On July 3rd, I sent copies of the first 10 video profiles to the women featured new in the i-doc. They were given no instructions other than to look at the video and to make sure that I hadn’t missed any photographers for credits, or that I hadn’t used a photograph or video from their feed that they preferred not to be seen in the online film.
I am always worried about doing things like this. There’s the whole artist creation and editorial control portion of my work, which would me that I’m making the project with me as the “auteur.” I have final say, and the subject needs to trust that they fit into a larger part of “my” creation.
However, oral history demands something different. That I share the authority with my narrators to tell their own stories. I tend to error on this side of things, putting my journalistic hat away (as best as I can). To be accepted within the subculture, I need to recognize that the subculture’s members should have agency in telling their own stories.
That balancing act can be difficult.
Granted, these aren’t “official” oral histories. The interviews were 15-30 minutes long each using the platform Skype or Facetime. If I were doing an oral history, I would have spent longer in interrogations, with interviews lasting 2-3 hours. We would have explored the family history of the individual women, followed diversions, gone more in depth.
Done the interviews in person.
But the advantage to this process is that I’m better able to represent the global scope of this subculture, without having to travel to far-flung locations for interviews. I’ve talked to women from South African, Sweden, Norway, the UK, and Canada, plus across the United States. I would have had this geographic access without arranging the interviews this way. It’s a weird process, but the comfort of the women in their own homes may make up for the lack of in-person interview. The conversations use video cameras, so I can see the women and they can see my encouragement and reactions.
This the worth more analysis, but I can say initially that doing an interview virtually doesn’t necessarily erase the emotional and mental toll on the interviewer. I was sure to record only 2-3 interviews per day to limit my own exhaustion and to make sure that I had the ability to pay attention to the individual women. There were unexpected challenges. The interviews were all conducted in what would be considered “first” world countries in (mostly) major cities. But the internet connections weren’t always as strong as might be desired (South Africa posed a particular problem, but so did some interviews in Los Angeles).
Back to the feedback.
When you create video stories, you’re aware of specific problems within the story, probably more so than the audience members. Sometimes stories “fight” with the editor/director. By this I mean they just don’t want to go together in the way I initially think will work. The stories have internal conflicts and don’t run smoothly from quote to quote.
In this case, two of the stories in particular caused problem. One was from a woman who works with children; English isn’t her native language (all interviews were conducted in English) and she struggled to find the right work to describe the conditions of the children in her classrooms. She ended up describing how they behaved toward her as an explanation for why she didn’t wear her pin up-style clothing and make up during class time.
To me this description felt wrong, but because I didn’t have the diagnosis, I didn’t have the ability to explain the children’s conditions with a shorthand that viewers could understand. The shorthand (xyz medical condition) would allow audiences to understand the situation without graphic descriptions of behavior. But without the shorthand, I was left with only using the graphic descriptions. The story itself was interesting – because she talked about how the kids loved it when she was wearing pin up clothing and how engaged it made them with her, and helped illustrate the balancing act that these women often are forced to do. But the story as presented also just felt “wrong.” It felt intrusive and othering to the children. It didn’t fit the tone of the rest of the interview, not because it was a difficult subject, but because the language glitch made her seem insensitive.
The second story was from one of the South Africa pin ups, who was talking about the racial demographics of the subculture in her country. The problem was the language used; specifically, terms that are “fine” in her culture but not fine in the US culture. Again, the story was important, but the way that it was told could create a misunderstanding in the audience.
The women, after viewing their stories, found the same “fight.”
I understand that they’re close to the story and have a more vested interest in presenting themselves the best possible light. But this wasn’t their problem, as least as it seemed in our online conversations. They were genuinely worried that they hadn’t said something in the “right” way, in a way that represented their actual personality or facet of the subculture (sub-subculture?). I’m seeing the tension in the stories as well. My reasons may be different, but the women’s reactions tells me that as an editor/writer/director, I’m not presenting their stories in a way that makes sense.
People mispeak sometimes, or say something when interviewed off the cuff that can sound wrong when placed within a larger story. I can either go for the jugular (the “gotcha” interview) or I can try to act as an effective translator.
I don’t want to dodge difficult situations, though I know as a director I am drawn more toward stories that don’t create artificial conflict or that accentuate conflict over the relationships that people in my stories have. Real life isn’t reality television. It’s often boring and dull. But I don’t want to create a conflict just to make my documentary projects “interesting.” I want to help my narrators maintain their own sense of self, and allow them to explore difficult situations in ways that won’t cause undue emotional harm.
In this case, the fact that my own discomfort and the women’s intersected, tells me that I need to think about how the story is told. I also need to negotiate with the women to push them where I can, and to back off where the discomfort becomes too hard. In this case, I wrote to both women and explained why I thought the aspect of the story was important, and then offered potential solutions for them.
This is a really strange space to be in. I still to a large degree as a journalist. My job as such is to interpret stories and see the big picture. But the reality is that contemporary journalism has a pretty shitty reputation. Part of this is the “gotcha” interview, where people (and audiences) feel wronged by the experience. By opening up my process to the women, and by allowing a process of negotiation, I’m hoping that they can see that I similarly struggle with ways to tell stories about people.
But there’s also a huge tension. I am doing something that many journalists would look down upon and would critique. It’s a slippery slope. You offer a source the ability to “pre-vet” stories and the next time they could demand prior approval for a story process about a more difficult subject. How can you say no? You’ve opened the door by this sort of activity. You lose journalistic control.
But I’m working as a journalist within an oral history perspective. I’m not doing an investigative piece about government corruption – I’m acting as a conduit for a subculture to tell its stories. It’s a different perspective and position. I think what I’m trying to do here is to help people tell their stories and push them to tell things that may be difficult. I’m not letting them off the hook – but I’m helping them to better articulate their own life experiences. To do otherwise would be unethical. I don’t want people to dodge a difficult situation; I want to make sure that I’m not misrepresenting them while telling an emotionally true story.
It’s not something that comes easy to me. 20+ years of professional experience (and not showing interviewees stories) can’t be eliminated overnight. But I’m trying to make it clear to them that they don’t have editorial approval – but rather that I’m trying to accurately represent their experiences.