In August of 2016 the WWE released an episode of their short documentary series WWE 24 called “Women’s Evolution”. This episode celebrates the recent branding and language changes around women wrestlers, originally announced at WrestleMania 32 back in April of 2016. The changes included changing their language to call women “Superstars” like their male counterparts and referring to their division and championship as “Women’s” instead of “Diva’s”, as well as replacing the Diva’s pink butterfly Championship belt with one more similar to the men’s title belts. “Women’s Evolution” interviews various women wrestlers from the current and past rosters, including Stephanie McMahon, discussing how the WWE reached this moment and how women’s role within the company has changed over the last few decades. While the change indicates movement in a positive direction, “Women’s Evolution” makes the mistake of celebrating too soon. The language change is an important step in humanizing women wrestlers, but WWE has done little since the announcement to back it up with real actions addressing the sexism in their portrayal of women.
I feel despair and hopelessness over my student debt all the time.
This will come as a surprise to people over 40 who know me moderately well but is not even a little bit surprising to anyone with student debt, even those who have never met me.
As we transitioned from discussing documentary and ethnography to digital storytelling I found myself connecting these two types of media via my own experience creating my family-focused mini-documentary. When I made my documentary I expressed that I was not looking to capture any objective truths or teach my audience anything. Rather, I set out to create a family artifact that said “we were here”. While I was working on my piece, I asked my mother if there was anything she wished she had done to preserve her Italian-American heritage, and she said that she wished she had interviewed her own parents as I had interviewed her. I told her I wished she had too. Most of my grandparents passed away when I was very young, and I would love to hear their voices and their stories even though they are gone. This sentiment is echoed by StoryCorps founder David Isay in an introductory video about the program. He shares a memory of one Thanksgiving when he interviewed his grandparents and two great aunts, only to lose the tape. Even years later, he still looks for this tape because “it would make me so happy to hear those voices again”. Like my mini-documentary and Isay’s lost interview, digital stories, specifically those about families, are a way to say “we were here” and to preserve the memories of loved ones. I wanted to explore what else might result from the storytelling process. Apart from a finished digital piece that can be shared with future generations, what else is there to gain from telling our family stories?
I chose to read Chapter 7: Radio Storytelling and Beyond by Marie Crook. In this chapter, Crook explores the ways in which storytelling workshops can have benefits that extend beyond the end product of a digital story.
The Story Center story I’ve chosen to blog about is “Knowing” by Mai Vang, found under the “Youth Voices” theme.
“Knowing” is a story about Vang’s experience learning about social justice in a hands-on college program that took students out of the classroom and into the community. What first struck me so much about this particular piece is the composition of the images. I noticed how well chosen each image was – both explicit images (a photo of her acceptance letter to the program) and implicit images (of a girl sitting on a bench in an empty park as the voice-over describes feeling lost and directionless) are deployed by this story teller to convey her learning experience and the emotional journey that accompanied it. For some reason, noticing her visual composition reminded me of the Story Corps videos where they animate short cartoons to go with the stories being told. I think those videos present an interesting contrast to “Knowing” and other videos I watched on the Story Center site because of the way that constraints on visuals can affect the creative process and the final product.
This section of the Visual Research Methods class has been a really enlightening experience for me. I have always enjoyed watching documentaries and learning new things, especially with the advent of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime that have given me unprecedented access to a huge library of documentaries. With this section of the class I have learned to not only analyze this form in new and deeper ways, but also experiment with communicating in a medium of which I have only been a consumer before.
Working on this mini-documentary about my family has been a useful learning experience. It required me to test my hand at some technical skills that weren’t needed for the visual essay, since I was capturing my own sound and footage. I also, unsurprisingly, have a strong emotional investment in the project so I think I endured the technical frustrations with a little more grace because I really wanted to get to a good final product.
This is the first draft of my mini-documentary project, a family ethnography about food traditions. I have enjoyed this process enormously but have also run into some real challenges.
Family ethnography through food
Specific story – my family food traditions and their significance to different family members
Larger engagement – the assimilation of Italian Americans. How White have we become, how committed are we to preserving our heritage?
Action to film:
- making Easter pies
- mom making Sunday sauce
- me making Sunday sauce
- interview with mom & dad separately
- take stills of family photos to show when different people are referenced in interviews
- if possible, interview Aunt Clair & Aunt Rita by phone
- How long have you been making this dish?
- Who taught you to make it?
- Who made it when you were little?
- Why is this made on this particular holiday/day of the week?
- Why do you keep this tradition even though you no longer participate in Christianity?
- Is it important to you that I keep making this dish? Why?
- What do you know about the history of our family cooking this dish?
- Tell me about a memory you have of making or eating this before I was born.
- Was Italian spoken at home when you were growing up?
- Did any of your living relatives speak Italian?
- What was the attitude towards speaking Italian?
- What was the attitude towards being “American” vs. “Italian”? How did your family identify? How do you identify now?
- What are some non-food-related traditions or values that were observed at home? Which of these did you keep? Why do they matter?
- How important is your Italian heritage? How important is it to preserve and pass on that heritage?
- Is there anything you wish you had done/could do to preserve that heritage?
- Was Italian folk magic practiced in our family?
- What are some superstitions your family members held?
- Tell me more about the connection between living and dead family members. Share a story that you or someone else experienced feeling connected to a dead family member.
- Are there any traditions you chose to discard? Why?
- What is unique about Italian Americans? What defines us? Do you see us as a distinct group?
Finish watching Italian Americans series on PBS to get some broader context on the assimilation of Italians. May or may not make it into this project.
“And then, in filmmaking as in life, an early and genuine curiosity on both sides of the camera can produce a kind of spontaneity of its own; it sometimes leads to a kind of hearty and direct response to the camera (as when the pub owner drives up to the camera and puts on a performance) which can be extremely revealing”. Mark McCarty
This week’s readings put me in mind of the Anthony Bourdain show Parts Unknown. This show seems like an excellent opportunity to discuss the elements of ethnographic film as a technique and a tool as well as the value of such films.
The fact that this show is produced by and aired on CNN creates a certain assumption or expectation of objective reporting or scientific integrity. Though not a news broadcast, we suppose that there is a certain increased educational over entertainment value compared to Bourdain’s shows that aired on the Travel Channel. In addition to being a food and travel show, Parts Unknown inserts a political element that seems to intend to increase the ethnographic value of it. Now not only is Bourdain introducing us to the food traditions and behaviors of a given location and culture, he is contextualizing them politically, historically, and sometimes even economically. The show makes an effort to “evoke deeply positive feelings about mankind by communicating the essence of of a people” (de Brigard) through their food traditions. Bourdain is often very transparent about his struggles to synthesize his experiences into the kind of concise, neat, and hopeful messaging that his producers expect from him.
Which brings me to the “on the other hand” with regard to this show. Parts Unknown it not filmed according to the ethnographic tradition. It is not being filmed by a team of anthropologists. It is filmed in a matter of days rather than months. It is filmed for a television audience. It is filmed for both education and entertainment but not for research purposes. There are producers and a writing team and local fixers who orchestrate the action of each episode rather than attempting to simply capture behaviors in the most natural state possible. Conversations, meals, experiences, and action are all chosen and prearranged. The camera crew composes the scenes and shoots multiple takes, and before they hit the air the episodes are carefully edited; voice-overs are added.
Finally, although not pure ethnographic film, this show is certainly a cultural document. Not only does it have a certain amount of ethnographic value for the cultures it shows us, there is also great anthropological value for understanding the culture that produces such a show. Parts Unknown can tell us quite as much about Americans and our understanding of and interest in geopolitics as it can about the current climate in Istanbul.