Through the Roof and Underground[i]
“You’ve got to earn the right to tell your story. Your people have to trust in you. Your people have to believe in you. To me, that’s an indigenous story. That’s an indigenous production. We are trained; we do know the ins and outs of the filmmaking techniques. But for me, we have to find our own technique.”
– Rodger Ross, Indigenous filmmaker
Still from the film “Rear Window” by Alfred Hitchcock
It is midnight here in Berlin. The denizens of this city, however, are far from repose. Even in the steady hum of this skunk hour, flashes of electric-white light pierce through building windows and illuminate the darkness.
A man’s laughter rises up into the vague, empty night sky.
He is not alone; his guttural guffaw is punctuated by an all-too-familiar laugh track from a German-dubbed American sitcom. And at this very second, a million other lonely people are engulfed in laughter or tears, enthralled by places they may never see and with people they will likely never meet. It is funny to think that such a simple plastic box could wield so much power. So much so, in fact, that even the poorest of the poor would beg, barter, or steal just to have it[ii]. Indeed, television has become more than a medium for entertainment: it is comfort, it is company, it is connection. And even as our technological landscape continues to expand with cables and power lines curling and unfurling into new, intangible terrains, the television continues to hold a firm place in the tangle of habits and rituals that make up our daily lives. Its power lies in its ability to forge an intimacy[iii] between the viewer and a near-infinite set of realities collected and contained within the frame of a modern-day campfire. And at the heart of this “complicated social experience” (Seiter et al 1991: 2), is the drive to narrate and disseminate stories[iv] about the human condition. These unique yet universal stories—what Faye Ginsberg calls “screen memories[v]”—are opportunities for indigenous media makers “to recuperate their own collective stories and histories[vi]” (Ginsberg et al 2002: 40). It is, as Lorna Roth put it, a vehicle for “indigenous messages to be heard by groups that might otherwise never have had access to a person of Aboriginal descent” (Roth: 30). Transcending physical, social, and cultural boundaries, broadcast television is a critical and vital medium for indigenous people to represent themselves within a mediascape that is as complex as it is political.
Indigenous-produced programming is in service to the needs[vii] of an indigenous community. These needs have not only been largely ignored, but also shuddered away and suppressed by mainstream broadcasting networks. Indigenous media producers are now able to reverse the gaze, subvert expectations, “undo a century of misrepresentation[viii]”, and showcase the vast array of overlapping identities and perspectives that make up their ever-evolving culture.
The development of these new media infrastructures, however, is not without its challenges. Financial constraints, problems with distribution, issues of artistry and authenticity versus technological limitations[ix], and most damning and revealing of all, pushback from mainstream critics and audiences, are just some of the obstacles that indigenous media makers face on a daily basis. The “dictatorship of consumerism and consumption[x]”, which goes hand-in-hand with the desire—the obsession—to meet market needs casts what some may view as an unavoidable shadow on projects borne out of idealism and activism. In the ratings-hungry, advertising-powered world of television, native voices run the risk of being scuttled away to the god-awful hours of late night programming or are once again forced to adhere to indigenous stereotypes in order to be allowed admission into the homes and lives of a sometimes vapid, fickle, and uncritical audience. There are also those who believe that remaining within the boundaries of a cozy, deluded space created and defined by monolithic media conglomerates is the best and only option. That, unfortunately, is the nature of the beast.
But to succumb to the weight of these challenges, to uphold the status quo, and to forfeit a place in the game is not as safe a choice as it may seem. In fact, for indigenous people, remaining within the easy non-confrontational realm of a “colonized imagination” (Salazar and Cordova 2008: 39) comes at a cost greater than its perceived risks. The price? An indigenous identity that is forever trapped within the confines of history and memory. Change, especially when it is in opposition to the demands of hard-worn and money-driven institutions, takes time. But it does happen. Thus, indigenous media creators face a different set of realities than most mainstream producers. Their concerns go beyond creating programs that would inform, include, and entertain their “community, the nation, and the world stage” (Ginsberg 2003: 827). They also carry with them the responsibility of serving as advocates for their culture; their role is to “give new life to their past” (Ginsberg 2003: 828) and create new possibilities for their future as a people. And the rise of indigenous network programming is proof that victory, recognition, and glory are within reach for indigenous media makers. Indeed, the case for indigenous broadcast productions goes beyond bridging the gap between the marginalized and the mainstream: it’s an opportunity for all of us—indigenous and non-indigenous alike—to approach television media in a radical new way.
[i] I chose to title this essay after a song by Gogol Bordello. The song is about surmounting challenges, defying expectations, and finding creative, unconventional ways to achieve freedom. I liken this to the development of indigenous broadcasting television, where indigenous people faced a never-ending array of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. But they were still able to not only gain screen presence, but achieve success.
[ii] There is this project in Manila called Zone 1 Tondo. In partnership with that project, I visited this slum area where an entire community of people lived under the bridge. It was like entering a new world. It seemed as though it was underground in some way. It was a maze of tin, wood, plastic structures that served as shelter. It was dark and damp. But the most interesting thing about it was that nearly every “home” had a television set. Outside the main slum area, a wall made up of power outlets and electrical meters covered in braids and braids of electrical cords. Shelter, food, water, clothing, and safety were limited at best but television sets were abundant.
[iii] Television remains as one of the most intimacy-provoking mediums. While Smartphones and computers seem to be taking over, those mediums seem to primarily be used as individual, private activities while the television is still an object where people can come together and collectively experience a show or program. This is also in reference to the following quote: “It emanates from some place far away, yet it makes its presence constantly felt in our everyday lives. As the gadget we use to change channels, the remote control symbolizes the viewers’ selection, control, and manipulation of television broadcast” (Seiter et al. 1991: 2).
[iv] This is in reference to a TV program entitled “Storytellers in Motion”, which features interviews with indigenous directors, writers, and TV and film producers. This show, which is geared towards indigenous activism, discusses the role and power of storytelling for indigenous people. Many of the indigenous media makers interviewed in the show define indigenous media as created for and by indigenous people. “Excerpt: Storytellers in Motion Episode 26: Indigenous Voice – Part Two,” YouTube, n.d.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-8yNU7I5C4.
[v] Indeed, the power of retelling these narratives has been a successful platform towards “constituting claims for land and cultural rights, and for developing alliances with other communities” “Screen Memories.” In Media Worlds Anthropology on New Terrain, edited by Faye D. Ginsburg, Lila Abu-Lughod, and Brian Larkin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
[vi] [These stories] that have been erased in the national narratives of the dominant culture and are in danger of being forgotten within the local worlds as well” (Ginsberg et al 2002: 40) “Screen Memories.” In Media Worlds Anthropology on New Terrain, edited by Faye D. Ginsburg, Lila Abu-Lughod, and Brian Larkin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
[vii] This is in reference to the 1991 Broadcasting Act, which states: “Through its programming and the employment opportunities arising out of its operation, [the Canadian broadcasting system should] serve the needs and interest and reflect the circumstances and aspirations of Canadian men, women, and children, including equal rights, the linguistic duality and multicultural and multiracial nature of Canadian society and the special place of aboriginal Peoples within that society.”
[viii] “First Nations filmmakers slam ‘Hollywood Indian’ image,” RawStory, last modified September 6, 2013, http://www.rawstory.com/2013/09/first-nations-filmmakers-slam-hollywood-indian-image/.
[ix] Salazar, Juan Franzisco, Córdova, Amalia (2008) Imperfect media and the poetics of indigenous video in Latin America. In Pamela Wilson, Michelle Stewart (eds.) Global Indigenous media: culture, poetics, and politics, pp. 39-57. Durham/London: Duke University Press
[x] Here, I borrow a phrase by Renato Redentor “Red” Constantino in his introduction to the book “AGAM: Filipino Narratives on Uncertainty and Climate Change” (agam.ph)