Updated: Jul 23, 2020
By Felicia Dean
The annual celebration of students videos from year long Visual Anthropology work, this year was moved online to provide the continuation of celebration of these completed stories. In particular, students were presented with new and challenging experiences of producing their videos in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
UK Visual Anthropology Awards Trailer 2020:
Courtesy of Dr. Mike Poltorak
The annual celebration of students end-piece videos from year long Visual Anthropology work
The annual visual anthropology celebration of student videos on various topics usually takes place at the School of Anthropology and Conservation at the University of Kent. Including students from the BA Social Anthropology, BSC Anthropology, BA Cultural Studies and Social Anthropology, BA History and Anthropology, BSc Human Ecology and MA in Social Anthropology and Visual Ethnography. Every year students create, relevant and at times personal short films and interactive web based projects on people and issues that matter to them.
Dr. Mike Poltorak writes "the title of the event [Covidentities] hints at the obstructive and productive challenges presented by the pandemic and what it has revealed about our personal and collective identities". The usual screening event in the Gulbenkian is a highlight of the year for many of us. We present it this year online with the hope that many more people can join us and that we can gather old friends and alumni."
The online event on the 10th of June included a host of discussions, an alumni meet-up, a prize giving and online drinks which I attended as a contributor and member of the Visual Anthropology cohort this year. I chose to focus my video on students' experiences at University, in the hopes of highlighting the reality of time at University; although University can be a fantastic experience, it's not without its struggles, and I aimed to present this in my video (see here: https://vimeo.com/showcase/covidentities-homeandaway) hoping that students feel less alone in knowing that University, like life, has it's challenges, and when this experience is shared, it makes them that bit lighter to carry.
The discussions were an opportunity for filmmakers, viewers, family, and friends to speak about their and other films and for conversations to develop with those in the films. Professor Hugh Brody and Dr Yasmin Fedda awarded the Hugh Brody Visual Anthropology Prize and the New Horizons Prize respectively.
Dr Yasmin Fedda’s documentary film Ayouni, about two missing civilian activists in Syria, recently premiered at CPH: Dox Copenhagen. Professor Hugh Brody has been developing a major documentary project on cultural mapping in Canada. There will also be a Public Engagement Prize and an Alumni Award selected by prize winners from last year’s event.
The event was organised and run by SAC's own Dr. Mike Poltorak; a unanimous thanks was felt to Dr. Poltorak for providing a platform for students in the current social distancing regulations, to maintain the experience of celebration in bringing our stories to life; in this way we all felt connected.
Once the awards were announced and the festivities had settled, we contacted the winner of the Hugh Brody Award, Ellie D., and the winner of the Alumni Special Commendation Award, Aqdas Fatima, to share their process and experience of filming. Ellie's video, Golden Gilded Cage, reached everyone who had seen it, through the honest and brave portrayal of a family trauma, Ellie shared a message of extreme bravery, and we wanted to hear from Ellie about her motivation to share the story and her experience once she had. We also spoke with Aqdas, whose video, The Transition, portrayed the changes, trials and tribulations experienced by millions around the world through this pandemic.
Hugh Brody Award 2020 Winner: Ellie D. with Golden Cage
The winner of the Hugh Brody Visual Anthropology Award for 2020 was Ellie D. (Golden Cage). Ellie's Film focuses on personal experiences as a child with an emotionally abusive parent. We interviewed the lovely Ellie on her film and the award; her answers were so inspiring we felt it appropriate to include the entire interview:
During the Q&A you discussed original plans to interview your mum, however for privacy concerns you chose not to and had to find another way last minute. How did you manage through the process of making the video with these sensitive restrictions?
Ellie (Interviewee and Winner):
That’s an enormous question, that I could probably talk about for hours. During the visual anthropology course, we were always reminded of the power in creative representation and use of visual media, which became an ethical concern in terms of my film subjects. This is something that I held on to because it highlighted to me forms of privilege that I might otherwise not have considered in terms of my own creative practice and articulation of certain stories. Due to the nature of my family’s situation, I knew putting certain information into a public domain was potentially a risk to our safety, it’s something we have navigated for many years, and that this wasn’t something I would be quick to compromise. I knew I wanted to make something impactful, and something that wasn’t overwhelmed by specificity so it might speak to many people, and I wanted to stretch myself creatively and take risks. Inspired by some experimental film forms, I decided to be guided by what visually struck me most in the home videos, while still being considerate of the power at my disposal as a filmmaker. As a filmmaker you are always at the helm of saying enough, but never too much, and by attempting to comprehensively describe my family’s experience, the multitude of complex relationships and trauma that fed into it, in 8 minutes, I knew I was facing an impossible task.
Felicia: How did you feel watching through old home videos?
Ellie: The old home movies were a blessing and a curse, but mainly a blessing. Aside from the general joy and nostalgia that archival videos bring, there was always a sense of frustration over the lack of evidence for my father's behaviour on camera. So much so, that at times I started to doubt the story I’d been telling myself. Of course, there was good reason for this. There were a few instances which were not included in the film where he would become threatening or angry and re-watching that could be incredibly difficult at times. But something I hadn’t anticipated is that the videos also gave me a new and generally positive perspective on my childhood. This experience was really helpful in redressing a balance, in terms of what story my memories offered me, that I have lacked for a long time. I think it’s often very easy to think about things in the past in “blanket-statement” terms, especially as our memory starts to waver, and for me, because many of my residual memories were in some way unpleasant or traumatic, I tended to revert to a generally negative perspective. Holding onto trauma as a child was important because it enabled me to (in very minor ways) manage my father’s behaviour, but as an adult, I didn’t leave those synaptic connections behind, they’ve been left unresolved and still firing. It’s a lot easier to fall back on negative feelings and lose a sense of the beauty in things, and the videos offered an opportunity for healing.
Felicia: If you were to do another project, what topic would you choose and why?
Ellie: Originally, I had planned to make a film about my grandmother's work setting up the Women’s Refuge in the mid 1970s in Essex. Though she was a key player in it’s success, she had no experience of domestic violence or abuse herself, and I wanted to learn about her motivations and the events that led to her involvement. My grandmother has always been a feminist powerhouse, and I was keen to document her work and passion while I still have the chance to talk to her about it. This had been my original idea for the visual anthropology project, but one that I came to realise I needed a lot more time for. It’s a tale of dark irony in many ways, given the abusive relationship my mother (my grandmother’s daughter) ended up having with my father for nearly 30 years, so it speaks to a much broader story about the different relationships and communicative barriers abused people face. I’m currently in the research stage of this project, and hope to start filming in the coming months as lock-down restrictions ease.
Felicia: Now that you've finished your degree, what are your future plans?
Ellie: At the moment I have no set plans, just some good intentions and motivation that I hope will guide me in the right direction. Of course, films and visual media are a massive passion, and something I’ll continue to pursue (watch this space!). But I’m also trying to develop myself creatively and learn some new skills, mainly through friends and online courses. One of my main current projects is converting a van with my boyfriend, in the hopes of living off grid for a while, travelling and making films together when it is finally safe to do so! I feel like this is a much needed opportunity for rest and self exploration, so for now, I’ll continue to fill my sketchbooks, make jam, read paperback fiction and hang out with my cats in the garden. (this sounds amazing!)
Felicia: What advice would you give for someone going through something similar or overall something that's not easy to talk openly about?
Ellie: I feel like I could offer a thousand bits of advice, and yet really none at all. No one has a clue what they’re doing in this world, but we do our best with the cards we’ve been dealt, and in a way that’s quite a comfort. It’d be very easy to sit here and give a motivational line or two about how things will be better and you just need to think in an A, B or C way, and it’ll all turn out okay, but that does such a massive injustice to the diversity and complexity of people’s lives and individual struggles. I feel like it somehow mutes the agony of uncertainty in lived experience by providing a mantra that doesn’t actually offer resolve or actionable solutions. But I guess the simplest truth, about most things in life, is that things never stay the same and you’re not alone in experiencing struggle. Thousands of people for generations before you have struggled with the same things, regardless of whether that particular struggle was known or named at the time, and that in itself can be a relief, just to know that other people know how you feel and they made it out the other side. Knowledge is power, as soon as you start learning about your situation you can put actions in place to begin to resolve it, and the best way to start learning is to talk and ask questions. And the best advice I can give to people supporting those struggling, is to be open minded, empathetic and educate yourself too.
Felicia: Do you have any ideas or thoughts on how to make open discussion of personal and sensitive topics less daunting and uncomfortable? (And maybe what benefits or drawbacks you see in more open discussion of sensitive topics?)
Ellie: That really is an important question and one that is perhaps difficult to answer in any specific detail. Empathy is so fundamental to communication, how do we translate our experience into something recognisable and relatable without empathy? I think the greatest limit to communication comes from fear of judgement, and a lack of understanding. Others reactions can be immensely silencing, even when they act with the best intentions. Some of the most damaging conversations I have had about sensitive topics have been with professionals, be it doctors, nurses, counsellors, police, charity organisations etc. The people who have the most significant impact on our willingness to talk and ask for help are the people who we collectively trust to help us, so there is definitely a profound political and structural element that needs to be addressed in regards to opening up discussion about sensitive topics. I think feeling a sense of community and safety is also really important, and challenging assumptions in a critical and logical way is fundamental to overcoming some of these central structural issues. Discomfort is often what instigates change. So I am a massive proponent of difficult conversations. I think we can only gain by being honest.
Felicia: How did it feel to win?
Ellie: It was totally wonderful! To have your hard work and creativity not just recognised but celebrated, when you’ve been so fearful about sharing it, brings a lot of relief and joy. It has definitely offered me some creative encouragement, to keep pushing myself, take risks and trust myself a little more. But beyond the prize, what came with the release of the film was a lot much more than I had anticipated. I always got the sense that people wouldn’t like it or understand it, and I had really settled my mind to that. But I realised in believing that, I had done a real injustice to the empathy and understanding, to the interest and knowledge of those who saw it, and an injustice to myself too. The film was followed with an outpouring of love, interest and new conversations with friends old and new. The whole film and screening event offered me a space for healing, connection and expression, and for that I am incredibly grateful.
Congratulations again Ellie, and thank you for sharing such an empowering, brave and inspiring message, in the hopes of providing comfort to anyone experiencing abuse.
(The freephone, 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline at 0808 2000 247).
Winner of the Alumni Special Commendation Award 2020: Aqdas Fatima
Aqdas' film, The Transition, explores the shift from life in the pre-COVID-19 world to one of social distance. Some students were able to complete their filming prior to lock-down however many were inspired out of necessity or duty to document the changes occurring from the lock-down; Aqdas was one such student.
Her video, The Transition, had an original idea of focusing on "identity and displacement, as it was something I resonated with a lot, as an international student... negotiating your identity on how you present yourself". She was in the process of story boarding the video when the news hit of a UK lock-down and international borders closing. Shortly after, Aqdas said she received a call, was given a ticket home and five hours to pack up everything she'd known for the last three years.
Negotiating your identity on how you present yourself... identity and displacement was still so relevant in regards to the pandemic
After realising how relevant her original theme for the video was, she chose to document her experience as a third year international student, faced with a drastic change and displacement amid the pandemic. Aqdas felt that the experience of the pandemic being felt across the world couldn't be excluded from her narrative, describing her project as very much about identity. She said over a Zoom interview from Pakistan, "the focus was on identity and trying to figure out who I am and where I want to belong, or even how I define belonging... and that was so relevant to what was happening around the world."
The Transition is a wonderful visual depiction of the changes felt by many students, some, like Aqdas, in their final years at University. The video shows communication with other students experiencing the lock-down in various ways, and their struggles. The presentation of this conversation truly acts as a reflection of the conversations occurring among friends everywhere; that so much has changed. Aqdas said, "everyone is impacted by this, and will probably continue to be affected for years to come," and as we continued to discuss her video the conversation turned to the small snippets of normalcy; describing making coffee or walking the dog had new found appreciation.