I was all set to have my birthday (10 May) at MONA, the fabulous new contemporary art museum in Tasmania, when I got word that Eat Pray Mourn, the audio feature I made with Jacqui Baker about crime and punishment in Jakarta, had been selected to be ‘screened’ at the renowned International Features Conference in Leipzig, for its fortieth year: too good to miss. My husband Chris kindly offered to defer MONA – we would finally get there on Christmas Eve..

asparagus 2

asparagus dayThus it was that I arrived on 10 May in Leipzig, jet-lagged and exhausted, to find that my birthday was being celebrated all over town – as White Asparagus Day!

Leipzig was lovely – history at every corner, and small enough to walk around. Here was the church where Bach was cantor for 27 years, a choir performing gloriously as I arrived. There’s St Nicholas, where peaceful Monday Protests began in 1989 that ended with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Goethe studied here, and Martin Luther gave a speech, and Mendelsohn composed.

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The eminent Rene Farabet with a young Portuguese audiophile

On it goes – but once the IFC convened on 11 May, there was no time for tourist stuff. It was wall-to-wall LISTENING. What an experience! Some 300 audio makers, from venerables like the elegant Rene Farabet and the very proprietorial Leo Braun to acclaimed current Prix Italia, Marulic and Europa winners to emerging artists – all of us immersed in 18 audio works over 4 days. After each listening session, we repaired in small groups for robust critiques.

My group was led by Canadian Chris Brookes, whose input was always perceptive and respectful. It was a revelation to see how the same work could polarise opinion. One person would applaud the rawness of a personal narrative, while another would lambast the producer for not introducing complex textures. We agreed on some things: the power of Hugo Lavett’s glacial pace and beautiful composition in Woman Found Dead By Lake Shore (so gripping some of us Googled to find out whodunnit), the humour in Brett Ascarelli’s attempts to prise revelation from a stubbornly unforthcoming interviewee (‘It’s Private’), the high octane adrenalin feel of Kathy Tu’s US fighter pilot, the lyrical writing of Rikke Houd’s The Woman On The Ice.

As for me, I was mortified to realise I had stuffed up in preparing the required 25min excerpt of Eat Pray Mourn. I missed the bit about it being linear – an uninterrupted sequence – and, working hastily to meet the deadline, essentially created an extended trailer of the 50min program. Three distinct protagonists and settings were butted up against each other, allowing no sense of light and shade, or narrative flow. Given that THE buzzword at IFC is Dramaturgy, or how the narrative is dramatically executed (great article on that HERE), Eat Pray Mourn could not be properly assessed. Micro aspects could be evaluated, such as sound design of a particular scene. Here too, I cringed. Listening back to the Day in the Life of a Kampung which I had so enthusiastically choreographed from Jacqui’s description of hawkers and rituals, and which ace ABC sound engineer Louis Mitchell had smoothed and enhanced, I was acutely conscious of how over-dense it felt. Let it breathe!, I admonished myself. At the time of mixing, it seemed to aurally evoke, as intended, the chaos and colour of these slum neighbourhoods. But now – coming directly after the careful stillness of Woman Found Dead By Lake Shore – it sounded over-literal, more Tell than Show. As Rene Farabet commented, in some frustration, ‘I feel as if I’m in a train travelling through a beautiful landscape, and I want to shout, “STOP!” I want to get off.’ I also grimaced at one point where I had looped the trenchant sobs of a woman – TOO MUCH, I realised now, wishing I could live-mute the track. But such is the reality of making a program to a deadline. A final mix has to be delivered – and lived with.

And there were positive comments too. Some of the younger Scandinavians, schooled in mindful dramaturgy, were unfamiliar with my rendition of a Kafkaesque bureaucracy through a kaleidoscope of office sounds mixed with surreal snippets of altercations. This piqued their interest, and led to warm exchanges – the heart of what IFC is about, a communing of like audio souls.

nikoleta

Nikoleta, from Bulgaria, whose first-ever feature was screened at IFC.

But the IFC was also a vibrant showcase of distinctive cultural traditions of audio storytelling. The Poles’ secret was based on ‘talent, vodka and patience’, declared acclaimed Belgian producer Edwin Brys, over dinner in a historic Leipzig pub. De BrysOthers mentioned their history of political oppression, which led Poles to disseminate vital national narratives as deceptively apolitical radio stories, which passed under the radar of the TV-censoring authorities. The Germans had a thriving output of sophisticated radio features from their many well-supported stations, while Bulgarian producer Nikoleta Atanasova was part of a tentative new movement, her piece exploring a young woman’s scary brush with trafficking.

Braun

Leo Braun in characteristically emphatic mode at Leipzig.

The BBC features tended to be shorter, reflecting broadcast slots of 30 minutes, compared to the more common European duration of 50-60minutes. Francesca Panetta, the innovative multimedia producer at The Guardian, showed us how genres were being stretched and blended – her works such as Firestorm are among my favourite, and it was a great treat to share dinner with her, and to hear her affirm that no matter how hi-tech digital media gets, AUDIO is always the narrative backbone and emotional heart of a complex story. And IFC Leipzig gave us plenty of proof of that – so thanks to Peter Leonard Braun for starting it all back in 1974 and long may its fellowship and robust criticism endure.

A whole year since my last post! Among the highlights: four stolen days in Paris (good as when I last visited 30 years before), Leipzig (first experience of having a radio feature I produced critiqued by peers at the IFC: intimidating but valuable), contributing to my first MOOC (about transnational audio storytelling) and settling into our new home – still astonished by the endless horizons.

austi sunset

2014 kicked off with an invitation to be the first lunchbox speaker of the year at the very civilised Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. My talk, The Affective Power of Voice, was a chance to play some choice clips to a large and engaged audience, and reflect on why and how the audio medium has such a singular impact. Serendipitously, it was national Sorry Day, and people listened to my clips of the Stolen Generations with special interest and empathy.

March/April was a hugely exciting period: the publication of the first RadioDoc Review critiques! As the paired reviews went online, with links to the audio feature, my tweets and Facebook posts were picked up and shared by the audio storytelling community around the world. Alan Hall of Falling Tree Productions summed up the elation many felt at having the opportunity, at last, to read deeply perceptive analyis by people who understand and appreciate the aesthetic and production aspects of the crafted long-form audio feature. ‘This is invaluable’, he tweeted, of RDR’s first reviews, of Pejk Malinovski’s languid exploration of Poetry, Texas.

Every one of the ten reviews in Issue One brought some fresh insight. ‘Sound is a partnership between memory and imagination’, mused Seán Street. Poetry, Texas has ‘style and substance, enamoured equals engaged in a delightful dance’, observed Kyla Brettle. Sharon Davis saluted producer Laura Starecheski’s ‘endurance and commitment’ in tracking a confined paranoid schizophrenic for some ten years, but queried the efficacy of the narrator-driven American storytelling style of The Hospital Always Wins. Michelle Boyd found much to praise, but asked why the program erased race – given that the protagonist was black, and that race was subtly implicated in his treatment. The next program reviewed, Children of Sodom and Gomorrah, made by German producer Jens Jarisch and reversioned in English by Sharon Davis, elicited awe, admiration – and suspicion – for Alan Hall.  jens leipzigHe queried Jens’s transposing of his actual response to witnessing an African boy bludgeoned to death, and repositioning it to crank up the listener’s emotional reaction. When I met Jens, at the International Features Conference in Leipzig in May, he was greatly exercised by this challenging critique, and grateful for the unflinching commentary of another accomplished feature maker such as Alan. ‘He gets what I am trying to do, and makes me think’, he told me.

In the second review of Sodom…, Virginia Madsen drew on diverse artistic works to probe its complexity. Bruegel, Bosch, Dante, and Dostoevsky all illuminate this ‘pilgrim’s jouney between heaven and hell’, she suggests. Russian literature was more directly invoked in Tim Keys and Gogol’s Overcoat, a clever, surreal blend of fact and fiction that was also blessedly funny. And as Kari Hesthamar pointed out, it’s harder to make radio features that make people laugh, than cry. Michelle Rayner also saluted this ‘tantalisingly unreliable’ production.

It wasn’t all contemporary audio. Norman Corwin, the US ‘Bard of Radio’ beloved by Studs Terkel, had his 1944 ‘folk-cantata’, The Lonesome Train, receive searching attention. David K Dunaway, a radio DJ for over 40 years and the biographer of the great Pete Seeger, pondered the tensions between history and documentary, in this show about the repatriation of Lincoln’s body. Tim Crook, meanwhile, deconstructed the program using RDR’s brand new Review Guidelines, devised by Gail Phillips, Michelle Boyd and me. His eloquent analysis got traction on Twitter from a Professor of Democracy. I’m sure Corwin would have been delighted!

RadioDoc Review (RDR) was officially launched in April 2014 at the University of Wollongong by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research, Prof Judy Raper, to mark Open Access Week – a great honour. It’s a particular thrill for me that the whole endeavour is pro bono, emerging from the generosity, insight and commitment of audio scholars and producers. Clearly that enthusiasm and knowledge should be freely available, not hidden behind subscriptions and paywalls.

RDR was barely published when I heard I’d been named the inaugural Anne Dunn Scholar of the Year. This award, administered by the Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia and the Australia and New Zealand Communications Association, commemorates academic and former ABC broadcaster Anne Dunn, whom I had last seen at the JEAA conference in 2010, when she had warmly encouraged me in the closing stages of submitting my doctorate. This was typical of her, and I was humbled to have my work in establishing RDR, among other things, acknowledged. Anne had been hoping to attend my Writing for Radio week at Varuna Writers’ Centre in Katoomba, 2012, but sadly became ill. She will be fondly remembered by many of those she mentored and supported.

2013 has been my YEAR OF AUDIO – making it, listening to it, teaching it, writing about it, and best of all, through the newly founded journal of radio documentary studies, RadioDoc Review, discovering a community of kindred spirits around the globe who share my passion for audio storytelling.

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We audio producers use the intimacy of the medium to transcend logic and cognition and go further, to gut feeling. As invited eavesdroppers, we feel part of the lives of those we are hearing, and we care deeply about them. For me this year, this was especially true of Hector, an old man from Tennessee, who read aloud an extraordinary cache of letters: correspondence between him and the man who raped and murdered his daughter. As a journey of reconciliation and redemption, it was heartstopping – heard on an episode of Radiolab called, simply, Blame.

hector_and_bianca

Hector Black, with reporter Bianca Giaever, from ‘Dear Hector’, part of ‘Blame’ on Radiolab.

Another moving audio story on the edifying power of forgiveness came from The State We’re Inthe Radio  Netherlands show that has sadly had its funding cut. Heard on Re:Sound, the remix showcase of great audio stories and sound from around the world compiled by the always diverting Third Coast Audio folk in Chicago,  Two Enemies, One Heart was an astonishing tale of  how nobility, evil and luck intersect in the lives of two men caught in the Iraq-Iran war.

But how do you keep abreast of the really compelling, memorable documentaries being broadcast every day? And what is it that makes the good ones so good? What is the secret to storytelling through sound? Sure, some shows such as the hugely successful This American Life or ABC RN’s 360 Documentaries have a consistently high standard. Winners of prestigious prizes such as Prix Italia or Third Coast Audio are also likely to be excellent. But why isn’t there a go-to site for audio documentaries where eminent critics list their favourite program, tell us why it merits selection and deconstruct how it achieves its impact, just as film critics do? That was the Eureka moment, when RadioDoc Review was born.

In July, at an international radio conference in the UK, I convened a meeting to discuss the creation of a new online journal to fill this clear gap in radio documentary studies. Excellent radio documentaries would be identified and critiqued by those best qualified for the job: award-winning producers, eminent radio scholars and significant broadcast industry figures. Key individuals volunteered, others I recruited later. By October, RDR had a website, hosted by University of Wollongong, and an international editorial board of truly impressive and diverse ‘elders’ of radio documentary – a rich store of collective expertise about, and commitment to, the extraordinary power of audio storytelling. Each nominated one documentary for the longlist, and from that, the four most popular shows were assigned two reviewers. A fifth program, designated a historical spotlight, will be critiqued each issue alongside the more contemporary works.

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Photos: Jens Jarisch

For our first issue (due March 2014), the works to be critiqued range from a startling investigation of the surreal and hellish slum where African children snatch a living by recycling First World e-waste (THE CHILDREN OF SODOM AND GOMORRAH) to a languid, charming exploration of a little town in Texas with the unlikely name of Poetry (POETRY, TX). They include the rare and shocking perspective of a paranoid schizophrenic, whose redemptive journey is tracked over ten years (THE HOSPITAL ALWAYS WINS), and a witty and delightful revisiting of the absurdist Russian writer, Gogol, through the lens of a shambolic London comic (TIM KEY AND GOGOL’S OVERCOAT).  In the HISTORICAL SPOTLIGHT is one of the great names of US radio, Norman Corwin, and his landmark program, THE LONESOME TRAIN, about the train that bore the remains of the assassinated Abraham Lincoln home for burial. Full details of programs and reviewers HERE.

The works critiqued in RDR will be preserved along with metadata, both online at RDR and in hard copy at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (rights permitting). This emerging canon will be a valuable resource for all those who share a passion for great audio documentary.

But this is only the start of where RDR can go. I hope it will also become a platform for ideas and initiatives around audio storytelling, as an aesthetic and journalistic practice, as academic scholarship, as teaching and as community building.  RDR welcomes articles and essays on these topics, or you can join the debate on Twitter (@RDREditor) and Facebook, or add comments on the RDR Journal page. We’re also happy to receive notices of relevant news, events and publications.

Documentary and feature occupy a spectrum from straightforward reportage to poetic, highly crafted sound-rich mélange. See the RDR Bibliography tab for articles on this theme (coming soon!) or listen to RDR Board member Alan Hall’s beguiling radio program on the topic, The Ballad of the Radio Feature (BBC 2008). We have set the parameters for long-form documentary/feature at (an admittedly arbitrary) 25 minutes, to allow a program to develop complexities of character, unfold story and embed research to a solid and satisfying degree. As RDR Board member and scholar David Hendy writes, “time… is the strongest tool in the documentary-maker’s kitbag”. But shorter audio stories are of course also highly effective. To salute this movement, RDR commissioned Chicago radio scholar Neil Verma to attend the ShortDocs Feast at the Third Coast Festival this year. His perceptive and engaging review captures the versatility and impact of the form.

Since RDR went live with our shortlist this month, it has already attracted a strong Twitter following, from Berlin to Vancouver, a fabulous and eclectic mixture of audio lovers and producers, from the World Listening Centre to Pedagogical Arts to the LondonSoundSurvey. In 2014, I aim to develop practical aspects of audio storytelling to complement the unfolding critical analysis: first up, a series of workshops to teach the genre, particularly to those from a disadvantaged or disenfranchised background, so that they can tell personal narratives of their own communities, and explore the ideas and cultural issues that matter to them.

And to those who thought radio was a dying medium, see my article in The Conversation, A Word in Your Ear: How Audio Storytelling Got Sexy. It’s been tweeted around the world. As that and RDR show, radio ain’t dead yet!

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Photo: CHRISSPdotCOM

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

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.

 

smchugh@uow.edu.au

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