“Imba” Means Conflicting Feelings

After viewing “Imba Means Sing”, I was left with mixed feelings; I consciously know that enabling African children to get an education is a good thing, but while watching the film, it was hard to shake the feeling that something about this path to education was wrong. During several parts of the film, I felt distinctly uncomfortable but I found difficulty trying to attribute my discomfort to one specific thing, especially when the organization being filmed is supposed to be a beneficial one. I thought that my feelings would be refined and clarified after the the subsequent interaction with the producer, Erin Bernhardt, but I left feeling even more confounded by the duality of emotion the film evoked from me.

The African Children’s Choir is doing work that is positively impacting the lives of the participants. The legacy of the Choir is one of prestige, and obviously the alumni valued the program, because they continue to return in order to contribute it.

And though that legacy is one that should not be overlooked, it is difficult for me to ignore some of the details of the film that were quite strange.

The experience of these African children is directly bound to American churches. Pretty significant parts of the film showed the children performing (in stereotypically “African” costumes) for a largely white congregation. The juxtaposition of the simple churches the children attended in Africa against the massive churches they performed in were shocking. These children lived with members of the church during the days they stayed in the town; even this interaction seemed like a novelty for the people housing the African children. The members of the congregation seemed to know very little about the cultures where these kids came from. They dressed them up in play-clothes and played with Barbies. I know that those activities gave the children joy, but there was something so absurd about young girls using African children as a means of dress up. Maybe it was the sense of exploitation?

That was a sense I felt from a large part of the film. The children were repeatedly told not to “disappoint” anyone; there was an immense pressure upon the children to deliver the performance these Americans wanted to see. This idea giving the people what they want was directly tied to the costumes they wore. The costumes looked almost tribal in nature, and very much subscribed to the western perception of “Africa”. The children never wore anything of a similar nature whilst in their home environments in the actual continent. The children were always asked to smile as big as they possibly could, and enunciating their english well was of importance. It’s as if the performance was aimed at presenting the exotic appeal of the African continent while attempting to separate the poverty and danger that accompanies living there.

In a way, I know that the children’s physical presence elicits more money from congregations. However, it’s difficult for me to understand why these children specifically have to dance. I wonder if its more of a formality; if the american public, specifically people in protestant christian churches, expect people to have to work for charity.

My most important question about “Imba Means Sing” is tied to the bigger picture, and the relative ignorance of that picture by the majority of Americans supporting these students. If children in Africa cannot afford an education, is there not a bigger issue? If these kids have to sing and dance like puppets in front of white people to be considered worthy of schooling, isn’t there clearly a systematic problem? While the African Children’s Choir is attempting to solve an issue, it seems as if the solution needs more than 20 kids who have to sing.

The bigger question is, how do we deal with systematic issues that require solutions that may not show progress in the short term? What is the way in which the US, as a nation of privileged people, should get involved in solving these problems? Are programs like the African’s Children Choir distracting people from getting educated about much bigger issues? Or is it better to have something like the ACC to solve problems in the short term? Can long term and short term solutions like these coexist?

Observing

This anthropology course never fails to provide me with material to respond to. However, the activity I want to reflect upon for this week is the request that each student “observe” and different space.

I was asked to observe Starbucks; I went to the one on campus. My opinion of the location is inherently biased, because I go there frequently. But I attempted to really look and think about the surrounding I was in.

starbucks

Initially, my focus was on the aesthetics of the location. The walls aren’t bright; they’re a muted yellow and blue color. The backsplash behind the barista counter is blue and reflective, and reminded me of mermaid scales. There are lightbulbs fashionably arranged to appear like they’re floating over one side of the room. The space is muted and earthy; tables are wood based and the furniture is dark. The smells of the location are distinctive too; the restaurant smells distinctly clean (but not in a chemical way), and is underscored by the scent of coffee grinds and baked apple bread.

The sounds of the location resulted in a different experience for me. This location plays music, often indie-rock or something of a folk-nature. Usually the voice of the primary vocalist is deep, soothing and supplemented by banjo. These artists are popular and poppy enough to have created successful songs, but not popular enough to evoke instant recognition. The music was at first calming, but in the space of 30 minutes, the music seemed to grow gradually louder. Again, in the past, I’ve had issues really working or writing in this location because I become more conscious and focused on the music as I spend time in the area. The bustle of the machines and the voices of the baristas can be heard. One woman’s voice was peculiar when she talked to customers; her pitch was fairly high and would rise when asking questions of the customers. Her voice sounded very positive, but the consistency of hearing her talk so chirpily for a half-hour made me perceive her tone as a forced one.

The sensory elements of this observation were in line with my day-to-day expectations of the location. However, during my observation, I began to notice habits the people in the spaces portrayed. The concept of physical space was a defining one; few people in the coffee shop actually speak to one another, even when they are sitting next to each other. While most of the furniture is grouped closely together, the customers would sit at least a chair away from other people. This perception of space was furthered by a young pair. The female was leaning onto the male’s lap, placing her head against his shoulder and grasping his arm. This couple was particularly shocking to see in the environment of the Starbucks. I think because so few people exhibited physical proximity or comfort with others, any overt expression of physical expression seemed excessive (even though it would not have been in different environments). This guarding (or lack there of) of physical space was displayed by a young man and woman. The woman, who was dressed in a crisp looking dress, and the young man, who looked casually clothed in a relatively good-quality t-shirt. I was unsure as to what their relationship was; they sat in seats that were close, but neither one actually touched the  other until the end of the conversation, wherein the woman shook the man’s hand, and the two parted ways. Because of the way that the woman enforced her personal space, I think their relationship was one of professionalism. However, I did not know how to factor in the man’s unprofessional attire with the situation I thought I perceived.

Another observation I focused on, which I had not in the past, was the racial diversity in the room. The majority of people were white females, with a scattering of people of different ethnicities. However, the only two black women in the store were working behind the counter. This concept is one that applies to Emory University as a whole. Our student body is composed of about 10% black students. However, the employees that serve us our food, clean our bathrooms, and do the jobs we all go to college so we won’t have to do are almost all black. This discontinuity between representation of people of color in the academic sphere makes me question the effectiveness of the American school system and the actual level of diversity Emory claims to have. This reflection, while distinctly different from the actual day-to-day events that occurred at Starbucks, is tied to my experience there.

I wonder how Anthropologists who attempt to go out into the field unbiasedly can do so with any amount of effectiveness.

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on “The Crossing”

The article, “The Crossing”, produced a variety of different responses from me over the time I considered its content. I want to split my train of thought into several different pieces, levels – if you will, that I can explore within this response.

My initial reaction, my first level of response, was one of an emotional origin. As I read the piece, I grew attached to the story of Beni. I grew concerned for the well-being of Dikembe. These young men seemed like the ideal protagonists: young, able-bodied, selfless (by my standards), and deserving. If anyone should make the crossing, shouldn’t it be them? These young men remain hopeful about a future they have barely glimpsed. At one point, Beni says, “Once I have a good job in Europe…I will buy my brother and sister plane tickets, so they won’t have to do the crossing like me. Someday, I will tell them my stories, and they won’t believe them all, but they will be so thankful for me.” It is slightly uncomfortable to be on this end of the story, to know about the restrictions surrounding the ability for a boy like Beni to make it into the EU – much less fly his family over to meet him. However, I think that discomfort is necessary for real awareness. This article made me sad; it made me pity the lives these boys have; it made aware of how lucky I am. But most importantly, it made me uncomfortable. Earlier, I described Beni as a character because initially his story seems almost fictional. The idea that a boy, the same age as my brother, can be living a life of constant movement and covertness seems absurdly dystopian. But that is the defining point of the article, that is what imparts so much emotion, so much discomfort: Beni’s story is not a fictional one; he is a very real boy representing the struggle of many other very real people.

The second line of thinking is tied with the prior one: this story of the Moroccan immigration crisis is certainly real, but how has it been so silent? What circumstances have created the erasure of this event from media? Is the lack of attention tied to the race of these people? Sub-saharan african men and women represent a minority, especially in the eyes of the American public. Further more, does the apparent rise in anti-immigration sentiments contribute to silence? Or is the attention of the media too fleeting to create real change?

My third line of thought deals in a much broader sense with the work that Professor Alexander is doing. In one of the opening days of class, we touched upon the fairly elitist nature of academic anthropology and the way that research is judged. However, if anything is is proven by “The Crossing”, it is that the presentation of modern anthropological research does not belong inside of a classroom. The importance of these discoveries is tied to their ability to be transmitted.

If a tree falls in the forest, but no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

If a boy is beaten to death outside of one of Spain’s borders, but no one is around to see it, did his death really matter? If he doesn’t have any identification papers did his death really happen? Was he ever really alive?

 

 

Frederick Wiseman

Wiseman first began directing films in 1967, with his Titicut Follies. Wiseman has since directed more than 40 different films of a similarly unique nature

Wiseman’s signature style is one void of personal interference; he is infamous for excluding any interviews or narration in his projects. Wiseman’s approach to anthropological filmmaking is somewhat paradoxical; while the situations he films are un-staged and exclude his personal opinion at all points, the editing Wiseman performs upon the uncut footage is highly manipulative.  Wiseman uses editing as a method to convey a sense of drama; based on interviews, Wiseman sees even documentary filmmaking as a form of fiction. He claims his films are not objective (and that filmmaking is an inherently biased experience) but they do convey the sense of his own experience whilst filming.

Another one of Wiseman’s signature traits is his lack of “research” on the area he intends film. Often Wiseman will spend about 5 weeks filming within an institution, and then spends the remainder of his time editing the footage to make a film. Wiseman sees his time filming as the only necessary source of research, this ideology is in line with Wiseman’s sense of what his films should convey: his own immersive personal experience.

Wiseman’s films often deal with institutions, often socially-based institutions: hospitals, schools, courts, housing, neighborhoods, military training, etc. Due to the subject matter, Wiseman’s films often display systematic issues. However, his films also have the power to show the compassionate nature of individuals within a system and he denies any attempt on his behalf of entering a situation with the intention of showing problems.

Wiseman has been in the industry for a very long time, so technological change is a part of his filming experience. He made the transition over from black and white film into color, and now he shoots digitally. His latest film, In Jackson Heights, is a testament to this technological shift.

Due to the problematic way certain institutions can be viewed through Wiseman’s film, his work was initially controversial. That being said, it appears that Wiseman gets full permission to film at the places he does, so any backlash typically comes after production. All in all, his no-opinions-attached style of filmmaking is, and remains, quite unique and impactful.