Storytelling school

“People are not ‘the traumas they have experienced'”: trauma-informed stories at CPH:CONFERENCE 2022

For one film journalist who closely followed last year’s he said (filmmakers)/she said (ISIS ‘sex slave’ subjects) controversy that entangled Hogir Hirori’s Sundance premiere (followed by an avoided film festival) Sabaya, the recent CPH:DOX panel “Beyond Courage: Trauma-Informed Storytelling” was simply a must-see. The discussion, expertly moderated by Gavin Rees, executive director of the Dart Center Europe (a satellite of the Columbia Journalism School’s Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma), was part of the “Claim Your Story!” program, one of three engaging afternoons under the CPH:CONFERENCE “Business As Unusual” banner. (“Follow the Money!” and “Shaping Success.” were also cleverly curated by The Catalysts, a media agency that “turns conferences into sites for knowledge exchange and co-creation,” and its enthusiastic founder/host AC Coppens.)

Rees (the only white man on stage) began by asking the audience to ask themselves “Who has the control and the power?” He emphasized that we need to recognize that “when people are exposed to trauma, they are not the same”. Trauma itself “changes the rules” – so a filmmaker’s approach must also change. Rees then introduced Ilse van Velzen (another white face), who together with her twin sister Femke founded IFproductions in the Netherlands. The doc-maker and impact producer explained that she had worked extensively in Congo with victims of sexual abuse during the war (resulting in a trilogy of IDFA premiering films over the past decade and a half ).

Speaking to panelist Mais Al-Bayaa, Rees pointed out that the Emmy-winning British-Iraqi producer-director Robert F. Kennedy began her career in 2003, which is when the war in Iraq began. . (He also noted that she had won the Martin Adler award – essentially the Oscar for independent producers working in conflict zones.) And finally, on the screen above the trio appeared Katy Robjant, consultant clinical psychologist at Freedom from Torture in the UK (from where she participated via a briefly spotty connection). Like the other white woman on stage, Robjant had also worked for years in the Congo, but primarily with refugee populations, where she used Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET) as a tool for recovery.

Clicking the images from the Dart Center website, Rees said his organization is focusing specifically on conflict-related sexual violence right now, while expanding its focus beyond war zones. For example, a filmmaker may be working on, say, an ordinary gardening show, and the trust between the filmmaker and the subjects builds to the point where a participant suddenly feels comfortable talking about sexual abuse. How does an untrained person handle this? Whatever the context, such a burden for a filmmaker is very real.

Robjant then spoke about power and powerlessness, emphasizing that we must never forget that autonomy has been revoked for victims of trauma. How can we ensure that frail people are able to give full consent when they might still be functioning in an ingrained lack of autonomy? (Indeed, the power dynamic between filmmaker and subject might even be unwittingly contributing to the problem.) One solution is to “empower” a survivor to tell their story in their own way. “What’s the angle they want to bring out?” Robjant offered as food for thought.

and “Where will the material end up?” Rees added, citing another crucial question filmmakers need to keep in mind. Van Velzen explained her process for bringing her films back to the communities she documented – a logistical challenge in Congo. To compensate for the lack of infrastructure, in particular the absence of electricity in many rural areas, it uses mobile cinema. She then screened a clip of Mobile cinema: Preventing sexual violence in the DRC (a kind of public service announcement about how movies can spark crucial grassroots discussion). While the trauma-focused documentary filmmaker works diligently to build relationships with NGOs, she also stressed the need for local people to always serve as guides. And it was important both to check with all participants before showing a film anywhere (including abroad), and to ensure that there is a “safety net” around the characters at any time.

Rees readily agreed, pointing out that “consent is not a one-time process.” (A filmmaker must continue to register!) Al-Bayaa stressed the importance of maintaining a participant’s safety at all times – part of the risk assessment. And ensuring anonymity goes beyond “blurring a face.” Is the subject wearing an eye-catching ring? Do they have a tattoo? These small details are anything but small. Not to mention that local knowledge is crucial, as are second opinions outside the team bubble.

Returning to the idea that a survivor has to tell the story they want to tell, Robjant then suggested asking open-ended questions to allow this to happen organically. (She also recalled, “Are there any trigger words to avoid?”) Slowing down, taking lots of breaks, and constantly being aware of body language — in other words, empowering the participant — is fundamental to ensuring a productive experience for everyone. involved.

Next, Van Velzen turned to the discussion of boundaries, “What do they do not Mean?” Not only should a filmmaker be respectful, but they should also aim for what she calls “slow journalism”. Conceding that she works primarily in post-conflict areas (as opposed to active areas), Van Velzen was nonetheless a strong proponent of taking as much time as necessary on meeting deadlines.

Al-Bayaa went on to talk about the need for consent to be universal – which filmmakers often make the mistake of asking permission to broadcast in a specific market. This can place a victim of government violence, for example, in a precarious situation. (International chains have local affiliates, after all.) This prompted Rees to finally speak on the Sabaya incident, frankly noting that it was obvious to him (and others) that the team had not consulted any guidelines from the Dart Center. Ultimately, the filmmakers’ emphasis on excitement and adrenaline, and rescuing victims (i.e. the drama that got it picked up by Sundance), doesn’t serve much. the real experiences of women.

Robjant went on to emphasize that “recovery is a journey.” It is therefore crucial to be attentive to the stage at which a survivor is. Are they at the beginning or at the end of the process? And it’s equally important to recognize that people are “not the trauma they’ve been through.” Simply put, it is reductive to focus on the event or events to the detriment of the individual.

To which Al-Bayaa added that the filmmakers themselves can also be traumatized by listening to the stories of their subjects. Thus, conversations with team members should also be ongoing. That said, Rees wondered if a filmmaker might consider their own emotional struggles a “luxury or an indulgence.” Al-Bayaa responded by saying everyone’s mental safety should be the top priority. Otherwise, a traumatized filmmaker might unintentionally hurt the same victim he’s trying to help.

Indeed, as soon as a filmmaker enters a community, it affects it, underlined Van Velzen. A person’s “footprint” is something they should never lose sight of. Additionally, a director should never wait for others to approach, but rather keep the conversation going by constantly recording themselves.

Yet, how exactly does continued consent work? This question was on the mind of an audience member who, during the Q&A, asked what a filmmaker should do if a character no longer wanted to participate after signing the consent form. (Yes the Sabaya dilemma.) Al-Bayaa suggested recording right before any broadcast; determine why the subject is withdrawing. And if they end up withdrawing their consent, the filmmaker must still accede to that decision. To which Rees added that a consent form is not a “sacred piece of paper”. Consent is “a series of conversations”. So make sure the participant understands the potential consequences from the start.

Rees then cited the example of the BBC, which has made films about the childcare system and has an “ongoing consent process” in which children have the right to opt out at any time. Filmmakers are able to adapt to this shift in power by not putting “all their eggs in one basket” – by having backup characters and stories at hand to replace withdrawals. Rees said it not only keeps filmmakers “honest,” but also builds better relationships. However, it was also important that it not just remain a conversation between filmmakers and their subjects, as editors (and anyone invested in a project) also need to be kept in the communication loop.

Al-Bayaa agreed that trust is key, including between the filmmaker and those calling the funding plans. She stressed that a director should never be pressured into doing something they are not comfortable with. Pressure, especially on young independents, is a perpetual problem. Rees readily agreed, adding rhetorically “How do we make sure we don’t take shortcuts?”

Ending on a hopeful note, the Executive Director of Dart Center Europe then pointed out that in the 15 years he has worked to make a difference, a lot has changed for the better. We have gone from conflict-related films to a documentary filmmaker’s story of a victim to a survivor’s story of herself. Top-down approaches have given way to collaborative innovation. And most importantly, as Robjant sees it, filmmakers learn “not to be afraid of trauma.”