Kukunor ni Tsu
Felix Gyebi: Director, Producer, Researcher
Affiliation: Swinburne University of Technology
Title of work: Kukunor ni Tsu
Length: 24 minutes and 48 seconds
This cellphilm, Kukunor ni Tsu, which literally means Trash to Treasure explores the recycling of glass into beads for both ceremonial purposes and retail as a fashionable commodity. This bead culture use reflects the lifestyle of the Krobo people, from childhood to adulthood to death rites. In the last decade, the mobile phone and more recently smartphones can be described as one of the most disruptive technologies in Africa due to providing widespread access to storytelling tools and digital literacies for the first time. Kukunor ni Tsu aims to change the narrative about African communities and give the Krobo community a voice. Over the years, non-African filmmakers and film enthusiasts with interest in the continent and a determination to break away from colonial film structures have struggled to be independent as creative professionals. As an African filmmaker, I am motivated to continue to examine innovative fields by deliberately deconstructing art in order to create or explore culture and humanity (Kerrigan & McIntyre 2019). These examinations are achieved by pulling techniques, references, and motivations apart as we develop knowledge in the production of art in relation to culture and society. This study adopts this reflective turn (Knopf 2008) to capture how collaborative smartphone documentary storytelling can be used to preserve the culture of bead production and use among the Krobo community in Ghana through a bottom-up approach. The smartphone as an accessible documentary production device includes apps for filming and editing. While there are great opportunities for smartphone filmmaking, to date, there has been little documentation and engagement of smartphone video applications for documentary filmmaking in Africa. Kukunor ni Tsu applies a creative practice research methodology and investigates the theoretical framework of collaborative smartphone documentary filmmaking (Schleser 2021; Zimmermann and De Michiel 2017). As creative practice research, Kukunor ni Tsu thus becomes a living discussion on practice-based methodologies. The Krobo people will live with the knowledge of smartphone filmmaking and pass it on to generations on end. The objective of this study was not to make sense of my own experience with the community but primarily to empower the Krobo people to project their stories in their own way. The collaborative documentary engages the Krobo, a community in Ghana, with opportunities to articulate their unique stories about their culture and heritage from their own perspectives.
PEER REVIEW 1
The important aim of the research is to empower the Krobo people to project their stories in their own way and through the work of the African filmmaker to break away and change the colonialist narratives and film structures about African communities. The film adopts an auto-ethnographic approach through observational footage and interviews about the Krobo community in Ghana. It offers valuable insight, through the point of view of the author as an insider returning to his community to explore the lifestyle and rituals of a population living in the global south and specifically into their economic work in recycling waste glass into beads for ceremonies and retail sales as a fashionable commodity. The film explores the training of the population in documentary smartphone documentary filmmaking and reveals how smartphones can assist in creative development and marketing of the production of beads via the internet. The film has an intimate quality.
As the author points out there has been little documentation and engagement of smartphone video applications, to date, for documentary filmmaking in Africa. The submission therefore has great potential in its mediation of a community from a non-colonialist point of view but the film would benefit from restructuring to reduce the expositional weight of the outside ‘experts’ which undermines the autoethnographic approach, and reinforces what appears to be an existing male hierarchy within the community. The sequences showing the production of beads and the community festivals and rituals are well shot and give a good sense of aspects of daily life. After the filmmaker introduces himself as author and subject, the film would benefit from establishing the participants' work and lifestyle early in the film. Some of the expositional voice-over description of the community’s lifestyle could also be reduced as there is already material showing this content.
The stated aim of the practice as an African filmmaker is to break away from colonial film structures through pulling techniques, references and motivations apart. The statement puts forward a number of useful assertions, for example that the film “applies a creative practice research methodology and investigates the theoretical framework of collaborative smartphone documentary filmmaking.” It also mentions that this is achieved through a bottoms-up approach and references theoretical research by Schleser (2021), Zimmerman and De Michiel (2017). Another point made that: “As a creative practice research Kukunor ni Tsu thus becomes a living discussion on practice-based methodologies.” Here it is unclear what is meant by ‘living discussion.’ However, all these points need clarification and expansion, using examples from the film, to show how the specific methodologies were deployed in the film. This will then demonstrate more fully how the practice and statement may inform each other and show there is innovation and addition to knowledge.
PEER REVIEW 2
In the film’s opening minutes the filmmaker draws an analogy between beadmaking and filmmaking. Both practices, he argues, arrange fragments together and in doing so create new aesthetic possibilities, understandings, or relationships. Kukunor ni Tsu’s hybrid structure speaks to this analogy. The film weaves together multiple strands – it is part-travel diary, part-ethnography, part-creative practice research, part-community engagement, part-arts documentary, and part-critique of colonisation.
Numerous complex ideas around ethnography and documentary practice are at play in Kukunor ni Tsu: equal access to the construction and dissemination of image-making; the ‘nothing about us without us’ imperative of 4th cinema; use and adaptation of technologies, both traditional and digital; the preservation of unique cultural practices; and the historical impacts of colonisation and its legacy in terms of indigenous culture and traditions. Additionally, the film hints at tensions around culture, commerce and the purpose and value of a community-based smartphone filmmaking practice. The film’s primary interviewee, Ghanaian academic Dr Eric Tamatey, sees this kind of filmmaking as a potential means of preserving Krobo cultural practices and passing on knowledge between generations. Three smartphone workshop participants from the Krobo community have a differing view and give testimonials toward the end of the film extolling filmmaking practice as a marketing tool, hoping their newfound filmmaking skills will enable them to promote their beadmaking online and boost sales. These are complex tensions that could be explored in depth and over time if the filmmaker and participants choose to collaborate further.
The submission’s research statement could be strengthened by a more rigorous interrogation of the film’s modes and methods. The statement describes the work as an exploration of the Krobo beadmaking practices. However, as mentioned above, beadmaking is only one of many story elements of a film which might perhaps be more accurately framed as a series of interwoven fragments on Krobo history and cultural practices/traditions that functions too, as an exploration of the possibilities for community-based smartphone filmmaking.
The filmmaker asserts his objective was “not to make sense of [his] own experience with the community but rather to empower the Krobo people to project their stories in their own way.” There are significant elements of the film that seem at odds with this statement: the piece is framed with images of the filmmaker’s journey to and from Krobo; the film’s expert interviewee is introduced to us by the filmmaker in terms of their shared status as academics; and glowing testimonials from workshop participants comment specifically on the filmmaker’s impact on their lives and livelihoods. In his credited role as Director/ Producer the filmmaker is at all times ‘making sense’ of the material he has gathered, where we even see him in the editing suite giving specific ‘sense-making’ instructions to his editor. The submission would have stronger reflexive integrity if the film’s narration and research statement were reworked to acknowledge and/or comment on the filmmaker’s foregrounded presence in the film and his ultimate creative control of the project.
A further omission is the lack of a credit for the film’s camera work. Given the filmmaker’s assertions that this is a collaborative documentary and that the film works to interrogate the mobile phone filmmaking form, it seems important that this omission is addressed. We see numerous mobile phone cameras in use in the film by members of the Krobo community but it is unclear if their footage is being gathered for Kukunor ni Tsu or if what we are seeing is evidence of the already well-established adoption of this technology by the Krobo.
The submission has value as a tentative exploration of multiplicity and polyphony. In an assemblage created from an heterogenous range of filmic modes and fragments, the filmmaker realises the ‘necklace-like’ structure he describes in the film’s narration. While these fragments could function as standalone pieces when positioned in relation to each other they produce complexity and depth and transmit a lively sense of Krobo history and cultural practices.
Where the film could engage more fully is in its aspirations to function as a community-based collaboration. Zimmerman and De Michiel (2021), cited in the filmmaker’s research statement, speak of a move toward “a radical heterogeneity” of voices and representations. The weight of in-depth commentary in Kukunor ni Tsu is granted to those holding somewhat privileged positions – an academic, a postgraduate filmmaker, a tribal leader, and an expert arts practitioner. Given the piece incorporates a community-based filmmaking workshop, more weight given to the points of view and experience of the workshop participants would have strengthened its democratising impact. Further to this there is a pronounced gender imbalance in the voices represented in Kukunor ni Tsu. Women are seen in the film but not as often heard.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my profound gratitude to both reviewers for their feedback. I warmly accept these comments and appreciate the constructive nature of their reviews. That said, it is fair on my part to admit that this work was submitted during the final phase of my PhD studies hence liable to change. I started my PhD journey in 2019 just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and things did not work as I had anticipated. The pandemic had a huge impact on my research, although I persevered to surmount most of these challenges normally with alternative pre-tests prior to production.
I shall attempt to address the feedback from the two reviews together, starting from the first review to the best of my abilities. As part of my research proposal I had planned to spend more time on location in Ghana, in order to carry out a comprehensive collaborative project. However, I had to augment these plans because like everywhere else in the world I needed to observe COVID-19 safe practices which hitherto was alien to me prior to the commencement of my project. As an example, at the peak of the pandemic I had to resort to organising virtual filmmaking workshops on Zoom as a back-up plan. Fortunately, I was privileged to travel to my location (Ghana) in person after going through very strict protocols across international borders.
As the first reviewer pointed out, of which I totally agree, I could have expanded on my bottom-up approach to strengthen my take on collaboration. However, I had limited access and short time to travel to and work with the Krobo community. I was fortunate to regain access and had the privilege to work with the Krobo people because I had developed a sense of trust and belonging during my undergraduate studies, where I lived in the community to undertake related projects within the community. One other observation by the first reviewer was the inquiry on whether the film has been shown to the people. I believe I addressed this by editing the rough cuts on location in the community which formed part of the film. This approach was at the core of my project which was on collaborative editing with the community. The post production only extended back in Australia because I had to fine-tune the rough cuts without distortions in a well-resourced editing studio. The final piece will be shared with the community through the leaders in the community. To ensure a broader reach, a YouTube platform is created for all to have access to the documentary. There is a comprehensive exegesis about my production process as this documentary complemented the exegesis as an artefact. This will be made available through the online Research Bank of Swinburne University of Technology.
As a documentary film approach, defined by filmmakers such as Jean Rouch and more recently in the context of mobile filmmaking, Max Schleser (2011), the concept of reflexivity describes the channel through which filmmakers and their subjects express themselves comprehensively. It is especially important in collaborative processes because through collaboration the reflexive elements become feasible. In other words, reflexivity becomes a means by which documentary filmmakers interrogate their process and assumptions. In the second review the concern raised on “not to make sense of [his] own experience with the community but rather to empower the Krobo people to project their stories in their own way” is addressed in my role as an Insider/Outsider. My positionality as an insider and outsider has clearly been demonstrated as someone from the community who is a beadmaker himself who left for further studies abroad. He is back to empower his people with filmmaking skills which he hopes can be applied to address other pertinent issues in deprived communities. According to Dwyer and Buckle (2009), authors must explore assumptions that place the researcher as both insider and outsider to strike a balance between the two perspectives. In this study, I positioned myself as both insider and outsider. I adopted this approach, as proposed by Dwyer and Buckle (2009), to fully illustrate and achieve the first objective of providing a voice to the Krobo community. As a creative-arts researcher, I acknowledge the approach referred to as participant observation (Kawulich 2005) and included this in my filmmaking practice. Through the application of observational skills to generate insights about people, talking about the processes involved and capturing peoples’ way of life, my storytelling approach was refined in similar ways to how qualitative anthropological research operates. Kawulich (2005) mentions that taking records of happenings on the field in any shape or form is a key observation technique worthy of emulation. My ultimate creative control was to facilitate and project the voice of the community as an insider/outsider.
Again, the deliberate omission of crediting the film's camera work is guided by the key research question which was to equip participants to capture stories by themselves and for themselves.
Schleser and Turnidge (2013), critically looks at portraits of video that were created over a period of time following the conventions of digital media culture, which includes collaboration, co-creation, and crowdsourcing. These platforms enabled participants to become part of community-based projects. Media education and digital literacy have transformed into a contemporary ecosystem (Batty and Baker 2018; Jenkins 2006). This has seen the discoveries of iPhoneography and filmmaking approaches specific to smartphone filmmaking in aesthetic and authentic storytelling (Schleser 2021). This approach talks about a shift from a linear mode of film documentary towards the employment of smartphones to capture stories of communities across the world.
As a collaborative editing project, the evidence of participants contributing to the editing process after the workshop training, establishes the adoption of the smartphone filmmaking technology by the people. My filming approach allowed me to articulate my contribution to changing the stereotypical narrative of African documentaries. My limitations and possibilities as a filmmaker in turn allowed these narratives of colonial influence to be mentioned. The colonialists may have left the shores of Africa, but the damage caused continues to linger in the life of the people. This is evident in Kukunor ni Tsu, where Dr. Tamatey intimated the colonialist influenced traditional and cultural practices by installing a Christian chief “Kono” in 1892 so that they could indirectly influence the celebration of festivals across the kingdoms that existed at the time. I urge all to view this project beyond the lens of an ordinary documentary but see this as a novel form of storytelling, intending to further broaden the discourse on postcolonialism.
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