Solemn stories come to life 

By Russ Cooper

The Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling's Montreal Life Stories has linked up with the National Film Board's interactive online CitizenShift initiative to help bring the stories of human rights violation survivors out of the shadows and into the light.

"This project has always been about telling the stories that reach beyond the victimization and the atrocities, and into the stories of survival and humanity," says Life Stories Project Coordinator Lucho van Isschot, "but it's the way we're getting those stories out there that's unique."

The collaboration between Life Stories and CitizenShift brings the stories of survivors of war, genocide and other human rights violations told through a range of media, including short videos, photographs, written texts and podcasts available on their websites, and

<em>Remix-To-Rio</em> tells the story of construction of a recording studios for disadvantaged youth in the <em>favelas</em> of Rio. Magnifying glass

Remix-To-Rio tells the story of construction of a recording studios for disadvantaged youth in the favelas of Rio.

"We want people to get a sense that it was a very human project, about the people and not about institutions," says Life Stories' webmaster Caroline Künzle. "Videos and blogs change the way a story is told, as well as received. It adds a whole dimension."

For CitizenShift producer Reisa Levine, the partnership is the ideal way to reach a wider audience to educate about such atrocities.

"If you can feel their passion through the video, there's an immediacy of having someone in front of you," says Levine. "There are a lot of people still running from human rights violations. So, if we can inform and help stop some of these situations, that's the idea."

One-hundred-and-ten people in seven research groups are gathering the stories of human rights violation survivors of such atrocities as the Holocaust, Rwandan and Cambodian genocides, and political violence in Haiti, Latin America and South Asia. The groups are made up of university faculty (including principal researcher and recent winner of a Dean's New Scholar award associate professor Steven High) community group representatives, as well as graduate and undergrad students.

Van Isschot speaks with noticeable passion when describing the research being done in the department. He's quick to point out the project wouldn't be possible without a $1 million SSHRC CURA grant, but he's even quicker to point out the extraordinary capacity of this project to bring the community and the university together.

"The survivors and storytellers sit at the table with professors and are completely involved in every stage of development," says van Isschot.
Künzle echoes his positivity. "Everything is done in such a way to ensure that everyone has a voice in the process of the research and the work, that no one is privileged. From this, we can really create understanding," she says.

Many of the stories currently available are focused on Montreal's Holocaust survivors. At the end of WWII, more than 9 000 Jewish refugees came to Montreal. As of today, Montreal is home to the third-largest Holocaust survivor population in the world. Life Stories worked closely with the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre to digitize 470 interviews over the past 20 years – all recovered from a box of VHS tapes which sat essentially untouched for years.

For van Isschot and all involved in the project, these stories are too valuable not to be told. "You can do oral history and collect stories, but it's only partially helpful to society if the stories aren’t shared," he says. "Why not get them out into society right away?'"

The project aims to collect 500 stories of Montrealers who’ve immigrated from situations of violence. The project is ongoing, and the invitation to share a story remains open. If you have a story or know someone who does, project organizers are inviting all community members to submit two- to 10-minute videos or other digital stories to the site.


Concordia University