm of the elaborate soundscape of EPM.  James Hay, who runs a beauty/tanning business, wrote to the ABC complaining that it was ‘a terrible documentary. I could hardly hear what was being said because of all the background noise.’

ACADEMIC RESPONSE

At an academic level, reaction has been very positive. On the adaptation of scholarly research for audio, a post-graduate ‘auto-anthropologist’ and artist was enthusiastic: ‘It’s incredibly complex, but does not at all seem laboured. It must have been a LOT of work! …I love how you connect a somewhat brutal ‘Magical Realism’ with ‘True Crime‘ and ‘Social Justice’, without preaching.’

Two lecturers, one at Charles Sturt University and one at Australian National University, have advised that they intend to use EPM as a set ‘text’, for Justice Studies and Asia Pacific Internal Security respectively. An Emeritus Professor of Islamic Studies told Jacqui she wept throughout the program, whose evocations of Indonesia she called ‘beyond brilliant’. She took issue with the translations of the voiceover in the first section, at Matraman – and she is correct that we did not literally translate every word spoken by Irfan, our first speaker. We had to let his voice establish itself in Bahasa, which meant the English translation was curtailed. The whole voice-over issue was trickier than I anticipated in fact – a steep learning curve.

INDONESIAN LISTENER GIVES THUMBS UP

And what of Indonesians’ response? We are still working on a Bahasa version to air in Indonesia.  Meanwhile, this Indonesian listener’s response to the ABC program was touching and heartening.

The backsounds and music are great, I enjoy it thoroughly. You brought me back to Indonesia. It feels so kampung and so rakyat! I love it! (I dance on some parts 🙂 )…. Listening this doco, you convinced me that you really-really-really concern to this issue, due to your heart and for the sake of your concern to humanities.  The way you narrate this story is wholeheartedly beautiful, it compensate the odd feelings that I got when hearing my country’s ulcer wounds revealed.’

Even the preliminary feedback above shows how a radio documentary takes on a life of its own once it hits the airwaves. Just as a book or film can have diverse, often opposed meanings for individual readers or viewers, every listener brings his or her individual imagination and attitude to a program. As the creators of the broadcast, we cannot control the reaction of the audience. A huge part of the satisfaction of making radio documentary derives from the multiple interpretations a creative work elicits.

Likewise, a listener rarely encounters more than the artefact, the finished work. But here, we get to say how we did what we did, and why, and how. In this one-hour seminar  one-hour seminar at University of Wollongong, Jacqui and I discuss the long emergence of Eat Pray Mourn, from our chance meeting in 2011 to the broadcast two years later. Love to hear your thoughts.

Relatives hold a picture of Yusli, killed in police custody

Zia holds a picture of her uncle, Yusli, killed in police custody

While on a study tour of the US last year, I interviewed key figures among US radio innovators including Jay Allison, founder of the sell-out live storytelling show, The Moth, and a seminal figure in US public broadcasting for over 35 years, John Biewen, of Duke University Centre for Documentary Studies, and Julie Shapiro, curator, Third Coast Audio, a lively Chicago indie audio forum. All viewed Radio National’s arts/features mandate and output with a mixture of admiration, delight and envy. Allison, despite his standing, spends the equivalent of one day a week fundraising, so parlous is the support for public radio in the US, where some 28% of the population nominate Fox as their primary source of ‘trusted news and information’. Underfunded as it is, RN is precious, as are its best producers, whose sophisticated programs consistently punch above their weight, as their many prestigious awards testify. Yet under proposed new changes, some of RN’s most distinguished programs and program-makers face cutbacks and even extinction.

 

The 2013 schedule will establish a Creative Audio Unit to showcase a ‘Storytelling Movement’ modelled on US initiatives such as Allison’s The Moth and Jonathan Mitchell’s fictional/improvisational The Truth. Both formats could translate easily to an Australian context. They are relatively cheap to produce and could attract a new youth demographic to RN. But they should complement rather than replace or downgrade what RN already does so well: documentary, features and drama. As Allison told me, ‘one story form doesn’t rise up and destroy the other.’

 

RN programs such as Hindsight and 360 Documentaries (where I am an occasional producer) tell mostly non-fiction stories that greatly enrich the intellectual capital of Australia. Far from being elitist, this highly textured/researched format can reach people who might otherwise not know about important issues – you don’t even have to be literate to ‘get’ radio. But while storytelling on radio can be simple, it should not be simplistic; RN’s documentary output remains enduring because, besides its insight, gravitas, inventive sound design and general elan, it does what any well grounded research should do: it fills a clear gap in knowledge.

 

I was commissioned for instance to record the first substantial numbers of  ‘ethnic’ voices on the ABC (migrant workers from the Snowy Mountains Scheme), the untold stories of Australian women in the Vietnam war and the neglected history of sectarianism in pre-multicultural Australia. The collective RN output in arts and features over many years represents a vital social, cultural and historical archive of Australian life. Yet this culture of excellence is now under threat, with ‘built’ programs set to be effaced by panels peddling vacuous chat and opinion under the new Radio Lite.

 

There will be a net loss of eight positions, including two from Features shows Hindsight, 360Documentaries and Into the Music. Surviving producers will have increased output, which will, I am told, result in ‘a more superficial treatment of the ideas’. The pleasing aural aesthetic will be diminished, as two sound engineer positions go. The richness of immersion or observational documentary will be unattainable. I am currently making a 360 which will present a colleague’s Bahasa-language anthropological research as very human stories of crime, punishment and magical thinking in Indonesia, thereby extending the ordinary Australian’s understanding of this complex culture – surely an important issue, as we mark the tenth anniversary of the Bali bombings. But with no further ability to fund work in translation (because it takes so much extra time), either freelancers will have to take on that burden at their own expense, or future documentaries will be Anglophone – a grotesque limitation given our region and demographics. In Drama, three producers will lose their jobs, Airplay and other programs will be axed, and the fate of 39 slated productions and associated artists is unknown.

 

In a podcasting age, RN’s specialist programs exert influence around the world, and can play a key role in helping the ABC to fulfil its mandate to educate and inform, and even extend democratic principles by disseminating rigorously researched documentaries and imaginatively produced arts content to listeners in constrained societies. In 2010 I witnessed a budding drama producer in Shiraz, Iran, revel in listening to Airplay when occasional internet access permitted (the BBC and American outlets were barred). To cut him and his ilk off from this artistic oxygen is to abrogate the democratic calling of the national broadcaster.

To make redundant the likes of Sharon Davis (four Walkleys) and Jane Ulman (winner of several Prix Italias – the ‘Nobel prize’ of radio), currently on the cards, would be like sacking David Simon (The Wire) and Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) for taking television writing to unprecedented heights. A Creative Audio Unit is not in itself a bad idea, and I like RadioLab, The Truth and This American Life as much as anyone – but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater in rushing to ape US vogues.

This article was originally published 16 October by New Matilda, at 

http://newmatilda.com/2012/10/16/radio-national-needs-all-kinds-storytellers

Back: Jane Messer, Christine Croyden, Siobhan McHugh
Front: Jacqui Baker, Catherine Gough-Brady at Varuna

Varuna pulled off its usual magic. Five women gathered there for a week, to work on wildly different projects, united by a love of radio and storytelling. There was Jane Messer, with Dear Mr Chekov, a fictional story that moves between the penal colony of Sakhalin Island, off the east coast of Russia, and the Great Barrier Reef. Christine Croyden was seeking to adapt stage work, such as her acclaimed A Fallen Tree, for radio – her first venture in the medium. Catherine Gough-Brady was working on a highly textured sound work for ABC RN’s The Night Air, about Suleiman the Magnificent’s trip from Istanbul to Vienna in 1529. And anthropologist Jacqui Baker and I were taking the first daunting steps on a Bahasa-language feature, Rough Justice in Jakarta,  a blend of magic realism, documentary and soundscape that shows the complexities of a post-authoritarian society still deeply enmeshed in corruption, magical thinking and communitarianism.

this magpie looks deceptively mild here

And there was the dive-bombing magpie! Its nest must have been near the beautifully blossoming plum trees we passed on our way to the studio. A spring ritual, it swooped on anyone who got too close. Hence my adoption of a basin from the laundry as headgear! Others opted to wear sunglasses on the back of their head, to trick it into thinking they had two sets of eyes.

But despite the dangers of negotiating the path, the Indonesian story slowly, painfully started to emerge. I’ve never set foot in Indonesia, nor had I really heard the language spoken before, but at the end of a week’s immersion, I’m starting to pick up on its rhythms, and warm to the characters we depict. More of that anon.

Anti-magpie headgear

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.

A geo-spatial approach to documentary. But what about the story?

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.

Image

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)

References

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

http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-Jan-2003/peterslittle.html

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!

Project Leader Al Thomson (standing) with oral historians

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.

Jeannine Baker, Rob Willis and Jo Kijas try out retro Sony mic

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.

WANTED!

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)

Post-War Migrants

Working-Class Folk

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!).

Kevin Bradley, audio guru, explaining a cardiod microphone.

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!

Siobhan trying out Sound Device with interviewer Jill Kitson. I must remember not to hold the mic!

13 states, five weeks, thousands of kilometres, from the swelter of a Louisiana bayou to the glorious fall foliage of Vermont…

Interviews with wonderful radio-makers and visionaries, and with oral history venerables… will write about that soon.

Favourite place N’Awlins, just because of those folks’ big heart and unstoppable music. We stayed in Treme, oldest African-American neighbourhood in the US, and badly hit by Katrina. Sad to see boarded up houses and even worse, vacant blocks, where everything had been wiped out. But the Treme Brass Band still plays wild music every Wednesday night in the old neighbourhood hall – $5 gets you rice and beans and the best live jazz music you’ll ever hear. I’m a hopeless fan of the TV series of course – so it was cool to see the oh-so-elegant elder of the band, in his crisply pressed trousers and white hat, presiding over an increasingly exuberant occasion. I ended up on the dance floor, along with everyone else, including the bartender – a woman who insisted we could not be allowed to walk the two blocks home. Instead, she lined up a ride home for us – with the leader of the Treme Brass Band, Mr Benny Jones. An absolute highlight – thank you ma’am!

 

Live with the Treme Brass Band

 

Washington was a surprise; hadn’t realised how impressive that monument mile is.  Wonderful tour of the Capitol with insider Don Ritchie, Senate Historian there since 1976. I met Don back in the ’90s when he chaired a session I did at the Oral History Association of Australia in Alice Springs in central Australia. The red dust of Alice a bit of a change from D.C.!

 

Donald Ritchie, US Senate Historian, gave me a splendid tour of the awesome Capitol in Washington D.C

 

Also a memorable hike on the Cranberry Bogs of Massachusetts with Studs Terkel’s old friend and collaborator, the funny, astute and delightful Sydney Lewis and her hospitable friend Sarah, ace broiler of swordfish.

A hike in the Cranberry Bogs with Sydney, Sarah and two joyful mutts

Music all over N’Awlins

On our first morning in the French Quarter, we happened on this curious quartet: a soulful African-American woman singing and playing clarinet, what looked like her daughter, aged about eight, on a pink drum set, a fabulous guy on rhythm tuba behind, and this odd little white kid hanging around with a trumpet. He didn’t play while we were there, but once did a sort of shuffle towards the spectators. She sang and then went into what seemed like effortlessly soaring clarinet – listen to it here. And that was just Day One!

new orleans busker

Later, at DBA, a club on Frenchman’s with free or very cheap entry, we heard Glenn David Andrews. Glenn had a colourful past, we were told, had been in prison and stuff, but was getting back in touch with the community and had appeared in Treme, the HBO series we loved, along with his cousin, the fabulous Trombone Shorty. Wearing a t-shirt and boardshorts, Glenn didn’t look as cool as his backing musicians – but once he started playing that trombone, we were gone. He came down on the floor to sing Happy Birthday to a friend, brandishing and working the instrument and sounding like a young bull elephant about to charge. And funny too – ‘ I want y’all to dance – even you white folks’. For energy, soul and pzazz, he was the best live act we’d ever seen – until the next night, when the Treme Brass Band played the CandleLit Lounge.

Glen David Andrews at DBA club Sept 2011

Beneath all the partying was the ever-present pall of Katrina. Vacant blocks among the colourful housing in the Treme area looked innocuous, but each one had once been a home. Other houses were boarded up, or showed obvious damage. What enrages residents even now is that

a) it could have been avoided: the hurricane was a natural disaster, but the impact was manmade – the levees were not built deep enough and using properly constituted soil, so they could withstand the floods

b) emergency relief was slow and inadequate, because New Orleans folk were largely black and poor. Can’t imagine the same pathetic response happening in Boston or New York, eh.

We stayed with a lovely couple in Treme, Michael, a native New Orleanser, and David, a ‘convert’ from New England. They were lucky – they ‘only’ had about four foot of water in their home, a converted corner pub. David cried when I asked him about the casualties. The numbers didn’t even depict the reality, he said. So many folk died later, due to fractured families and broken hearts. The effects were felt in little ways for so long – like the fact that two years after Katrina, inner city residents like David still did not get mail delivered to their home. I found that astonishing in a country as rich as the US – but here’s David, telling it like it was.

David from Treme 

Homes damaged by Katrina - and vacant lots where homes razed.

Chuffed to be the first writer of the 365 writer-a-day App launched by Varuna, the Writers’ House at Katoomba in the fabulous Blue Mountains west of Sydney. It will ultimately get to Itunes, but meanwhile, link is here. I read a short passage from ‘Minefields and Miniskirts’. Nothing fancy – had to do it in one take when the builder across the road finally put away his power tools for lunch – afraid at any moment he’d start up again!

 

smchugh@uow.edu.au

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