Turning anguish into art 

Conference looks at the presentation of difficult stories

By Karen Herland

Theatre professor Ted Little holds up the results of a project Liz Miller (at front of the hall) developed during a media workshop with refugees. Magnifying glass

Theatre professor Ted Little holds up the results of a project Liz Miller (at front of the hall) developed during a media workshop with refugees.

Over the weekend of Nov. 6 to 9, a number of people gathered at the Montefiore Club to examine the theme Remembering War, Genocide and Other Human Rights Violations: Oral History, New Media and the Arts.

The conference, co-organized by the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling and the Montreal Life Stories Project, presented the process, reflection and production of a number of international researchers, practitioners, artists and community representatives – many of whom occupied several of those roles simultaneously.

The event, the fourth in association with the Life Stories project, funded by the CURA program, focused on the “drive to tell difficult stories through art, dance, theatre and media,” said Susan Bell, who recently became research coordinator for the oral history centre.

Bell said the conference theme is critical for the project’s mandate. “This really is the crux of the project. How do you transfer these stories in a way that is full of grace?”

The 121 registrants at the conference spent their days in panel discussions and plenary sessions and evenings at performances, readings and exhibitions intended to convey the experiences, legacy and anguish of those who have lived through conflict, war, tragedy and violence.

Participants shared experiences and stories, both learned from the communities they worked with, and the challenges they faced finding meaningful, respectful, and ultimately successful, ways to tell those stories. Participants also discussed the role of artistic production in that process.

On the second evening, keynote speaker Henry Greenspan, renowned author of books based on his 30 years of work with Holocaust survivors, offered his reflections. He summed up the theme of both the formal and informal conversations he had participated in at the conference as “words about words.”

Greenspan spoke about the importance of language. “Words are tricky things. They are both the tools and the weapons we have.” He urged those present to choose words carefully, “we have to break through these words that are so familiar they become numbing, and keep always aware of the experiences behind or beyond those words.”

Filmmaker Liz Miller, who worked with young refugees to Montreal this last year as part of the Montreal Life Stories Project, reflected on the importance of producing material that can speak to multiple audiences “but avoid reenacting a trauma or performing victimization.” She cautioned care while negotiating the space between conveying intimacy and sensationalizing.

Theatre professor Ted Little was struck by the similar concerns expressed by participants and presenters across disciplines, remarking that he did not often find himself in conferences.

“I heard a lot about process and product and how they come together,” he said. “Essentially, people were considering how to engage with difficult knowledge.”

Financial support for the project came through the Office of the Vice-President Research and Graduate Studies, along with SSHRC.


Concordia University