Sunday, May 16, 2010

From Senegal to Tuscaloosa, With Love

I watched several digital stories produced by children and young men/women living in rural Senegal. These were less stories, and more realist documentations of aspects of the producer’s daily lives. Admittedly, I was skeptical at the philosophical position underlying the statement that these stories offered a “look into village life, a perspective that could only be filmed by a local.” And so, my skepticism and frustration at the underlying old school “see for yourself the reality of these children” rhetoric fueled an initially pessimistic reaction—I found myself wondering how others in the U.S. viewing these stories might avoid knee-jerk reactions to images of Senegalese girls walking back from a well with water vessels on their heads, or how others might “see” the significance of cows and horses with ribs showing through their skin, grazing in dusty, brush-filled fields, or what sense might be made from the fact that the village social space was segregated by gender, with the men of the village lounging under one special shady area.

After all, these images triggered feelings and ideas in me that I am not proud of--my first world elitism and privilege rearing its ugly head in my first viewing of stories about harvesting millet, milking cows, and gender segregated social lives. And so I watched them again…and I found myself surprised the level of intimacy conveyed in small moments of the stories. The preparing of tea for elders, the sizzle of fish frying in a pot, girls laughing while making dinner for their families; children starting their day, helping their families, studying.

In watching these stories several times, I loved how they produced such disorienting reflections—these girls are so different/no different than my daughter. This representation of morning rituals is so different/no different than my own morning routine. Each story could be perceived as a romanticist, neoliberal revision of social life in a faraway place…or as an elegantly bare view of life and relationships…or as (you fill in the blank). Somehow, through their “realism,” these stories created opportunities for my multiple, interlocking, resonant and conflicting interpretations. I am left wondering how this level of openness is allowed through digital stories of other sorts, and if this openness is best conceived as a property of the story, the viewer, or both.

I’d like to steal a bit from Dr. R’s “feedback sandwich” advice in saying that if this were my project…I would have liked to have a digital story from the person who facilitated and directed the project. His story is told partially, but incompletely, through an account of the process that he and the students went through in creating their stories. But what was in his journal? What did he think about when he was traveling back to his own village? And what did he share with his friends and family once he returned home? These are the stories that are so often left out of representations of digital storytelling pedagogy, and every little bit of relativity helps us all to critique our own practices.

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