Author: Arjang Omrani July 2012 cologne-Germany
This project is an audio-visual attempt to conceptualize the notion of home by expressing ideas in an audio-visual form, through the process explained in this paper.
In the second year of my master study, influenced by my life experiences and ideas and what I learned in my courses, I attempted to start an experimental project about identity, something which for years has been one of my main concerns as I am critically questioning its general conception and construction. The method I considered to apply was adopted from Jean Rouch’s “cinéma-vérité” and “Shared Anthropology,” specifically that which was manifested in his outstanding film made in cooperation with Edgar Morin, “Chronicle of a Summer.” I wanted to experiment with some ideas, with the hope of further developing the practices employed by Rouch’s film. I saw this project as the subject of my master thesis in visual and media anthropology, but after being faced with several challenges and constraints, I was forced to abandon the project halfway through. Nevertheless the experiences of this effort led me to design a new project with consideration of those challenges, and obviously the expectation of new ones.
The present project indeed is somehow a new version of the former that I was not able to finish. This time I decided to investigate the topic of “Home,” its characteristics, and its relation to identity. The concerns and dilemmas have been formulated into the question of: “What happens to Home in the transcultural condition?”
The original idea for the method, as said, was to follow the idea of shared anthropology. By this, I wanted to create a project to be done by the participation of the collaborators in the process of the research as well as the preparation and representation as authors: a combination of self-representations, including my own auto-ethnography. This combination could resemble and create a form of parallax effect, a term suggested by Faye Ginsburg (F.Ginsburg 1995). She uses this term suggesting as the juxtaposition of the points of view of the anthropologist (classical westerner’s gaze) and the indigenous filmmaker, on traditional subjects of ethnography with regard to the production of ethnographic films and the emergence of the indigenous media. But in this project, in an inter-subjective situation (which is a fundamental element of conducting this project as the simulation of our life-world) I adopted this term (Parallax) and interpreted it as the projection of the diversities of points of view of a concept (rather than a persons), through self interpretive expressions.
Rouch’s film “Chronicle of a Summer” showed the role of an actively present researcher in the field rather than a merely passive observer and collector. Rouch’s and Morin’s provocative roles clearly were the reason for some details and important matters to be revealed: the ones that could easily stay hidden without being provoked to emerge. This could be considered a metaphor implying the intersubjectivity we experience in our lifeworld, where things happen by simultaneous effects of members as active agents on one another. By acknowledging this intersubjective impact, the question emerges of why Rouch and Morin did not reflect their own thoughts and feelings about being happy, or how they lived their own lives in the film (The very same questions they asked their collaborators). While we can see the provocative action of the anthropologist or researcher revealing some truths in collaborators’ lives, which are considered some of the most outstanding moments, we do not witness the same thing happening the other way around. There was no room for it, as collaborators were not expected to ask any questions in this direction. I believe that this indeed is the missing element in Shared Anthropology and maybe Anthropology per se. I believe the self-representation of the researchers is vital to preserving a more integral reflection of intersubjectivity and self-reflexivity in attempts to gain insight into human life conditions and experiences. I think this not only reveals the intention of the researcher more transparently to the audience, but also in being reflexive toward the collaborator, modifies and regulates the hierarchy positions among those involved in the project, and leads us to a more democratic relationship.
Since “Home” as the subject of this project is something with which each individual has specific experience, though its meaning has been dissolved in our routine life, it needs conscious and self-aware provocation to emerge. The best way for this was to create dialogues, free and long-term conversations about the subject and topics related to him or her, and to have reflexive debates about personal ideas, one of the major provocative elements. I think these methods are more effective than conducting traditional interviews, which mainly resemble a one-way imposing power.
I started the conversations with each collaborator by expressing my own ideas about the topic and how I apply them to my life. Following that, I left it free for each person to decide in which direction and context he or she wanted to talk; whether to follow the concept in the frame of my life experiences, to discuss their lives, or rather talka on a more general and universal level.
This helped my collaborators to feel at ease and comfortable, enabling them to think and reflect more intentionally. Though I should mention that this happened gradually, through a process of conversations, which I think is the same in many other ordinary debates and conversations in which one might become involved in life.
In this way, I stayed distanced from the Vérité (or Direct) cinema, the prioritizing of spontaneity of a moment occurring in front of the camera as the ‘revealed truth’ of the film in Roush’s term. I have rather a contrary opinion, especially when it comes to the topics like the one I chose for this project and the approach that aims to grasp the idea and belief of the people (collaborators). I ask in Vérité (or direct) style, who is the one to judge what is true and what is not? Whatever people say or act in a live interview, conversation or an event, how can we be sure that these are the principles in which they really believe? What if they change their minds when there is no camera recording? In this case and in order to stay loyal to the search for truth, either the previous part (their primary statement) should be taken out and replaced by the newer ones, which then in turn defeats the notion of a live, grasped Vérité, or possibly instead, both should be shown, the Verité moment and the newer one, but in this case then who is there to decide which of the statements or moments are the truth, and what would happen to the authorship rights of the collaborators as an essential part of the shared anthropology?
These issues led me to decide not to have any filmed conversations or any projections of the direct and live investigation in the representation. We just recorded our conversations in order to get back to them and to review what was said in order to apply the needed changes, or to use them at the next occasion as reference points. I was there neither to judge, to reveal, nor to report if they applied their ideas in the same ways they actually think and express, nor to broadcast their processes of thinking, searching, and developing ideas for public audiences. The task was to have a self-aware and close approach to our feelings and ideas about the subject and to crystallize it into a concept, what I believe could be considered as the reflection of ideas and beliefs of individuals about the subject. The ideas that have been intentionally recalled and collected through this process, carrying along thoughts and many different sensorial feelings and memories interpreted by their authors (collaborators), certainly reflect aspects of their visions and conditions of life even though they obviously could be subject to change, because of temporal and dynamic characteristics of human existential and life conditions.
With most of the collaborators, the initial stages of conversation were confusing, although the collaborators had been aware of the subject we wanted to talk about, and had had enough time to think about it. Also it looked like the more we went through the process, as far as I noticed, the clearer the ideas became in our conversations. But in the middle of this intentional investigation, some reached different results or hidden desires that, to them, were quite unexpected. One of the collaborators reflects this clearly in the film and also another one once said to me, “You are sitting at your home and living your life and one day a person comes and asks you what really home is. Then you start to think, oh, damn I don’t want to live in this home in my whole entire life!”
There were occasions on which a collaborator had ideas that might not be welcomed by the general public opinion, once they were expressed publicly. Even though many of us might have relatively similar ideas, I would rather keep these private ideas confidential. Nevertheless, it became my task to reflect upon them with general and universal approach as existing aspects in our world.
Choosing people to take part in the project was a challenging task. Initially I wanted to travel to the places I have lived and to find collaborators in each, but time and financial limitations caused me to abandon this idea. In order to prevent putting the entire project at risk, I stayed in one of the locations (with more transcultural life aspects) and chose participants living there. Since every person has a sense and idea about “Home,” every human could potentially take part in this project. But as the context of the project is transcultural life, and considering that it has only been about 20 years since many of the fundamental features of transcultural condition and their consequences have become tangible and intertwined in lives, I decided to look for members of the younger generation who have been raised and are experiencing life in this condition of transculturality more intensively. Therefore all the collaborators had to be between 25 and 35 years old.
I was not obsessed with their lifestyles or backgrounds for choosing them, although I preferred to have some varieties but for sure not to introduce them as representatives of any group with specific cultural references. Each collaborator entered the project because of his or her personal interest in the idea of this experimentation. In general they were willing to discuss the concept with me because they found it useful and crucial for their own lives as well.
I believe this is a very important issue in anthropology or other human studies discourses, to reflect on the intention of conducting research on the lives of other people, to express what kind of benefit the result of the project could bring for them (subjects/collaborators).
This brings to mind what was said by the medicine man of the Navajo tribe, who asked Sol Worth and Jan Adair at the beginning of their famous project, whether doing that project would bring any good to the sheep. And if not, he reasoned, why to do it at all? (Although I never understood if the sheep was a metaphor used to represent the benefit of the whole tribe or just the powerful).
To me it was very important to work with people who could be interested in the same questions and concerns I was. What could be a motivation for them, not only to take part in my project but also to find it useful and beneficial from their own personal perspectives? If I learned about their visions of life, there was a chance for them to become aware of mine as well. This is what I call Shared anthropology, an anthropological study about a subject (human life condition), which is investigated and shared with its collaborators with the open self-reflection of the anthropologist. A project, when it comes to the end, should have the potential (especially if it is about creating any knowledge) to leave something for the people taking part in it as well, not only something about themselves but also about the view of the others on them, and certainly not only a fruitful outcome for me as an initiator of the project. Rouch also mentioned that the intention of his work was primarily for himself and his collaborators, “… prime audience is… the other person, the one I am filming” (Rouch 1975:99). This leads us to more reflective anthropology with a strong ethical consideration. I believe one of the basic and fundamental questions for building up a project should be to ask what kind of positive aspects each project can bring for the people going under investigation.
In most cases, with different collaborators, the conversations reached varying levels of psycho-dramatic depth. I think seeing that my life was opened to them helped the situation enormously in a way that encouraged them to share their feelings and ideas openly. In “Chronicle of a Summer,” there were also moments of psychodrama and we saw how some of the participants revealed very intimate aspects of their lives, so intimate in fact that some of them, like Marceline for example (in the feedback part), had been accused of playing a role and exaggerating in expressing her own feelings and senses. Here in this project, I think we had similarly intimate conditions. My collaborators often shared very private issues of their personal lives and feelings related to their identities and consequently to their senses of home. But in this attempt, I believe that there was less room or motivation for exaggerating, simply because there was no camera involved as we had no intention to project the lives of people directly onto the screen.
Also, the reflexive and dialogic methods of the project provided an additional filter to avoid any major exaggeration in what we expressed at the end.
At the early stage, I left the options for choosing the mode of representation open, although my personal preference was to use film. This could give the collaborators the freedom to choose their individual preferred ways of forming their conceptual ideas. After observing the progress of the conversations, everyone agreed to use film as the medium of representation. Film seemed to be the best option as it has the potential to communicate strongly and to broad audiences. It, compared with other alternatives, has the capacity to better exhibit the concepts entailing the sensorial feelings expressed in our project. Film can offer the audience the experience of its content with a more bodily and kind of synaesthetic form.
Most of the collaborators could imagine their concepts through visual images and sounds, and in the next step, with their collaboration and my active presence, their part in the film was made. But nevertheless, at the final stage, it was they who had to give their individual confirmations to the edited part. Only one of the collaborators decided to write the concept because of not being able to visualize it. In this part a self-reflexive text is narrated on the images that were designed and made by me as an active person involved in the conversations.
Although each person was free to choose and lead the conversations in the direction he or she wanted, interestingly each brought it to his or her own life. This led the film to become after all, a combination of auto-ethnographies of my collaborators and me. Each has been adapted from our own experiences of life. Some have been represented with narration and are more direct, and some in a more abstract way, using metaphors and symbols as a self-interpretation.
I think auto-ethnography as the form of representation fits well to the concept of this project. Catherine Russell describes, “Auto-ethnography produces a subjective space that combines anthropologist and informant (collaborator in my case), subject and object of the gaze, under the sign of one identity… a vehicle and strategy for challenging imposed forms of identity and exploring the discursive possibilities of inauthentic subjectivities … Auto-ethnographic films often challenge the notion of home. They are about fluid identities; home is where you are at the moment, they create a space for geographical and mental journeys.” (C.Russell 1999:276)
The film tends to tell no stories of a specific person, and gives no information about specific places or events. The purpose of the film is to share ideas about the subject of the film with the members of the audience, to invite them to think about what is shown, and to leave them room to interpret these ideas and feelings on the basis of their own perceptions, life experiences and visions, especially as it talks about a fluid and universal human concept.
The film contains some information and context, enabling the audience to find the direction of the film, but in the end, this is about transformation from one’s own ideas and senses to those of another, from the collaborators to the audience, through sound and image. Through my experiences I hypothesize that we all interpret what we see or read according to the horizons of our own understanding, knowledge and experience. Here, the anthropological research is about the ideas of some people, how they perceive and imagine one important aspect of the lives they live.
The ethnography has been applied here to reach to a concept with each collaborator. The interactive ethnographic process helped and provoked us to create the concept, on the basis of our lives (as the chosen context on which to have a dialogue), or on adaptations of such.
The film tries to offer elements to lead the audience, to place themselves in the time and condition it wants to talk about, to persuade the audience to compare what they grasp from the film to what they assume and also to what is perceived as the more traditional perspective in general, derived from when culture was assumed a monolithic phenomenon surrounded by a territory. It tries to communicate in a way to reveal how several layers of meaning and feelings are hidden in our ideas and behind even a single word like home. But how these layers are interpreted, obviously, is based on audiences’ own judgments from those experiences, a process which happens exactly the same way in life as well.
The issue of interpretation has been practiced and presented in different occasions in the film. While a true-life story is being narrated in the film, audience members are watching images drawn by 5 different people based on their free adaptations, imaginations and interpretations from their self-selected parts of the story. It was interesting to see how differently they pictured the same sequence, and it clearly shows how interpretation changes the face of something. The story itself is also narrated by 3 different people, in order to emphasize how even different ways of reading (accent, gender, fluency…) can affect our understanding and perception of a story.
To consider and deal with the issues of interpretation, indeed, is a key factor that makes collaborative and multiple authorship approaches in Anthropology so outstanding and important. A great responsibility for the anthropologist who interacts with people as part of a study, in the search for different aspects and diversities of human life, and as the creator and mediator, is to apply proper methods to avoid misinterpretation and false generalization of the people who become involved as subjects-participants/collaborators of the projects.
Citations and Bibliography:
Banks.Marcus, Visual Methods in Social Research, (London, New Delhi, SAGE 2001).
Berg. Wolfgang and Éigeartaigh.Aoileann Ní (Eds.), Exploring Transculturalism, (VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2010).
Elveton. Roy, “Lebenswelt “, The Literary Encyclopedia. (Elveton, 2005), http://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID= 1539, accessed 07 January 2011.
H.J. Sandkühler und Hong-Bin. Lim, Transculturality – Epistemology, Ethics, and Politics, (Frankfurt, Verlag Peter Lang, 2004).
MacDougall. David, “Complicities of Style”. In Transcultural Cinema, (Princeton UP, Princeton,1998).
MacDougall. David, ‘The Subjective Voice in Ethnographic Film’ in Fields of Vision, Leslie Devereaux and Roger Hillman (eds.), ( Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, University of California Press, 1995).
MacDougall. David, The Corporeal Image Film, Ethnography, And The Senses, (Princeton UP, Princeton University press, 1998).
Marks. Laura, The Skin of the Film. Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and the Senses, (Durham, Duke University Press, 2000).
Morley. David, Home Territories: Media, Mobility and Identity, (London, Routledge, 2000).
Rouch. Jean, Cine-Ethnography, Steven Feld (ed.), (University of Minnesota Press, 2003).
Russell. Catherine, ‘Autoethnography: Journeys of the Self’ in Experimental Ethnography, (Durham, Duke University Press, 1999).