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“People Are Not ‘the Trauma They’ve Experienced'”: Trauma-Informed Storytelling at CPH:CONFERENCE 2022

For a film journo who closely followed last year’s he said (filmmakers)/she said (ISIS “sex slave” subjects) controversy that entangled Hogir Hirori’s Sundance-premiering (followed by film-festival-shunned) Sabaya, the recent CPH:DOX panel  “Beyond Courage: Trauma-Informed Storytelling” was simply a must-see. The discussion, expertly moderated by Gavin Rees, Executive Director of Dart Center Europe (a satellite of Columbia Journalism School’s Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma), was part of the “Claim Your Story!” program, one of three engaging afternoons under CPH:CONFERENCE’s “Business As Unusual” banner. (“Follow the Money!” and “Shaping Success.” were likewise smartly curated by The Catalysts, a multimedia agency that “turns conferences into sites of knowledge exchange and co-creation,” and its founder/enthusiastic host AC Coppens.)

Rees (the only white male onstage) began by asking the audience to consider “Who has control and power?” He emphasized that we must recognize, “When people are exposed to trauma they are not the same.” Trauma itself “changes the rules” – thus a filmmaker’s approach needs to change as well. Rees then introduced Ilse van Velzen (another white face), who with twin sister Femke founded IFproductions in the Netherlands. The doc-maker and impact producer explained that she’d worked extensively in Congo with victims of sexual abuse during war (which resulted in a a trilogy of IDFA-premiering films in just the past decade and a half).

Turning to panelist Mais Al-Bayaa, Rees pointed out that the Emmy and Robert F. Kennedy award-winning British Iraqi producer-director began her career all the way back in 2003 — i.e., at the start of the Iraq War. (He also noted that she’d won the Martin Adler Prize — basically the Oscar for freelance producers working in conflict zones.) And finally, onscreen above the trio appeared Katy Robjant, consultant clinical psychologist at Freedom from Torture in the UK (from which she participated via a briefly spotty connection). Like the other white female onstage, Robjant had also worked for years in Congo, though primarily with refugee populations, where she employed narrative exposure therapy (NET) as a tool for recovery.

Clicking through images from the Dart Center website, Rees spoke of his organization being specifically focused on conflict-related sexual violence at the moment, while also broadening its lens beyond war zones. For example, a filmmaker might be working on, say, a run of the mill gardening show, and the trust between filmmaker and subjects builds to where a participant suddenly feels comfortable confiding about sexual abuse. How does an untrained person deal with this? Regardless of context, such a burden on a filmmaker is very real.

Robjant next chimed in about power and powerlessness, stressing that we must never forget that autonomy has been revoked for victims of trauma. How can we ensure that fragile folks are able to give full consent when they might still be operating under an ingrained lack of autonomy? (Indeed, the power dynamic between filmmaker and subject might unwittingly even contribute to the problem.) One solution is to “empower” a survivor to tell their story in their own way. “What is the angle they want to bring out?” Robjant offered as food for thought.

And “Where is the material going to end up?” Rees added, citing another crucial question filmmakers need to keep in mind. Van Velzen expounded on her process for bringing her films back to the communities she documented — a logistical challenge in Congo. To overcome a lack of infrastructure, including no electricity in many rural areas, she utilizes mobile cinema. She then screened a clip from The Mobile Cinema: Preventing Sexual Violence in the DRC (a PSA of sorts for how movies can spark crucial grassroots discussion). Though the trauma-focused documentarian works diligently to build relationships with NGOs, she also stressed the need for local people to always serve as guides. And it was important both to check with all participants before showing a film anywhere (including internationally), and to ensure there’s a “safety net” surrounding the characters at all times.

Rees readily agreed, emphasizing that “Consent is not a one-off process.” (A filmmaker must keep on checking in!) Al-Bayaa noted the importance of continuously maintaining a participant’s safety — part of risk assessment. And securing anonymity goes beyond “blurring a face.” Is the subject wearing an eye-catching ring? Do they have a tattoo? These small details are anything but small. Not to mention local knowledge is crucial, as are second opinions from outside the team bubble.

Returning to the idea that a survivor must tell the story that they want to tell, Robjant then suggested asking open questions to allow for this to occur organically. (She also reminded, “Are there trigger words to avoid?”) Slowing down, taking lots of breaks, and being constantly aware of body language — in other words, giving the participant the power — is foundational to ensuring a productive experience for everyone involved.

Next Van Velzen turned to discussing boundaries, “What do they not want to tell?” Not only does a filmmaker need to be respectful, but should also aim for what she termed “slow journalism.” Conceding that she works primarily in post-conflict zones (as opposed to active ones), Van Velzen was nevertheless a strong proponent of taking as much time as necessary over making deadlines.

Al-Bayaa then brought up the necessity of consent to be universal — that filmmakers often make the mistake of asking for permission to air in one specific market. Which can place a victim of government violence, for example, in a precarious situation. (International channels have local affiliates, after all.) This prompted Rees to finally speak on the Sabaya incident, candidly noting it was obvious to him (and others) that the team hadn’t consulted any Dart Center guidelines. Ultimately the filmmakers’ focus on excitement and adrenaline, and the rescuing of victims (i.e., the drama that got it Sundance-selected), doesn’t much serve the women’s real experiences.

Robjant next pointed out that “recovery is a journey.” Thus it’s crucial to be attuned to what stage a survivor is in. Are they at the beginning or end of the process? And equally important is recognizing that people are “not the trauma they’ve experienced.” Simply put, it’s reductive to focus on the event(s) at the expense of the individual.

To which Al-Bayaa added that filmmakers themselves can likewise be traumatized while listening to their subjects’ stories. Thus conversations with team members must be ongoing as well. That said, Rees wondered if a filmmaker might uncomfortably view their own emotional struggles as a “luxury or indulgence.” Al-Bayaa responded by saying that everyone’s mental safety has to be top priority. Otherwise a traumatized filmmaker might unintentionally harm the same victim they are trying to help.

Indeed, as soon as a filmmaker goes into a community they will be affecting it, Van Velzen pointed out. One’s “footprint” is something they must never lose sight of. Also, a director must never wait for others to approach but rather keep the conversation going by continuously checking in.

Yet how exactly does continued consent work? That question was front of mind for one audience member, who during the Q&A asked what a filmmaker should do if a character no longer wants to participate after the consent form has been signed. (Yes, the Sabaya dilemma.) Al-Bayaa suggested checking in right before any broadcast; determine why the subject is pulling out. And if they do end up withdrawing consent then the filmmaker should always accede to that decision. To which Rees added that a consent form is not a “sacred piece of paper.” Consent is “a series of conversations.” So make sure the participant understands potential consequences straight from the start.

Rees then brought up the example of the BBC, which has been making films about the childcare system and has a “rolling process of consent” in which the kids have the right to decline participation at any time. The filmmakers are able to accommodate this shift in power by not putting “all their eggs in one basket” — by having backup characters and stories on hand to replace any pullouts. Rees said this not only keeps the filmmakers “honest,” but also builds better relationships. However, it was also important that this not just remain a conversation between filmmakers and their subjects as commissioning editors (and all those invested in a project) similarly need to be kept in the communication loop.

Al-Bayaa concurred that trust is essential, including between the filmmaker and those calling the funding shots. She emphasized that a director should never be pushed into doing something they are not comfortable with. Pressure, especially on young freelancers, is a perpetual problem. Rees readily agreed, rhetorically adding “How do we make sure we aren’t cutting corners?”

Ending on a hopeful note, the Dart Center Europe exec director then pointed out that in the 15 years he’s been in the business of making a difference much has changed for the better. We’ve gone from conflict-related films being a doc-maker’s story about a victim to being a survivor’s own story about herself. Topdown approaches have refreshingly given way to collaborative innovation. And crucially, as Robjant sees it, filmmakers are learning “not to be afraid of trauma.”

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