Thursday, August 30, 2012

Put down the camera and pick up a shovel

Rony (center) and two of his brothers
There is a well-known essay (well-known at least among visual anthropologists) by the ethnographic filmmaker/activist John Marshall by this title. Marshall got his start as a teenager in the 1950s when his family traveled to Africa with some funding from the Rockefeller Foundation (if memory serves me right) and shot a film called The Hunters . This was back in the day when ethnographic filmmakers undertook to document so-called "traditional cultures" that were being threatened by "modernization" and "development". These works were often Informed by either by the exoticizing colonialist gaze (oh, how cute and quaint and innocent the natives are, how strange and interesting their customs) and/or "salvage ethnography" -- the idea that traditional cultures would be steamrolled out of existence by modernizing process like industrialization and urbanization and that the work of ethnographers (whether armed with cameras or not) was to document these "traditions" before they disappeared, so they could form part of the collective archive of humanity. Something like that.

Pascual, one of the volunteers from
Doble Via
Marshall later became an advocate for the indigenous South Africans known popularly (and incorrectly) as "Bushmen" or "Hottentots", but who call themselves the San (or Ju'Hoanxi), and used his filmmaking talents to explore the impact of so-called development projects on this formerly nomadic and pastoral (livestock-raising) population. But he also helped raise funds from international sources, established foundations, and got his hands dirty in the life and politics of the community. Hence the title of his essay came from a statement he made, that sometimes you have to put down your camera and pick up a shovel. If the community is digging a well, maybe instead of standing on the side filming them, your ethical obligation is help dig the well.  In other words, he completely threw aside the idea of the researcher/filmmaker as objective and distanced observer. He was not, of course, the first to challenge that "classical" and positivist notion --  Jean Rouch had already pioneered a more collaborative and dialogical style of filmmaking that made no pretensions to objectivity.

Thus, today, when I arrived at Radio Doble Via, the community radio station in San Mateo, Quetzaltenango, planning to spend the day hanging out in the cabina, I found my friend Pascual working hard with a mason on the construction of the expanded center. Doble Via belongs to the Asociación Mujb'ab Lyol (Encounter of Expressions) -- an alliance of radio stations -- and is actually the headquarters of the Association, and with some support from international sources, the Association and the station are constructing a training center that will also have a dining room, kitchen, and rooms for guests -- so that when there are training workshops for the radios stations throughout the country, instead of having to put people up in a hotel in Xela, the participants can be accommodated here.  

With Pascual. He assures me his
wife and many admirers will
not be jealous!
So I decided to divide my time between the "studio", such as it is (they just moved from another location about 2 blocks away a week ago), and the construction. It feels good to do physical labor (especially as I have been spending a lot of time sitting on buses and now in my pickup), and also to feel that I am contributing a VERY modest amount to their efforts. 

Hopefully I can bring some students here next spring to lend a hand. They are planning to finish the outline of the structure in the next couple of weeks, and then start on the second floor in October, but undoubtedly there will be work to be done in March. So, if anyone from UMD is reading this,  the trip will be coordinated through one of the classes I am teaching next term, but if there is enough space I will allow other people to participate.

I also want to think about how we can raise some money for the radio stations in general. This station, Doble Via, and the one I visited earlier this week, Nojibal, each only have a single microphone in the studio. Some of the radio stations don't have any outside support and therefore they have to look for ways of paying electricity -- and maybe offering a small incentive (not a salary) to the volunteer broadcasters. It's hard when I go to a station and the volunteer staff asks for help. I have limited personal resources, and how would I prioritize writing a grant for station A versus station B? Cultural Survival provides technical assistance, subsidizes participation in the workshops, and has provided some equipment, but their mission is to see the stations as self-sustaining. Some have more ability to raise funds from their listeners than others; some have more contacts with international collaborators. So, I'm thinking on this....

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