Echoing Voices: Crossing Boundaries through Personal Videos

Marisa Vitiello
University of Arizona

Recently I attended part of a large group therapy experience called the Landmark Forum. I was personally turned off by the commercialization and what I perceived to be its excessively large size and I have since been pondering the value that other people find in it. The friend who brought me talked about how it helped her to take personal responsibility in her own life. In thinking about this issue, I realize how some people's need to speak about themselves to large groups of people in order to create a sense of perspective as well as accountability is akin in some ways to the value of producing autobiographical videos. In both making and watching personal videos we learn about ourselves, we lay claim to our lives, and we make collective change possible.

As Alexandra Juhasz states: "a video lasts while a support group ends. A video is a public statement while a support group is private. And video looks like TV, one of our society's most powerful institutions" (28). Thus, video has the potential to be an even more powerful tool than group therapy, ostensibly for the producer if not the viewers as well. But rather than creating a competition between healing methods, I'd like to talk about the importance of personal videos, the work of some of my students, and the conditions that contributed to guiding their creative processes in a class for which I was a co-teacher during the 1997-1998 school year.

This year-long class, called -ISMS (N.) : Crossing Boundaries: Diversity and Representation, integrated the study of power dynamics (such as racism, heterosexism, etc.) with video making and was part of a national project run by the Institute for Public Media Arts (IPMA). According to IPMA, -ISMS (N.) is an attempt to create "linkages between 'real world' and classroom learning" ( -ISMS (N.) Toolkit Draft, 1). This experimental class was planned carefully by IPMA to have far reaching implications. The students and the teachers are intended to learn how to work together better and to create work that they can continue to share with people beyond the project. At its core, -ISMS (N.) is a way to help students to examine themselves and the world in which they live in order to improve the way that they deal with living in a diverse society. I became involved with -ISMS (N.) as a graduate student at the University of Arizona, one of the seven schools that implemented the program last year.

IPMA set up a certain amount of the structure of the course and participating schools had to meet a variety of requirements, including that the course be team taught and that students sign contracts with IPMA to show that they understood the size of the project. But otherwise the programs and conditions at each school differed according to the interests of the faculty and the structure of the institution. At the University of Arizona, the faculty interests centered on a cultural theory and media education approach. Our project was a collaboration between the Women's Studies department and the Media Arts department.

There was a diversity of interests, experience and backgrounds among students in our class. Our class was made up of 13 students. Of these, 3 were graduate students, 10 were undergraduate students; 3 were men, 10 were women; many were queer; at least two were older than the average student; 8 were people of color, 5 were European American; and some knew the struggles of poverty intimately. As well as students who studied in the Women's Studies and Media Arts programs, there were representatives of other programs, including: Political Science, Visual Arts, Creative Writing, Anthropology and Family Life Education. Although we hoped for this diversity we found we did not have to create it through the application process. The application process was demanding, which seemed to ensure that dedicated students with a vested interest in the issues were the ones who applied. Many of the students in our course were honors students. We also allowed graduate students to take the course for graduate credit.

Because of the way the course was introduced at our school, we had some exceptionally smart students who were already concerned about the issues we discussed. This raised some concern about whether we were "preaching to the converted," but while it is true that our students may have already been thoughtful, critical thinkers, none of us is beyond having work to do dealing with "isms." While some students may need "converting," others may need support or room to think and talk about "isms" and their effects on all of us.

In creating the syllabus we were interested in constructing a class where the theoretical work followed the shape of the video projects and thus supported them. During the first semester, when students made a personal video as their main project, we thought it important that we study autobiographical works and theory written from a personal point of view. We read works by writers such as Audre Lorde, Dorothy Allison, and Gloria Anzaldua; and watched work by Jan Oxenberg and Marlon Riggs, among others. In the spring, the students made group video projects looking at campus "isms." To support this work, and to better understand how institutions create and maintain power differences, we read about the creation of certain "isms" in universities as well as methods of resistance that have been attempted. Therefore, we moved from a microcosmic view of the construction and maintenance of power dynamics to a macrocosmic view. The first semester was the more successful of the two and the one on which I wish to focus here.

The ideas of Paulo Friere and bell hooks informed our teaching practices. We tried to create a classroom atmosphere where we could all learn from each other and where students would understand that they had a responsibility to (in?) their own educational processes. The semester started with reading excerpts from hooks' Teaching to Transgress; students and teachers then considered the question of what made an educational experience "liberatory." We listed such things as "open, honest," "having real meaning in the world," "interactive," "interdisciplinary," and "no absolute structure [flexible]." We set these out as goals for the year.

We employed somewhat standard alternative classroom practices such as sitting in a circle and relying on discussions, rather than lecturing, for most teaching. As a teaching team, we also tried to show our own vulnerability through showing our own work and otherwise participating in class activities. Although there were some inconsistencies and difficulties in our classroom practices--especially due to teaching within a mainstream institution with all the expectations that this entails--the overall effect of the atmosphere we built allowed students to feel they were relatively safe to express themselves.

As Michelle Citron points out, "there is a dimension of risk at work here ...The autobiographical film or video is intimately bound to the filmmaker's psyche, a site where guilt and projection lurk" ("Fleeing," 273). The atmosphere within which students made their work was therefore important to the resulting videos. Product and process are not as easy to separate as we might assume. In making their videos, students began to ask a lot of questions about honesty and self-representation; they realized that whatever they made their video on they would leave out immense amounts. Students also struggled with concepts of audience and agency, as well as resistance to media messages. Thus, they confronted issues of framing and investigated how video making is so much a process of making choices. These were some of the many reasons that IPMA included the production of personal videos as part of this curriculum intended to help students deal with diversity issues. As the staff at IPMA state in their guidebook:

Individual video diaries create an experience where students must articulate their perspective and self-interests. Students create a construct in a medium in which they are usually the receptors of messages created by others. In the process of crafting a message, students begin to deconstruct their own "image" ...By sharing the individual video diaries, students become peer teachers, providing new information and perspectives for one another. When viewing and responding to their classmates' videos, students must assess their prejudgments about one another's backgrounds and points of view ...personal stories paint human faces on otherwise lofty theories and issues. -ISMS (N.) Toolkit Draft, 36
In both the production and the reception of their video diaries students broke personal boundaries. They helped each other both as crew and in class discussions as they brainstormed their ideas and talked about techniques for expressing themselves. As the semester proceeded, they began to lend each other emotional support through what often turned out to be a difficult process, as some of them opened wounds they had hoped to forget and shared these with the class and others who might see their work. At least one quiet student introduced herself through the process of making her video. This woman opened herself up as she could not in person and students expressed how happy they were to discover her through her work.

The use of video to help people get to know each other is a strategic part of the project. According to Mary Childers, " -ISM (N.) was the first national education and video documentary project to put video cameras in the hands of the students, enabling them to tell their own stories about diversity" (33). Video is a very appropriate medium for confronting "isms." As indicated above, it is the medium that so many of us are bombarded with on a daily basis. To make video is to come to a better understanding of how "truth" is constructed. One student made a video in which she taped herself making wine; she pointed out that it was "video wine" she made and would not be potable. She implies that even in making her video diary, something that claims a certain amount of honesty in its title, she is constructing reality.

In making and looking at video, the class often discussed issues of power in the creation of media. The students were not simply empowered by their ability to speak in this new language, they also began to realize the responsibility that is implied by this new power. Questions of how to represent themselves and other people became a constant struggle for these students.

Because they were working in video, which is inherently a preservation medium, students knew that their work would make an impact beyond the personal research that it was (here the use of the term "video diary" could be questioned). As in the group therapy experience mentioned above, students had to confront their own issues in a public forum and make sure that they were clear. In other words, playing the victim in their own video construct would be a difficult record to live with and they were better off looking at the complex and contradictory issues of their lives carefully. In writing about so called confessional video making Michael Renov states that "the virtual partner—the imagined other effectuated by the technology—turns out to be a more powerful facilitator of emotion than flesh-and-blood interlocutors" (89). The audience members therefore serve to hold the maker accountable for her words and actions. Lisa Kahaleole Chang Hall further observes: "The power of the word. Words are nothing to play with, they are acts of creation. Storytelling is a responsibility, an art form, a legacy through which we honor our origins even as we fear betraying them in the act of revelation" (242)

Students struggled with the responsibility of telling their stories and the day that the videos were screened made the semester seem worthwhile. Despite the difficulties that students had faced—or maybe even because of them—they made powerful videos that were heartfelt and unique. Work that I assumed would never become a reality delivered more than I could have asked for. We cried together over many of the works. The range of work ran from a beautiful and rather straightforward piece about the importance of one man's grandmother in his life to a very abstract piece about loneliness that included a myriad of images.

The makers used various methods to control how close they allowed the audience to get to them. Most works were relatively experimental and some used humor. It could be argued that both humor and abstraction distance the audience, but they can alternately allow an intimacy that can't be communicated through straightforward documentary style. Some of the students' videos did distance the audience, while others were able to bridge the gap and also hold the viewer's attention.

Students studied a variety of issues in their lives. The most common theme was sexuality, but students also looked at death in the family, loss of mobility due to a motorcycle accident, and the handing down of violence from father to son, among other issues. No student looked at his or her identity as a simple matter of being merely a representative of their race, gender or sexuality, although these issues of identity were a part of many of the works.

One student's experience was especially powerful for everyone in our class. Lenay Dunn came into our class from the Women's Studies department. She had very limited knowledge of video making but a relatively sophisticated sense of identity issues. She was one of the most engaged students in the class but when it came to discussing her video work she could not articulate herself but instead would break down in tears when she tried to talk about the subject for her video. One day we decided as a class not to simply move on to the next person when she could not talk but instead students held her hand as she cried and we tried asking questions that would get her to talk about her video from another angle. She eventually was able to talk to us and we had a good brainstorming session where people offered their suggestions.

Her piece was about the death of her mother and her remorse over the veil of silence that she felt her mother had lived under. Some of the ideas we suggested included that Lenay write a letter to her mother or that she write the letter that her mother might write to her. It seemed that Lenay needed to settle something that had been taken from her when, at age 16, she found her mother dead, but her voice was caught in her throat, leaving only tears to come out.

As we got closer to the day the work was due, it seemed that Lenay did not move further toward having a finished product. When the tapes were handed in, I was happy to find that she had something to give me, but I put it toward the bottom not expecting that the work would be fully realized. We were all surprised at how powerful, artistic, and well thought out the tape was. She told us that she laid down the images first and then in the middle of the night before the work was due the text came to her on its own and at exactly the necessary length. Whatever miracle caused this, Lenay's voice finally broke through its silence.

Lenay's tape, Woman's Work, includes a collection of images of Lenay performing domestic tasks in a ritualistic fashion. The framing and the colors are reminiscent of some 1950s images. She irons, cleans the toilet, cuts vegetables and scrubs the word "sacrifice" off the floor. In the voiceover she speaks to her mother about her memories and her losses. The speech is poetic and uses repetition for emphasis. One line in particular comes back a few times: "housewife, maid, servant, slave, housewife." We hear tears in her voice as she states "we found you laying dead on the floor surrounded by ripped paper bags and a chaotic swirl of groceries." We don't see Lenay's face until the end when she removes her apron reclaiming her identity as separate from her mother. She states her realization that she does not have to fill her mother's role either as housewife or martyr but that instead she must claim her voice for both of them.

This piece is lyrical and at the same time real. The artistry of the work does not distance us, in part due to the clarity of the voiceover. Images complement the text. Usually the images are of Lenay doing repetitive tasks. Once in awhile these tasks relate in a somewhat literal and strange fashion to the words she speaks. For instance, she talks about feeling fragmented as she cuts potatoes and she talks about the memory of her mother's hands as she cleans a toilet bowl. The simplicity and clarity of this piece make it very touching. It is a testament toward the future as well; Lenay ends the work with a promise to her mother: "Your voice was often loud and always strong, but behind that was a million dreams unfulfilled. You sacrificed so that my voice, my life, could be a fulfillment of my dreams. You lit candles for me reminding me to make wishes. Now I light candles for both of us, both our dreams."

This need to make some sort of proclamation at the end of their work was common among our students. Some affirm themselves while others make a promise, for instance:

  • "Now time has come to unload these old things I carry, to find words for what I cannot say and share them with you;"
  • "For the first time in my life though, I think I finally understand what it really means to be in love, it means that no matter what happens between us, I care deeply about her happiness, wherever and with whomever she finds it. I hope she'd have the same care for me;"
  • "On some days I feel the need to throw a tantrum. Usually though I try and walk tall on one plane of my life without bumping my head on another."

The tendency to end the works this way is partly for a sense of closure, a traditional narrative style. But additionally, it is testament to the therapeutic value of making video and the makers' attempts to lay claim to the constructs that are their lives.

One really difficult issue in making an autobiographical work is the fear of baring one's soul only to be told that one is self-indulgent or narcissistic. This label has been placed on many autobiographical works. The challenge seems to be for the creators to look at an issue that is personal in such a way that they don't claim it as purely individual but instead try to share things that might resonate with the experience of other people. In our class, the videos were put to the test through a series of screenings. One particular event stands out. Lenay and another student, Dace, who made a video about her frustration with her inability to walk, visited a high school class of pregnant and parenting teens. They showed their videos to the students and later received letters such as the following:

Dear Lenay: I really enjoyed the segment of your life that you chose to show. I can hear you speaking. Not hearing with my ears but with my eyes. That is a good quality of [sic????] a person should have. I can also feel the pain that you are in. I like how you mopped up those words on the floor. I am sorry that I can't remember the word that you kept mopping up. I have a lot on my mind. From mopping up the word several times I could see that you were getting stronger. I could really relate to you about taking over your mother's duties as being her. You touched my heart.
From this student's letter it is evident that the details of one's life can be familiar to another and can offer hope, or a sense of perspective about the issues in the viewer's life. Autobiography is ideally about the specific and the collective at the same time. Making and viewing videos like this can teach us that we are not alone. This is important in the struggle to deal with "isms." As IPMA states: "individual stories told with particularity can transcend ideological disagreements" ( -ISMS (N.) Toolkit Draft, 37).

A combination of factors affected our student's ability to make successful personal videos. The work to which we introduced them was important in offering artistic inspiration and an understanding of the structure of autobiographical work. From this work they seemed to gain an understanding that an autobiographical work did not have to tell one's entire life story. The classroom dynamic was also important. We built a safe environment for students to feel comfortable expressing themselves and relying on each other. The students who chose to be in the class were also vital to the success of the projects. These students were relatively predisposed to seeing education as a part of their personal growth and thus were ready and willing to experiment. In addition, these students generally had important stories to tell, as people who were rarely privileged to be behind the camera. As Michelle Citron points out, these stories are threatening to the status quo: "the honest autobiographical film or video speaks publicly about the socially hidden: gay sexuality, being disabled ...As a culture, we have been little able to tolerate the truth of the variety of lived experience: that truth threatens the social order" ("Fleeing," 272). We must continue to push these boundaries and speak out if we are interested in change.

The value of these videos will continue if the work gets screened at school events and beyond. This is one way that IPMA hoped to ensure that the work does not end with the end of the school year. Instead, our hard work in class and in our lives dealing with power dynamics and self-investigation is intended to echo into the lives of others.


Beal, Denise A. and Malkia Lydia, eds. -ISM (N.) Curricular and Faculty Development Project: Toolkit Draft 1997-1998. Durham, NC.

Childers, Mary. " -ISM (N.) Lessons Learned From the National Video Diversity Project." Change 29.2 (1997): 33-37.

Citron, Michelle. "Fleeing from Documentary: Autobiographical Film/Video and the 'Ethics of Responsibility.'" In Feminism and Documentary. Eds. Diane Waldman and Janet Walker. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. 271-286.

Citron, Michelle. Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Hall, Lisa Kahaleole Chang. "Eating Salt." In Names We Call Home: Autobiography on Racial Identity. Eds. Becky Thompson and Sangeeta Tyagi. New York: Routledge, 1996. 241-251.

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Renov, Michael. "Video Confessions." In Resolutions: Contemporary Video Practices. Eds. Michael Renov and Erica Suderburg. 78-101.

Index of faculty articles

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