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‘Ordinary Treasures: Objects from Home.’ Co-designing a film as a means of solidarity

Interview with Fiona Murphy, Assistant Professor in Refugee & Intercultural Studies and Programme Chair of MA in Refugee Integration, and Maria Loftus, Assistant Professor in French in the School of Applied Languages and Intercultural Studies; co-creators of the short film ‘Ordinary Treasures: Objects from Home.’ A DCU IRIN initiative. | Issue 23

Tibetan sound bowl. Still from the short film ‘Ordinary Treasures: Objects from Home’.

CK: How did you come up with the short film ‘Ordinary Treasures: Objects from Home’ and what’s the connection to the Dublin City University (DCU) Irish Refugee Integration Network (IRIN)?

ML: It is part of a wide range of initiatives pertaining to displacement that have been developed in DCU. In April 2022 our university undertook several activities in an effort to respond to the war in Ukraine. At first DCU worked with the Red Cross and offered free accommodation to Ukrainian refugees. Fiona and I are both based in the School of Applied Languages and Intercultural Studies, where several colleagues have language-teaching expertise and experience with involvement in intercultural competencies projects. Our Head of School, Professor Agnès Maillot, who set up the MA in Refugee Integration, established IRIN (Irish Refugee Integration Network) in April 2022, and as of mid-May 2022 we launched the initiative, delivering English classes to three different levels. Given that DCU was running an MA in Refugee Integration, and had been working with International Protection Applicants and refugees for a considerable amount of time, we had the practical expertise to respond. Importantly, we wanted to ensure that the initiative caters for everyone in a similar position and was not limited solely to Ukrainian refugees. Through the English classes we met people whose stories we felt we would like to tell, and so we started co-designing the film.

CK: Why did you choose the specific topic for the film?

ML: The DCU campus is very close to a number of hotels being used to accommodate those seeking refuge. Last year, we witnessed a noted increase in anti-refugee sentiment with some protests taking place in these areas. Among colleagues there was a sense of despair and urgency to do something. Our initiative is a solidarity project and a response to anti-immigration sentiment. The project works with the idea of social empathy. Our key question is the effect that these kinds of projects can have on activating empathy and engagement with these issues amongst the broader public.

FM: Our primary goal was to work in solidarity and to change hearts and minds. Historically, in Ireland there has been a long discussion of how populism hadn’t taken hold here with the same speed and depth that it had in other countries. However, after the pandemic that landscape has changed. Although underprepared for this rise in anti-immigration sentiment, many people nonetheless reacted swiftly by creating new solidarity movements such as the different 4all campaigns. The film project, also as an act of thick solidarity, has been our attempt to engage the broader public. One of our objectives is to bring it into communities that have witnessed this rise in populism with the hope that we generate some meaningful discussion and reflection on the topic.

CK: Why did you choose to assume a more personal approach to the scope of the film, focusing on the material aspects of migration and the personal stories they embody? What does story-telling offer as a method??

FM: As human beings we all identify with our ‘stuff’. Broadly speaking, this is about how an emphasis on the material culture of forced displacement can work to shift focus from identity politics into a space of mutual understanding generative of solidarity. The film project does that through storytelling, bringing the viewer on different kinds of journeys: departures and arrivals. Ultimately, the film design was a collaborative endeavour with the film participants heavily involved in storyboarding, scripting, choosing their objects and working closely with the film-makers to decide on the imagery.

ML: With respect to the film’s co-design process, we were really motivated by thinking about how framing works with respect to generating solidarity around a particular issue. The ways in which populist movements deploy framing has been well documented and we see this trend too in Ireland (the podcast ‘Tortoise Shack’ has a great episode just on this topic). Finding ways to tell a compelling story in the company of those participating in the film was key to the whole project. We framed the narrative through objects. The film participants embraced this aspect of the process with gusto and they found very interesting ways to tell and share their own stories. The use of objects was emotive but motivating for everyone in this respect. The objects in the film linger long after the film has been viewed and that is exactly what we were hoping for them to do.

CK: Why did you choose a film as a means to tell the story?

FM: We opted for film, due to its capacity to engage wider audiences, as the visual has an ability to transcend. It’s a medium with the power to cultivate imagination and generate solidarity, empathy, and compassion. One of our core concerns as academics who work on these issues is embedding our work in ethics. This is not just something we locate in our scholarly outputs, but importantly, it pertains to the act of public engagement. Film entails the possibility of this kind of impact.

ML: Indeed, a film achieves the kind of reach that you cannot achieve with academic journal writing hence the potential and power of the visual. In terms of who our audience might be, we targeted the younger generations, for whom image resonates well. That said, the film has had broad appeal and we have received lots of very positive feedback and an invitation to show it at the Ethnografilm Paris Festival in March. We will also be showing it in the Galway City Museum in December alongside their keepsakes exhibition. Film though, brings its own constraints. Keeping the film to a certain length was also quite challenging in terms of communicating the complexity of people’s displacement journeys in such a short amount of time, given the harrowing nature of many of the stories.

FM: Another constraint we faced was the budget. The production of the film was supported by a very low budget, but we managed to produce it with a lot of support from different individuals. There are also a number of ethical concerns that working with film brings about, and particularly regarding the principle of co-design and collaborative work. To that end, we held a number of co-design workshops with the participants. Considering the precarious everyday life circumstances of our participants, meant that we were working with a group of people, who also had to navigate the everyday-life hurdles, which sometimes impacted on their capacity to engage in this kind of project. Nonetheless, we managed and worked as flexibly as we could with a very positive outcome.

ML: The co-design workshops were really important to our process as a respectful, collaborative, and inclusive one. The workshops examined the goals of the project, we had one on trauma and one on co-design prior to the actual drafting of the testimonials and their subsequent recording in a staggered manner. It was occasionally very difficult holding continuous workshops whilst maintaining a flexible model that matched our participants’ needs, because the complexities of our participants’ lives meant that, sometimes we didn’t know whether the previous week’s participants would attend. However, we got used to it all and are so happy with how it all came together at the end!

CK: How did film-making enable you to work together with migrants, so that you could co-produce it?

FM: Co-design was at the heart of our commitment in this film project. The participants were very engaged from the outset, regarding all the different elements that film-making involves. Some were really engaged and excited about the project, some were more apprehensive. Some of the participants embraced the project with gusto, with one person getting very closely involved in directing some of the shots, and making some great suggestions for using different visuals and so on.

ML: Furthermore, the question of ‘image literacy’ is really important. As a medium it is accessible to a varied population, in ways that a text is often not. All participants were familiar with the image, which worked to erode many barriers, and enabled the participants to make and actualise their contributions in really compelling ways.

FM: Yes, the participants really embraced the opportunity to voice their experiences in various experimental ways, and that was really important beyond the film project itself. Of course, during the film-making process, there were a lot of changes including the alteration of some specific details in order to protect participants. As we committed to the co-design process from the start, it was really important to respect this continually.

CK: Have you had any feedback from the participants who saw the final product of all this work that you have done? How did they respond to the film and their stories actually being shared in public?

ML: We launched the film on World Refugee Day in June, and three out of six participants were able to attend, remaining anonymous of course. Nobody knew who they were, except for Fiona and myself, and I think that was really special, and they shared how happy they were with the film and the entire process. But even prior to that, because we had uploaded the video on a private YouTube channel, some of the participants asked to share that with their loved ones. It was really obvious that this was a very important experience for them.

CK: It seems to me that anonymity, apart from maintaining the ethical principles and protecting all the individuals, also suggests the universality of these stories. How did film help you navigate a number of inequalities among the contributors and the prospective audience?

FM: This resonates closely with the co-design process. When we were running the co-design workshops and in our discussions about the film, we thought about the possibility of juxtaposing participant's stories with places of remembrance in Ireland, say, sites of conflict, or even sites of conscience, such as the Magdalene Laundries or famine memorials. We brought this idea to the co-design workshops with the participants, and pretty immediately one or two of them rejected it very vociferously. They opted instead for places of joy, places where they felt content to figure in the film and so that is what we did. For instance, in the film there are images of the sea, or of a park. I think for the participants these sites suggest the idea of new beginnings, and reflection. This really contradicted our idea about juxtapositions, which we had envisaged as enabling the viewers’ reflections on the parallels between our [Irish] history and others’ histories, the universal experiences around conflict and displacement and so on. These are the kinds of surprises and outcomes that the co-design process brings with it and that is why it is such an important solidarity journey.

ML: During the co-design workshop, we asked the participants to bring images representative of their countries and their cultures. This resonates with materiality, again, as there is a very precise image representative of their culture in the film that they chose themselves. It is a deep personalisation of the film project, which works to great effect.

CK: All these actually contrast with the regime of invisibility pertaining to asylum-seekers’ lives. This invisibility is actually replaced by the materiality of the physical aspects of their stories. What are your next steps?

FM: As soon as the film was out there, quite a few people approached us asking whether they could use it in their teaching. And some people actually went ahead, for instance a Polish anthropologist used it with high school kids. So, our next step is to create a teaching resource and a graphic novel to accompany the film. We also plan on developing an engagement strategy and will bring the film to community centres, and eventually schools.

ML: We are lucky to have been awarded an Irish Research Council New Foundations Award to develop these ideas. We are particularly excited about the graphic novel. We will be doing this work with Youthreach Ballymun and Fighting Words. The project will also be a co-design endeavour and we will be working with a graphic artist of refugee background. In terms of expanding the project, doing community engagement work with testimonials and a graphic novel, could instigate people to ask similar questions within their own communities: what would they bring with them? We very much hope that this will enable them to trace parallel situations and activate social empathy within communities. This for us is very much a project in solidarity, a project anchored in an ethos of everyday activism and so we are very much looking forward to developing it over the next year. Finally, we would like to note our gratitude to all of the participants in the film and everyone involved in the process, in particular our head of school Prof. Agnès Maillot who supported the initiative in many different kinds of ways.

Chrysi Kyratsou is a Postdoctoral researcher at the School of Music, University College Dublin, funded by the Irish Research Council. She holds a PhD in Anthropology from Queen's University Belfast, and degrees in Musicology, Music Education, and Ethnomusicology. Her research interests comprise musicking, encounters, (im)mobilities, (non)belonging. Chrysi’s fieldwork research into refugees’ sheltering in reception centres explores how refugees’ aesthetic agencies are informed by their shifting backgrounds in which they live, and how they shape their sociality.

Fiona Murphy is an anthropologist based in the School of Applied Language and Intercultural Studies (SALIS) at Dublin City University. As an anthropologist of displacement, she works with Stolen Generations in Australia and people seeking asylum and refuge in Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Turkey. She has a particular passion for creative and public anthropologies and is always interested in experimenting with new forms and genres―see her TEDx talk on displacement here.

Dr. Maria Loftus is an assistant professor in French language and French literature and cinema in the School of Applied Language and Intercultural Studies. She completed her Ph.D in Sub-Saharan African Documentary Cinema at Université de Strasbourg. Her research interests also pertain to Pocket Cinema and Students as creators of Interactive Video Content in the language learning classroom. She embraces any opportunity to bring the multimodal into her teaching and flex her creative muscles.


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