ruminations on a series of unrelated events
Last year I applied for a grant to continue making films for Dr. Rachel Vreeman’s HADITHI study. (See the entry on Shahidi). The grant was an internal $50,000 grant called New Frontiers in Arts and Humanities. The proposal was to create a series of short narrative films (totaling around 80 minutes) that address issues of HIV stigma. This time instead of using actors to recite monologues to the camera (which is what I did for the original HADITHI films), I wanted to create actual narrative films that were excellent films in their own right and could be used in counseling to help adolescents deal with issues of stigma. Well apparently the reviewers thought the application was too medical and not art/humanities enough. I made the mistake of assuming that mentioning the making of narrative films was automatically assumed to be art/ humanities.
The deadline for that same grant is rolling around again on October 15th and we recently decided to go for it again. We reviewed the feedback and came up with a plan to address the concerns and we are currently working on the application. In fact most of my weekend was taken up with writing the proposal with a new grad student of Rachel’s, Emily Potts. This time around we are more than just emphasizing the art/humanities aspect in the application, we have taken a new approach.
I now have a Co-PI from the Department of Anthropology, Dr. Jeanette Dickerson-Puttman, who has done research in Kenya with the Nandi and co-founded the Social Science Research Network in 2007 as an effort to increase internationalization of higher education and collaboration. After initial discussions with her about what we were proposing and what her possible role would be, we started discussing how we could make the creative aspects of the filmmaking process more participatory. (When I teach Video for Social Change I use the texts of Bill Nichols who writes about the various modes of documentary making. Participatory being one that emerged in the 1960s when ethnographic filmmakers started breaking down the filmmaking construct that exists between filmmaker and subject.) We had a great discussion and since then I made contact with the head of the Department of Theater, Literature and Film Studies at Moi University in Kenya, Dr. CJ Odhiambo, and I have established the foundations for collaboration with staff and students there. We are also discussing ways to reach out to and involve others in the community who have an interest in reshaping the cultural attitudes toward those with HIV. It is our hope that creative considerations, such as character development, stories and structuring strategies, as well as practical considerations such as actors, locations, shooting schedules, will be developed through this participatory framework. The resulting films, made with the support of the community and exhibiting a diverse mix of viewpoints and sensibilities, will more accurately reflect issues regarding stigma in terms of community values, spiritual beliefs, ethnic identity and gender roles.
The possibility of having the roles of HIV patients be played by actors with HIV is one particularly powerful notion that I am strongly in favor of. Not only would their own personal experiences regarding HIV stigma inform the portrayal of their characters, it would also open up the filmmaking possibilities to include elements of documentary. The camera could accompany the actors places to capture non-fiction segments, or the films could feature moments where they break the fourth wall and address the camera directly, speaking from actual experience rather than reciting an actor’s monologue. This narrative/documentary hybrid lends a degree of authenticity as it pushes the form of narrative film itself. And the grant is looking for projects that push the boundaries of their practice. Hopefully the narrative/documentary form of these films and the international participatory collaboration to produce films that work as powerful narrative medicine in the context of counseling and help reshape cultural attitudes when screened in schools and churches in Kenya and beyond, will appeal to the reviewers this time around.