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

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.

Family mourn the death of Yusli, 23.

Family mourn the death of Yusli, 23.

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:

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/360/eat-pray-mourn/4598026

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.

The crammed kampung where a lynching took place

The crammed kampung where a lynching took place

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.’

Unknown

 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.

RealityHungerWe 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’.

SONIC STORYTELLING

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.

iskz9iql4xzl_160x400Later 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 JeffersonMargo 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.

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.

 

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.

http://www.nla.gov.au/amad/nla.oh-vn1944249

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:

Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story Than a Human Reporter?

Varuna Writers’ Centre in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney is a very special place. Former owners Eleanor and Eric Dark made the house and gardens a haven that nurtured their writing, their politics, and their relationships. Their son Mick Dark bequeathed it to the writing community, an act of great generosity, which somehow imbues this place with a writerly alchemy that fosters not just creativity but collegiality. I have felt both comforted and inspired every time I stay here.

 

Varuna in the mist (photo: Varuna, the Writers' House)

 

I started the script for my radio series Marrying Out in Eleanor’s own studio, happily isolated in the garden for hours on end, trying to bring order to hours and hours of tape. When I got mired in the myriad possibilities of a chaotic narrative, I’d shut the laptop and head for the escarpment. That endless horizon would fire up the neurones and calm the fear –  fear of deadlines, of unmanageability, of failure. A drink around the fireplace with the four other resident  writers, and the stimulating conversation that ensued over  Sheila’s enticing dinners would round off the day, leaving me tired but hopeful, ready to try again next day. And lo and behold – whatever magic is in the Varuna air, I’d always leave at the end of a week with a sense of achievement. It might not be finished, but at least I now knew where it was going.

 

So I’m delighted to be invited to host the very first Writing for Radio workshop at Varuna, from Sept 24-October 1st this year. There are just four places, open to all kinds of radio makers. The cost is $1600, which covers food, accommodation, work space and mentoring by me. Whether you have a half-finished project, or just the germ of an idea, this is your chance to immerse yourself in the principles of writing for the ear, using sound as well as words to tell story, among kindred spirits. I have taught radio production for over 20 years, and with the help of Varuna’s very special atmosphere, I look forward to helping you develop your own writing/radio work.

Varuna blossom (photo: Varuna, the Writers' House)

Sound is a highly affective medium, operating at a sensory, emotional and cognitive level – just think of how music can conjure emotions and affect mood. Words achieve special force on radio; besides their literal meaning, there is a wealth of social, cultural and emotional content embedded in the sound: accent, tone, timbre, delivery, create a unique auditory impact. This residency will allow writers to harness the power of voice and the intimacy of radio to create a work that can simultaneously engage heart and mind.

Residency information and application HERE.

SELECTION PROCESS:

Participants can submit a sample of their proposed project in audio or print form. Audio should be not more than 15 minutes long, delivered via CD as good quality MP3 or WAV recording; script to be not more than 50 pages.

All projects should contain a summary of theme, approach and anticipated outcome (genre, length of final audio piece), a rationale for why the project is suited to radio, and a short statement of your objectives in taking this residency.

Please include a CV with relevant writing and radio background and interests.

SCHEDULE:

June 1: Applications due.
         Aug 1: Successful writers notified.

PROGRAM:

Day One: 5-7pm: Introductory Workshop where participants outline projects and aims, and receive feedback from Siobhan and peers. Dinner as a group. After dinner, we listen to a radio feature for inspiration and diversion.

Day Two: 5-7pm: Group critique of individual work done today. Each writer receives practical feedback and mentoring from Siobhan. Dinner as a group. After-dinner radio feature.

Day Three-Five: as Day Two.

Day Six: 5-7pm and After Dinner: Presentation of Work and Critique by group.

Day Seven: Final 30’ individual session with Siobhan.

NOTE: Siobhan will also accept audio excerpts to listen to during the day: up to 30’ per person per day. These would be drafts and redrafts of the work in progress.


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!

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.

Siobhan, Prof Mick Dodson and Shelly Lowe, Navajo nation and Executive Director, HUNAP, at Harvard

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).

Jay Allison and Siobhan at the lovely town of Woods Hole MA October 2011

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.

Enjoying a classic Chicago hot dog with Dan Terkell

smchugh@uow.edu.au

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