In April, staff at the Center held their spring retreat. These retreats happen twice a year, a chance for us to get together so we can talk about the work we do and explore ways we can do it better. With so much to discuss and much at stake, they are as challenging as they are vital.
This gathering was different in one significant way. We decided that each of us would commit to making a digital story. A story that in some way connects us to the work we do. It was the first time in my seven years at the Center that we’d done anything like this as a staff – practice what we preach. So on our last day together, we held a story circle and shared our stories, ideas for stories, motivations and doubts, tears and affirmations. Some of us already had scripts, some brought photos. We all brought ourselves, fully, into the circle.
I brought a CD. The disk was titled, "Bearing Witness VO," hand-written with black Sharpie and was dated June 2004.
I found the CD while rummaging though a box of media – mostly photographs – under my desk at home. I was looking for a small orange album that contained photos from a time spent in the Canadian sub-arctic, specifically the summer of 2001 when I first heard about the Center. I figured I would tell the story about my trajectory from a remote Déne community in northern Canada to Berkeley, California in 2003 to take my first digital storytelling workshop. I found the album, but now I also had this CD long forgotten about.
VO is our idiom for voice over – the audio recording of a storyteller reading their script. On the CD was the recording I made during the very first facilitator-training workshop offered by the Center, held June 2004 in Ukiah, California. Back then, they were called Train the Trainer workshops, or TTTs. I took the CD along with the photos to the retreat. We listened to the recording. It was the first time I’d heard it in almost nine years.
The script was actually revised from a column I wrote in 1998 for the rural newspaper I co-owned back then. The Waterton-Glacier Views covered events and news in and around the Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta and Glacier National Park, Montana. The column was called "Road Songs: Traveling with the Waterton-Glacier Views."
Once a week I would take to the highway in a plain white panel van to distribute nearly 10,000 newspapers. The route was an exhausting 500-mile marathon that started at first light and led me through communities with names like Pincher Creek, Crowsnest Pass, Fort Macleod, Twin Butte, Cardston, Babb, Browning, St. Mary’s, West Glacier, and Kalispell. As the sun set, I would return against the grain, over the Going-to–the-Sun-Road, desperate to make the Chief Mountain border crossing before it closed for the night.
Despite the long haul, it was a welcome break from storylines and deadlines and I was able to roll down the window and breathe in, if only for fleeting moments, the expanse of grassland, forest and mountains that compelled me to move to southern Alberta in the first place. But that’s another trajectory, another story yet to be told.
I didn’t make the digital story back in Ukiah in 2004 partly because I was too busy learning about facilitation while supporting others as they created their own story. But I think a more considered reason was that my story felt different within the workshop process, an imposter, like I was cheating, bringing something I had written six years prior into a process geared to help people “find” their story. “Why this story? Why this story now?” we tell people. Then, of course, there is also the fear inherent with any creative venture. So the recording was burned onto a CD and buried.
But now the genie was out of the bottle and I couldn’t let it go back.
What I am coming to realize over the ten years since I made "Camaro Boy," my first digital story, is the creative range the form offers us if we’re open to it. That these short narratives told in the first person, which often use still images disconnected to the storyline in time or place, but still connected someway somehow, have a place both within the world of storytelling and within the world of filmmaking. That’s a bold statement and I’m sure many who proclaim themselves storytellers (a conceit if there ever was one, as if the rest of us aren’t) and filmmakers (a conceit inherent within the celebrity of film making, because only someone with a pedigree in filmmaking can make films) might take offense. But I’m not saying any of this to undermine the storyteller or the filmmaker but rather to challenge the digital storyteller... me.
...and so, after all of this and that, "Bearing Witness" has come to be.