Smile Because it Happened

“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.


Associate professor of cultural anthropology. Ed Traceur. Hacker. Car-free.

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3 Responses

  1. monika hardy says:

    oh my.
    esp love at 33 min – it would have been easier, but i don’t think that’s what we were trying to do

    and as you write:
    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.

    huge bravo guys.
    huge huge grazie.

  2. Stephen Hill says:

    I want to enjoy this video, but I cannot, because it is not captioned. Please add captions for those of us who cannot hear.


  3. Rejane Bleeker says:

    I work at a retirement center in South Africa, Western Cape, and i’m looking for ways to inspire my staff to give more to the old folks than just a bed bath and two hourly turns, and help feed and dress. What makes it challenging is that the staff are from a different race / culture – but they do speak the same language as the residents. The residents have their roots in the old Apartheid era…. So how does one inspire an increase in the depth of caring from someone who is just out to earn an income to keep their families alive and hopefully well while they grapple with major personal / social issues? How does one help them to look beyond the suspicious, prejudiced, paranoid, vulnerable old lady/man, and not take their insults personally? I try to be the best role model, but am from the same culture and race of the old folks. How can i be a bridge between the two cultures?