This is Me: Agot Dell
This is Me: Agot Dell (2015, 03’12”, Australia)
Author: Paola Bilbrough
Format: Experimental documentary
Published: October 2017
The starting point for ‘This Is Me: Agot Dell’ was to create a film that challenged mainstream media representations of young people from refugee/migrant backgrounds whilst enabling Agot Dell, a young Sudanese-Australian to express aspects of her own story. It has been widely acknowledged that Australian television programming does not reflect the diverse ethnic make-up of the population (Screen Australia 2016; Terzis 2016; Hamad 2016; Hamad 2015; Nunn 2012; Hague 1998). A recent report reveals that of the 199 dramas that aired between 2011 and 2015 on Australian television only 18% of main characters in the period were from non-Anglo Celtic backgrounds, compared to 32% of the population (Screen Australia 2016). As such ‘This is Me’ was an advocacy and anti-racism project –very much about making Agot visible in a way that validated her perspective. As Ruby Hamad (2015) has noted, ‘When we see ourselves occupying space in the culture around us, it reinforces our own humanity, our very existence’.
Sudanese-Australians have been historically demonised in the Australian media. A body of research (Due 2008; Windle 2008; Gatt 2011; Nolan & Farquharson et al 2011; Nunn 2012; Ndhlovu 2013) has evidenced the way the Australian media has represented people from a Sudanese background as a threatening cultural ‘other’, who do not fit in with ‘normative conceptions of Australian identity’ (Ndhlovu 2013, p. 2). As such any representations of Sudanese-Australians have a heightened social and political significance. Agot has commented: ‘Individuals are important. Don’t try and fit people into one thing. A hero or a gang member –Sudanese Australian young people are like other young people –they take public transport, they go to parties. It’s best to think about the things that make us a community, rather than pointing out our differences. We live here now and we’re not going anywhere else’ (Bilbrough & Dell 2016).
‘This is Me: Agot Dell’ can be viewed as the practical demonstration of Agot situating herself firmly within an Australian context and ‘not going anywhere else’. Two practice research questions grew out of this social and political background:
- Could Agot and I create a short film that critiqued mainstream media representations of Sudanese-Australians, while telling Agot’s personal story in an engaging way?
- How could we use non-literal poetic strategies to contribute to the political and aesthetic impact of the film?
The decision to film Agot in a Melbourne tram from the 1930s, which is situated on a hillside far from the city was a method of playing with, and opening up meanings, a type of ‘relational aesthetics’ (Bourriard 1998), where the viewer ‘is a community to be collaborated with to create intersubjective encounters’ (Hjorth & Sharp 2014, p. 128). For me, the tram embodies something of Melbourne, and as an object symbolises all manner of journeys –that of the migrant and refugee, that of a young woman exploring her identity and growing power in the world. In the film Agot approaches the tram through a stretch of dry grass, which she has said reminded her of Kenya. Initially, a she is a passenger on the tram, by the end she is in the driver’s seat. The use of the tram moves the film away from a purely testimonial mode and partly situates it within the performative mode of documentary, defined by Stella Bruzzi (2000 p. 153) as ‘a mode, which emphasizes – and indeed constructs a film around – the often hidden aspect of performance, whether on the part of the documentary subjects or the filmmakers’. My literal voice is not included in the film but the tram is an expression of my artistic voice. Discovering the tram carriages in a field not far from where I live had aesthetic and emotional resonance: recalling my bohemian childhood where I lived on two intentional communities in remote parts of New Zealand and dwellings were make-shift –often fashioned out of old railways carriages or car containers. While the film draws upon aspects of Agot’s life story, it also alludes to mine.
Although the day of filming in the trams had clearly been something that Agot enjoyed, when the film was initially completed she commented that she felt really pleased with the interview footage and the choices that we’d made of what to include, but that she found the trams ‘a bit pointless’. This view had changed by the time we presented on the film together at the Australian Teachers of Media (ATOM) conference at RMIT in Melbourne in 2016 and Agot spoke about what the trams might represent.
‘This is Me: Agot Dell’ forms part of a growing body of work where arts practitioners, filmmakers and scholars have collaborated with members of the Sudanese-Australian community on alternative video projects, enabling individual community members to actively voice their own stories, rather than being the object of stories (see Batalibasi dir. 2016; Bilbrough dir. 2010; Bilbrough 2013; Harris; 2012; Nunn 2012). Exact methods of collaboration necessarily differ across all projects, but generally share the practice of film/video content and overall aims being negotiated between participants and practitioners. Drawing on the work of filmmaker anthropologist Jean Rouch, Anne Harris (2012) has coined the term ‘ethnocinema’ to describe a filmmaking practice, which prioritises social concerns and where respect and mutuality between filmmaker and participants is paramount.
‘This is Me: Agot Dell’ was commissioned by Centre for Multicultural Youth (CMY), Melbourne in 2015. CMY is a non-profit organisation that provides services for, and advocates on behalf of young people from refugee and migrant backgrounds. ‘This is Me: Agot Dell’ is one of three collaborative short films I was commissioned to make, which aimed to enable young people to voice issues that mattered to them, while simultaneously challenging stereotypical media representations. Agot’s film is significant to my own research trajectory as Agot identifies as Sudanese-Australian and was particularly engaged in the filmmaking process. ‘This is Me’ builds on a previous documentary No One Eats Alone (Bilbrough dir. 2010), which I made with and about 12 Sudanese-Australian women for a refugee settlement organisation. No One Eats Alone focuses on parenting and identity in a new culture, and made me particularly aware of ethical issues in cross-cultural representations (see Bilbrough 2013). Agot’s level of engagement and her interest in representational politics meant that we were able to workshop theoretical and aesthetic concerns throughout the project. Agot and I presented on the film and the filmmaking process together at the Australian Teacher’s of Media (ATOM) at RMIT in Melbourne in 2016.
‘This is Me’ also advances my practical and theoretical methodology of employing a poetic aesthetic in documentary practice for both artistic and ethical reasons, which I began in No One Eats Alone (see Bilbrough 2013; 2014). Such a methodology, which is elliptical and leaves exact details up to the viewers’ imagination, is a way of bypassing homogenous representations of participants and communicating sensitive personal information. My production practices have been inspired by Agnes Varda who has said that poetry is an important influence on her documentaries as it ‘opens gates and windows’ for the audience ‘to leave the film and go and vagabond’ (von Boehm dir. 2009, 5:56-6:31). These ‘gates and windows’ are integral to the aims of ‘This is Me’ –Agot and I wanted there to be space in the narrative for the viewer’s own imaginative and critical processes around issues of belonging and racial discrimination in Australia. I have also drawn upon the work of filmmaker Maya Deren (cited in Jackson, 2001, p. 40), who argued that film, as a primarily visual art-form must communicate through its imagery. As a documentary practitioner, I am interested in evoking a story through a careful selection of the most vivid excerpts from interviews coupled with images, which do not literally represent what is being spoken of.
‘This is Me’ is interdisciplinary drawing on the participatory mode of documentary practice (Nichols 2010, p. 151) and utilising a critical ethnographic approach (Sauuko 2003). As such there is a focus on participants’ rights, co-creation and careful consideration of my responsibilities as a ‘framer’. Increasingly, independent filmmakers, visual artists and writers have adopted collaborative methods of working with specific communities underpinned by diverse aesthetic, social and political concerns. As Larissa Hjorth and Kristen Sharp (2014, p. 128) have noted, ethnography has become ‘a widely deployed approach and conceptual framework in contemporary media cultures’. Key tenets of an ethnographic approach are the ‘reflexive negotiation of self, power, labour and participation’ (Hjorth and Sharp 2014, p. 128). The question of what a practitioner’s responsibility might be in terms of using a participant’s story and image has been widely discussed in documentary scholarship (Pryluck 2005 (1976); Aufderheide 2012; Aufderheide, Jaszi & Chandra 2009; Chapman 2009; Pryluck 2005; Plantiga 2008; Nichols 2010, 1991; Ruby 2005, 2000). David MacDougall (1998, p 38) has observed that representation is itself a ‘presumptuous act’, and that ‘By freezing life, every film to some degree offends against the complexity of people and the destiny that awaits them’.
Collaborative/participatory film practice combined with performative strategies and elliptical poetic modes of representation goes some way to militating against reductive representations. Before filming I spent three two-hour sessions with Agot working out exactly what she wanted to communicate on film, which included robust discussions about racism in the media as well stories about her experience of coming to Australia from Kenya as a sixteen-year-old. I then filmed an interview with Agot based on the themes, which had come up in the previous three sessions. Within this interview there were numerous takes –Agot would pause or break off mid-sentence and say she wanted to say something again, or I would ask her to repeat something she’d said emphasising a different detail or in a different tone. From an hour and a half of footage, we cut a three and half minute film. I was committed to ensuring that Agot was happy with everything that made the final cut, however few negotiations occurred as our decisions around what to include were in accord.
A filming-making process, which prioritised feeling over logic, meant that the content of the film is somewhat contradictory. Despite Agot’s awareness of being constantly positioned as an outsider, the story we used for the final film begins with the question ‘where are you from?’ In this case the question is from an elderly woman whom Agot says hello to on the tram. Perhaps what is important here is that Agot is on the train first, and it is she who takes the initiative. In a symbolic sense she is the local, welcoming the woman who is the new arrival. Although the exchange starts with a query that emphasizes difference it develops into a conversation about something shared: commonality and mutual acceptance is the point that Agot most wanted to make in This is Me.
Other practitioners may learn about:
- Aspects of a collaborative/participatory process
- Representational issues in documentary practice when working with participants who are from cultural groups who have been othered/demonised by mainstream media
- Poetic methods of expression in personal documentary
The film is used on a regular basis by Centre of Multicultural Youth (who commissioned it) for training purposes in cross-cultural understanding and anti-racism training for NGOs, schools, universities and government departments. Agot Dell and I presented her eponymous film at the ATOM conference in 2016 in Melbourne. I use the film every semester on an International and Community Development unit I teach to discuss collaborative media projects, the ethics of representation and the constraints of working with NGOs. I have also written about the film in a book chapter: ‘Constructing the Heroic Other: Three Screen Representations of Sudanese Australians’ (in press) in Marjoribanks, T, Farquharson, K & Nolan D (eds), Who Can Call Australia Home? Australian Media and the Politics of Belonging, Anthem Press 2018.
Without getting detailed evaluations from CMY about the impact of the video on the clients whom they run training sessions for, it is hard to measure the exact impact of ‘This is Me: Agot Dell’. I do know however, that it has made a tangible contribution to a body of alternative media work made with and about or by Sudanese-Australians, which challenge racist and reductive representations. It has also led to my collaborator Agot Dell considering a career in media. Agot is involved in community radio and is presently exploring modelling.
A new version: “They Always Asked About Africa” (2017)
Due to ‘This is Me: Agot Dell’ being part of commission, there was a degree of tension between what CMY wanted, complete artistic freedom and some of Agot’s views on what should be in the film. For example the film had to be called ‘This is Me…’ as did the other two films in the collection. This was part of both the funding agreement and CMY’s communications strategy. This was a disappointment to both Agot and I as we had wanted to call the film ‘They Always Asked About Africa’. Agot has commented since, ‘I never liked the title. The film isn’t me. It’s just a bit of my story’.
Technical and artistic issues also arose due to time constraints and different degrees of creative investment in the film. For the editor Stuart Mannion (who also shot the interview footage with Agot) it was a poorly paid job and his involvement was a partial favour to me. Right at the end of the process, when we had run out of time, Stuart selected some free music to link all three ‘This is Me’ films together –a sentimental piano piece that also partially covers some flawed sound -an airplane flying over during part of the interview. CMY was pleased with the result, however I would have preferred no music. Due to the time Agot and I had spent on the film and my creative investment I had wanted the film to have a life beyond being a promotional and training tool for CMY, but in 2015 shelved the project due to limited resources and energy.
The Screenworks’ review process galvanised me into re-editing the film in consultation with Agot, and in collaboration with Karen McMullan who shot the location footage. We retitled it ‘They Always asked About Africa’ and discarded the music, instead using sound from the location –the noise of Agot’s shoes in the long grass and the click of her turning the tram steering wheel. Agot’s words are slightly hard to decipher at the beginning of the film so we added a title. Aiming to both sharpen the sound and give Agot more room for expression, we put back the space and pauses and some conversational repetitions that were cut out of the 2015 film. As we were unable to eliminate the noise of the airplane and some of the louder rustles created by the leather vest Agot was wearing in the interview, we used different parts of the interview. This resulted in the loss of a moment of humour Agot and I had been pleased with: ‘Whenever I tell them I’m from Kenya someone would ask me if I’m a good runner and I really suck at running actually’. However, ‘They Always Asked About Africa’, which offers a slightly different story, uses footage where Agot is more dynamic and expressive. The end of the film draws attention to the constructed, performative nature of the documentary – Agot steps down from the tram (as if it were a stage) and walks out of the frame. We plan to submit this film to a range of film festivals; so far it has been selected for The Melbourne Women in Film Festival 2018.
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All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement
1. The work is a fresh approach to representing identity and belonging in the case of a young Kenyan/Sudanese woman living in Australia. It is a very engaging work due primarily to: a) its simplicity of style that cuts between parts of an interview only showing Agot Dell – not the interviewer, and Agot in an old tram in a country location; b) the unusual nature of the tram location and Agot in it – in this regard the Statement is important as the reason for this location is not clear in the film itself; c) the direct nature of the film’s commentary on questions of race and racism.
- The Statement is good and helpful for providing context on the commission, the reasons for the stylistic and aesthetic choices, the methods of working. I would propose the detail about the tram should come up earlier as this is what the reader is looking for from the outset – as it stands it comes at the end of the Context section. I would also suggest that the information about the woman with whom Agot has a conversation is presented more clearly as imagined since she doesn’t actually appear. In the following sentence the word symbolic is included but since this is in many respects the most unusual aspect of the work itself it could be given more focus in the Statement: “…the question is from an elderly woman whom Agot says hello to on the tram. Perhaps what is important here is that Agot is on the train first, and it is she who takes the initiative. In a symbolic sense…”.
In this regard, it would be an idea to include some commentary on the performative nature of the work (not a major revision of the Statement per se, just a brief inclusion). Participation and collaboration are highlighted as methods but visually it is the performative form of the representation that stands out. Bill Nichols is good on this, and others after him. This is important for the publication of the work as in the film itself I found the point where Agot smiles at the imagined passenger distracting/confusing and not really necessary.
The Statement is good otherwise and very well presented.
- Suggested corrections:
- a) include comment on the performative nature of the work as described above
- b) considering the participatory/collaborative nature of the work that the Statement celebrates, it might be an idea if possible to include a quoted line or two from Agot herself as to her own experience of making the film with the author subsequent to the production process
The submission has some outstanding qualities that a revised Statement on these lines could bring out more fulsomely to great advantage.
Review 2: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement
‘This is Me: Agot Dell’ provides a short and illuminating glimpse into the life of a young Sudanese-Australian woman, Agot Dell, as she recounts her story of migrating from East Africa to Australia, her dreams in life, and the encounters she has had as a Sudanese-Australian. The work seeks to speak to broader issues of racism and the struggle of migrants living in Australia, while providing its main character, Agot, the opportunity to represent herself and express her own personal story.
Stylistically, the film is reminiscent of the now familiar participatory/testimonial documentary mode. As the filmmaker points out, such work has proven effective in ‘giving voice’ to marginalised communities, with professional filmmakers working closely with communities and individuals to help them represent themselves through film.
‘This is Me: Agot Dell’ contributes creatively to this documentary practice by introducing what the filmmaker calls a ‘poetic’ approach. This ‘poetic’ approach has two main filmic applications. In the first, we are told that the dry grass through which Agot walks is reminiscent of her home in Kenya, establishing a visual unity which symbolically bridges seemingly separate worlds (a feature we quickly note is paralleled in how Agot’s humanity can be seen to bridge the fallacies of racial difference). In the second, the abandoned tram in which most of the film takes place has multiple poetic functions: it serves as a locomotive metaphor for human migration; it allows an indirect reenactment of Agot’s story of an encounter with a kind Australian woman on a similar tram; and it presents the vehicle for Agot’s transformation from a passenger at the beginning of the film, to the tram conductor toward the end, symbolically ‘talking control’ both of her destiny, but also of her ‘voice’ in this filmic sense.
On the other hand, the weakest element of the film’s technical execution is its soundtrack — a regrettably often overlooked feature of much testimonial documentary. The soundtrack slips into the all too familiar sonic trope of innocuous chime-like piano music, evidently designed to elicit a general sympathetic emotional response from the audience. Unfortunately, after decades of use, such music is often more jarring than a sentimental; it seems as though it almost pleads for sympathy from the audience — something which Argo’s character, and her evident humanity, does not require at all. Sound and music is certainly one area where the poetic and the participatory could have come together with greater flare.
While we might not be convinced that these make the screenwork a ‘poetic documentary’ as the filmmaker suggests — the ‘poetic’ having a specific history as a non-verbal, abstract and highly impressionistic documentary style, in which the ‘political’ or ‘advocative’ take very different forms — by bringing the poetic into concert with the participatory and the testimonial, ‘This is Me: Agot Dell’ takes on an elegant and welcome experimentation in the field. It invites an evocative and exciting question: what form might a ‘participatory poem’ take?
The significance of this filmic work — both of this particular production, and its broader advocative project — is undeniable. As the author aptly points out, there is an urgent and deep-rooted racial bias within Australian broadcasting culture, in which voices and stories like Agot’s are almost entirely lost.
Within the context of documentary practice, the filmmaker’s reflections on bringing together participation, testimony and poetics are an approach full of promise: one which poses exciting questions, and invites deeper exploration.
The written research statement is well cited, if on occasion a little too broad in its referencing. It would be useful to break down some of the longer lists of different references with some deeper analysis and distinction. The writing itself is of a good quality, although a final round of light editing might be useful to refine clarity.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response.