Despite having focused on a core theme of Home across many projects, the Storyline team are constantly innovating on form and aesthetic based on the circumstances of their documentary work. In this interview they discuss the contrasting forms of two of their most well-known projects Water Warriors and Sandy Storyline.
Evan Bissell (00:00): My name is Evan Bissell. I'm the Arts and Cultural Strategy Coordinator at the Othering and Belonging Institute. Today we're having a conversation with Rachel Falcone and Michael Premo of storyline incorporated which is a a magical media creative team. And we'll hear more about their work in a moment, but this is one of six public offerings that is coming from the Artist's Circle on Climate Displacement, which was an initiative out of the arts and cultural strategy work at the Othering and Belonging Institute. And just as a little bit of framing, the arts and cultural strategy work at the Institute really sees the knowledge practices, perspective and experiences of artists and cultural practitioners as essential to creating lasting and authentic belonging. Part of this is rooted in the idea that culture is really, that culture, experiences of culture and worldview, these are foundational in setting the terms of our economic and political systems and therefore it's essential culture's essential for transforming and shifting the world views and experiences that shape our economic and political systems as well. And specifically related to climate crisis and specifically related to climate displacement we're facing intensive cultural wars based in othering and related to race, gender, religion, culture ability, and much more as it comes to the, the impacts and the futures around climate displacement. So we are super grateful to be having multiple conversations with artists and cultural practitioners around this issue. You know, we know that artists and cultural practitioners are not super, and we're not gonna solve climate displacement on a global scale, but there is a lot that we can offer. And so we are super excited to invite Rachel and Michael to this conversation today. So thank you all for being here. And thank you for taking part in this project for the last six months.
Rachel Falcone (02:02): Thank you for, yeah, thanks.
EB (02:04): So could you tell me a little bit, just your background as artists and organizers? You all have so many various experiences that you're able to draw on. So just to kind of set up how you are able to pull from such a broad toolkit, could you just give us a little bit about who you are and yeah. How you come to this work?
Rachel Falcone (02:23): Yeah, so I started in radio and oral history actually. I didn't necessarily have a sense, you know early on. In college, I didn't take a formal film class or a formal audio radio class, but I just had this instinct of wanting to talk to people and turned my philosophy degree and to talking to people and interviewing people and started to record on my little voice memo. And then ended up meeting Michael at StoryCorps, which is an organization that does oral history work across America and, and kind of learn formal radio training and, and how to, how to do interviewing and how to do in that tradition of oral history.
Michael Premo (03:06): Yeah. I mean, I have a I've always sort of had a mix of making art journalism and some sort of level of commitment to improving circumstances in which I found myself or observed in other places creatively. My background and my foundation is theater. I went to an arts magnet school for middle school and kind of fell in love with drama and theater and storytelling to the performative arts. And that kind of set me on this path where I didn't even finish regular high school. I finished high school at this place called the New York state theater Institute. And so I was working in the scene shop in the morning and making plays at night. And that kind of really set me on this path of of, of making work and telling stories you know, around that same time too.
MP (04:02): I had you know, it was the crack epidemic and HIV was like, you know, were the big things that were like very present in my world and became, you know, involved with political activism through that work and through work that my mother was doing in the community. And so I always had this kind of dual track of, of making work and, and considering people's relationship to power and their relationship to the mechanisms that allow them to get the things they need. And yeah, I was really at StoryCorps where I became really enamored with documentary as a medium, I had been working a little bit with some theater companies that make plays based on interviews, sort of prior to that, and that kind of really sort of jumpstarted the sort of marriage of these different pursuits. I'd also been working as a photo journalist to just trying to like take photos and sell 'em to local newspapers and stuff like that. And so all of these things kind of converge when we were at StoryCorps and sort of set us on this path of really thinking about documentary as like a core, medium that would express itself through sort of many platforms, so to speak.
EB (05:07): I love thinking of you as like a theater kid in middle school and high school, which is great. But also just the idea that documentary doesn't have to just be film in that way, but it, ultimately your work has evolved to include a lot of film and video in the, in the forms documentary. So the, the genesis for this conversation was really when in our Artist Circle on Climate Displacement, when the two of you were presenting on two of your projects. Sandy Storyline which I first came across right after hurricane Sandy and was just really impressed with the interactive nature of it and the kind of organizing nature of it. And then also another project Water Warriors which is more of kind of a traditional documentary film, but has all these other parts that I'm sure you'll talk about? What is Water Warriors?
MP (05:53): Water Warriors is a short film and a, a traveling exhibit about the Elsipogtog first nation's attempt to protect their water from fracking.
EB (06:04): Could you describe what Sandy Storyline is briefly?
RF (06:08): So Sandy Storyline invites anyone that was impacted by hurricane Sandy to share their story and it took the form of website www.sandystoryline.com, where we shared photographs and writing from folks there.
MP (06:27): And we called Sandy Storyline a participatory documentary.
EB (06:32): Both projects are around water and both projects are about displacement but not necessarily in the same way. And I think this is one of the challenges of the climate crisis. Storytelling around climate displacement is, you know, ultimately they are, they are related, but they're kind of about these different things. So if you could set up maybe what was the situation you know related to, to Sandy Storyline and then what was the situation related to Water Warriors?
MP (07:03): Yeah, it's an interesting question. I think both the short answer in both were circumstance and happenstance. Right before hurricane Sandy, you know, it was in the Caribbean first, and we heard news reports that it might be heading our way. You know, we had been thinking about how, like, what's the sort of mechanics of sort of a participatory process of storytelling. You know, we had been thinking about this with several previous projects. What does it look like for people to sort of participate in helping define the terms of how they, how they engage with sort of sharing a story. And by that, we mean sort of like, you know, what is it like for them to engage in different ways? What does it mean for somebody to share their story and then be able to have sort of ongoing input in where it goes, or at least the expectation that it'll go to a defined place.
MP (08:03): And so we had been in conversation with these folks at, I guess they were at MIT, who were experimenting with this thing called vojo. It was basically a phone line and a sort of text messaging RSS feed that would allow you to kind of solicit information or messages from people that then this software would then aggregate and go where you told it to go through the RSS. So you could get an audience to be like, okay, text this - you know it was pre hashtag. So I think that was like a pound sign instead of a hashtag. And at that point, and so it was like pound, you know, Rockaways or pound New York city, and then it'll be organized on the back end. And then we could use that to populate a website or in our instance, what we were really interested in is how do you have that information populate into a live space we were playing with. When we got the news on, you know, through the weather service that a hurricane was about to hit New York, which was you know, a kind of, you know, for the, sort of like all the things that New York deals with. It was one of those kind of like, like frame of mind, shattering instances, like, wow, hurricane in New York. No, that's not possible.
RF (09:23): Yeah. And like what Michael said is we were both thinking about form, you know, that like at that moment, but also like we had been working on this project and this inquiry about home, which I think is like actually really essential to both projects. And like has been our kind of like inquiry for now almost, you know, it's like we're in the second decade. And it's, you know, we had been thinking about just like how people's housing had been impacted by, you know, like the long term affordability crisis, the foreclosure crisis, and then, you know, seeing the impact of hurricane Katrina, like on New Orleans and particularly how it impacted people's ability to have a home and stay in the city. And so we just had all, you know, all that experience and, you know, partnering with people to tell housing stories, not only in New York, but also in New Orleans. We just, we knew like the second that, you know, like we about Sandy, like before the storm even came, we knew there was gonna be a housing impact. You know, and we've been doing these like one-on-one oral history projects as part of the housing crisis, which was like, beautiful, but also felt like we could only do what we could do. Like as two people, two artists, like sitting down with people spending time, like with them hours, you know, recording with like a microphone, we felt like when Sandy hit, it was like, there was no way we could encapsulate like all the different regions that were impacted. So it was just like this feeling of like, okay, how do we tell some, a story that's larger than ourselves? And we also had been like, you know, it was like also post Occupy Wall Street, and so we had, there had just been a lot of networking connections we had made through that work.
MP (11:03): And so we did two things. One is we helped start Occupy Sandy, and then we like brought together some storytellers and journalists who were interested in sort of capturing like creating a container to allow the facilitation of people being able to share and distribute their own stories and started Sandy Storyline. And so by like the week after the first by the week after the storm made landfall, we had kind of like this rudimentary website up with a technology partner that was called [unintelligible] at the time. Allowed us to like, just begin this process of being able to think through how this core design question is, which is: how do millions of people tell a story? And how does that story sort of like become coherent and make sense and become legible to all sorts of people, both people who are sort of have been affected directly and other people who might be watching from afar.
RF (12:02): I think the day after the storm, Michael went to help some folks in Red Hook and then in the Rockaways. And I just stayed in Red Hook Initiative and like sat with people as they were charging their phones and like processing what had just happened the night before with the storm. And I just started recording stories because that was like what we did, like sat and recorded. This woman showed me a picture on her phone of like a tree hitting their building and how close it got to their window. And I was like, oh, wow. Like people have all this media, like in their pocket, which was just like a new thing that was like, like even, you know, even more advanced than what had happened during Katrina where people were just like had the documentation themselves. And so it was like, okay, that was like the mediums we started with, I guess I would say
EB (12:46): It's interesting because I think there's three things. There's, like you were saying, happenstance and circumstance. I hear one is like the evolution of the technology, you know. Two is the precedent of Katrina and like learning from the, the massive impact and the kind of the fragmented impact really right on so many different people. But then also like the, the ethos of the social movement of Occupy at that time and all of those, those, you know, some of those elements all coming together, but then also your own experiences skills and just finding kind of a, a balance between those things. Right? So it's not necessarily like, you know, you come in as artists and thinking like we're gonna create this transmedia project. It's gonna have multiple platforms and it's gonna be this super cool thing. But in, in a lot of ways, it's a reflection of those experiences that you're engaged with.
EB (13:32): So Water Warriors is a really different project in the sense that it's primarily a documentary film, but it also has a photo element to it as well. What's the, what is the, the climate related element there? How is home being challenged? What were the happenstance and circumstances around that project?
MP (13:51): Yeah, I think the happenstance was, well, the circumstance was...You know, we had, you know, we were doing, we did this sort of large participatory project, lots of moving pieces, lots of people, which was fun and cool. And we were like, okay, we wanna do the opposite of that. All right. Let's move our minds in different ways. Why don't we just like do a project about one thing in one place and one medium? I had just started working with Naomi Klein as a sort of impact producer on her and Avi Lewis' project, what, at that point would've been their forthcoming project, This Changes Everything. And I was looking around at what, how people were fighting to protect their homes in all sorts of different fashions. And we had a friend actually from Al Jazeera who called and was like, oh my God. You know, my TV channel is just getting geo blocked in the US. And there's this like really interesting thing happening up in Elsipogtog, in New Brunswick Canada, you guys should check it out. If you're into it like this could be kind of interesting. And we kind of, you know, made some calls and kind of looked on social media and just like, there was just something different about what I was seeing on social media. And I can't really put my finger on exactly what it was, but it just like had a different flavor that we were like, oh, wow, this is interesting. This might pop off in a kind of unique way. New Brunswick that particular community is made up of sort of French speaking Acadian people. Descendants of French settlers and descendants of English settlers. And then these Native American communities, the first nation, the Elsipogtog first nation to be specific. And these particular communities have a, you know, 300 year, 400 year history of sort of not getting along. You know, even the French and the British settler communities, they're sort of conflict dates back to the French and Indian war. And so there was just like these interesting confluences of history and time and space happening. And we were like, okay, me and Andy another guy we work with sometimes were like, all right, let's drive to New Brunswick and just see what's happening. And we were like, okay these folks have something here that could be explosive and could be really profound lesson for other folks. And originally we were like, okay, we're just gonna you know, we're just gonna pitch this and do this as like a news story.
"I heard from a couple different internet-based news publications that were like, we don't have enough inches for all the pipeline fights, we're only dealing with Keystone."
MP (16:23): But like, you know, we got a lot of pushback. But I heard this from a couple different internet-based news publications that were like, we don't have enough inches for all the pipeline fights, we're only dealing with Keystone. And I was like, that's so interesting. Why is Keystone the only like fossil fuel infrastructure project that you can focus on? And so we were like, oh, we, maybe we should just do this ourselves and put this out. So that's a little bit of the happenstance and circumstance, I would say,
EB (16:50): Will, you set up just the, just for people who haven't seen the film, the, the actual conflict itself because it is, it is less well known than Keystone or any of these other ones.
MP (16:59): Just north of Maine in the United States and what is, you know, the land that is a traditional territory of the Abenaki Confederacy which is a Confederation of several different first nations. And there's a sort of natural, deep water port there that is an ideal place for international ships and export. And as a result of some of the fights over Keystone they wanna be able to like kind of avoid some of the drama that they had experienced and the pushback around the pipeline going south. And so they were like, we're gonna put a, a pipeline from the center of the country, Alberta out to the east coast. And but to do that, we need to, to mine for shell gas. And so, you know, there had been, you know, knowledge of there being significant pockets of shale gas in New Brunswick.
MP (17:52): And so this company came from Texas to explore for that natural gas. And so the sort of the way it was sold to the local communities, the way these projects always are is that, oh, this is gonna break our independence on foreign oil, yada, yada yada. And so they started exploring and they started exploring through legal and what, you know, call extra judicial or extra legal methods where they were just like, kind of walking on people's land and then just like drilling, like setting these exploratory shot holes to like explore what was happening. And then the other way they were exploring is they have these large thumper trucks that they look like the size of big dump trucks that have these seismic vibration plates underneath them between the front and the rear wheels.
MP (18:37): And they go at like 5, 6, 7 at a time slowly down the highway and they stop every X amount of yards lower this vibration plate and sort of blast. And that gives them seismic activity that generates data on, on what's down there. Right. And so because of this method of exploration, it provided a strategic intervention point for the local community that was concerned about the threat that this drilling close to their water supplies. And this is an area that largely relies on bow hunting and fishing and outdoor sort of activities both for their economy, but also just for sustenance. Like there aren't a lot of economic opportunities and people really rely on being able to hunt and fish to able to just like satisfy their nutritional needs. Right. This posed a sort of direct threat to that.
MP (19:38): And so the movement of these thumper trucks provided this strategic opportunity for folks to intervene on the drilling process by like literally putting their bodies in front of these thumper trucks. And so this set off a sort of months long, sort of cat-and-mouse blockade situation with the Elsipogtog first nation in alliance with the sort of French and English settler neighbors in a way that like this community said they haven't seen. But as a result of this, they were successful in shutting down this fracking exploration project, which subsequently led to the to this pipeline project falling apart and not coming to fruition. And it was a, it was a huge inspiration among sort of environmental justice organizers both in the first nation community, but in, in the non-first nation and was certainly a sort of a precursor to Standing Rock. You know, and it was just another in a long line of first nation led blockades that have been happening, you know, for hundreds of years. Yeah.
EB (20:45): Yeah. It's an amazing victory. I'm thinking about one thing you said Michael, about, like this could be a lesson and a model that could be really useful. And it was for, for Standing Rock and other places. And, and Rachel, you mentioned like just sitting down with somebody and then being able to like connect with you and show them pictures on your phone. Right. And then there's a, there's an element of healing and connection and you know, not being lost, not being erased in Sandy Storyline, that happens. But the accountability of those forms and what they do is different as we think about the broader question of like climate and capitalism.
RF (21:17): You know, a part of the story of climate change is like larger, but like, couldn't be pinned down, like you said, like with Water Warriors. It was more important to, for people to just be able to document like, that's what felt invisible was like people's experiences and just how many people were impacted. And so then people were like, you know, just a number, right? Like they just, they didn't, and they didn't have the capacity to organize because so many people were impacted and buying for resources and things like that. So it was an opportunity that we felt like to give people a platform to both share themselves and also to organize with other like cultural makers and media makers who, you know, might like go out with like a nice intention to take photos or to meet people, or could like help, could help in some way.
RF (22:03): But that, that media might just like live on a drive or never, never see the light of day, which is something that happens, you know, know in these kind of post-disaster moments. Right. Often, like a lot of that media in some ways is really transactional and then just like disappears. So we were thinking like, how do we collaborate? How do we, how do we create like a shared platform where all this can live and, and create the space. And like you mentioned, like, you know, being able to work with a community to try to document urgent issues was, was a piece of it. You know, there was like this one circumstance that I think Michael shared in our group just around the ability of these people that had been displaced to this, like just really unsustainable housing situation at a mental, you know, they were put into basically a mental hospital which they didn't necessarily belong, but just people that had adult living needs. And so they were able to advocate for like better conditions, you know, post Sandy, because they had been displaced immediately after the storm.
EB (23:00): I mean, because they had Sandy Storyline in order to show that. Right?
RF (23:03): Exactly. Yeah.
EB (23:05): Do you feel like something like Sandy Storyline or you know, this kind of kind of participatory media projects, like, do they, do they hold weight in an age of TikTok and social media anymore?
RF (23:20): I mean, I think part of the challenge with which, still, which existed then, and does now, like there was like, there was definitely Twitter then, and there was the beginning of Instagram. You know, like we made the decision, like some people in the project were like, let's just make a hashtag and have people just like do it, and then we'll just collect that way. And it felt like, like number one, there was just, it felt so removed. Like just someone adding a hashtag does that mean they're like consenting to contribute? Like we really wanted, it was one of the reasons we also went from Calber to like making our own platform is we wanted it to be an intentional process of someone saying, I wanna tell this and I'm gonna share it and I'm gonna do this thing, you know? So it felt it's, I think we still have the problem with social media where it's just like, there's so much content.
RF (24:04): And so both stories, the important stories get lost and there's no ability to curate. And then there's also no intentionality, like, I mean, part of what you mentioned was like this notion of healing and like coming together and like a lot of the goals of the project would be lost, on just curating from social platforms or interacting in that way. Which feels really removed. And I think that's still the case and would be for someone trying to start a project. Now, I think, you know, it's been really interesting to talk to the like COVID related storytelling projects that have been thinking, and they're dealing with some of the same issues. Like how do we have a diverse group of people that are actually participating in this and not just like people that can you use the technology? It was one of the reasons we did the phone line. Like we had like an 80 year old woman call the phone line, cuz she like could, but she doesn't have a smartphone, but she could call. She knew how to call a phone line. So it's like, how do you reach diverse audiences?
MP (24:58): How do you make it easy for people? Like how do you meet people? Like part of it is solving for the very real problem of, you know, people in crisis moments. Like being in crisis you can't teach 'em a new platform. It's just like, how do, how do you meet them where they are. I don't know exactly know how to solve for that in this current moment. I think it, it brings us other conversation about archives and I know archives are complicated and contentious, but I think core idea of an archive is a container where you know, that if you look inside that container, you're going to see, you know, what you're gonna find. It's not like looking into a social media platform and just being lost. And there's real value in creating a discernible container in which those stories can live and being conversation with each other. And I don't think that's changed at all. If, if anything, maybe there's more of a need for that.
"How do you make it easy for people? Like how do you meet people? Like part of it is solving for the very real problem of, you know, people in crisis moments."
EB (25:51): And I think that's the important part about what you all do and what you bring to the work through your experience and perspective is creating the boundaries of that container and making it discernible and making it have a certain kind of, you know, light to it or a certain kind of texture, whatever the thing is that gives it its character, right? I mean, I think it's, it's an archive. It, it's also a story. And I think it's a different kind of story that you've created through kind of creating the boundaries of that, of that story in that way,
RF (26:19): The urgent piece for Water Warriors, it felt like documenting the fight against this fossil fuel infrastructure just felt like really important. And what's a collaborative? In, you know, in a lot of ways both in how we like did it over time, how we did it in relationship to other communities, dealing with the same issue and got feedback as we developed the film and photo exhibit. And also in just like how it was documented. Some of the key moments of the fight were only documented like on people's cell phones or things like that. And so the film really became kind of like a testament to that collaboration,
MP (27:01): But I would say that in addition to that and what Rachel's saying, there's this other piece, which is the how accountability manifests itself in our approach to like, just like the construction of narratives that are shared. And and that's about agency and being able to like build, like consciously build into what's being shared, a sense of that these people have agency. And I think that's like one of the kind of key things that sort of can begin to like make things accountable is that if you're not just sort of like creating narratives that just feed like tired tropes. Like all community have some level of support system just organically within them. And so that agency is important to recognize and lift up. So yeah, I would say that is part of that.
MP (27:54): And I think also that also comes into sort of like inviting a level of agency and in people determining how they're represented. And so with Water Warriors. So when we got back to New York and we were looking at, through the stuff with some friends in our studio and we were like, holy shit, there's a lot of still photos. Like maybe we can put some kind of still photo show together. And that would give us two opportunities. One opportunity would be, we could like do some kind of like FaceTime sort of tour of the show on FaceTime with the people up there to like, just show them what we got in our cameras and our cards, and like, ask them, like, read all the captions to them that we've written and be like, is this accurate? Do you feel like this represents yourself? You know, like basic journalist practice of just like verifying with the person who's blessed you with the opportunity to share their story, if you have represented them accurately. And so that was the one advantage. The other advantage was because of the timeliness of the event, the event was still hot and timely. And like, they still needed sort of public support. We were able to like, bring some visibility to our community in New York and be like, "Hey, here's, what's happening over here. Here's ways you can help, or like, just be aware that this thing is happening." And so that sort of speaks to this sort of like notion of how accountability manifests itself in both the sort of mechanics and the sort of like art making practice.
EB (29:23): You know, when we think of about change around the climate crisis, do you see either of the forms as more activating as, as able to shift more in terms of how we think about accountability and change in terms of the, kind of the, the drivers of the climate crisis, right. Like, does a film do that more? Does a participatory media project do that more? And we don't have to be abstract about it. We can talk about it specifically with your projects.
RF (29:53): Yeah. I think that's huge. I mean, I think for us we've, in some ways been working more in film in the last, you know, eight years or so, partly because of just the scale that we're of people that we're able to reach and audiences. And so yeah, like I think even just, even just this week, like we got a screening request from this Bay of Fundy, like institutional government organization, which
MP (30:20): Is close to where this
RF (30:21): Which is close to where Water Warriors occurred. One of the women featured in the film called me and was just like so excited, cuz it was so meaningful to her that this institution that's like, you know, the government wants to show this film that documents their story and that it's becoming like more institutionalized in this region. Right. In addition to like that, the fact that it's been screened and shared like a ton in the community. So
MP (30:47): Its being used in high school curriculum in this area
RF (30:49): Yeah. Like in the school that's become kind of like part of the, more like the story and the legacy of this place. It's also like been shown across the world, you know, lots of times over, you know, it's like been really exciting to just like be able to screen the film for communities all over the world. I think we were in like more than 200 film festivals
MP (31:08): And I think one of the things that one of the elders said to us when we first did a screening to like bring the film back there before we showed it to the world was like this one woman was really moved. And she was like, she was like, why this is important is because you can travel in places we can't. And so this, this brings our story to places we wouldn't otherwise be able to reach. And I think so that's, I think that's sort of one level, and I think one of the things that like, if I could, I think one of the things that she is responding to, or I like to think that she's responding to is like, like creative decisions we made about form. And so you know, the film we, we looked at all the footage and we were like, well, we could make a couple kinds of films with what we have.
MP (31:54): We could make something that's long, longer than what it is. So the film is what, 20 minutes, 22 minutes. And so we were like, we could make a short film, we can make a long film that sort of you know, makes these kind of different narrative choices and does these kind of different things. But what we thought was most resonant about what occurred was the sort of energy, the sort of electric energy that we personally experienced around the blockade and these different communities coming together. And so that was like something that like we picked up on and sort of really resonated with us as like, what sort of like was one of the kind of core things that made what they did so powerful. And so we were like, okay, what we wanna do with that is we wanna make a very specific narrative choice that is, is going to reflect that reality.
"What we thought was most resonant...was the sort of energy, the sort of electric energy that we personally experienced around the blockade and these different communities coming together."
MP (32:54): And we couldn't we couldn't conceive of how to construct the narrative that would be like, say 56 minutes, which is like a broadcast hour for public television, that would be able to sort of maintain that level of energy for 56 minutes. Just invariably the story would have to take many twists and turns. That could be a wonderful and beautiful story that would potentially have its own level of impact. But we were like, what we really wanna do is is what I just mentioned, but on top of that, we want you to walk away, you the audience, we want you to walk away from this experience thinking that the main character is the community quote unquote. And so that also sort of like meant we had to make a set of other choices and what those choices were, was being able to edit the film in a way that like ideas aren't always shared or constructed by an individual. We constructed ideas that both sort of reflected how people were feeling and what they were experiencing, as well as providing the sort of expositional information about what, you know, historically factually quote unquote is like happening.
MP (33:59): And so we do did that by like editing people in a way that like different people were finishing each other's sentence. So that like, what is reflected is this like collective voice. And so by the end, you like, you have all these voices in your head that like represent all of these different people, English speaking, women, Acadian men who are doing the exploration, first nation women. And so by the end, hopefully what many people remember is just like this like mix of voices that represents this idea of community. And so that, we could only do that - not we could only. After like working with the material and like laying it out and, and mapping it out in different ways, it made the most sense to be able to accomplish that in a short 22 minute film. And so when, when we, when we were like, okay, this is how it's gonna work, rather than trying to make something longer, we were like, this, this needs to be a film.
EB (34:53): So it's not just about documentation. It's not just like you're going out there in service of this thing, and you're doing this, but you're, you're making intentional aesthetic decisions that are shaping the form. That just feels important for other storytellers, other artists to reflect on that the form is not necessarily a transactional form in the sense of like, we want this film to get out into the world, but actually there's a whole aesthetic reason why it's 22 minutes beyond just it being able to be shared in a high school curriculum. Right? So like there are these kinds of decisions that are really crucial to making it good. <Laugh>, you know, I mean there, because part of it is like, if it's not a good film, it's not gonna go anywhere. So, so I think this question of aesthetic and form is also really crucial.
RF (35:30): There's a lot of elements to like making a compelling story, but the ability, you know, part of why we were originally drawn to oral history was like the ability to be a witness for people. And so, like, I think Sandy Storyline was a big experimentation and like different mediums, you know, people can be vulnerable in different ones. So sometimes we got like a writing that was like, just this, like this one woman in particular, like just poured her whole heart out about the night of the storm. And it was just like, she, like, it came in through the website. We didn't know her, you know, like there hadn't been an interaction, but she's a writer. And so like for her, it was like, that was the medium in which she could be vulnerable. For other people, it was like they needed someone to sit and record them and so there was people that went out and helped record people's stories. You know, like for other people, like they just, they could take a photo themselves and be vulnerable. But that was like an experiment because not everyone can be vulnerable. So we did things like writing workshops to get people to kind of open up more in writing. And like, for me, the big lesson with Sandy was like, how do you, how do you like collaborate with someone to, in some ways, like tell, you know, what was a challenging story in order to like then move hearts and minds on the other side mm-hmm <affirmative>. Yeah.
"There's a lot of elements to making a compelling story, but part of why we were originally drawn to oral history was the ability to be a witness for people."
EB (36:41): When I spent time with the website, when I first encountered it, it was, you know I mean, part of what was very powerful about it is that it's, it's a little disorienting in some ways even to drop into, right, because there is so much content, the stories don't line up next to each other. People are having the same global experience of a hurricane, but they're not having the same personal experience in that way. And that's very kind of strange as somebody who's looking for a story to understand an event, you know, so there isn't that narrative arc in it right in the same way that there is with Water Warriors. And I think that that's actually a really powerful consideration that like, and, and especially as we get into climate crisis more and climate displacement more is that like, how do you tell these fragmented stories that aren't gonna resolve? That's one of the things I really appreciate about Sandy Storyline is it's pushing even how we ask, like, what is a story around this issue, right.
RF (37:31): We are also experimenting with like, how do you tell a community story? So like both are community stories. Like, you know, in Sandy Storyline, it's much more fragmented where you're are hearing these different voices and all these different formats. You know, in Water Warriors, there was an attempt to try to like bring together these different voices into one film, you know, as opposed to like one website. So it's just, it's a different experience for the audience than I think something we're continuing to, to push at. Like, how do we tell this community story that's larger?
EB (37:59): Right, so you mentioned audience, which is, I think the first time we've talked about audience so far, but what would you say is the primary, what was the primary audience for Sandy Storyline and what was the primary audience for Water Warriors?
RF (38:12): I mean, it, like, we often think of the audience as also the creator. So like, for, for us, at least initially you, you might have other thoughts, but like, the audience was like, like was the community, like, I remember we, like, I was trying to collect stories and I put the, like, you know, when you do the phone number, like with the pull off tabs, like I did that, like I put, I put like the Sandy Storyline
MP (38:32): Piece of paper with pull off tabs. Yeah. That were on walls or telephone polls.
RF (38:34): Like there were so many ways we experimented with how to tell this, like how to invite people to share. So like, I remember going to some of the hubs and just like putting these things up where people could take the phone number,
MP (38:43): Distribution relief hubs.
RF (38:46): Yeah. And people were like the one, you know some of the first questions within days of the storm, like literally three days after storm, people were like, well, where does it go? And I was like, oh, okay. Like, we need to get the website up, you know, like for people to be able to like, instantly like, see the container in which, like, where is this going? You know, like that was like super important.
MP (39:06): I don't know if I thought about the audience for Water Warriors quite the same way. Like, like,
RF (39:11): I mean the North Carolina communities that you were
MP (39:14): Yeah. But they were so, yeah. Yeah. I guess we yeah, I think after we sort of like figured out what the story wanted to be, then we would, then we figured out, sort of like thought through, who might be the core audience for a story structured in a certain kind of way. What became apparent to, to us, at least in our opinion, was that this was an effort that was completely kind of community driven. There weren't any NGOs to speak of. You know the you know, the Council of Canadians might have dropped in, but there wasn't like, this was, this was completely grassroots led by the traditional sort of like community structures of the Elsipotog first nation. And so what we thought this would resonate with is other people who are in sort of like really all volunteer type formations and the environmental movement, environmental justice folks, it's, that's the core in my, in our opinion, the base to that movement is like sort of unpaid local people sort of like trying to like save their corner of the world.
MP (40:24): And so that became our kind of core audience who we were sort of like, you know, doing at least in our capacity, doing outreach to. To be like, hey, there's this thing that might resonate with you. And then it kind of caught on just sort of, of like organically as people started to share it among their social networks. Yeah.
EB (40:43): What are some of the, you know, things that storytellers who are starting to think about, like, how do we address this issue of climate displacement, climate crisis, home? You know what are some of the questions around form that you feel like are really essential to consider?
RF (41:00): Something we're thinking about is like, you know, part of what Michael describing, like the aesthetic choices around just like, okay, this is a film. And then within that film, it's like a particular choice. Like we're gonna have a variety of interviews. We're gonna have footage of the moment. Like for Water Warriors we use cell phone image, imagery, as part of it, is like different aesthetic choices how to tell. So I think that's something that like, we're exploring, like we've been doing a lot more observational filmmaking. And just so I think a big question for people is like how much of the story is told through interview and maybe memory, you know, and then also how much is told in the moment? I think it's something we've been talking to our, our friend, Nick Slie in New Orleans about, you know, just there's like these - and particularly for a place like New Orleans that's dealing with the constant storms - there's like the current moment, but then there's also like, okay, we've now seen this happening for more than a decade. So it's like, how do you, you know, how do we see the story over time? And how is that story told over time? And how are stories told of a place that's gonna actually like, like is disappearing and will disappear. And so like what stories need to live on? Is it the urgent story of like, it unfolding as it's happening? Is it the story of like the memories of that place? You know, like just, what does that look like and how does that storytelling process like live on? So I think there's like a lot of questions, like a, you know, that just comes up for me a lot is like within the form, there's all these aesthetic choices of like, how do we tell this story that's like unfolding, but we know will be like a very long term story.
EB (42:32): And they just it's just to go to your point, Michael, earlier about like those aesthetic decisions relate back to the agency that they create for people engaging with those stories. Right. And I think that's where, you know, as you think about your work and as we think about what stories need to live on that, both of your, both of these projects created platforms for agency, right. Or they, they recognize and they amplified, the agency of the work through your aesthetic decisions and forms in different ways. Yeah,
"Both of these projects, they recognize and they amplified the agency of the work through your aesthetic decisions and forms in different ways."
MP (43:00): Yeah, totally. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I think the other thing I would add to that is the addition to all the mechanics of accountability and participation that we've mentioned, like just like really dwelling in the world of like, what does it look like? And how does, how are we conveying a story in a certain way is, yeah, I think observational is a big, like most of our work to date or all of our work to date we've has, is, is built around narrative. Like it's really beautiful. We're really obsessed with how individuals sort of like construct their own legends through how they choose to sort of tell, convey, information in a seated formal situation. And so we, we've been really interested in sort of observational cinema verite. Like how do you make, how do you, how can stories sort of unravel over time, just through watching people go about their day to day, day lives is one way.
MP (43:57): And another thing is sort of visually, like, you know, like we've, we're making a project that we're shooting on like a glass from like the sixties and seventies, so that the, the film will have this texture that will be a completely subtle sort of like reference to like a century of American image making. And like, hopefully just like the, the texture of the, the way the images are both composed and sort of look will help sort of like place it within a lineage of things. And so, like, it's a subtle thing, you know, 90% of the people watching it won't notice it, but like, it's like one layer of aesthetic choices that we hope sort of like add depth and complexity to like the sort of narrative that we're documenting. I think very often in these conversations or in these, these environments, we're just talking about the participation or, or accountability or these sort of larger ideas.
MP (44:54): And what gets lost is that, you know, I think ultimately people respond to these things because they think they're beautiful and they're, they're somehow moved or touched by them. And I don't mean that in a deeply profound way, but like just the most basic, they see it, they they're piqued by what they're looking at and they decide to click. Like just on that very basic, simple level. And I think very often we don't talk enough about those things. And we, and that's a grave disservice to the work that we have yet to do to like really sort of like address some of these sort of cataclysmic things, you know? So I think that's, that's something I'm sort of like, just kind of reflecting on, and I'm now kind of thinking about all these sort of aesthetic visual sort of decisions we've made about the way things look or why they look this way and not that way. Yeah. And I think it's, yeah, I'm, I'm, I'm grateful for the opportunity to think about those things cause it's necessary.
"What gets lost is that, I think ultimately people respond to these things because they think they're beautiful and they're somehow moved or touched by them. And I don't mean that in a deeply profound way, but like just the most basic; they see it, they they're piqued by what they're looking at."
RF (45:56): Yeah. I mean, I think I'm just thinking like that everything's a process, you know, in which like, like different turns, you know, some things you anticipate, some things you, don't, some things you try and experiment with and then see how they go. You know, I think like this, conversation's just a reminder for me of how both organic the work development is often, you know, whether or not we're like meeting people or seeing, you know, just like things. People are always like, oh, how do you come up with it? And it's like, well, we always have like a million project ideas cause we've met a million people and there's a million things to tell, you know, there's always so many things. And so, and a lot of it is built on the work that preceded it, you know? So it's just like Sandy Storyline would absolutely not have been possible without all the previous work we had done on the housing crisis. And just like our, both our understanding of the issue, but also the relationships that developed the deep trust that people then entrusted us with collaborating more. And so, yeah, there's like, I think there's just like a whole process that like, I think we're continuing to unravel as we reflect on these projects and how we've landed, where we've landed with them.
"A lot of [our work] is built on the work that preceded it. So Sandy Storyline would absolutely not have been possible without all the previous work we had done on the housing crisis...the relationships that developed, the deep trust that people then entrusted us with collaborating more."
MP (47:02): And I think one of those process things is iteration. You know, iteration, you know, you know, we started this conversation, I, you know, I came up through theater. Theater is a, is an interesting creative practice because it's a creative practice in which you iterate in public. You know, someone will write up a scene and then put that scene on its feet with some actors and then, you know, go away and write some more and then it becomes a play. And, you know, that's even that, even the participation of the actors in that situation, they may have just got that script yesterday and those, so they're still working out their ideas and you see that a week later it's gonna look totally different. And so that's a, that's what I mean by iterate in public. And so that manifests itself in our work very deeply. We're always kind of, sort of like at least sort of iterating. Sometimes to a detriment because it drives ourselves crazy, cause it's like, oh, this shit is never gonna end.
MP (47:53): So like this process of iteration and, and why I mentioned this and why I sort of came to mind because I was thinking about some of the groups, the sort of activists, organizing groups that we work with, who I think, you know, for a variety of reasons not least of which is, you know, you're dealing with you know, members who are sort of like in life or death situations, you know, really struggling. That it's like, also compounded by the way funding works to be able to sort of provide that work. It's very hard to iterate. It's very hard to like put an idea on the table, try it out and then admit to yourself that it sucks. And you're gonna do another idea. Like there's this this guy that only old people probably know named John Candy, you know, the comedian from the eighties and nineties <laugh> and John Candy used to say that he only kept one joke out of every hundred that he ever came up with for any skits or anything that he was doing.
MP (48:50): And so like, that's just like one out of every a hundred ideas is like a really kind of like refreshing way to think about how we just like need to put ideas at the wall, particularly when we're talking about anything complex. Like these complex systems of sort of like in systems change around the climate and displacement, like these are profoundly complex ideas. Like we shouldn't put that pressure on ourselves that like the first idea is gonna work cause like that's not the way it works. And so I think that design process of iteration is something that's like been really critical to our work. That is another thing that like, I think you know, we can talk more about the collective royal we, you know
"The climate and displacement - these are profoundly complex ideas. We shouldn't put pressure on ourselves that the first idea is gonna work, cause that's not the way it works...that design process of iteration is something that's been really critical to our work."
EB (49:30): Yeah. If so important. And I think particularly with work that is you know, socially engaged and really wants to be embedded in direct conversation with organizers and kind of social change cause it's, you know, oftentimes we don't make the right thing right away. And we also can't stifle the work. I mean, I think it's such a, it's such an important thing that, you know, all this work has to breathe in order for it to really be powerful in that way. And I think as more funding comes into this kind of like arts and cultural strategy stuff that people are kind of like calling this and that and whatever, you know, it's like, you know, there people are looking for formulas. And I think part of the formula is that, you know, there is this, this question of iteration in space to play and, and, and move and do things. Yeah, absolutely.