Theorizing Practice Writing

Article for UPenn’s Center on Digital Culture and Society: “Toward Critical Reflexivity in Non-fiction VR”

by Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz & Liz Miller

Originally published in The Digital Radical, a publication of the Center on Digital Culture and Society at The University of Pennsylvania


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. In SwampScapes (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.

Read entirety of article here at The Digital Radical

Theorizing Practice Writing

Community and Self-Care in Documentary Work

Originally published

January 17, 2017

Around 4am on the morning of December 12, 2016, nearly 30 men, women and children were swaddling themselves in their warmest winter shawls, preparing hot beans and hot cocoa, and scooping up candles, toddlers, and guitars to step out into the Central Valley pre-dawn frost to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe.

A few miles north, at a hotel in the center of Stockton, two filmmakers had traveled a distance to line up their batteries and SD cards, slip on their coats, and map their way in the dark to the Artesi II Migrant Family Housing Center to record this ritual. For me.

And I, 3,000 miles away, was marking my own procession, pacing in the jaundiced glow of a hospital hallway, thinking about my brother, my mother holding her vigil, Our Mother who art in heaven, and how the whole damn world was starting to feel like a terrible ward for the ailing. The kind of place that could really use a virgin spirit.

Three days before this, I had been mindlessly chewing on almonds in the penultimate meeting of the BAVC Mediamaker Fellowship when I received a text telling me that after sustaining severe injuries in a car accident, my brother’s blood pressure had dropped and he was being moved back to ICU.  I could think only two thoughts: “I have to go home,” and “What does this mean for the film?”

In 2013, while working on a project to record oral histories with former Bracero farmworkers, my filmmaking partner and I were led by Luis Magaña, immigrant rights advocate and director of Proyecto Voz to a gated community of small homes nestled between the San Joaquin County Juvenile Detention Center and the County Jail. 

We were there to interview former Bracero, Sr. Jesus Ochoa, but once the interview was over, I found myself moving across the manicured grass with my camera, stunned by the symmetries, peering into the tended gardens, mystified by the colliding sounds of children giggling and shots firing from the shooting range next door.

The Artesi II Migrant Family Housing Center is one of 24 residential complexes in California. Operated by the Office of Migrant Services (OMS), these complexes offer agricultural families subsidized housing during the harvest season. In order to be eligible to live in these Centers, families must demonstrate that they are migratory, which OMS defines as having lived “at least 50 miles away from the Center for at least 3 months each year.” This means that every year, families move into the Centers, build a life, and then move out of the Centers for three months in order to comply by this “50 Mile Rule.”

From the moment Artesi found me those years ago, I became creatively obsessed with articulating this space in all its richness and rhythms. I wanted to create something hypnotic, a crystalline window into a world that is not only sensually captivating, but that reflects something of our values, that poses questions about the distance between being and belonging, that interrogates how (or whether) our society creates space for those who dedicate their careers to ensuring our sustenance. In the words of Mediamaker coordinator Carrie Lozano, it was intended to be “an artful treatment” designed for public television audiences. The freneticism of 45365 aspiring to the elegance of El Velador as told through the journeyman’s arc of Sweetgrass about experiences like those in East of Salinas. And I gave myself to this work with abandon.

Documentary is no linear journey. Like the human body, its strengths and sensitivities are case-specific. It responds well to some treatments and not to others. It aspires to precision and control, but in the end, it confronts just how beholden it is to chance.

My winter was such a confrontation with chance. I intended for it to be my last winter shooting in Artesi. I had plans to move into post-production in the summer of 2017. I had tickets to travel with families from Artesi to their hometowns in Mexico. So when I got the call to go home, it felt quite literally that I had lost my footing.

And by chance, I was in a meeting with the Mediamaker fellows when this erupted. A room full of brilliant people who have committed their lives to pursuing those stories that urgently call on them to be realized. When I looked teary-eyed around the room and asked, “What do I do?” these fellow seekers and storytellers immediately sprang into action. Rob Rooy, a filmmaker based in Maryland, remarkably offered to reschedule his flight back to the east coast in order to help shoot two significant, time-sensitive events for me. Jethro Patalinghug, a full-time, professional videographer deeply mired in his own film’s production, offered to shoot alongside Rob. Nicole and Erika offered equipment, Kevin contacts, Bridgette, Carrie and Alcee perspective and deep reserves of love, reminding me that this is the ongoing work of fitting the story into the mess of our lives. It was not unexpected that after a year of fostering community, we would behave as a community. But this degree of kindness, compassion, and extension felt nothing short of family.

The ever-incisive Marj Safinian, Board Chair of the Int’l Documentary Association, writes in the summer 2016 issue of Documentary magazine that documentary is an act of empathy. And empathy, to borrow from Leonard Cohen, offers itself “at the critical moment when the emergency becomes articulate.”  Empathy goes where it is called.

It was empathy, I believe, that drove two filmmakers out onto unfamiliar Central Valley roads that night, empathy that held their freezing hands tight to borrowed gear, and empathy that invited two relative strangers into a sacred sunrise circle so that while my brother struggled to breathe and my family stoked the embers of life thousands of miles away, a hymn could ring out across the valley and find its way to me. And one day, find its way to you.

Co-Creative Theorizing Practice Writing

The Making of “How to Tell A True Immigrant Story”

Originally published in The Tilt.

Oct 12, 2018

“There is no them. There is only us.” 

— Luis Alberto Urrera

Saratoga Springs, according to long-time busker and city dweller Thomas Nosal, is a magical, mysterious, bubbling spring of activity. People travel from miles away to luxuriate in a Saratoga summer with its lush greens and its mineral springs and its thoroughbred, racing horses.

“Yeah, it’s good here,” says Cristina (name changed). “But it’s also dangerous.” Cristina works a farm on the outskirts of town. She’s been there about 17 years, happily. But in the last two years, she’s felt afraid to leave her house. “We can’t just pick up and go to the cinema, to the beach, to the store,” she says. “Because of the immigration authorities. You never know where they’re gonna be.”

These are the voices of two very different Saratogas — one that twirls in red-and-white gingham, and another more labyrinthine, a series of walls obscuring safe passage.

Saratoga Springs and surrounding communities are predominately white and affluent while its workforce is mostly communities of color who are not originally from the U.S. These two constituencies are geographically sequestered — those who emigrate annually on H2B visas to work the horses, for example, live at the stables where the horses themselves are housed — as well as segregated by an unabashed racial hierarchy. Over the last year, Saratoga County has been a hotbed of ICE activity. The town is so racially homogenous that from restaurants to parked cars and ice cream shops, anyone who is not of the white, upper-middle class elite is an obvious target for profiling, for questioning and paper-checking.

In the summer of 2016, while an artist-in-residence at the Skidmore College MDOCS Storytellers Institute, I began an ongoing, co-creative documentary engagement with a community of artists and organizers who like myself, are immigrants to the United States.

Contemplative walk and pop-up install as part of our 2016 collaboration

This year, responding to increased ICE activity, racial profiling, and xenophobia across Saratoga County after the 2016 election, our collaborative partnered with the Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council and the Skidmore MDOCS Documentary Studies Collaborative to participate in Brookline Interactive Group (BIG’s) first-ever national cohort, “Immigration in Full Frame.” This project brings together filmmakers, activists, and media arts organizations from around the country to produce a collection of 360-degree shorts that document an array of experiences pertaining to immigration in the United States.

We believed that 360 as a medium might uniquely create space for authentic encounters between two communities who are entwined, but who know each other only from a distance. We also believed that such contact is essential for fostering critical, compassionate dialogue about the issues urgently facing immigrant communities in Saratoga and beyond.

To begin, we held listening sessions with Saratoga County residents who work in agriculture and horseracing and who are labeled, if only implicitly, as “immigrant other.” We asked the routine documentary questions: How long have you been here? Why did you come? What do you do for work?

I myself have been asked these questions in countless immigration interviews, sitting next to my tireless mother as she fought for nearly two decades to secure our permission to live and work here in the United States. I know the feeling of coming from somewhere else and being reminded of it, made to answer for it. How then were our questions offering something different from the immigration interview space if central to both is: “Who are you and why are you here?”

Certainly the context of the documentary interview intends to be more generous than the boundary-erecting immigration interview. But as Trinh T. Minh-ha writes, the knowledge-making face of documentary works to “make accessible” those who are seen as alien. “Without their [documentary] benefactors,” Minh-ha writes, such communities are “bound to remain non-admitted, non-incorporated.” Here, the language of documentary is adjacent to customs control, both seeking admissions, incorporation; both reducing a full personhood to the sum of its borders crossed.

With its panopticon eye, 360 video can, if unchecked, reinforce some of documentary’s most damaging inclinations, its tendency toward what Godmilow describes as the “titillation of difference.” At the same time, with every shot pre-visualized, pre-planned, and directed, 360 is dressed in its own constructedness, calling our attention to the act of looking. The viewer is both invited and implicated. As such, it can be a space for deconstructing discourse, for interrogating realism, as well as for privileging experience over exposition.

Inspired by artist Nicky Tavares’ experiments with collage in the VR space, we shifted our 360 project away from the expository documentary toward a performative tapestry of felt experience sewn together in critical analysis.Through a combination of emotion, abstraction, and texture, we hoped to quiet the categorizing mind and leverage the sensory dislocations of 360 video to impel viewers’ bodies upon the gears of incorporation. The poetic as radical.

To begin, we returned to our interview recordings and wrote a script adapting or borrowing lines directly from community members. But in this script, rather than seek to convey “immigrant” data, we sought shared visions, collective voice, poetry.

first page of script with name of non-actor redacted

We fashioned the piece as a metanarrative that could implicate documentary’s unintentional slippages toward the dehumanizing and instead illuminate the lives of complex, multi-dimensional, and creative people who have traversed rivers and skyways and the rugged hills of being.

“The Interrogation Room,” one site of dialogue within the film

The structure of the piece became an interrogation room in which the nature of the interrogation is left intentionally ambiguous. It could be either a customs interview or a documentary one. In this room, a (non-actor) member of the community is met with questions drawn from the greatest hits of doc interviews. And while each question begins as something information-gathering, it launches the scene into a more meditative contemplation.

In the Freirian tradition of “carrying out transformation with the people affected by oppressive systems, rather than for them,” we worked with community members throughout the process.

Most of the participants were students in this year’s Estamos Aquí (We’re Here) photography workshop — a space for Saratoga Springs’ Latinx immigrants to document and share their experiences of living and working in the area. Given the overlaps in people and goals between Estamos Aquí and the 360 video, conversations about the 360 video project would organically surface in the workshop. In these conversations, we could offer context, answer questions, schedule interviews, hear ideas and leads, and foster a climate of participation and collective visioning. In this workshop and outside of it, community members helped rewrite lines, performed in the film, helped produce particular scenes, and offered their spaces and stories to enrich the immersive potential of the piece.

The narration for the film, like the film and the process of its making, aims to be a tapestry of voices and experiences. The voice-over narration, for example, is interwoven with verse written by Roga ’74, a poet, artist, organizer, and dear friend of this collaboration. And every conversation with community members was something that might inform or infuse the script. Speaking casually with the son of a photography workshop participant, he told us that his Spanish name meets with a plethora of reinterpretations in the U.S. “People call me by different names,” he told us. Arresting in its intersections with identity, power, and incorporation, this statement became one of the foundational lines of the film’s contemplative narration. The line is narrated, in fact, by the same young man who first spoke it to us.

Upon completion — a finishing process which will include design collaborations with artists Nile Livingston and Adam Tinkle — we have plans to share the film widely. Our first audience (among the many audiences with whom we wish to share this piece) are the community members themselves who courageously shared their stories with us, even if anonymously. Not only do we want to make sure that the community members approve of our choices (given the risks of exposure), we also believe that the project is first and foremost for them. The project existed as a deeply meaningful process before it was ever product, and film is in this way an archive, an illustration of what transpired among us. Watching it together can be an opportunity to reflect on our process, discover new “revolutionary wisdom,” and dream next steps, including ways to share the film and possibilities for future collaborations.

But the film is also an intentionally structured, reflective statement meant to intervene in local, regional, and even national discourse. 360 video also offers opportunity to experience one’s self and one’s space anew, a perceptual reshuffling which can expand how Saratoga Springs sees itself while also asking all of us to think about ways our own practices might reinforce othering. We plan to work with our partners in Saratoga to plan exhibitions that bring together diverse (and even distanced) constituencies to experience the piece, discuss its implications, and plant seeds for a more inclusive sense of collective identity and shared outcomes. We will work in a similar fashion with our national partners and collaborators including BIG, New Media Advocacy Project, and Groundswell to share the film and its process widely.

I don’t mean in this reflection to enshrine a series of “best practices” for 360 video. Every project calls for different approaches, different formal concerns. What I do hope can resonate here is the notion that our methods matter. If our methods towards justice reify the exact social relations that uphold the structures we wish to change, we are no step closer to liberation. This film, I hope, is less about “immigrants” and more about the ways we are all implicated in constructing “the immigrant,” about what could come to light beyond the shadow of this construct which is at once ever-expanding and constricting.

I’d like to thank our invaluable project collaborators, including but not limited to: media artist Emily Rizzo; multimedia artist Nicky Tavares; storyteller Ele Martinez; poet Roga ’74; Ana Cruz; EOC staff Krystle Nowhitney Hernandez, Joan Odess, Irma Rivera, and Ana Zaragoza; actor Matt Bagley; and the entire staff and community of the Skidmore MDOCS Storytellers Institute including Jordana Dym, Jesse O’Connell, Adam Tinkle, and Sarah Friedland.Many thanks also to the Brookline Interactive Group, New Media Advocacy Project & NMAP editor Michael Braithwaite.