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Expectation Bias

Repass1

On May 12, 2014, I interviewed Jeanna Repass. I looked at her and a saw a successful African-American woman living in the suburbs of Kansas City. I was excited to learn about her and from her. I had prepared my sheaf of papers filled with questions, time-stamps and data. We both sat down across from each other, a camera pointing at Jeanna over my shoulder and lights illuminating her from several angles.

The interview began:

Nathaniel: “How do you identify yourself Jeanna?”

Jeanna: “I’m a suburban middle-class mother of two and wife to one.”

Then, I proceeded to ask her about her identity as a black woman.  

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Orienting a Project’s Narrative

For the past few months, Brainroot has been acting as the series producer on a national documentary series called Re:Dream. As is common in United States public media, we’ve been trying to do a lot with a little in a short amount of time. We’ll be posting 40 micro-documentaries between February 29 & April 22, and the project only started in September!

That gave us about six weeks to cast (or, “determine what people will be featured in”) all 40 videos. The process was rather rushed and it kept bringing to mind one of the more memorable pieces of assigned reading from my college years – the book Orientalism by Edward Said.

Cover of the first edition of

Orientalism by Edward Said

In a ludicrously brief summary, Orientalism is a book that outlines how Whites (aka Caucasians, aka The West, aka The Occident) simultaneously exotify and invalidate any peoples and cultures that aren’t Western European, and then subjugate those people. It was assigned reading in my “Intro to Documentary Production” class at UNI, and I’m grateful for it.

The age of European colonialism was an age where The West = The Best! (Need proof? Would it rhyme if it wasn’t true?) So, any exotic culture was a culture different from The West, and therefore less than the best, and therefore… worthy of being taken over by The West. Exotification helped justify colonization, slavery, extraction of resources, and political manipulation in other nations.

This is our heritage as cultural offspring of Western Europe.

We exotify much more quickly than we familiarize. We see differences before we see similarities. And as media producers, whether it’s an issue of seeking to satisfy our audience, or simply our own unseen prejudices, we often do the same. Documentary film has a rich tradition with exotification and invalidation. Some of the most early documentary films were anthropological in nature, and I’m talking about the bad kind of anthropology. Many films in the mode of Nannook of the North amounted to little more than “Look at these non-White people. See how silly their non-Western culture is? They are so backwards compared to White people it’s pitiable. This proves that our culture is the best.”

I’m glad to say that anthropologist and documentarians eventually realized we were being pretty big dicks, going around being Image from Nannook of the Northso dismissive towards…everyone. And – to a lesser degree – the United State’s culture is realizing that as well. Maybe…

While the world is still healing from the era of colonization, and the trend not completely past, I’m glad that such blatant subjugation is no longer in vogue*. And I’m glad that it’s never popped into my head while working on this Re:Dream project. But, it’s that “exotifying” part that keeps running through my mind.

Exotic. Different in a fascinating way.

As Nathaniel & I were rushing to find 8 people in Kansas City to interview and talking daily with the four other PBS Stations while they rushed to find their 8 people to interview, we found a lot of great stories. Stories of individuals that were so unique and original that it was fascinating. These were incredible stories. Stories of how these individuals sought out goals that no one else had dreamed of; who were choosing to live in a way that few others would ever imagine; who had gone through such tragic or euphoric events that we were overwhelmed when their story was being told to us.

And it was really hard to pass those stories up.

Time and again, we had to take a step back and make the tough choice to say, “That’s a great story, but not a good story for this project.” This documentary series is supposed to build conversation about how success and opportunity are defined and accessed in the United States. We want folks who see the videos to walk away thinking about what enabled or hindered their own success, because they could relate to the person in the video. Because they could see part of their own story in that video.

Often times, what made many of the people’s’ stories we considered so fascinating is that they were so different. We were focusing on the differences. Very often. Very easily.

Exotification is still a major part of our culture and, therefore, of our documentary field. Entrepreneur documentaries are always engaging to watch. Documentaries about incredible outdoor adventurers grab us. Stories about three low-income boys from rural Missouri sweep awards. We exotify and say, “Look at how different these people are from most of us.” Even if we exotify and exalt, rather than exotify and invalidate, we’re still focusing on the differences.

Exotification is what comes naturally to us documentarians, because we want to tell stories that people will want watch. If we don’t do that, we won’t be “documentarians” for long because we can’t make a living. We can’t get funding. We can’t feel motivated if no one is watching what we take time and energy to produce. And sharing stories of really unique people can still be a powerful way for viewers to come to understand a way of life they previously didn’t comprehend.

But for this project’s over-arching narrative, focusing on people’s differences – having 40 “great stories” – wouldn’t have made a great series.

We’re half-way through post-production right now, and I’m very glad that we took the time to pause and check ourselves. With every new video draft we see, Nathaniel and I, and the rest of the KCPT team, get more and more excited about the series. This idea is quickly becoming a reality. But if we hadn’t fought our default story-mode, the series wouldn’t be the same, and so I just wanted to take some time to share the process we worked through.

We were unconsciously exotifying. Yes, showing differences can be very beneficial because stories can have impact and power. But it should be a conscious, purposeful choice. My concern is that, often, it’s not.

Documentaries are having a bit of a golden era right now in terms of their popularity and views. And exotification still seems prevalent, if not always negative. We look back with shame on Nanook of the North. What will cultural historians say about this era in 75 years?

____
* writing this while Trump blasts out confused, yet popular, hate towards Muslims

Share These Experiences

 

 

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 I was standing outside Gates BBQ in Kansas City, Missouri, waiting for my co-worker to arrive. I was hoping to just get a few words with her so I could let her know that I truly did not know what was going to happen in the next thirty minutes.

 

Of course, I knew we were going to eat delicious barbecue with a high possibility of onion rings dipped in delicious vinegar-forward barbecue sauce. I had very little idea of with whom we would be eating said delicacies. We were meeting with a gentleman whose name had been given me as someone well-connected in the African-American community in Kansas City.

 

We at Brainroot are working on creating compelling documentaries that reach across racial differences and communities and cultures within the United States. This desire leaves us keenly aware of the cloistered facts of our own communities. Along this vein, I had reached out to a few friends saying, “Hey, I want to be more connected to communities outside my current one(s)! Can you help?”

 

It was in response to this that I appeared with our project’s executive producer, Carla, at one of the premium barbecue joints of the world.

 

Before I could convene with Carla, I got a ring on my flip phone; it was our friend the unknown introducee. He said he could see me standing outside and that I oughta come on in. I told him I was waiting for Carla. He then appeared through the double doors and introduced himself.

 

John* had a black Kansas City Chiefs shirt on, corn rows that flowed into long braids down the back of his neck, and a wide, sincere smile that revealed one or more gold front teeth.

 

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Keeping On

The rush of travel and tasks is a constant pressure right now. As I type this, Nathaniel and I are shuttling back and forth between Kansas City and Atlanta. We’re taking a quick day trip to work with some of the producers at Georgia Public Broadcast – GPB is one of the five PBS member stations working on a national documentary project that Brainroot is overseeing. The last six weeks have had me burning down I-70 from Fulton (where I live with my wife) to KC (where Nathaniel and the rest of the KCPT team are) to work on this project that I love – flying through a ton of intense meetings, crashing on a kind KC couch overnight, doing a second day of non-stop meetings – and then rushing back to Fulton to be with the one I love while doing non-stop emails, calls, and document builds.

It’s a great team of people. It’s a project we’re passionate about. It’s project that’s funded.

…I don’t like it.

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Project Prep: Your Fellow Americans

We’re excited – and have been for the past weeks – to be prepping for a new documentary project. The series is titled Your Fellow Americans. It’s going to be a (hopefully) on-going web series that will slowly, calmly take a look at what it means to be an American. It will examine issues of race, immigration, and The American Dream.

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The Cigar: An Introduction

We just completed a short documentary about cigars. Take a few to watch! It’s an introduction to cigars and cigar smoking for first-time smokers and novices. Curt Diebel is a second-generation owner/operator of Diebel’s Sportsman Gallery in Kansas City, MO.

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Oddly Correct – Timelapse Tuesday

The third of 22 Timelapse Tuesdays. This one was spent with Mike Schroeder of Oddly Correct Coffee in Midtown, Kansas City. It was a fun production with a lot of beans and Mike talks about balancing the views romantic and practical views on roasting coffee.

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We Are Superman: Documentary Trailer

Finally, a solid trailer for the documentary that Kevin and Christopher have been working on since February of 2012. We Are Superman is a documentary film that takes a look at the historic socioeconomic and racial divide along Troost Avenue in Kansas City. The film explores the history of Troost, and chronicles

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