Eavesdropping for Effect
I haven’t written anything about the Trayvon Martin murder, because I have nothing to say that hasn’t been said. TNC’s been powerful on this, and I found James Fallows‘ take exactly on point, and what’s been said here speaks for me as well. If I have any thought it is that if this isn’t our Emmet Till moment, we’re even more desolate as a society than I had feared on my worst nights. (And yes, Charlie Pierce went there, but I was thinking along this line before reading him. It’s hardly an unlikely remembrance.)
Yesterday, though, I couldn’t help but think about Martin’s death after one session of a conference on the future of documentary. There, I got the chance to hear, and later to talk to two of the collaborators behind Question Bridge — co-founder Chris Johnson and one of his colleagues, Bayeté Ross Smith.
That project turns on a deceptively simple idea:* find Black men with a question they want another Black man to answer, someone they may not know, someone of a different age, class, location, experience. Have them ask whatever it is while staring straight into a video camera. The film makers then bring those questions to other men — strangers turned into confidants, who answer. Again, they speak straight into the lens — or rather, through the camera directly to both the questioner and any eavesdroppers, you, me, whoever decides to click “play.”
Here’s a sample:
There are a couple of things to note about the project from in the context of a new media conference. The first is that this is incredibly simple film making, as noted above, but that simplicity highlights the rigor of the craft involved, the meticulous attention to what its creators wanted to achieve as an aesthetic (and hence rhetorically) powerful piece of work. Think sonnets: when you have fewer elements and more formal constraints, whatever you do right or wrong is there for all to see. Put this another way, as I often preach to my students: high production values do not mean necessarily expensive production. It merely means you’ve thought out what you intend to do with great care long before you ever say, “turn over.”
Here’s another taste of the work, from a variant of the project intended explicitly for use in educational settings:
But back to Trayvon Martin.
Certainly, there’s nothing directly linking this project to that tragedy…except, as one of the two presenters yesterday said (I think it was Bayeté, and I paraphrase from memory), that such events are part of the fabric of Black male experience, part of the atmosphere in which Black men move.
In that context, Question Bridge has an explicit mission: to enable Black men to speak out loud about the experiences and emotions that frame their daily lives. Big stuff — like the blueprint clip above, or seemingly small (though, I suspect, not really so) matters like the one raised here. Obviously, when a 17 year old kid is shot down, and the police do worse than nothing, that’s clearly a circumstance in which plenty of questions and answers will resonate — those already asked, and those to come.
Question Bridge is up front and center on this core goal: it aims to connect Black men with each other to address core questions of identity across all the barriers of distance and difference. But, of course, by its very form as a web/museum/school/socially mediated and sourced effort, it invites others in. It’s a triangle, built on asymmetries of time and place, questioner at a remove from his respondent, both separated from anyone else in the world who chooses to listen in…all of which adds up to a conversation that can only take place in a documented, enwebbed world.
And speaking now as what I obviously am, a middle-aged white man living a life of great good fortune (so far and mostly), what is likely obvious becomes more so: there are lots of conversations that I would want to have, that I think our society, our culture needs to have, that in the ordinary course of the way Americans live now are vanishingly unlikely to take place. But at Question Bridge, they do. Of course, the exchanges constructed by the artist-film makers involved are just that: made works of documentary art, constructed out of a whole hierarchy of choices made within the project — and hence anything but a live exchange, with all of the chance and serendipity of face to face talk.
But so what? Or rather, that’s the point.
This work entrains me, anyone, in a chain of thought and reaction, question, answer, argument, that if I were actually in the room would not happen. And if there is anything to take from Obama Derangement Syndrome, from the seeming mainstreaming of dog whistle racism (and the old fashioned kind) — from Trayvon Martin’s death with its sudden, horrible reminder that possession of skittles can be a capital offense in these United States — then it is that one of the hardest and most vital tasks out there is to allow words that would not otherwise be uttered or heard to find voice and listeners across this wide world.
I don’t want to overclaim. No video is going to approximate the job of living someone else’s life, and as the men of Question Bridge point out, that’s just as true within a group as varied as Black men as it is outside that particular cut of identity. But speaking as both a guy living in America right now and as a someone who tries to work with the craft of documentary to shift people’s minds, I have to say that this is one impressive project, a genuinely innovative and (to me, at least) deeply effective use of our new tools to braid human connections that did not exist before they formed in this space.
And with that, I’ll leave you with one last video — the project explainer and pitch:
*recalling, as Richard Feynman put it, that “simple” — or “elementary,” as the physicist put it in the context of an “elementary demonstration” of a proof –does not mean easy. Rather, it means that “very little is required to know ahead of time in order to understand it, except to have an infinite amount of intelligence.”Cool Video, media, memory, Race comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.