[Workshop Reflection] Oral History and Video: Exploring what’s possible

By Joyce Farley

Oral history is evolving and continues to be a platform to study and propose change and activism. What we’ve come to understand as oral history has been turned upside down.

Catherine Charlebois, Curator with the Centre D’histoire De Montreal, adds another sentence to the developing definition of oral history. Her project Lost Neighborhoods, a groundbreaking oral history-based exhibition, recaptures old Montreal pre-urban expansion and three neighborhoods lost to urban renewal—Goose Village, the Red Light District and Faubourg m’lasse.

Lost Neighborhoods opened in June 2011 and was extended to September 2013.

It utilized video-based oral histories from 54 former residents to challenge and reevaluate time, place and the importance of reliving these experiences. The uniqueness of having an entirely oral history-based exhibition adds another dimension to the evolution of oral history and what it is capable of. Charlebois’ team video recorded the oral histories and a mix of testimonies, and then edited them into vignettes or small documentaries, which tell stories about the neighborhoods.

The exhibition, both virtual and physical, eliminates the antiquated library/archive feeling of sitting at a desk and reading paper transcripts. Lost Neighborhoods incorporates film, black and white still photography and recreated spaces to make the oral history come alive and gives a spiritual presence to three once-booming neighborhoods. Essentially, it is a project of revelations. Unlike most exhibitions where the experience, emotions and thoughts are dictated, Lost Neighborhoods allows the visitor to make their own interpretations about the impact of urban renewal in Montreal.

Charlebois openly admits that the power of film and oral history is amazing as it relates to the exhibition—she says, “You can do so much more, you can see so much more, you can present so much more.” “…it [film] is just an amazing tool to do so much more and go so much more deeper.”

Similarly, Columbia’s oral history students are using their thesis projects to explore new mediums and share the new information and insight gained from oral history interviews. Currently, two students are using film to record oral histories and turn it into a documentary. Allison Corbett is examining memory in post-dictatorship Argentina in Memoria Presente: One Community’s Struggle for Memory. My project The Fraternity: Black Brotherhood Reexamined is a documentary of four men active in civil rights and the movements to follow (Black Power, Black Nationalism and Black Arts) as they define manhood, brotherhood and masculinity through their experiences and personal stories.

“Film conveys context and other visuals to transmit memory,” said Corbett.

After visiting Argentina earlier this year, determined to make a documentary that crosses borders, land and sea, Corbett will return to Argentina over the summer to record more interviews and shoot related video to finish her thesis for graduation in October.

Corbett says she “hopes her documentary will be more widely consumed by a bi-continental audience, go beyond the archives and address a present and future audience.”

Moreover, at the department exhibition this year, I showed two four-minute vignettes related to my thesis focused on gangs and the role of women. The response to the video oral histories was overwhelmingly warm. Visitors were curious and posed questions about the future use of film, multimedia and oral history.

Oral history can changes lives, cities and contest long held traditions, ideals and notions. Charlebois and her team allow Lost Neighborhoods, oral history and memory to create space for dialogue and recapture a Montreal very few remember or know. Also, OHMA students are taking notes from Charlebois’s project to take oral history and documentary filmmaking to new heights and audiences.

For more information about the exhibition, click here.