My longtime colleague and friend, Rick Duque landed in Guatemala on Friday, May 24th. He is a professor of sociology at St. Cloud University in Minnesota. I was very excited for him to come as we have both been doing research related to putting cameras in the hands of locals in order to have them tell stories from their own perspectives. His work has largely been with adults and my work has been with youth. Because he is a sociologist and I consider myself in the cultural sociology/anthropology camp, our styles and philosophies differ slightly, but our aspirations of creating spaces for local voices are similar. Because of these differences, and like any academics, we argue from time to time. I really actually appreciate this. The differences allow for opportunities to challenge our own understandings, belief systems, and strategies. It is always a pleasure to be working with him. His scheduled his visit with us lasted for three weeks and I look forward to the conversations ahead.
Less than 24 hours later after his arrival, I had him immersed in a workshop that I held for both the Chirijox and San Juan groups. This day held particular aims – some separate and some collective. For those from San Juan, the goal was to begin envisioning their stories, both in words and in images. I was hoping that these six (now seven) young men and women from San Juan would have an opportunity to learn from the experiences of those in Chirijox thus far. For the youth from Chirijox, the idea was to have them do a little more editing and then talk through their unfinished documentaries with the San Juan group. Together, the goal: reinforce the message that we are here to learn from them. The day was simply amazing. I catch myself saying that a lot, I suppose. So why was today amazing? I’ve already spoken of Carmen in another blog post. The poise and professionalism that she displays makes one think that she is 30 years old. And while she stands out among her companions, there are other quiet subtleties to pay attention to as well.
These are seen throughout the day, which began with us all sitting in a circle and introducing ourselves to each other – Chirijox to San Juan, San Juan to Chirijox. Fabiola, Catalina, and Carmen all shared their experiences thus far and told a little about what they were working on. The students from San Juan listen and simply state their names and how old they are.
Following this, we split up into two groups – the Chirijox group worked on editing. When you watch the videos you will notice that Carmen is using iMovie and Fabiola and Catalina are using Premiere. I personally prefer Premiere because of its flexibility (and probably because I learned it in my Master’s program). It really was a result of an accident that these two are using it, but they have taken to it seamlessly and authoritatively. Now that Carmen sees its power over iMovie, it is safe to say that she wishes she had used it. Next movie, she says quietly and continues on. Just a note that Carmen has taught me things in iMovie that I’ve never seen before. And Catalina and Fabiola took to Premiere like they were experts.
While the editing was ongoing, the San Juan group had a conversation with Rick. Rick began the conversation by talking about how he became interested in being in and making films. I’ve reiterated continuously that our aim here is to listen to local voices, perspectives, and stories. This message – overt and covert – continues to be the tone. The placement of expert and knowledge holders is continuously communicated. Rick fell right into step with that message as he told his story. He shared that he entered Hollywood (a one time aspiring actor) because he wanted to alter the way that the Latin American story was begin told. As he watched films, he became concerned with the ways in which Latinos were depicted (Note: Here the term more prominently used is Ladino). He remembered thinking “This is not my story.”
For that reason he became interested in filmmaking. Yet, he expressed that changing the ways that people tell stories is not easy. Despite this, he told them, if you do not tell your stories, someone else will come and tell them. Your stories will be more authentic coming from you, as you are living the lives that you share with us. This example reinforces to the youth that we are here to learn who they are and how they see themselves in the world. Staying true to this comes back to a concept (theoretical as it might be) that I have yet to explicitly talk about. That is, the concept and understanding – in this case – indigenous knowledge and life in Guatemala. It is a question that I will address in a future post. For now, I want to continue painting the day, as the documentation of what occurred is the focus of this entry.
After Rick’s story, the group was encouraged to continue writing their stories. We had begun this process in San Juan during one of our Saturday visits. It was my hope that they would write longer descriptions, examples, and thoughts, however, this did not materialize. Why? Is a question to which I often return. This is the moment were I try to think consciously about what I’m actually doing and not just talking about doing. What are my assumptions about how to bring out or afford opportunities for local knowledge and ways of expression? In my framework, that is the first part: The Importance of Gaining insight into Local and Cultural Knowledge and Interests… Remembering that, I think about how easy it is for “outside lenses” to assume that the short paragraphs and the lack of motivation to write more is a result of poor education, ignorance, lack of motivation, etc.
Yet, my interpretive eye moves into a different space. Spending time within the communities, I am reminded that these youth live in primarily an oral cultural and community. There are not many writings in the languages of Tz’utujil. There are more than in the K’Che community, yet in both communities, there is little written in the local language. When I ask the kids to write in their local idioma, they often say that they cannot, they have not learned to do so. Spanish is their second language and while their education is in Spanish, most of the day they speak to their families, neighbors, and friends in their local language. So I ask myself – does listening just including voices about their stories, or voices about engagement? For me it is both of course. I hear my academic voice ask me, “Am I imposing a western practice again?” There is a constant tension and intersection between the only structures of education that I know, live, and have been taught and the participation structures of these communities. Pay attention and ask, what are the differences, the overlaps? What in their ways of doing things become messages on how they would suggest that they engage in brainstorming their ideas, their evidence, and their trajectory for their visions of their stories? For me, these are questions and concepts that needs to stay present in every interaction that we have. It is of particular importance for the Unlocking Silent Histories team as we move forward with future implementation in their communities and other communities around the Lake Atitlan region.
An hour passed quickly. Both groups were working hard as well as socializing or listening to music (these are teens you know!). At the close of that hour, I brought the group together. Carmen and Fabiola and Catilina to present their films (in progress) to the San Juan group in order for them to get some feedback. In theory, the San Juan students would provide feedback and critiques and their interpretations. My vision is for people from different communities to eventually question and negotiate meaning held in the films. But we aren’t there yet. More on the in a minute… Carmen went first.
Her presentation on the relationship between her community and nature was nothing short of professional. Later that day, Rick said most PhD candidates couldn’t do what she did there. And he might be right. She explained, she connected ideas, she talked about choices that she made. You have seen her presentation in a previous blog post, when I talked about Carmen’s journey thus far (see previous post)
Catalina and Fabiola (who are working a story about tejidos (weavings)) – went second.
It took some coercing and convincing that they would survive speaking in front of these young strangers! I told them that it would be a good opportunity for practice for the film showcase. Despite their hesitation, they walked to the front of the group, sat down, and began sharing their story. Fabiola and Catalina took turns presenting what they have constructed so far. They did this together with quiet poise. Their delivery was not as eloquent and mature as Carmen’s, but they are four years younger and much more timid in front of groups. I am so very proud of them and proud of how this is coming together. A bit of a confession, we (the facilitators from Maya Traditions and I) were a bit concerned about them. Their story was very fractured and it was very difficult to get them to film. But now they have more film than the others and their story is quite complex and cohesive. We are thrilled with how their story is connecting many levels of the weaving process and how each level is connected to their community. In this video clip, we get a glimpse of their story (subtitles to come!).
As I look on into the audience, I try to read the faces of the youth from San Juan as they watch each presentation. They are quiet and polite. At times their eyes are fixed on the presentation and I times they seem distracted. There were two reasons that the presenters faced an uphill battle to maintain the attention of the audience. First, the interviews were in K’Che – an indigenous language yes, but one very different than San Juan’s Tz’utujil. Second, the sound coming from the computer was low. Despite this, the San Juan students did stay with the presenters. Yet they barely asked questions or offered suggestions.
This brings me back to what I mentioned above. I said, in theory the San Juan kids would provide critiques of the videos and offer suggestions to make them better. The concept reflects one of Unlocking Silent Histories’ goals – that is to contribute to the promotion of cultural understanding by connecting youth across geographical boundaries. We are starting small here by asking students to share their movies with people of similar histories and geographical position. To see this in action and work through the best methods of cross community discussions, we are doing this in person. Again, theoretically, these means learning to “read” texts – images, sounds, and words, to interpret the meaning of the author as well as the meaning of their own. I envision the different groups to asking questions, interpreting visual and textual meaning, giving their impressions from their perspectives and then negotiating the significance in order to learn more about each other. But as mentioned, we aren’t quite there yet. There is an aspect of developing trust and comfort first that will make these conversations possible. Since these two groups just met, they are shy with each other. The San Juan audience is respectful and pensive. For today, we won’t know their perspectives of the movies, what they connected with and what they question. Stay tuned for more on how this part of communications and negations of meaning unfold.
While the goal of negotiating meaning between storytellers and communities is somewhat down the line, there was a more immediate outcome today. As writers, we find the practices that make us better. We have peer reviewers, we storyboard, we outline, we talk out loud… Digital storytellers and documentarians find themselves engaged in similar practices. Yet, it has been my experience that there is something inherently different about the digital process. Putting a story on paper is one thing, but pulling together a cohesive visual story is another…
And with that statement, I will slide back into an academia mode for just a minute. Technology in my experience is an important tool for making thinking visible. It’s visibility is not only for seeing what has been recorded. That is only one aspect. Yes, it is nice to have the immediacy of knowing if you like your shots and if the lighting and sound is just right. However, there is more to the story here. The visual story is not about solely aesthetic shots and composition. It is that but it is using these images and shots to pull together a compelling story. The visual representations accompanied by the subtitles that the students added, help to create a dialogue between author and authored piece. Using the technology puts the ideas in “seeable” terms. From this and from externalizing one’s on the screen and then to the audience (however small), illustrates several aspects of the digital storytelling practices are seemingly revealed. From today’s workshop, these include:
- Hearing themselves talk through their process and how they are connecting different parts of their stories.
- Utilizing the subtitles to make visible where the connections fell short.
- Reflecting on the effectiveness of their images (the angles, the lighting, the feeling that they want to express)
- Connecting one image to the next
- Engaging with the audiences and responding to their reactions and questions.
The back and forth process between “having” your story and building it as a multimedia production shows itself. While these youth from Chirijox entered this process in January with a vision of what they wanted to tell, it has been only through the interactions between themselves and their own thoughts, themselves and their community interviews, themselves and their media/digital story program, and themselves and this audience that their real story emerges. It has been evident here that each of them started with a story, but their vision of how it materialized was an ongoing dialogue. That process does not end in today’s workshop. There is still a ways to go until they complete their digital timelines. I for one look forward to each step of the journey. For these youth, sharing their reality comes in the making, in the process, in the dialogue between their ideas and their representations…
After an action packed day, we say goodbye to the kids. It took a much longer time to say goodbye to Carmen, Fabiola, and Catalina. They stayed to talk with us. The focus? English. We shared words and they wrote them down. We laughed at ourselves – me of my Spanish pronunciations and them of their English. As we walk out together, I see Fabiola stop to look at clothes. We separate as they enter the tienda and I realize how far we have come together. Building relationships with them has been perhaps one of the most fun parts of our journey together.
After this week’s workshop in the Maya Traditions sala, I am reminded why this focus is so important to me. This week, we brought the two pilot sites together – one closer to the end of their projects and one group just beginning. Watching the energy emerge from Carmen, Fabiola, and Catalina as they strive to complete movies was exhilarating. And feeling the wheels turning in Carlos, Pedro, Jose, Norma, Juana, and Lucila as they try to conceptualize what they want to tell reminds me how far the kids from Chirijox have come. They have yet to feel the satisfaction of a finished project, but they are nearing this end. As for the San Juan youth… they are just skimming the surface of what is yet to come.