Thanks to generous support from the iMEdD International Incubator, we’ve been able to grow the post-production team for Cómo Vivimos. In addition to the ongoing tremendous efforts of editor Alexis McCrimmon, the team will also include:
The award-winning, documentary series POV has selected Oscar Molina’s feature-length documentary, La Casa de Mamá Icha, as part of its slate for its 34th season.
With films airing beginning in July 2021, POV “reaffirms public media’s vital role as a platform for the people and in sparking national dialogue. America’s longest-running documentary series’ newest season follows artists, activists, elders, comedians, frontline workers and politicians across the globe as they navigate their personal stories and the larger histories under which they take shape.”
My feature-length documentary, currently in post-production, Cómo Vivimos, has been unanimously selected as one of ten projects to participate in the third cycle of the iMEdD International Incubator for Media Education and Development. Funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the iMEdD incubator hosts organizations and individuals from around the world who are pursuing innovative, ethical, and high quality independent journalistic projects which “earn broad trust” and “have the potential to inform society and empower individuals to create change.” The incubator affords financial and strategic support to awardees for a period of nine months to make significant advances on our films / projects under the guidance of professional journalists.
This award allows the film and I to work with a very dedicated team of professionals who recognize the value of the film and who have the resources and know-how to help take the film forward a few steps. As part of this year’s cohort, I’ll connect with filmmakers and media professionals, many of whom are also pursuing urgent stories pertaining to migration, citizenship, and state power. iMEdD is also generously supporting post-production services for the film.
As documentary filmmakers, the concept of power is essential to how we think about shaping and telling stories.
We consider ourselves digital radicals because we both proceed from a commitment to critical reflexivity as a means of leveraging documentary forms, techniques, and processes toward exposing and challenging power. We recently expanded our documentary practices to include 360-degree Virtual Reality (VR) documentary filmmaking.
In How to Tell a True Immigrant Story (2019), Aggie and her collaborators in the United States use experimental, aesthetic approaches to invoke self-reflective practices in members of dominant culture with regard to discourses of immigration and how those inscribe or reinforce power. InSwampScapes (2018), Liz and her collaborators in the United States and Canada are rethinking pedagogical uses of VR within an environmental justice framework and supporting a movement towards narrative sovereignty[i].
Our projects are quite different in form and theme but resonate with each other in their emphasis on collaboration and a desire to use the work for social change. We proceed from questions like: Who has access to 360 VR? What are the histories of VR and the values or aspirations that have accompanied each technological advance? What are the ethical frameworks in VR? How might immersive storytelling subvert rather than re-inscribe power inequities? What are the environmental considerations of the tools we are using, and how can we foster awareness about the infrastructures they come from and the waste they produce? What new forms and visual tropes might we discover through collaborative endeavors? What can VR do to liberate documented peoples (conventionally called “documentary subjects”) from the form’s “tradition of the victim” while addressing our most intractable social problems? Our process and our questions are ongoing.
Here in these reflections, we (Liz and Aggie) each describe our various production processes, collaborations, and theoretical foundations for documentary projects we produced in 360-degree VR. We describe our processes separately but within the shared space of this article. Separately, we demonstrate how techniques in documentary VR must be responsive to each project’s specific sociopolitical contexts and the nature of the social problems each project confronts (e.g. visibility and immersion mean different things in different contexts). And together, our overlapping approaches illustrate our conviction that, through community-informed projects that apply decolonizing models and critical scholarship to documentary work in 360 VR, we and our project partners might avoid a hyper-realized ethnographic gaze within documentary VR and instead optimize the radical potential of this immersive tool.
Saratoga Springs, New York is a white and affluent town of 28,000 whose tourist economies are maintained by the labor of people who migrate to the US annually. “How to Tell a True Immigrant Story” is a poetic and participatory metanarrative that weaves together experiences of members of the Latinx immigrant community in Saratoga Springs as they respond to increased ICE activity and anti-immigrant sentiment after the 2016 presidential election. The film aims to expand understanding of experiences otherwise reduced to politically expedient constructs while marshaling the surveillance logic of 360 video to interrogate ways that documentary itself has potential to operate, like a border protection interview, to “make accessible” (Trinh T. Minh-ha) those who are otherwise marked other.
In the summer of 2016, while an artist-in-residence at the Skidmore College MDOCS Storytellers Institute, I began an ongoing, collaborative documentary engagement with a community of artists and organizers who work and/or reside at the Saratoga Race Course.
The Saratoga Race Course is one of the most lucrative thoroughbred racetracks in the U.S. In 2015, a study found that this city of 28,000 annually earns $237 million dollars through horseracing tourism alone.
The labor that supports this multi-million dollar industry is led by people who migrate every year on H2B visas from their home communities in Mexico and Central America to Saratoga Springs.
For six to eight months every year, this community works and lives in an area closed to the public called the “backstretch.” Though Saratoga Springs’ high-end economy immeasurably relies on immigrant communities, there remains a chasm of understanding maintained in part by the geographic segregation of residing at the backstretch (and by an unabashed racial hierarchy).
In 2016, I began working with Krystle Nowhitney Hernandez, oral historian and Deputy Director of the Saratoga County Equal Opportunity Council, and with a community of artists who work and reside at the Saratoga Race Course, most of whom are originally from Mexico.
Our collaboration holds that the work of creative community can be a vehicle for raising consciousness, imagining new possibilities for social relations, and exploring one’s own ever-evolving identity. All members of our collaboration, including Krystle and myself, are all immigrants or first-generation ourselves. As such, stories of cultural crossing are of both personal and political interest.
Our first project was a performance ethnography that occupied an elite art gallery in downtown Saratoga Springs and filled the space with the sounds, textures, and gestures of hot walking.
Of the jobs available to the migrant labor pool at the track, hot walking is one of the lowest paid and referred to as requiring less skill (though one would argue that anyone who can manage a horse for any amount of time is entirely skilled in a sensitive craft). The job of a hot walker is to cool down the horses after workouts and races. For thirty minutes after every exertion, the hot walkers walk the horses in circles, lead them to water, lead them to baths. From the outside, this labor appears both meditative and constraining. Tranquil and challenging.
Knowing our audience and the stories we wanted to tell, we created an installation and performance that would bring together two rather segregated audiences but in a way that does not reify patterns of “knowing” but asks the audience to use the participatory walking exercise as an invitation to embody knowledge. We also wanted to create a space in which the rules of the space were not entirely clear, in which audiences would need to sit with the sensation of not knowing or not understanding, an experience that we felt mirrors the process of entering communities and cultures not one’s own. To create this sense, we did not alert the audience in any of our promotional materials to what they would experience within the gallery space, and we even kept the door closed to the gallery until the walk began.
Here you see the program for the event. This is all the information people had before entering. No complete definitions, no direct translations, and really expecting the audience to do the work of decoding, which is work that immigrants have to do daily if not moment by moment.
Nearly 100 people filled the Spring Street Gallery for this one-time pop-up event, and the work we produced together led to two more years of collaborations, including the 360º film, “How to Tell a True Immigrant Story.”
Ten years ago, Ele Martinez crossed the border from his hometown of La Sabana in Oaxaca, Mexico, into Texas and made his way up to upstate New York where his uncle lived among a small but thriving community of indigenous Triqui people. Since the 2016 elections, the Triqui community in Saratoga has declined significantly.
In this short film (07:00) produced and exhibited in 360º video, Ele reflects upon the disruptions of literal and figurative border-crossings and the ways in which his roots continue to inform the new life he is successfully building for himself in the U.S.
Reflecting Ele’s experiences of holding multiple histories, locations and communities across locations at once, the film includes “flat” HD video shot and shared by Jake DeNicola and Bernardo Rios while filming with Ele in Oaxaca.
In 2005, filmmaker Deb Rudman released a film documenting Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s (PHS) City Harvest program.
Through this program, inmates of the Philadelphia Prison System receive training in gardening and basic landscaping along with valuable life-skills. 250,000 seedlings are then transplanted and grown in 140 urban farms and gardens throughout the city, as well as in the prison’s onsite garden.
In 2015, Deb decided to begin shooting new material to commemorate 10 years of growth and to illustrate the remarkable expansion of the City Harvest program throughout Philadelphia, growth that is an inspiring testament to the power of city-wide, nonprofit collaborations; social service support; educational programming and entrepreneurial support.
As part of the Termite TV Collective alongside Debbie, I wanted to support the effort to edit this bounty of material that Debbie was collecting of City Harvest’s expansion. I integrated the project into my Digital Editing course at Georgia State University. Students in the course worked alone or in small teams as assistant editors to log and organize all the material. We held in-depth conversations about the themes of the film; relevant background contexts; and structural options. From these conversations, students developed insightful rough cuts of scenes to which Debbie gave feedback in video chats and Google docs.
One student from this class, Petra Goettel, was then brought on to work over summer 2019 to finish the edits. Petra’s contributions took the film from a collection of tightly-edited scenes to a full film with beginning, middle, and end; thematic throughlines; smooth transitions; and emotionally engaging content.
We are editing this film now and aim for release in January 2020. All participating students will be credited as Assistant Editors.
An ongoing collaboration with immigrant rights organizer in Stockton, California, Luis Magaña, to preserve the stories of Bracero farmworkers in the San Joaquin Delta region while investigating the ways in which Bracero histories inform today’s policies and experiences of immigration.
In 2013, I was living in San Francisco and obsessed with an astounding mural which honored the lives of people who risked or lost their lives crossing the US-Mexico border. In San Francisco’s gluttonous building boom, this mural was being covered brick-by-brick day after day, (re) erasing the stories that the mural had helped bring to light.
My research into the provenance of the mural led me to the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and the youth advocacy group, 67 Sueños (67 Dreams). Together we wanted to preserve the spirit of the mural if not the mural itself, to publicly honor a history of emigration from Central America and Mexico to the US and some of the struggle contained therein.
Our team, which included my filmmaking partner, Andrew Bateman, partnered with Luis Magaña in 2013 on a California Humanities “Community Stories” grant to record video oral histories with Bracero farmworkers living in and near Stockton, California, a port city about 70 miles east of Oakland and deep in the fertile lands of the Central Valley.
Our oral history project resulted in several outcomes. Firstly, the Bracero oral histories were so successfully executed that Luis screens these short films in classroom and community events as a way of demonstrating. Secondly, the youth activist-participants of 67 Sueños received training in media production as they served as production apprentices. The youth also took what they were learning from the oral histories and partnered with a muralist to create a traveling mural, “Abuelito Fue Bracero” (Grandpa was a Bracero) that illustrates Bracero histories and contributions.
Between 2013 and 2016, we continued to work with Luis to extend the work and values that undergird the mural: preserving farmworker histories both as a means of honoring the contributions of people whose sacrifices have contributed to the standard of living in this country; while also opening space for dialogue about ways these histories inform, influence and help us make sense of our current moment. This kind of historical context can help to dispel the myth of meritocracy, framing current economic struggles within the broader landscape of US-Mexico relations.
An example of a documentary piece that emerged from our ongoing collaboration follows: