Gender, Migration, & The Work of Care

Academia and the Artist: Making Care Visible with Filmmaker Helene Klodawsky

Helene Klodawsky is a multiple-award winning professional filmmaker whose films have been broadcast and screened around the world for over 35 years. After picking “care” as the topic for her next feature-length documentary, she contacted Ito in 2017 and began an involvement with the University of Toronto’s SSHRC-funded Gender, Migration, and the Work of Care project (Ito Peng, Principal Investigator). She has since reviewed the materials available on our website, worked with students, participated in project events, and interviewed researchers. The Project cosponsored the creation of Helene and Katarina’s (Katarina Soukup, Producer at Catbird Productions) short film The Invisible Everywhere, which we premiered In October 2018. They are using it to fundraise for a longer film.

Government granting agencies are increasingly insisting that academics get their work out to larger audiences in accessible and engaging formats, so collaborations like ours are of interest to those considering creative partnerships. What follows are excerpts from a talk between Helene and Deanna Pikkov, Research Associate with the project, about the challenges and rewards of such collaborations.

On Collaboration between Academics and Artists

Deanna: How does our work inform and support yours?

Helene: When Ito Peng and I met, we discussed how to get the subject of care out into the public, and how to start changing minds and perceptions about care. I found my intellectual home with your project because I found people who were as obsessed as I was about this invisible and undervalued work of care. The title of my project The Invisible Everywhere comes out of these early conversations with Ito, excerpts of which appear in the film.

So much of the work concerning care in popular culture is about heroic personal narratives. That’s one part of it, of course, but it’s a narrow narrative. Through the work you’re doing collectively, the work of care can also be seen to have political and social urgency. I’m very grateful to have seen that.

What I have learned from you is that there are so many different ways to approach this. There are caregivers, receivers, the continuum of care from birth to death. There are globalization, migration, and gender perspectives, forces of power to consider, race, and so on. I knew of these things, but I didn’t understand the depth of these perspectives.

As a filmmaker, I work in a particular way. How can I take ideas and mold them into a more popular form to shift ideas? I’m always looking for visionaries and leaders who can help me understand the roots of why we think the way we do—our prejudices, our blind spots. Through this meeting of minds, my concept for the film changed and I felt that there was this incredible audience out there, including a group of idea makers, that I could tap into and learn from. It has given me such a boost, not only in terms of growth of ideas, but also in moral support.

The breadth of what you’re doing in terms of the academic connections and all the research projects … I could never make a film from that. It’s a different language. It would be overwhelming. But I think it’s okay to have different languages of expertise. Finding ways to speak together and finding opportunities to collaborate and understand each other is what counts. I love this idea about the university—or what we call the ivory tower—reaching out to artists or writers to join forces. We need each other. I don’t think just giving cameras to academics is a solution. If we can work together, each side has a lot to gain.

On Differences in Method

Deanna: First, let’s talk about legalities. When social scientists use material gathered from people for academic research, we go through ethics processes with strict rules about how we can use this data. Material gathered for “communications” purposes (for videos or other media that in some sense advertise the research) is subject to very different rules. The people featured give away all their rights to the material and its use. Therefore, you cannot just use research subjects and data for communications/dissemination activities. There is an entirely different protocol, and the advice I received from University lawyers was to keep the activities completely separate.

Helene: It’s so important to me to have that kind of transparency and conversation. We would not use any materials gathered—for example the YouTube videos that feature prominently in the film – unless we had permission. The people we approached were very happy to be included. Ethics are extremely important to us. Perhaps we don’t have the same exact rigor that academics do, but we have a rigor of our own, which we’re committed to.

Deanna: Why did you end up using so many YouTube clips?

Helene: I’m on a mission to open up our imaginations, so I’m always trying to find new ways of storytelling. I never intended to use YouTube clips. I stumbled upon them. Even though many of us are doing the work of care, we were told that it’s a very private and personal preoccupation. Through YouTube I found a wealth of experience—a chorus of voices that represent the continuum of care: from people taking care of babies to looking after older people with dementia … care videos from a marketing point of view and from a labour point of view. I’m weaving them together to represent almost a collective unconsciousness about care.

What really surprised me is that there are thousands of women that just film their morning routines of getting the kids ready for school, getting themselves ready for school. Women have always done many jobs in the home, but they’ve been invisibilized. And I think this is an opportunity to show that many people feel that this is work. This is hard work. This demands a lot of me and I want to share it and make it real. It’s really fascinating.

Deanna: Let’s turn to methods now. How do you make decisions around inclusion and omission of material? When social scientists collect and analyze qualitative data (for example interviews, or YouTube clips), there is an attempt to locate a representative sample. There will be some coding process to identify prominent themes and sub-themes. All this helps promote distance and objectivity … essentially, methods of analysis minimize the risk of imposing pre-existing theories and opinions on the material, and missing voices from various demographic groups. But the situation is different here – you might be looking for illustrations of what research has already shown is an important issue, or you might say, well, this may not be the most representative slice, but it is powerfully engaging, so we want it. To what extent do you explicitly think about such issues?

Helene: I don’t think I’ve thought about it in the way you’re describing. It’s true that I’m very conscious of creating narratives that are engaging and compelling … and sometimes academic research is not those things. But as filmmakers we have a responsibility to try and speak the truth, to differentiate fact from fantasy or exaggeration and to surround ourselves with people who can help guide us. So I ask myself: how do I combine this desire to entertain and educate and tell stories with this rigorous search for accuracy? It’s been very important to us that I’ve been able show you a rough cut and say, “Is this right? Does this feel accurate based on all the academic rigorous research that you’ve done? Are we on the right track?” I don’t have the same tools that you do in terms of real evaluation of this hard data. But I can be in conversation with you and be open to your saying, “I think you’re on the wrong track”. If you were to say that to me, I would take it very seriously and I would adjust what I was doing.

Deanna: This is all extremely important to how very successful and enjoyable our collaboration has been. You were in full control of the film and it is very much yours and Katarina’s work. But the film is also clearly enriched and grounded by the Project’s work. The rough cut we saw presented no serious issues—quite the contrary, we think it’s great—and you were respectful and accommodating about my comments and suggestions for minor changes. There was one section, though, that troubled me—on robotics and elder care. This subject lies mostly outside the scope of our Project’s research, but I had personally been reading heavily on research and developments in tech and care—about some very promising, sophisticated and sensitive uses of robotics and AI. I felt this section slanted too hard towards a negative, almost satirical caricature. Admittedly, the research on this subject isn’t extensive, let alone conclusive. And there are definitely serious concerns. This wasn’t a matter of you getting it ‘wrong’ … nonetheless I sent you some materials and links I thought would contribute to a more balanced picture. I mention this because challenges like this can come up in collaborations such as ours, and people may be interested in how we handled this. After some discussion, you defended and stayed committed to the original slant. I decided that provocation was in your mandate as a filmmaker, and that ‘balanced views’ are not necessarily the objective. This is an example of how different methods and goals come into play in these different kinds of (research vs creative) endeavours. What are your thoughts on this?

Helene: The clips I use in the teaser were found on Youtube, posted by and large by AI companies and developers. It’s an indication of the kinds of products that are out there. I let the clips speak for themselves. They may not be representative of everything that is available (or in development) but we do see real examples of the kinds of technology and innovations destined for our everyday care needs. If they seem somewhat creepy, well, I think there is something to be gained by observing what companies are promoting. As you say, many researchers looking at care technology have very serious concerns, and I wanted to echo this. I am not against technology coming into care. Of course we need AI! But I want viewers to look critically at the kinds of care solutions that are gaining financing and traction. If our short film provokes questions and concerns, we have succeeded!

Deanna: In closing, I just wanted to say once more that our work together was very interesting to me in many respects, and I have thoroughly enjoyed it. The film has enlivened the events where it’s been shown, and it has been very well received by those who study this subject.

Helene: Thank you again for your sensational support and collaboration. It is very dear to me—heart and mind!

The Invisible Everywhere

THE INVISIBLE EVERYWHERE from Catbird Productions on Vimeo.