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.
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 so 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