Reflections on Documentary Making

By Andrea Patiño 

It’s hard to believe that ten months have passed already and that my time as a Hine Fellow has come to an end. As I reflect on the experience of working full-time producing documentary work, I can say that this has been a profoundly rewarding year, full of learning experiences, the discovery of new places, and the formation of new and invaluable relationships.

Editing was a particularly interesting phase of the project, as I had to condense over 20 hours of footage into 20 minutes of film. This is the first time that I engaged in a project this long and interacted with my subjects for months. Consequently, I got to know them very well and became quite close to some. This certainly put more pressure on me during the editing phase when I was choosing what to include and what to leave out. How did my personal relationship with them alter my view of them? What elements influenced my decisions to include certain scenes that portrayed them in particular ways, as opposed to other ones that may have given my viewers a different impression? How did my choices of using certain music at certain times affect the overall mood of the films?

These are all questions that I had contemplated in the past, but having to think about them as I produced my work was especially thought-provoking. Representing others is a complicated matter and the lines between “objectivity” and “subjectivity” are oftentimes—if not always—rather blurry. The question of objectivity while documenting has always fascinated both documentarians and viewers. The popular belief tells us that documentaries should, at all costs, portray the truth. But what does that really mean? Documentary makers have certainly moved past the question to explore this issue in more realistic ways: from films that consider intimate family stories to ones where the process of documenting is part of the film, the genre has evolved to convey that the process of documenting human experiences and relationships—both with each other and with the world around us—is equally complicated.

Although I decided to stick to a more traditional way of documentation for this particular project—partly because I was producing work that will be used by a non-profit organization—I considered all these questions very seriously during the entirety of the process. After all these months I can only say, with more conviction than ever, that the importance of documentary work is infinite, not only because documentaries are an important vehicle of information and knowledge, but also because they allow us to examine ourselves and at the communities with which we work in the process.

*You can check out all the work that I created for Raw Art Works at www.rawchiefs.org.

 

Mobility is not a right


By Andrea Patiño 

As my time as a Hine fellow ends, I have been dealing with the ever-dreaded question of what’s next? My standard response goes something like, ‘my future is very uncertain and I have no idea where I will be in four months.’ When I explain that my US work permit ends in July and that I absolutely have to leave the country by September, most people often seem rather surprised. The conversation usually continues with them asking me if my permit can get extended, and I explain that yes, but that it is very complicated.

For years now, dealing with visas and permits has been a source of great frustration. It is always complicated, expensive and time consuming and it seems unfair that my nationality is such a limiting factor when it comes to my mobility and choices of where to live and work.

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Antonio is a young man originally from El Salvador, who came to the United States as an eleven-year old. He spent his childhood with his grandparents, after his mom left for the US to join his dad in their search for better opportunities. At age eleven, Antonio’s parents arranged for him to cross all three borders (from El Salvador to Guatemala, to Mexico, to the US) along with two of his teenage cousins. Like anyone else with whom I start a conversation these days, Antonio is curious about what I’m going to do once I complete my fellowship. I explain my situation to him and unlike anyone else, he responds: why don’t you stay in the US and become one of us? Even though he is no longer undocumented, that is what he is referring to. Why don’t I allow my permit to expire and simply live under the radar like many of the people I have recently met? After all, he adds, you have a college degree and would be better off than many of us.

No one had ever posed that question to me, and although it is certainly not an option, the mere suggestion gets me thinking. There are many practical reasons for which I could never overstay my visa—an immigration violation is taken very seriously in this country and would either mean that I’d have to stay in the US forever (which would entail not seeing my family in Colombia), or if I were to eventually leave, that I wouldn’t be able to come back to the US in a very, very long time. Practicalities aside, Antonio’s question is very smart and ultimately touches upon deeper issues.

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For many of the immigrants who come to the US illegally, there are virtually no ways to come to this country otherwise. While in theory anyone has the ability to apply for a visa, few people realize that the process is much more complicated than simply asking for permission to move to a different country. One needs all sorts of documents that prove financial solvency and resources to pay for application fees. Trying to look for better opportunities is not a good enough reason to migrate.

This year I have met countless immigrants and refugees who have come to the US fleeing poverty, violence and political instability. Some of them have had to do so dangerously by crossing desserts and borders or seeking political asylum in neighboring countries, before they can relocate in the US. My conversations with them always make me reconsider the idea of mobility and the ways in which it is determined mostly by our nationalities, but also by our socioeconomic backgrounds. Even though my reasons for leaving Colombia are very different and I certainly don’t mean to compare the two, there is a common element to both situations: mobility is not a right that we are all given.

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Jose

By Andrea Patiño

Every now and then Jose talks to me about his grandmother. Sometimes he shows me photos of her or tells me about the times when she has made an appearance in his dreams. The other day for instance, he told me how the night before, his grandma had cut her long hair and gave it to him. He wasn’t really sure what the dream meant, he said.

Jose and his grandma never met in person, and yet they developed a really close and profound bond. He used to talk to her over the phone every so often and was only able to see her a couple of times on a computer screen. She lived in Guatemala, where Jose’s mother was born. At seventeen and pregnant, Jose’s mom crossed the border into the United States and was never able to go back to her home country, and thus was unable to see her mother ever again. Jose’s grandma died before anyone in the family could go back to Guatemala.

Stories of immigrants and refugees are everywhere in Lynn. With about 30% of its population being foreign-born, the city is incredibly diverse. It is reported that about 60 languages are spoken in the city’s public schools among students from all corners of the world. Some immigrant communities arrived decades ago, after the promising opportunities that a blooming place like Lynn had to offer. With the industrial decline and many factories closing, unemployment rose and the city became depressed, which continues to be true to this day. Nonetheless, immigrants continued to arrive.

Lynn has also become a hub for refugees. About 260 people from Bhutan, Burma, Congo, Eritrea, Iran, Somalia and Iraq among other countries came to the city in the second semester of 2012 fleeing from wars and political instability in their home countries. Another 600 are expected to arrive in the first semester of 2013.

I’ve had the chance to talk to a lot of people whose lives, like Jose’s, have been impacted by immigration and mobility in one way or the other. There is Antonio, for instance, who now owns a thriving restaurant in Lynn and who, as an 11-year-old crossed the border into the US to be able to meet his mom for the first time, after she had left him as a baby in her search for better opportunities. Or Amal, who came to Massachusetts a few years ago after witnessing the murder of her husband and two of her kids in the violent war in Iraq. The stories are endless and each one is unique and important, not only for those who have had to move, but also for those whose communities have profoundly changed as more and more immigrants arrive.

In the midst of very important debates about immigration in the US, personal stories—of memories, separation and families—are fundamental to remind us that immigration is not only about numbers, economies and politics, but also, and perhaps more importantly, about our common humanity.

RAW Chiefs

By Andrea Patiño

As the winter slowly advances, the days seem to be getting colder and colder. Every day however, the sun is setting a little bit later and there is one more minute of light each afternoon. In spite of the cold, the Boston skies continue to be some of the most stunning I’ve ever seen. The light peaks in beautiful ways through the snowy branches and the sunsets are always astounding.

On a cold day like this, I met Jonathan Rodriguez, a now 21 year old who works at a sheet metal factory. He is a native of Lynn and was once part of the programs at Raw Art Works, the non-profit I have been working with for the past months. At his young age Jonathan is the father of two, not uncommon in Lynn, which has some of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the state.

A few years ago, when he was in his last years of high school, Jonathan became part of the RAW Chiefs group, an initiative crafted by RAW fifteen years ago, to give local young people a chance to work and gain leadership skills. The RAW Chiefs is composed by a group of students who are selected every year to be part of weekly leadership training sessions. Additionally, each teenager is in charge of co-leading a group of younger kids that attend other RAW programs. All RAW Chiefs are paid for their work and their participation in the program is treated seriously, just like any other staff member. They are responsible for their work and are held accountable for their actions.

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For teenagers to have a job like this—where they develop leadership skills, become mentors to younger kids and are paid for their work—in a place where opportunities are scarce, is a tremendous chance. While some of these teenagers have strong support systems at home and will likely go to college no matter what, others rely on RAW to be their home and the place where they find guidance and support. For some of them, like Jonathan, it may even be a life changing opportunity that allows them to stay off the streets and away from gangs and drugs. As Jonathan told me, being a Chief not only kept him away from these things, but also has made him a better father, a better worker and an altogether better person.

Every Thursday afternoon the current RAW Chiefs meet with three RAW staff to discuss issues relevant to their age and to create art surrounding these topics. I have been given the rare opportunity to be part of this group—rarely anyone is allowed to join, in order to maintain confidentiality and a safe and comfortable space for all of its members. Being part of the group with these young individuals, as they transition from adolescence to adulthood, has been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had since coming to Lynn. These are very resilient and inspiring young people, who are at an age of tremendous changes. During group sessions we can go from laughing at silly things to talking about very serious and personal issues. It is a real gift to be able to document this process.

When I speak to Jonathan I can tell that he carries a lot of pride for having once been part of this group. Some of the kids he mentored years ago are now Chiefs mentoring others, who will then go on to mentor even more youth. In a place like Lynn, a network of support and mentorship like this one carries a lot of meaning, because it has the potential to change lives, just like Jonathan’s.

“You’ll want my story”

 

By Andrea Patiño 

The first time I sat down with Awatif to talk about her experiences as an Iraqi refugee, she warned me: ‘I have a good story for you…you’ll want my story.’ Her remark made me uncomfortable and cautious. In some ways that’s the last thing I wanted. As I gather stories and start my documentary project, I want honest accounts, not framed and prefabricated testimonies. But Awatif is used to talking to the media; she makes it clear to me that she knows what they want to hear. I am not the media, but I do carry a camera and I’m recording our conversations so she knows I’m looking for something. I’m alert and try to be even more perceptive than I usually am.

Awatif came to the United States with two sons and a daughter, after her third son, a 24-year-old college student was murdered in Iraq. He was working for the American and British military as a translator and was killed by Iraqi militias along with fourteen others who were performing the same job. Her family had been threatened numerous times because of her son’s connections to the Americans and Brits. After the murder of her son, her second one was tortured for days. That’s when she decided to leave for Syria, before things got more serious. They left behind everything they had—a big house in Baghdad and the life they knew—to live in a place they didn’t know and where they didn’t have anything. After a couple of years the UN finally processed their request for refugee status in the US—a process that was partly possible due to her son’s previous work with the military. Many Iraqi translators were promised visas to the US but only a small number has received them.

I can only begin to imagine her pain. The look in her face changes every time she speaks about her son. Her husband died in 1994 in a car accident, ‘but that’s ok’, she says. ‘My son, however, his murder, that’s not fair. He was my life.’ As I talk to Awatif more and more I begin to gain access to more intimate stories and to her more genuine self. I don’t doubt the legitimacy of the story she is used to telling, but I want to get past what she has already told many local newspapers. In the process my own motivations are revealed and I get to examine my work as a documentarian. What is it that I want to hear? Her life is certainly a collection of many more complex moments—not only the tragic turn that her life took in 2006. I want to learn about life in Iraq before and during the war. I want to get a sense of what daily life in Iraq may have looked like, and felt, and smelled. And as our conversation progresses and I spent more time with Awatif, I get closer and closer to that.

Awatif’s story is the story of many families that have traveled the world to a foreign place that seemed promising. ‘I don’t speak for myself’ she tells me, ‘I speak for every family here in Lynn.’ What the majority of them have found is a mix of both better and worse conditions. Most of the people that I have spoken to at the IACA have expressed feeling welcomed and accepted in the US—feelings that surprised some of them after being continuously threatened and lacked the freedom to openly practice their religion due to sectarian violence back in Iraq. But there are also numerous hardships. As refugees they face cultural and language barriers, and often have difficulties finding jobs and paying the rent. That is exactly why Awatif currently lives in a shelter in Jamaica Plain, where she took me on a sunny Tuesday the second time we met. She will live there until she is able to afford a permanent residence. We commuted for almost two hours—a trip she takes nearly everyday to attend English classes at IACA in Lynn and interact with the Iraqis who live in the area. There are nearly 60 Iraqi refugee families in the North Shore, a lot of who seek assistance from the IACA as they settle in the US.

The day I met with Awatif, her daughter had just left to live with an uncle in New Jersey. Her older son—the one who was once tortured and now works washing dishes at MIT—also left a few months ago to live with friends. She stayed alone with her 19-year-old son, who will graduate from high school next spring. The shelter in Jamaica Plain is better than the one they were placed back in Lynn, but Awatif has no friends and her TV doesn’t work. ‘It gets really lonely, especially at night,’ she says.

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Andrea Patiño Contreras, a native from Bogota, Colombia, graduated from Duke University with a B.A. in cultural anthropology and a certificate in policy journalism. While at Duke, Andrea became deeply fascinated by photography, both as a practice and as a theoretical subject. She engaged in multiple photo documentary projects. In 2010, as a recipient of the John Hope Franklin Student Documentary Award from the Center of Documentary Studies at Duke, Andrea photographed slave castles in Ghana and explored the relationship between these spaces, tourists and locals. A year later she traveled to the West Bank, Palestine, as the photography intern for Students of the World. There, she documented the work of Tomorrow’s Youth Organization, an NGO that works with Palestinian women and children. Simultaneously, through the Visual Studies Fellowship at Duke University, she conducted research about the role of photography in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  This culminated in her senior thesis, which examines the role of photography in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and its potential to become an alternative political platform.

At Duke, Andrea combined her profound passion for photography and storytelling with civic engagement. This interest took her to Apopka, Florida, where she worked with undocumented immigrants. She has also written for different student publications about immigration and race, topics that she feels passionate about.

Regarding the Lewis Hine Documentary Fellowship, Andrea says, “Photography has given me a more nuanced understanding of the world and has made me realize that it is the human connections that this medium facilitates that remain most vibrant in our hearts and minds. This wonderful opportunity will allow me to take this belief even further: I want to explore how photographs can effectively trigger tangible changes in our society.”

Andrea is working with RAW Artworks in Lynn, MA. To follow Andrea’s personal blog about her fellowship, visit: http://documentaryexploration.tumblr.com/