Concordia University Ethnocultural Art Historical Research Group

Home Movies and Self-Ethnographic Practice: Memory, Identity Politics and Documentation

Diary filmmaking and the use of autobiographical material are extremely effective and widely used means of ‘politizing the personal’… and yet autobiography in film and video is rarely a source of truth and authenticity, but a dispersal of representation, subjectivity, experience and cultural history.

Catherine Russell. Experimental Ethnography:
The Work of Film in the Age of Video. Duke University Press, 1999. P: 15.

Salix Tree is first and most a piece about personal history and cultural memory. A self-ethnographic document originated from home movies, reflecting on the politics of cultural belonging, native culture and the negotiations between the authority of the second language with the mother tongue. Home movies are an important component of popular culture with significant social functions. Not only preserves our personal stories, but also re-formulates them as narratives of kinship affiliation, a liminal space in which we negotiate cultural memory with personal history. I shot the footage over several years, using narrative and stylistic strategies from home movies, such as shaky camera, people acknowledgement of the presence of the camera, and documentation of rites of passage. The home movie is not only a place for the transmission of personal history and documentation of kinship affiliations, but also a place for self-ethnographic practice, colliding family representation with aesthetics pursuits. “The divergent dialect of home video, marked by intimacy, ritual causality, and authenticity, confronts the monoglossic spectacle, linear plots, and gloss of commercial cinema, setting up a dialogue between two semantic and axiological belief systems, between worlds in conflict” (1).

I felt the need to create a piece acting in opposition to the hegemonic narrative of the immigrant. The lived experiences of immigrants have become a common narrative, a currency to trade between mass media, activism, government agencies and NGO’s. We’ve been narrated from the perspective of a hegemonic and dominant system, a system based on the simplistic operation of highlighting differences between the immigrant and the host society on their domestic economies and social mobility. As a consequence, the story of the immigrant most of times has been reduced to be a survival narrative; a tale of losing and recovering, failure and success, integration and rejection. We have been representing someone else roles that somebody wrote for us, deciding our careers, our salary, our place in society. However those are not the only elements of the story of the immigrant that matter the most, are not even the most important. This piece is not only a personal self-documentation of the rites of passage of the immigrant, but also a reflection on the idea of representation and the identity politics of the disenfranchised.

My understanding of identity politics is more about as a way to recognize and validate the relationships between experience, identity, culture, politics, and power; as a way to produce knowledge from the lived experience of the participants, their social location and their material conditions. Identity politics concerns with language and representation has not only led to discourses of discontent but has also politicized areas of society and culture not previously defined as political, such as interpersonal relations, everyday life, and as in my piece, everyday life and domesticity. Identity politics is a slippery term that has developed more as a critique and political stance of phenomena as diverse as multiculturalism, women’s movement, civil rights, queer movements, separatist movements and nationalist conflicts, than as a coherent area of study. Identity politics has certainly been dismissed as irrelevant and self-indulgent cultural activism, mainly because its views, associated with outdated Marxist and neo-Marxist theory, rest on a conception of power in which class inequality is a source of exploitation and oppression and our role as activists is to alleviate economic inequality and also to challenge the class structure as an agent of social change.

Home movies are a displaced practice by itself not only because they act as a rival system of representation to the glossy format of commercial film, but also because through the representation of a domestic space, home movies are in fact a self-ethnographic exercise practiced during moments of leisure, a cognitive construction of home negotiating cultural memory with personal identity. Does revealing aspects of our personal life through our research improves our understanding about the subject matter we are trying to understand?. Home movies and personal narratives have a democratic quality, not only because both appeal to broader audiences but because they allows us to present a version of ourselves to the world. The personal is much less personal than we think, it’s mediated by way of culture and the social, powerful institutions that shape, discipline and constrain us. Even emotions are not personal. They are historically contingent and often manipulated by identity politics. “When the ‘‘I’’ seeks to give an account of itself, it can start with itself, but it will find that this self is already implicated in a social temporality that exceeds its own capacities for narration; indeed, when the ‘‘I’’ seeks to give an account of itself, an account that must include the conditions of its own emergence, it must, as a matter of necessity, become a social theorist” (2).

My piece Salix Tree is a self-ethnographic document meant to be experienced as a passage between languages, a concentration of voices whose identity remains opaque. Is the narrator who is telling the story identical with the narrator about whom the story is being told?. Through out the piece there is a play between subtitles and narration, a tension between transparency, authenticity and fiction. Some of these voices materialize into complete translation, while others provide a departure from national identity and their dominant linguistic form. The translation conflict between subtitles and narration is a critical response to subtitling practices in indigenous speech in early visual anthropology and ethnographic documentaries. The MacDougalls were among the first filmmakers to juxtapose subtitles to indigenous speech in their films, a practice that without question revolutionized visual anthropology, but also introduced colonial practices in the act of translating and representing the other. Documentary practices not only should complicate our easy consumption of images and other cultural products, but should also ignite reflection about representation. The subtitling practice and other taxonomies of cinematic practice, such as techniques and genre conventions have profound epistemological consequences. As in the case of documentary conventions for example, its perpetuated myth of objectivity and desperate attempt for authenticity and contradictory fascination with artifice at the same time. Documentary practices should be a study on the territories of the human and the way in which these territories are stratified, allowing us to see the centrality of power and territorial control in social signs.

How do we -immigrants- negotiate our idealization of personal history and exalted notions on home, family, kinship and friendship?. In which language does one self-documents when there is no mother tongue anymore?. We become wanderers between spaces, identities, ownership and language as well. Whatever second language we are communicating with, no matter how much we master it, we never quite own it. Language is a masquerade as much as it is a product of domestication and control. “I have but one language — yet that language is not mine”, wrote Jacques Derrida in his autobiographical essay, reflecting on the loss of his mother tongue as a consequence of colonialism in Algeria. As immigrants we are meant to forever wander between the home we just lost and the one we have to construct for ourselves once again.

Even though Canada became the first country in the world to declare multiculturalism as state policy with the Canadian Multiculturalism Act, it failed to recognize the complexity of exiled cultures and their processes of construction of identity, cultural assimilation and collective memory. The grand narrative of the multicultural society was created and reinforced by hegemonic structures, ignoring the heterogeneity of the immigrant existence. Resistance to these state narratives of cultural assimilation constitutes not only an act of resistance to the sovereignist version of the multicultural that we have been immersed into, but also an act of resistance against the construction of grand narratives. As grand narratives are supposed to be a comprehensive explanation of historical experience or knowledge, they tend to dismiss the naturally existing heterogeneity and dislocation of the social experience.

The identity politics that propelled Barack Obama’s presidency are the same that are currently operating around Donald Trump’s neo-fascist discourses throughout his presidential candidacy. It is time to question the outdated technology of identity politics which has failed to deliver on its promises of social emancipation beyond political representation. “Whichever way activists decide to go, they face a paradox: Seeking to erase boundaries requires recognizing them, which ultimately confirms them” (3). Identity politics used as political action are just a cultural resource strategically deployed, which makes structurally no difference between lobbying for the marginalized and the rise of mainstream white supremacy. In both cases, identities have been deployed strategically as a form of collective action to change, transform and educate. To advocate for marginalized cultural identities leads, in most cases, to increased regulation of the disenfranchised by dominant groups and the state.


(1) M., Moran, James. There’s no Place Like Home Video. Visible Evidence Vol 12. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. P: 22.

(2) Butler, Judith. Giving an Account of Oneself. Fordham University Press: 2005. P: 8.

(3) Mary Bernstein. Identity Politics, Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 31 (2005). P: 62.