Each year Sheffield Doc/Fest invites approximately 300 guests selected from over 60 countries for the Film and Alternate Realities programmes, to share their work with the documentary community, meet their audiences, and to promote and give further context to their work, contributing to the impact of the Festival as a market and forum for business internationally, as well as to the cultural and social offering in the UK.
This year the Alternate Realities programme saw contributing artists from 15 different countries and welcomed a large proportion of them to the Festival to represent their work. It was then with deep disappointment that we learned that the artist and maker of Where is Home?, Ifeatu Nnaobi, was unable to attend the Festival for reasons beyond her control; Ifeatu was denied a visa to travel to the UK, along with eight other filmmakers and project makers also unable to attend Doc/Fest from a range of other countries, for visa related reasons. We of course can’t know the reasons, but we felt very disappointed for those artists unable to travel. Knowing the narrative of Ifeatu’s work this seemed particularly poignant: Where is Home? is an Instagram-based project which opens up the idea of home, what it means for different people and how it can be shaped by an individual if they are empowered to do so.
We spoke with Nigeria’s Ifeatu about her opinions and thoughts about her work and about borders and how this theme is presented in her work.
IN – My understanding of the world is that humans have always moved. The world would not be what it is today without that movement. Migration has shaped culture, history, politics, and economics. Unfortunately, today, the restriction of movement shapes contemporary culture. That the world is becoming more closed and societies are becoming more inward-looking is a not-so-subtle fact. My project Where is Home? was created to challenge that. To present the notion that we are all global citizens and that the world belongs to all of us. Ironically, I have been denied a visa to present this at Sheffield Doc/Fest. If we needed more justification for using technology platforms to tell stories that can help move the world forward in a more positive direction, well there’s one for you!
SH - The use of Instagram as a platform for the work is really effective, however problematic it can be in terms of privacy and ownership it provides a relatively accessible platform for experiencing the work that most other projects in our programme where unable to achieve. How do these themes relate to your practice and the project as a whole?
IN - I don't have a personal Instagram account precisely for the reasons you mentioned. I used to have one until around November last year. I was very late to join the platform and after I did, must have lasted on it for around two years. I am, however, active on Instagram through other accounts (work-related). I joined Facebook very early on and left the platform in 2010. I opened another Facebook account last year when I started working on this project to reach people and to connect with people about the work. I couldn't think of an easier way to connect with people I might want to interview or to share the idea with people I already know.
I have almost given up on trying to control how big corporations use my personal data. I try to be as careful as I can be but for the most part, I feel that it is a losing battle. There are so many ways of mining data, they change often, improving faster than we can keep up and there is only so much small print that we can read.
I have a love-hate relationship with these platforms. My biggest issue is the way social media can distort other people's perceptions of who you are because the content shared is so curated, most times only sharing happy or positive images. It is easy to create a very lopsided version or an unreal persona that people believe to be true.
On the other hand, such platforms have become the easiest way to reach people, it also gives room for creative ways of engaging with issues and new forms of collaboration. For example, I collaborate on media projects with a group of queer women based in South Africa called HOLAAfrica. We had done this for five years before we met physically through a chance meeting. I know how especially for young people, social media can be one of the ways we feel empowered enough to express ourselves. Physical channels may be inaccessible to us or too bureaucratic.
This really leaves us (me) caught between a rock and hard place. How to exploit these platforms positively without us being exploited by big corporations. Over the last few days, I have been running over whether or not to return to Instagram. I have some vacation images that I would like to share but at the same time, I'm very wary about the security issues that arise from personally being part of these platforms. This might sound silly for that person whose life story, in a nutshell, essentially appears in the Where is Home? project. But how much more does one share? That is my moral quandary – Where do you draw the line between using it for positive causes such as democratizing storytelling without or perhaps even still contributing to and perpetuating the power of these big corporates?!
I still haven't made my decision on whether to go back or not. Social media platforms provide a low barrier to entry for new and emerging storytellers like me so this negotiation is not about to be concluded any time soon.
SH - How will your current visa experience inform future works or the journey of this piece?
IN - Not being able to attend the Festival because an immigration policy has decided for me that I am an "other" who is at the moment undesirable is an important factor and will no doubt surface in the work that I do going forward. During the Festival, I read a very brilliant piece in the UK Guardian aimed at dispelling myths about the refugee crisis (click here). A line in it that really struck me says, "People will continue to move to improve their quality of life – not only because of extreme poverty, but because they are connected to global culture and global networks of communication." As we all know, immigration policy has been hotly contested in the last few years, with countries tightening their borders and immigration policies. Deciding on who is welcome and who isn't seems to have become a favorite thing of the world to talk about. These types of decisions are taking place at even smaller levels, among individuals, for example. We do this when deciding what cause we should pay attention to or how to align our ideals.
I have not yet thought about how this might influence the journey of this piece but I am currently working on a new project around the conflict situation in North East Nigeria. This is a situation where a section of the country is essentially at war or are living through the consequences of it, with over 2.2 million people displaced from home. The rest of the country either does not know about the gravity of the situation or chooses not to pay attention to it because "those people are different from us". I think on a conceptual level, discussing the otherness of people, especially in relation to migration and home are themes that will be prevalent in my work in the next few years.