Process and Production: An Interview with Nicole Robicheau – Mél Hogan

What follows is an interview I conducted with Nicole Robicheau over the course of the last six months. In November 2012, we published a first iteration of our conversation on the Korsakow blog, which we expand upon here. This interview focuses on Robicheau’s research process and project production, a topic we will continue to explore this month at the Brakhage Center for the Media Arts.

Mél Hogan: What brought you to this border town, Stanstead and Derby Line?

Nicole Robicheau: I wanted to do a project about borders. I’ve long been interested in how such an arbitrary demarcation can affect the lives of people who happen to find themselves on either side of it. Doing research on the Canada-U.S. border was a tangible way to examine a border that’s near me, and one that is going through drastic changes. I came across Derby Line and Stanstead in my research, and the unique character of the two towns, and I was immediately drawn in.

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MH: Tell me more about this idea of the border as an arbitrary demarcation…

NR: I’ve crossed quite a few borders overland and I’m always struck by how these lines that delineate nation-states seem to be carved up without any regard for the life that surrounds them. And certainly many borders of current countries, if not all, were decided by people in places far removed from the actual line, just by looking at maps. It’s impossible to see lived experience by looking at maps. Not to mention the fact that usually people who decided these boundaries didn’t even have the right to do so in the first place. Yet very few of these lines are now being challenged.

MH: You have a background in journalism. How has that influenced the way you’ve approached your topic?

NR: I think in the beginning, I approached the story very much like a journalist would. In fact, I was working as a radio reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) at the time, and I began by looking into its archives for contacts of people who had been interviewed and were somehow invested in all the changes that were happening along the border. What was different for me with this project though was that I was really interested in capturing the stories of everyday people living along that line. I was tired of having to interview experts, which I always had to do in my work as a journalist. With this project, I was actively militating against my journalism training, which usually had me interviewing people in positions of authority.

MH: What was your research question going in?

NR: I had a few. How do surveillance and heightened security measures change life in border-towns? How does putting up walls affect the daily lives of the people living on both sides? How have people’s relationships with their neighbours changed? How does living so close to another nation affect one’s identity and sense of self? I was looking to explore the borderland as a collection of stories rather than as data to examine.

MH: Tell me about the people you talked with: who are the twelve people in your film? How did you meet them? What was the interview process like (how did you set it up)? How did you take/select the images to represent them? How did you decide which segments to feature/edit out?

NR: Well first off, eleven were people from the two towns, and the twelfth person is me. It was important for me to put myself in the film a bit, to show that I was there, and that what I had created was my particular perspective on what I had experienced. Some of the people I found by looking through the CBC archives, and by reading articles about the two towns. Other people I found randomly while I was there. Yet others were recommended to me by some of the people I had already interviewed. Some of the characters I did pre-interviews with over the phone, and set up in-person interviews in advance, and others I just met and interviewed on the spot while in the towns, like the people in Steve’s pizzeria.

It’s hard to explain, and maybe this comes from my journalism training, but while I’m interviewing someone, when they say something really telling, or interesting, or powerful, I immediately know that this is what I’m looking for. I often will just keep asking questions until I get it: that small tidbit or story that just grabs me. I never really know what that’s going to be until I hear it. Those are usually the pieces that made it into the final documentary, although I did edit the audio quite a bit, and I moved pieces around for clarity.

MH: What were your main concerns in creating these portraits? How important is the concept of ‘voice’ in your film (your voice and theirs)?

NR: What I wanted to do differently in The Border Between Us than what I did in my radio work as a journalist was to actually use my voice, and not just my vocal chords. I talked on the radio and told stories for the CBC, but I never felt like I was using my authentic voice. What I was doing was presenting ostensibly balanced stories, often by interviewing experts. I wasn’t actually using my voice.

I engaged in quite a bit of self-reflexivity throughout my process. I worried a lot about what I was doing to my characters’ voices during my editing process. I edited what they told me, chopping things up, moving them around and taking out pauses and umms. I chose photographs to go with their words. They had no say in choosing the photographs, nor did they ask for me to take out their umms. I worried that the way I presented the words they told me wasn’t how they meant them to be presented.

MH: How did you reconcile this worry?

NR: I don’t know that I did reconcile it. I think that making a documentary, just like writing a piece of non-fiction, always involves a certain amount of interpretation on the maker’s part. I wanted to acknowledge this. I certainly could have involved the people who I interviewed in the process of the editing of The Border Between Us, but that would have been a very different type of project altogether. For me, it was important to be hyper-aware of the manipulative aspects of media, and to try to manipulate only for clarity, and not to alter what I thought were the ideas they were putting forward.

MH: How do you situate yourself in your work?

NR: I wanted to be present in my work, but not as an omnipresent narrator, as I had been in my work as a journalist. Korsakow allowed me to do that. I was able to appear as just one of the other characters, without having to fill in the gaps between the clips of various people with a narrative throughline. This is, for me, the power of Korsakow.

MH: What has your experience been working with Korsakow? Why did you choose Korsakow to present your work?

NR: I wanted to mesh artistic practice with journalism, and I wanted to experiment with an architecture that doesn’t prioritize one story over another, or have a need for a narrative throughline, and Korsakow allowed me to do that. I had wanted to experiment with non-linear web-based storytelling, and Korsakow was a great way for me, someone who has no HTML background at all, to be able to create something web-based. The program is relatively easy to use, although I did spent a lot of time working through glitches, which I think is inevitable with any web-based work.

MH: Did using Korsakow make you understand or organize your research process differently? How do iterations inform your work process and what you produce?

NR: I don’t think I realized how much work was involved in how I chose to use Korsakow before setting out. First off, I was collecting both audio and still photos, which I couldn’t gather at exactly the same time. Then I had to edit the audio and still photos separately using two different programs. I then had to put the two together using Final Cut, and finally import the movie files into Korsakow to create the final film. Plus I wouldn’t say I’m very good with technology! I learned a lot by doing it this way. But it was certainly a very long process from the beginning until the end.

MH: Talk to me about your formal choices: why make a film using audio and images (and not moving images)?

NR: I have to say it wasn’t a very well-thought-out decision. Because of my background in radio, I had wanted to use audio, but I didn’t want to just use that. I had flirted with the idea of using video but I think still photos and audio work really well together on the Internet. Still photos also just have this power to draw you into stories in a way that moving images just don’t. They let you linger, and somehow create your own vision of what you’re seeing.

MH: What is afforded by the ‘interactive documentary’? What do the film’s potential interactions do for you as a storyteller?

NR: I think some would say that interactivity takes the control away from you as a storyteller because you’re letting someone else click a button and decide what they want to watch next. But I would argue that that’s not really the case, and especially not with Korsakow because it allows the storyteller to make very precise decisions on how interactive the film is. I tried to create my smallest narrative units (SNUs), the building blocks of the Korsakow film, as stand-alone stories as much as possible, so that the order they’re watched in didn’t really much matter. One thing I worried about though, that I wouldn’t necessarily worry about with a linear documentary, was whether there was some piece of what I thought was important information that could potentially not be seen by a viewer. So I did engage in a repetition of ideas more than I would have in linear work.

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MH: Can you expand on the creative process? What does creating a Korsakow film entail, from mapping out your clips to embedding it in your site? What other tools and technologies are required other than the software? 

NR: I guess what I worried about the most with Korsakow was whether or not the way the clips came together made sense. How the program works is that you keyword the clips you input into Korsakow, and then you can link them to each other using the various keywords. So you can control how people move through the film a lot, or very little, depending on how you chose to keyword. I did mine pretty randomly, where most things are linked to each other, but I wasn’t sure that made sense. I remember sitting on my floor with bits of paper on which I had written the names of each SNU. I moved them around in various combinations to see if the story made sense, and to determine what would be the best way to have them all link together. So a paper and a pen were two very important technologies for me!

MH: What did you discover through the process: driving to the border town, conducting the interviews, creating with Korsakow, and publishing the film online?

NR: What was a big challenge for me that I hadn’t realized was how difficult it would be to try to gather still photos and audio at the same time. I wanted the material I gathered to complement each other, but I couldn’t gather both at the same time. So I often felt that my head was sort of split in two, thinking both visually and about what people were telling me. I also didn’t realize how much anxiety I would feel myself walking along the border. The border really is invisible, and jagged, and if you’re not from there, or haven’t spent a lot of time there, it’s hard to know where you can walk, and where you’re crossing into another country illegally.

MH: Tell me more about this experience, and how it changed your notion of the border.

NR: One of the things that really struck me was the first time I saw one of the gates that have been put up on two side streets that are shared by both countries. For years the streets were open, but this was one of the new security measures implemented after 9/11. Before going to the towns, I had always imagined and assumed that these gates were being put up to physically keep people out. But standing in front of one of the gates, I realised that it wasn’t very high, a few metres maybe, and only as wide as the small side street is. So I could have just walked around it, and crossed into another country. Peter Andreas writes about new border securitization initiatives along the Mexico-U.S. border and claims they’re more symbolic than actually deterrent. This seems to me like the same case with the northern border. These gates are more about the image crafting of border policing, which includes building walls, rather than stopping people physically from crossing.

MH: The theme of this issue of NMP is “Haunted.” Is there a way in which the border’s presence itself haunts the people? Or is the border mostly forgotten by the people of Stanstead and Derby Line?

NR: There’s actually a scene in the documentary where I’m being given a tour of the Haskell Library and Opera House. The building is split between both countries, and was built as a gift to the two communities. Lynn Leimer, the opera house theatre manager, at one point begins to talk to me about ghost hunters who have come to the building because apparently it’s haunted. She tells me stories about things happening to various performers when they come to play, like the stage lights not working. She tells me there are two ghosts who live in the building. It’s not until I listen to my recording of the interview later that I realize that there are most likely two because one is a Canadian, and the other an American. And come to think of it, there were some strange noises in my recording also… but yeah, apart from these ghosts who potentially haunt the border, I wouldn’t say the border’s presence itself necessarily haunts people. Many people talked to me about the border as an imaginary line that with all the changes is becoming more and more concrete. So perhaps it was forgotten for a time but now it’s constantly being remembered.

MH: Your project has been out for a few months now. What kind of feedback have you been receiving?

NR: I’ve been getting some really great feedback. I’ve been invited to a few universities to present the documentary and I also hope to present it in the Haskell Opera House next season. It’s really great to see that people from various parts of the world have watched it, enjoyed it, and taken the time to write to me and tell me.  

MH: What was it like to show your work within an academic setting (defending your Masters)? Is your project a research-creation MA, and if so, can you explain how and if that shaped your project?

NR: Yes, it was a research-creation MA. It was a really valuable experience to defend it, and I got some great feedback from my committee. I think the feedback I received in my defence was somewhat different from what I’ve received since. The documentary part exists only online, and not all the rationale behind it, such as my methodology and theory. I think creating the project in an academic setting also allowed me to be much more self-reflexive in my work, and think about the form that I was using in a way that I had never done before. It felt like I really got to go much deeper into what I was doing than I had before. I’m not sure that shines through the final project, but I certainly felt it while I was making it.

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MH: What’s next for you and for this film?

NR: I’m currently working with an American journalist to expand the project along the entire Canada-U.S. border. We’re in the early stages, figuring out other Stansteads and Derby Lines across the country to visit and trying to secure funding. I always saw this project as a stepping-stone to a bigger project encompassing the entire border.

MH: Have you visited any other borders since? What kinds of stories are you working on today?

NR: Sadly, no, I haven’t visited any borders since. I’m looking forward to getting started on the expanded border project. I’m also currently working on a non-fiction book that has me revisiting people from my past and a children’s book about a cat.

Nicole Robicheau is a storyteller and media maker who primarily works and lives in Montreal. She has previously worked as a radio journalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). She also does aid work with the Canadian Red Cross and has also worked with various organizations in Africa and in Europe on media development.