Co-creation is one of the big themes of this year's IDFA, and at an Industry Talk entitled "Co-creation is everywhere but hard to see" over the weekend, we had the chance to learn about various forms of this ancient creative activity that we are now rediscovering.
The talk featured Spanish director Mario Valero, whose film Cross Words is showing in the Envision Competition; British artist Tessa Ratuszynska, whose VR experience With These Hands has world-premiered in the IDFA DocLab Competition for Immersive Non-Fiction; Tasha Hubbard, a member of Canada's Indigenous Screen Office; and Juanita Anderson, one of the co-authors of the 2022 IDFA’s recommended book Collective Wisdom and head of the Media Arts and Studies program at Wayne State University in Detroit.
The panel was moderated by Katerina Cizek, who authored the aforementioned book with William Uricchio. She started the talk with Anderson, the principal advisor for the Detroit Narrative Agency (DNA), which supports and develops media-based storytelling centering on BIPOC to foster collective healing, power, and liberation. Anderson explained that they aim to shift harmful narratives about Detroit that many documentary filmmakers have perpetuated.
Their project Reclamation started out as a short film in collaboration with Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN), where they worked with four Black urban farms addressing what food sovereignty in Detroit looks like.
"During 2020 some farms closed, some did emergency food deliveries, and we filmed that for the project. We continued shooting in 2021 and we are now entering post-production," Anderson said.
Ratuszynska's VR experience was commissioned by IDFA DocLab and consists of three parts, based on writings by survivors of sexual violence.
"I had a lot of complex feeling about it that I wanted to explore," Ratuszynska said. "My work is about patriarchal masculinity and how it operates, and I knew I that whenever this topic is talked about, it should be the survivors' voices who speak the loudest."
This is why she partnered with the survivor organization SLEEC (Survivors Leading Essential Education & Change), which also runs learning workshops for men.
"We interviewed four of these men and ran workshops with men and some survivors. For survivors, it was really important that we used was their own words and names. For the men, it was important to keep their anonymity," she explained.
For this reason, Ratuszynska’s workshops looked at traditional documentary consent forms, which led to the realization that they were designed to protect the productions, the filmmakers, and universities, rather than protect the contributors and hold filmmakers to account. This fed into the project and extended to the ethical questions around the VR art form itself.
"How do you build consent into how the headset is placed, and how do you build consent into the introduction in the headset that tells the audience how to use it," she asked.
Along with the co-creators, Ratuszynska devised a pause mechanism: if you place your hands on the table, the experience stops, and if you keep hands on the table, you can leave.
"It's an important part of consent that you can choose to leave," she said.
To Anderson, consent forms were also an issue because she was working on a documentary about an African American visual artist, commissioned by the PBS. She told her subject: "You have to sign this but I'm not doing anything without you," highlighting trust as a key aspect of co-creation.
Valero describes Cross Words as a collectively made film, a "mix of film diary and a written fiction script, based on the broken telephone game."
He made it with a group of friends, getting rid of the standard hierarchy by not having a director. Instead, all the participants did various things, including playing characters. There were two cameras, they filmed every scene from beginning to end, and anyone could say "cut."
"For the whole process, I wanted to play that broken telephone game with a group of friends, but then Covid came so we couldn't meet to do that. We ended up doing it by mail and phone," he recalled. So the method fed directly into the theme of the film.
Hubbard is a member of the Cree tribe and a fellow at the Co-creation Studio of MIT Open Documentary Lab. Two elders of the Blackfoot community, Leroy and Amethyst, told her that they were going to rematriate some buffalo that originated in their territory, and she started working on a documentary about it.
"Leroy and Amethyst really informed our process with that notion of intergenerational knowledge transfer, which is very much a part of the Indigenous process. I was bringing my filmmaking experience, but I was learning from them and other community members," she said.
This transfer of knowledge crucially relates to a respectful contact with the buffalo, which the tribes consider their relatives. It helped the team establish a trusting relationship with the animals, effectively making the buffalo co-creators of the work.
“We spent a lot of time with the herd, and they would sometimes come to us. We would wait, they would see us, and then it’s up to them to decide if they're going to come and say hello. And they also decide when they're going to go or when we're too close,” she explained.
As for the risks involved in co-creation, all the panelists agreed it was messy.
"Things don't go as expected, life happens, different issues emerge. If you're co-creating, the way all the parties involved are dealing with these issues really matters and it's often not neat and tidy," said Anderson.
Hubbard related that filming was complicated for her because she has a child, but the elders taught her to think about it in a holistic way, and she introduced her son to the community.
"This is common with Indigenous people: we go beyond the boundaries of making a film and we continue to have relationships with people in our films," she explained.
Valero related how difficult it was to make decisions with a team in which everybody is supposed to be equal.
"We would end up having six different opinions about a thing and trying to make a decision, so what we learned was to be more specific and decide things more quickly, but at the same time to listen to everyone," he recalled.
Co-creation is not just everywhere, but it is often hiding in the least expected places. This recognition can lead to closer, more honest and more just collaborations in all fields of documentary cinema.