Interpersonal relationships in storytelling projects

Despite having taken my fair share of media-based classes at UBC, last week’s focus on ethics was important for reflecting on the approaches that we as filmmakers/storytellers take when engaging with different communities. In their discussion of ethics in oral history research, Yow asserts that oral historians should establish a clear understanding regarding the relationship they have with their narrators during the project. While friendships may develop after projects come to an end, Yow claims that the relationship oral historians maintain with their narrators during the project is not neutral, as researchers can be motivated to further a purpose outside of their relationship. In order to avoid ambiguous relationships, Yow argues that oral historians are obligated to indicate that their professional relationship with their narrators will end when the project is completed.

While I agree that it is incredibly important to maintain a professional approach when collaborating our participants, I hesitate with Yow’s delineation between professional and personal relationships in oral history projects. Is it possible for friendships to exist during collaboration? In my opinion, interpersonal relationships in oral history projects aren’t exclusively professional relationships. Friendships can exist prior to collaboration, strengthen/develop during the project, and continue after the project has been completed.

Looking back on my experiences in FIPR 469a last year, I think my relationship to our participants was first and foremost one of friendship/kinship. I had pre-existing relationships with all three of our participants, and found that the our personal relationships actually strengthened during the duration of the project. Evidently, the depth and intimacy of our conversations, as well as the mutual trust we had for one another, were conducive to the growth of our interpersonal relationships. While the purpose of our collaboration was driven by the interest of creating a short film, that did not preclude us from maintaining/strengthening our personal relationship.

Although we may not always have the opportunity to work with participants whom we have close/pre-existing relationships with, I think that it is still possible for something more than just a professional relationship to develop when collaborating on storytelling projects. Obviously, this is dependent on the nature of the situation and relationship between the collaborators. With that being said, if storytelling is understood as a method through which we can engage with communities, perhaps we should also recognize the development of fluid, more personal relationships as an important element to that process.

Oral history & the historical document: making sense of the past

11351050_910703225653353_843257108_nWhen I visited my extended family in China for the first time in over a decade two years ago, I was gifted a small, black journal. Bound by thick, yellowed twine are pages and pages of journal entries, written neatly by my great-grandfather during his time as a labourer in Canada.

As our class readings and discussions have suggested, historic documents tend to be privileged by power structures, often given primacy over other mediums of representing history. Being able to write about history and document lived experiences then, is a privilege in and of itself.

To me, the existence of this journal is puzzling, because it goes against what I assumed about my ancestors: poor, and therefore uneducated. It’s amazing then, to have written documentation of my great-grandfather’s experiences in Canada during the early 20th century, a difficult period for someone who was Chinese.

The problem is, everything in the journal is written in Chinese, and my reading ability only goes so far. I can pick out a couple of phrases here and there, but the rest is indecipherable to me. Though my great-grandfather’s journal can be thought of as what Thomson refers to as “history from below” (lived experiences of those in the periphery), this journal is inaccessible to me.
fullsizerender-1 Fast forward a little bit to when my parents went back to China (also for the first time in over a decade) last fall, among some of the things they were gifted with were a five and ten dollar Hong Kong bill printed during the 1940’s. As my dad pulled out these gifts out with excitement their first night back, he traced the stories behind the banknotes and shared its significance for each generation of our family, starting from my great-grandfather’s generation. And it seems to me that with each generation these stories have been passed down has been the interpretation and reinterpretation of history.

This is why I think oral history can play an incredibly important role in helping us make sense of our past. On its own, the historical document might not be accessible or have much personal significance. But it is through the retelling of history and memory can the document be contextualized and enable individuals such as myself to derive meaning from the lived experiences and emotion.

So what will happen to great-grandpa’s journal? With the help of my dad, my hope is to incorporate oral history and digital storytelling approaches to interpret and make sense of my family’s roots. Hopefully, when these stories are passed down to future generations, new meanings and ways of relating to the past will also emerge.

Power & representation in filmmaking

Power can intersect in many dimensions of the filmmaking process. The ability to represent (oneself or on behalf of others) is a form of power that must be handled with care. As filmmakers, it is clear that we possess immense power over how are subjects are represented in our work. From the early stages of storyboarding to the latter stages of editing, we must constantly reflect on how we choose to exercise this power.

Nanook of the North is an example of how representation in cinema can be used to reinforce power over another subject. Shot in the 1920’s, Flaherty’s representation of the Inuit operates as a tool of colonialism that deliberately misrepresents Inuit life and culture.

Through its choice of music and narrative style, this film portrays Nanook as an uncivilized and comedic subject, and positions him as an object of ridicule. Given the period in which Nanook of the North was produced, the representational decisions made by the producers served to affirm colonial myths and attitudes towards Indigenous peoples. Evidently, we must be cognizant of the power relations that come into play in the process of filmmaking, for it can influence the way we represent our subjects, and potentially lead us to reproduce unequal power dynamics that exists in the broader society.

So how can we flip the script and share authority with our subjects? In my opinion, I think the first step is to recognize that our power is not inherently rooted in our positions as filmmakers. While we play critical roles in shaping the narrative and stylistic design of our films, our potential as filmmakers arises from our subjects, who empower us with the ability to tell their stories, and more importantly, with their trust in our commitment to represent their stories with honesty and integrity. Thus, it is by honouring the relationships that empower us as filmmakers can we only begin to be more accountable in our work and in our engagement with different communities.

Becoming “Asian Canadian?”

Being amongst a diverse group of students in a class whose focus is to collaborate with Asian Canadian communities, last week’s discussion on identity was useful for establishing a baseline for which we use to understand and engage across difference. Xiaoping Li’s analysis on the history of Asian Canadian identity highlights how identity can be experienced in multiple, sometimes conflicting ways: identity can be inherited through one’s cultural background, imposed by external forces, or (re)claimed as an assertion of one’s agency and autonomy. As such, our identities can bring forth a sense of pride and belonging, lead us to conflict and tension, coax us to feel somewhere in between, or perhaps even nowhere at all. Regardless, the identities that we carry are fluid, shifting as we navigate and respond to different cultural, temporal, and socio-political contexts. 

It is the political nature of (re)claimed identities that I find the most intriguing. Li suggests that “historically, to become Asian Canadian…signified a political awakening.” These identities can hold immense potential in shifting power, disrupting hegemonic narratives and fostering inclusion in broader communities that transect national boundaries. 

Personally, it has only been in recent years that I’ve actively claimed the identity of being Chinese Canadian. (Note the lack of hyphen, – while I previously hyphenated out of desire to adhere to what was “grammatically correct,” a hyphen-less identity resonates with me the most because it signifies a blended identity, one that is not exclusively Chinese or Canadian, but rather an amalgamation of the two.) Although I am fairly comfortable with identifying as a Chinese Canadian, our readings and discussion about Asian Canadian-ness left me wondering to what extent I connect with this identity category. 

To be honest, Asian Canadian identity is something I have still yet to interrogate. I’ve never identified myself as being Asian Canadian, though I see myself as belonging to a broader Asian Canadian/Asian diasporic community. Despite my interest in Asian Canadian studies, I realize that I’ve tended to focus on Chinese Canadian issues and topics (thus far). Understandably so, – it seems natural to gravitate towards things that we are personally interested/implicated in. Yet, I’m becoming increasingly careful to not equate Chinese Canadian identity with Asian Canadian identity. It can be easy to lose sight of the broader picture when the faces, stories and perspectives of those from your community tend to be reflected in spaces of learning and engagement. Maybe this is why I feel more comfortable with viewing myself as belonging to an Asian Canadian community, as opposed to possessing an Asian Canadian identity. Chinese Canadian-ness is one of the many pieces that make up what it means to be Asian Canadian, but it certainly is not the only one. With that understanding, perhaps it’s more productive to think of Asian Canadian-ness as a collective identity, – one that we cannot embody on our own, but rather one that is constantly created through the active learning and inclusion of diverse perspectives and experiences.

So maybe we do not necessarily need to become Asian Canadian in order to experience what Li describes as a “political awakening.” After all, identity is an incredibly subjective experience. But perhaps by understanding our positionality and by locating ourselves in relation to the myraid of subjectivities that we may encounter, we can be better equipped to engage in critical discourse and navigate across differences.