Opening with picture of a sweaty teacup adventuring in the Siberian mountains 4 years ago, should give you an idea of what I’ve been up to work wise…
Citt Williams, a passionate filmmaker and a boundary crosser.
Citt Williams. Hiking towards Inegen. Ongudaysky, Altay, Russia.
Citt Williams (35) is a proactive filmmaker. Her produced documentaries have been selected for competition at Cannes, Sundance, Mumbai, Melbourne, and have been syndicated across international TV networks including National Geographic, and Discovery. Citt has produced and shot independent documentaries in many international locations including India, Nepal, Tajikistan, Russia, China, Japan, Papua New Guinea, France, Borneo, rural Australia and from a bicycle in Outer Mongolia. In 2010, she went back to university and completed her Master of Science in Climate Change from the Climate Research Unit, University of East Anglia. In her final research project, she found significant correlation between solar activity and riverflows in Australia.
…why do you do what you do?
Documentary filmmaking is an opportunity to connect with real issues and real people. I enjoy sharing with others the experiences and wisdoms that have affected me.
How do you pick your topics?
Topics and ideas come in the strangest of forms and it is fair to say they pick me. If it is a work mandate, I’ll just engage with the contract and go for it. However if it’s a person project, the topic may have been a seed gestating in the back of my mind for years. Topics normally come through a puzzling encounter that activates my intuitive curiosity or through a simply heard statement of incredible power and clarity. Sometimes it is an eyewitness event, email, newspaper article (my dad often send me random clippings), or even within a dream that wakes me up. After the initial lightning bolt, it is common for the topic to follow me around (I cannot stop thinking about it or seeing signs of it everywhere!). In my spare time, I find myself researching, writing, calling people, cataloguing disconnected information and sometimes visiting locations to have tea and talk with others. After this, if the material continues to relay a subjective truth to me (and others I share it with) then perhaps it’s a project that the wider community might like to know about. From there, I usually draft a plan and begin looking for opportunities.
Interview during the creation of UNU videobrief “The grasses of the Gobi”. Photo courtesy of Citt Williams.
Where do you think your social conscience came from?
I guess I was a sensitive kid, blessed with a healthy childhood, good education and well-travelled parents who exposed me to different cultures. Growing up, I was increasingly aware of the inequalities and unjust struggles about my world. I am particularly drawn to sensitive people who fight for their rights with incredible expression and determination. To me, these people are confronting, inspiring, and healing. Today, in my activities and creative endeavors, I strive to create a platform for them, make a space for them, hold a torch to their efforts.
Who have been the key influences in your life?
Like many others, I have been heavily influenced by CAAMA (Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association). To this day, I still draw wisdom from the talented people and extraordinary experiences that I had working there. More recent collaborations at the UNU Media studio in Tokyo have influenced my approach to collaborative international teamwork. Also, years ago when riding a bicycle across Mongolia, I experienced endurance, self-sufficiency, coupled with the traditional nomadic peoples’ philosophy and way of life. That awakening has greatly marked my personal approach. On a deeper level, my family and close friends hold me together and drive me onwards, whilst meditation gives my spirit something else entirely.
What is your most memorable filmmaking experience?
Each project has a special memory and energy for me. Of course the film screenings at the Sydney Opera House and other gala events are always fun, but it’s time in the field that I enjoy the most. It is hard to pick one project, though I have always been a marshmallow for Wirriya: small boy, a documentary film we produced at CAAMA. I have huge respect for the film’s auteur Beck Cole and in the documentary she elegantly explores the situation of a young aboriginal boy living in a transient town camp on the outskirts of Alice Springs in Central Australia. It’s a loving and sometimes funny tale on a difficult and sensitive topic that I’ve seen many young kids elsewhere in the world relate to.
< Watch clip http://aso.gov.au/titles/documentaries/wirriya-small-boy/ >
Was there any point in your work, where you thought: “This is not working as I expected!”?
Yes, every project never goes to plan! We may find ourselves enduring nasty weather on waterlogged Pacific island, coordinating helicopter shots and kangaroo feasts, bashing through muddy thickets to pay respects to a sacred spring in Siberia or collecting mussels in a crocodile infested mangrove but that half the challenge when you are working with real people in telling situations. I try to let go of certain expectations and trust the real-time flow.
It is quite unusual for a successful filmmaker to move into science. What made you go back to university and study climate change?
Studying meteorology has always been a slowly cooking idea, but there was definitely a catalyst moment that made up my mind to leave my job and do the climate science masters. A few years ago, I was presenting some of the UNU Traditional Knowledge Initiative climate change documentaries to a room full of Academy of Sciences people. Although the films had worked elsewhere, the feedback with this group was rather flippant. It hurt and shocked me at first, until I recognized that for them our traditional knowledge message was not working – telling stories that crossed boundaries. I recognized I needed to further understand the scientific perspective, language and the climate science knowledge system, and hopefully try them again later. It became clear to me that if I really wanted to make a difference then I needed to focus on ways that respectfully collaborate and articulate various climate knowledge systems, ultimately generating new knowledge innovations that all “stakeholders” can benefit from.
Luis Patron, UNU director and editor, records evidence of coastal erosion on the Carteret Islands, Papua New Guinea. Photo courtesy of Citt Williams.
Let us talk about the research you have done while completing your science masters. What are the practical benefits of this research?
Whilst completing my science masters dissertation, I learnt and used the scientific mechanistic mathematical worldview to identify a significant correlation between extraterrestrial cycles and terrestrial moisture in Australia. My work is still in the process of publication so I cannot go into too much detail. However, as with other research in this area, benefits of the research include further signal clarification of external climate forcings within regional hydro-meteorological proxies. If I get the chance, I’d also like to pursue further work with this signal to identify correlations with geospace variability and cyclic traditional knowledge practices not currently well linked.
What kind of change would you like to bring from your dream project?
Overall, I would like to contribute culturally appropriate mechanisms that can collaborate multiple climatic “ways of knowing”, leading to more sustainable and “right way” responses to planetary environmental change. Within most environmental academia, an identified challenge is to develop methodologies that can “verify” traditional knowledge practices to existing scientific truth. However, on the other hand, perhaps a more undercurrent problem lies in the “wrong way” appropriation of traditional knowledge in current academic processes. One only has to scan the abstracts of some well sighted climate adaptation papers to see in many cases a traditional person’s intellectual property and custodial knowledge responsibility is not being respected. Specifically, when a traditional knowledge expert is referred to as a “participant”, it can highlight there is a lack of awareness or a failure within current academic protocols to accommodate for the management of custodial knowledge. As Peruvian Professor Tirso Gonzales says, “there is no Google Translator for an Indigenous person’s environmental knowledge”. In a nutshell, I’d like to see a world where the academic establishment protocols require: respectful consultation with local people as local experts, co-authorship, whilst also making space for support of Indigenous-led research projects within traditional institutional frameworks that reflect the needs of the community.
Indigenous peoples already have a swathe of factors which affect their self-determination (eg marginalization, poverty, food sovereignty rights, cultural erosion), but I cannot see why institutional nurturing and authorship of traditional knowledge and its practice are not as essential as seed banks, libraries, workshops and congresses. Fortunately, for all of us, there is a growing number of environmental case studies where collaborative protocols are emerging (see forthcoming UNUTKI publication).
There is a saying that an Australian Aboriginal filmmaker friend Rachel Perkins included in one of her films reflecting on the early Australian colonial period … and I think it sums up some of the conceptual difficulties in worldviews. White man, “This land is mine”. Aboriginal man, “This land is me”. To find the “right way”, with equity and long-term visioning, is an enormous challenge for this century, yet it would benefit us all immensely.
What are you doing next? Will you go back to filmmaking?
Next? Currently I am living in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan learning Russian full-time whilst preparing my Ph.D. outline/proposition. I’m intrigued by the idea of climate memory and how it manifests in various knowledge systems. I am trying to mesh together mechanisms that might work as culturally appropriate collaborative tools, subsequently augmenting partnerships between traditional and the natural science expertise. As mentioned above, I am particularly interested in exploring media beyond “participatory methodologies”. From personal experience, I feel that current participatory media surrounding climate change is an uneven communications platform, which does not manifest self-determination at the international level. Furthermore, when this is combined with literature highlighting the inadequacies of climate science communications, a puzzle begins to emerge. Currently, I’m drawn to the more radical literature suggesting a movement of the planetary science towards more inclusive and locally verifiable commons frameworks. Regardless of the agendas that will ensue, any successful mechanism will need to make the additional jump towards relationism, equality, self-determination, the development of longer term expertise, and the strengthening of “bio-cultural maintenance” institutional tools and frameworks within current systems.
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
The most rewarding part of my work is collaboration that goes beyond one person’s ability. Being a part of a team that devises a creative vision of solutions, working through the various challenges associated with multicultural collaborations and creating a message that hopefully transcends the localized culture to resonate clearly at a planetary level.
Oksana Buranbaeva (buranbaeva[at]vie.unu.edu)
Watch “Sinking Paradise. Carteret Islands, Papua New Guinea”, on UNU’s Our World 2.0.