Q&A with Cotton Road director, Laura Kissel
Cotton Road is a documentary transmedia project created and directed by Laura Kissel, filmmaker and Associate Professor at the University of South Carolina. More than a film, Cotton Road reflects how documentary filmmaking, scholarly enquiry, and online media can converge to produce and share knowledge by combining forms of data.
Kissel has followed cotton from South Carolina to Shanghai and back. Along the way, she watched her own documentary film project expand beyond the limits of the film form and to embrace the utilities of Sourcemap.com, an online directory of supply chains. Both the subject matter and the project’s development are directly relevant to contemporary anthropological analyses and ethnographic methods in visual research. Form and content have mutually shaped each other, both in terms of the shifting priorities of the Cotton Road project and also in how Kissel has come to think about, and think through, documentary as a mode of knowledge production. The film is slated for completion in 2013.
JC: How did you develop the idea for Cotton Road?
LK: In the early 2000s I was at work on another documentary (Cabin Field, 2005) that was exploring ideas about landscape—that landscape can be read as history, economy, as a site where social relations are made visible, and as autobiography. The place I chose happened to be a cotton field in rural Georgia. At harvest time I was filming in a gin, and I wanted to keep following the cotton since I’d been with it since it was planted. I knew the South’s textile economy had been mostly dismantled and moved overseas during the previous two decades, and I thought it would be an interesting film to follow the cotton commodity globally, from worker to worker, as it’s transformed from an agricultural product to an item for sale in a store.
JC: When you went to Shanghai (as a Fulbright scholar in 2009), what surprised you? How did you meet your Chinese collaborator, Li Zhen?
LK: The opportunity to live in Shanghai enabled me to see first hand the radical social, cultural and economic transformations taking place in China. I think I understood this intellectually, but it was extremely difficult to translate into an image. Many times it felt impossible to put into a single frame the overwhelming number of visual and sensorial impressions the place offers at any given moment. At the time of production, Li Zhen was a journalism graduate student at Fudan University and was exploring an interest in documentary. Zhen’s life experiences growing up in a state owned factory community followed by her adult years in Shanghai really framed for me in a personal way the kind of change individuals and communities have experienced. And she was a critical component of the whole project because she opened up leads, managed relationships and expertly conducted interviews.
JC: How would you describe your work process in China – how was shooting integrated into the whole of the research project?
LK: The act of shooting is a form of research. To shoot is not to prove a thesis necessarily, but it’s a search through layers of visual evidence for possible meaning.Looking through a viewfinder is not passive; it’s an approach to research that feels to me like a full integration of the mind and the body. Framing and shooting a subject can illuminate a very specific idea, but this idea is always brushing up against the dynamic situations one encounters. The images I capture are much more than what happened in front of the camera; they also embody my response to what is made visible. I like this challenge. It feels like being fully alive in the world.
[However], I don’t understand Mandarin Chinese. I often felt outside of what I was framing. I had to focus more on context, or be led by a gesture or my own intuition. In this way, I think the film I shot is a map not only of transnational cotton, but of my own movements and ways of seeing and inhabiting this complex and challenging place.
JC: How has Sourcemap influenced your project and your thinking on documentary filmmaking?
LK: Sourcemap is a crowd sourced, online platform that enables anyone to map the supply chain and environmental footprint behind a product. What Sourcemap has in common with my goals for Cotton Road is the idea of transparency, of making production processes visible. Building a Sourcemap for Cotton Road enabled me to see that my documentary’s story is struggling to express itself as circular and layered; it’s a story that has no beginning, middle and end, and it’s told from multiple points of view and geographies. An interactive map makes it a bit more possible to foreground these concepts. The world is a messy and contingent place, and common approaches to documentary, such as foregrounding a central character who is motivated to overcome an obstacle, or a point of view that expresses a singular argument, don’t adequately express the multiple ways in which I encounter and understand globalization.
JC: What do you hope to achieve with the notion of “transmedia?”
LK: I think the migration of documentary to different platforms, especially those that utilize some interactivity, enables audiences to think of themselves as a part of the telling of a story. In the case of Cotton Road, this has meant finding a platform that encourages audiences to see themselves as participants in commodity circulation—as both driving the story through their consumption but also as agents who can change the story. Sourcemap aligns with this because it asks people to think beyond the “Made In” label and learn about where things come by creating a map for an item. I’d love to arrive at a place where worker voices on the Sourcemap for Cotton Road could be continuously updated, reflecting constant changes in personal or global circumstances. With such a “living” map, new geographic points would emerge and others might fade into the background. It would be a more accurate reflection of our world as a place that is indeterminate and constantly transforming.
Cotton Road clips: vimeo.com/channels/cottonroad
Cotton Road project Sourcemap: cottonroadmovie.com
Jenny Chio is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Emory University. She completed her graduate work at UC Berkeley (PhD, Anthropology) and Goldsmiths College, University of London (MA, Visual Anthropology). Her research focuses broadly on the intersections of mobility, modernity, and media in contemporary China. In particular, she has been exploring the everyday experiences of village residents who are engaged in China’s ethnic tourism and rural development programs. Her recent publications and ethnographic film, titled 农家乐 Peasant Family Happiness (2012), address the regimes of of labor and leisure shaping rural livelihoods and ethnic subjectivities in her fieldsites: Upper Jidao and Ping’an villages. As an extension to this work, Jenny has started new research on rural public culture in China. For this project, she is looking at amateur and semi-professional media productions made and sold by shopkeepers, videographers, government officials, scholars, hobbyists, and participants in rural “community media” training programs. She is also closely engaged with visual anthropology and documentary filmmaking in China, and specifically with works and efforts emerging from scholars and filmmakers based in the city of Kunming.
Eye to Ethnography, aims to increase knowledge of and conversations about visual work in anthropological scholarship and teaching. Jenny Chio and Zeynep Gürsel welcome suggestions on topics/themes to address, films/visual projects to review, and filmmakers/scholars to profile — email them at email@example.com
The act of shooting is a form of research. To shoot is not to prove a thesis necessarily, but it’s a search through layers of visual evidence for possible meaning.