Saturday, December 11, 2010

A movie for the movement, not for the class

In my Visual Research Methods class we were given assignments to create movies.  For the activists in the class (and there were a lot of us!) we came upon some issues of audience and purpose.  Before this class I was experimenting in making movies for "the movement"; basically capturing actions and activism of different movements I am involved in: the student movement, the immigrant's rights movement, the undocumented student movement, the feminist movement, the queer rights movement,  the anti-racist movement, the worker's rights movement, the media justice movement, the global health movement and every combination and connecting movements.  But in making films for this class I was to make films based in the film and media theory we were learning and my audience was my professor and my classmates.  Things I was doing such as putting up video clips with my "voice" coming across as text between clips asserted myself as the voice of authority, and putting music to the images is a manipulative tool to incite emotions.  I needed to push myself to create self-reflexive films as well as to think about the ethical consequences of revealing people's full names, legal statuses, and locations.  At one point I had to make an ethnography and I was challenged to do so without doing it on a group that necessarily trusted me.  This pushed me to think about what should be done in terms of relationship building before filming people.  However, my work for class still differs from my work for the movement.  I would not place text on video or photographs for a class project, but I would for an educational video.

This brings me to what I am posting here: Eddie, an organizer for the a local day labor organizing center asked me to make a film of this years actions that the Day Laborers have been involved with to show at a recent event.  The funny thing is that afterward everyone was asking me to please put it on the internet.  Many of these people were part of or associated with the people who were considerably "concerned" over my video "Una Mirada a los Invisibles" being on the internet for fear of inciting Minute Men backlash.  I was wary and decided against it.  My video was then shown on Pitzer College's campus (and I was notified about 10 minutes in advance) at one of their weekly Day Laborer/student "Encuentros" and the next thing I know I am being asked to please put it on the internet so that the organizing center can put it on their website.  I finally decided to do it.  Since its on the internet I thought I might as well share it on my blog for all to see, so here it is:

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Part 1 (of 10). Introduction: Meet Dreamers Adrift

   I am writing this paper about digital storytelling vis-a-vis a particular digital storytelling project called Dreamers Adrift, which according to their social media site is: “A creative project ABOUT undocumented students, BY undocumented students, and FOR undocumented students.” Elsewhere on the site it says they are “4 Undocumented College Graduates speaking up for themselves and other undocumented youth.” The ways in which they “speak up” is through videos they make collaboratively and host on Youtube, then spread on the internet via a website, a Facebook page, word of mouth and its electronic equals, sharing and reposting. The collaborators in the project are DREAMers, a term used by those who fall into the groups who would be affected if the DREAM Act were to pass. The DREAM Act would provide a road to citizenship for undocumented youth who entered the country before they were 16 and either attended two years of college or did two years of military service. It was first introduced in 2001 but has failed to pass thus far even though it has undergone recent changes to become more appealing to bipartisan support.

Meet Julio, Deisy, Jesus and Fernando (pictured above), graduates of California State University Long Beach and the creative minds behind Dreamers Adrift. This picture was drawn by Julio, a prolific artist who spends much of his time and energy drawing for “the movement,” most of which is specific to the DREAM Act passing. These 4 believe that the act will pass, maintaining that, as the top right corner of this website screen-shot says, “The DREAM Lives On...” and as Jesus’s voice says at the end of the following video, “the DREAM Act is alive, the DREAM Act is alive.”

This video is a great way for the Dreamers to introduce themselves; it is called Día de los Sueños, a video for Dia de los Muertos with a DREAM Act twist.

This was the first collaborative video made by Dreamers Adrift, though Jesus made three videos in video-blog format before this one, the first of which was posted on the Dreamers Adrift Youtube on September 30, 2010.

Part 2. Some history of the Project

As I said, Jesus made video blogs first. Here is an example of one in which he links Arnold voting down the California DREAM Act to capitalism.

But he found himself wanting to do more than a video blog:

        As Jesus said, there was “something missing” in manipulating ones own image which led the project to become collaborative.  This is reminiscent of the thoughts of Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas who rejected the idea of directors and called for collaborative filmmaking in order to make cinema of revolution.   Less than three months later, the foursome have created five more videos, are in post-production on one more, and uploaded Jesus’s graduation speech at the 2007 Chican@/Latin@ graduation.  But looking further back, these four were members together of FUEL CSULB, a campus organization for AB540 students.  After all four had graduated, Fernando and Deisy in 2009 and Julio in 2010, they created a collaborative digital storytelling project along with three other people called 1.8 Million Dreams.  The project was named for the 1.8 Million DREAMers in the US, all of which they aimed to have tell their story via audio, video, photo essay, essay, poem, or artwork.  This project had complicated issues which is what spurred many of the DREAMers to leave, to run adrift.

    When I asked the Dreamers what the name “Dreamers Adrift” meant, Jesus said that the name “describes our situation, as well as our exit from the 1.8 Million Dreams project” and Deisy added that after graduation it “felt like we were drifting in some sort of limbo.”  Their narratives describe their “situation,” a word I have come to recognize as being a synonym for “undocumented.” However, the videos do more than tell their stories.  But we’ll get back to that.

Part 3. On Digital Storytelling

    Digital storytelling is a broad term that brings what is private and personal, usually stories and narratives, into the public; many times on a global scale, in mediated forms. This includes but is not limited to Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and blogging. Before webcams, video and digital cameras, and laptops were widely affordable or accessible, the traditional digital story was when an outsider with technology such as voice or video recording devices came in and recorded stories of usually underrepresented populations. This has largely changed and many of these unheard voices and stories represent themselves without the need of another person facilitating the recording.

       Today, digital storytelling is created in line with our re-mix culture as it often takes things that are already produced such as images and sounds to help people tell their stories.  There are institutions such as The Center for Digital Storytelling which assist people in creating their digital stories according to very specific guidelines in terms of length, form, and purpose, and then there are more DIY forms which are unmediated by institutions.  But in general, there are not that many models of digital storytelling and people tend to use the same structure over and over again, usually making photo slideshows with voiceovers or they talk to a webcam, their stories often confined to conventions specific to their topic.  For example, a typical digital story on being “hapa”, mentally ill, “coming out” or being “AB540” will often follow certain respective narrative patterns which one can decipher with a little Youtube or Blog research.  

Here is an example of an AB540 Digital Story created by 1.8 Million Dreams:

Part 4. On the 1.8 Million Dreams Project

  The 1.8 Million Dreams project was much like the traditional digital story and basically identical to the institutional digital story in that the group would come in and capture the person’s story of being undocumented using expensive, professional equipment and uploading it to their website. Unlike the traditional and institutional forms however, the project members were not exactly outsiders as four out of seven of them were also undocumented and 1.8 Million Dreams was not in fact an institution. It appeared that 1.8 had two goals according to their website: to “serve as a resource for those currently working on undocumented student issues at the state and federal level” and “to empower the current 1.8 million undocumented students across the United States by putting a face to the number.” They believed that the storytelling process would benefit the specific students and that the captured stories would also help to further immigration reform.

Their videos are formulaic. They were created in an interview format, with the interviewer out-of-frame and asking the same open-ended questions to each subject: “how did you come to this country”, “how was it growing up and going to high school in the US”, “what were struggles you have faced” and “what are you doing to help pass the DREAM Act?” This formula in many ways mirrors the typical AB540 testimonial in which students were coached to talk about their lives and the struggles they faced as a student.

Here is a little more on that:

Part 5. Breaking Form: Dreamers Adrift and Fluidity

The new project of Dreamers Adrift has somewhat abandoned the typical AB540 narrative, the so-called “sob story” and adapted a much more fluid expression. Here Deisy talks about the differences between the projects.

The fluidity of the Dreamers Adrift project manifests in that one day they are using personal voiceover narratives, the next they are telling a creative story and acting, they are creating a short documentary of a political action, and, most recently, using stop-motion animation, all the while changing roles in terms of who is holding the camera, coming up with the ideas, and hosting the filming.

Here is their stop-motion piece:

Part 6. On Ethics and Digital Storytelling

There are often ethical issues in digital storytelling projects. Traditionally this referred to when Western, privileged experts/professionals captured Third World images, thus owning them. But this power dynamic and issue of ownership continues. In the 1.8 Million Dreams project, the project members are the owners of the images of the subjects, many of whom were friends with the members. These images are on the internet, available to be seen globally, basically forever. Larry Friedlander discussed how the idea of ownership has changed in a digital age. “In a networked world all texts can be appropriated, so the very notion of proprietary authorship becomes problematic (Freidlander, 182).” These images are vulnerable and available to be used in any way that a viewer decides. But the subjects trusted the project members, and signed waivers stating that they understood the risks. What they didnt’ know was that the 7 person so-called collaborative project faced problems when one of the members, the “artist-expert ” and filmmaker, a US citizen, did not allow anyone else to handle the equipment, or have or edit the material.
       This caused the members who were DREAMers (and were also subjects in the project) to feel like they were not in fact collaborating but working for the expert. John Hartley says that “the expertise of the filmmaker or documentarist when coupled with a ‘parallel’ intelligence from the lay population can result in new and compelling stories that do credit to both parties (Hartley, 205).” This I believe was the idea of the project, to couple art, creativity and aesthetics with the personal expertise of the subjects for “the movement.” But the artist-expert was concerned about having their name, like an auteur, on the videos, and having them be consistent with their vision, and this is what caused the Dreamers to run Adrift. And by abandoning the formulaic, standardized film-form of 1.8, they were able to create self-made media not limited by these conventions or video-art standards which demand expensive equipment and programs.

The Dreamers discuss the problems with the previous project:

         I would like to focus briefly on some ethical dilemmas that the Dreamers discussed in the above video. Jesus describes the confusion he felt that the artist-expert said he wanted to help AB540 students’s voices be heard meanwhile not listening to the AB540 voices in his own group. “Giving voice” has been a historical project of Digital Storytellers, but not all of these storytellers do this with the sole intention of social change. I will discuss this concept later in the paper in terms of both voice and visibility. Related to this is the emphasis on art as being in the hands of the camera-holder. All art is created via collaboration and is a bottom up phenomenon. Artists could not create what they are creating if they did not have other art as models; it is silly to place so much weight on a single artist’s name at the expense of having help and sharing credit.
        Another issue discussed was the publishing of the confidential, anonymous videos on public pages, basically “outing” people to their social networks. This brings up the issue of who owns your right to publicity. Though someone might own your image, you own the right to guard that image and control its use; the image should not be placed anywhere you didn’t agree to. A final issue I will end with on the previous project is that the artist-expert maintained the name, the footage and the project even though the idea was created as a group and the footage taken together. This is something that may or may not be considered an ethical issue, but I find it disrespectful and a misuse of power.
         In terms of the current project there are no longer issues of owning others’s images or the power-imbalance of the “expert” and the “layperson.” But a critique that comes up in digital storytelling often is “self-exploitation.” This is something I will not argue either way, it is just something to think about. Lastly, something that affects most all user-generated digital storytellers is the issue of corporate control of the internet including Facebook, Blogger, and Youtube-two of the three of which are owned by Google. Within this corporate framework are issues of censorship for reasons of copyright, flagging by anti-immigrant users, and rigid limitations such as time limits on Youtube and page limits on Blogger. Again, this is not something I have an answer to, more of a responsibility I feel I have to point it out.


Part 7. Julio's DREAM Act Art

Julio stated in an interview that his anger turned into creativity and he began making art for the movement. Here is a slideshow of that art.

Part 8. On Visibility

     I mentioned earlier that I would be discussing visibility and voice.  Communications and Media scholar Nick Couldry succinctly defines digital storytelling as “the idea that each person has a voice and a story” and cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner defines narrative as “a central mode of human thought and as a vehicle of meaning making” (Couldry 58, Erstad and Wertsch 28).  James Wertsch says that narratives are important cultural tools which help people to form their identities both collectively and individually.  (Erstad and Wertsch 29)  In telling their stories, Dreamers Adrift are really telling counter-narratives, creating representation for the underrepresented, and using identity politics.  But the Dreamers are not telling their stories with the purpose of forming their identities or to make meaning of their lives, they are telling their stories as part of the project of “remapping and renaming (Shohat 290).”  Ella Shohat describes this as when “the Third World and its diasporas in the First World rewrite their own histories, take control over their own images, and speak in their own voices (ibid.).”
    Central to the politics of digital storytelling is that it employs the transformation of the private into the public which can go hand in hand with the feminist principle of making the personal political.  Similar to the public/private concept is what bell hooks describes as “coming to voice” or “moving from silence into speech as revolutionary gesture (hooks 12).”  She goes on to say that in speaking,  “one moves from being object to being subject.  Only as subjects can we speak.  As objects, we remain voiceless-our beings defined and interpreted by others (ibid.).”  This is an important part of self-representation, remapping and renaming, but it is important to note that digital storytelling does a whole lot more than speak, it makes one visible.  The following video deals with the dangerous and high-risk issue of becoming visible as undocumented.

       Audre Lorde said that the "visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength (Lorde 42).” As Deisy, Julio and Fernando described, the visibility of “undocumented unafraid” students was powerful because of the power in numbers and also because of the exponential power inherent in inspiration. I am often asked how I am able to spend my energy on activism and volunteerism knowing that so many people don’t care or are lazy. My answer is always the same: because I also know that the people who do care are working harder than I am and risking more. Undocumented activists have everything to lose and they are my s/heroes. But while I am looking to them, they are looking to eachother. As Julio described, if he is deported he is at less risk than queer activists from other countries. Visibility in the context of Dreamers Adrift was both motivated by visibility and an expression of their own for the purposes of inspiring action. Lorde also uses the rhetoric of voice but adds to it as she believes in the “transformation of silence into language and action (Lorde 40-44).” It is not enough to solely raise one’s voice. Digital storytelling is based on the notion that every person has a voice. But where does that bring us?

Part 9. On Cinema as a Catalyst for Change

I think Dr. Alex Juhasz said it best, that visibility alone is a neutral condition. For it “to have meaning, impact, or power (beyond the indisputable pleasures of self-recognition), it needs to be connected to specific social change goals and to a real community, it needs to do more than provide information or images.” What Dreamers Adrift do is create movies to serve as catalysts for change. They make them to be shared, to spur action, education and consciousness raising. This brings to mind Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas’s call for “Third Cinema” which argued that film should be used to inspire aggressive revolutionary activity. Dr. Juhasz attests that just as there is “Third Cinema” that there is “Third Tube.” I argue that Dreamers Adrift find themselves in this category as Third World people in the US creating cinema of revolution. I realize that they are calling for liberal rather than radical change in this project, but the dream does not die if the DREAM Act passes, it would just provide more inspiration and FUEL.

Part 10. Conclusion: Watch the Science of Dream. Then do something.

       This is the video I got to watch get made. As new as the Dreamers Adrift project is, they have gotten a lot of press attention and positive viewer feedback and had one of their videos featured in an online news article on the DREAM Act. Yesterday the DREAM Act passed in the House of Representatives. This is something the Dreamers have been fighting for for almost 10 years and it is the first time it has passed. Today it goes up for a vote in the Senate and I am happy to know that not only does the revolution not end if the DREAM Act passes, but that the undocumented activists who have fought all this time are feeling so validated by the House vote that even if it doesn't pass, as Jesus said, "the DREAM Act is alive, the DREAM Act is alive."

One important thing I learned about digital storytelling that I would like to end with is that it is not meaningful unless it is in the context of social change.  Self-made videos for the movement are great examples of ways to skirt the ethical issues of capturing others images, creative issues such as being confined to rigid formulas, and non-revolutionary issues such as being created for the filmmaker's personal expression. These self-made videos for the movement are part of Third Tube, they are digital cinema of revolution.

Last thoughts? Watch movies. Make movies. Be inspired. Make change.