“Smile Because it Happened” is the latest project to come from our Digital Ethnography class (ANTH 677: Digital Ethnography Field Methods). We have become known for finding “community” where many people thought community would not exist. Until now, the communities we have studied were online. This project represents our first foray into the “real world.”
We chose the Meadowlark Hills retirement community because it is such a clear attempt to reclaim a sense of community at a time in which we are more disconnected than ever. The central hallway presents itself as the welcoming, walkable and lively small town downtown that only exists in the outside world as a shell of what it once was in the hollowed out ghosts towns of the Midwest. Based on progressive “elder-centered” living philosophies, Meadowlark represents one of the most impressive intentional community-building efforts we have yet to find in our studies – one that is all the more impressive by their own recognition that their own intentions to build community might get in the way of community itself. As we discovered during the making of this documentary, community is more like a happening to be lived, rather than a structure to be built.
For most students, this is their first exposure to video creation as well as their first exposure to real ethnographic research. But there is an unexpected freshness to the eye of the novice. Instead of doing traditional “documentary” video, we try to convey the blooming, buzzing complexity of a culture in whatever ways we can imagine. We seek to inspire empathy and a sense of connection between the audience and the subject, and all of our productions strive to achieve what we call “profound authenticity” – giving the viewer and the subject a sense of wonder about those things that otherwise seem mundane and trivial.
As readers of this blog will know, I do not like to simply “cover” the material as a teacher. I believe that much of what needs to be learned in our courses can only truly be learned through real-life practice, so I work with students each year to find an inspiring project that allows them to put their whole selves into it. In this regard, this was probably the most successful project we have ever done. Students had to face their own fears of death, they had to grieve for those they lost, and they had to overcome their insecurities to reach across a generational divide that was both wider and narrower than they had imagined.
This was also the most challenging project we have ever done. Some of those challenges are featured in the final cut, but there were others that are not so neatly processed into a video story – or into any story at all. Working with the biggest themes of the human condition often leaves us with such irresolvable issues. Those are the ones that will stay with us long after the project is over, slowly working us over and continuing to challenge us.
How do you even begin to express thanks to a group of students who gave of themselves so fully, or to the residents who gave up their time and stories, or to the staff who so graciously hosted and guided us throughout the semester? I hope the video itself might be seen as an expression of our collective gratitude for one another. When we premiered this video to over 100 residents and staff at Meadowlark last month, I told them that I felt as if I were hugging the whole room as I clicked “play.” It was such a very special experience for all of us.