Culture  So, tell me your story

Oral history project listens to Montrealers displaced from their original homes

“When people ask me where I’m from, I have this pause – I say, this is going to be a long story.”

With these words, Palestinian-born writer and community activist Rania Arabi may as well have been speaking for many of the more than 500 immigrant Montrealers who are part of “We Are Here,” a new multimedia exhibit at the Centre d’Histoire de Montréal. Using footage of video interviews with over 500 Montrealers who have been displaced from their original homes due to war, genocide, and other human rights violations, the exhibit allows them to tell their life histories in their own voice – shedding a dramatic new light on the city and its residents.

“We Are Here” run sat the Centre d’histoire de Montréal (335 Place d’Youville) until April 13, 2012.

“We Are Here” reminds us that one out of every five Montrealers was born outside of Canada. And yet, despite making up a large portion of the population in an undeniably diverse city, the immigrant perspective is rarely prioritized. News reports notwithstanding, these are stories we almost never hear. As the exhibit’s curator Eve-Lyne Cayouette Ashby describes it, one of the project’s major aims is to diversify common understandings of an immigrant’s experience. “By giving them the mic, we can better understand what it’s like to go through these horrible stories,” she explained in an interview with The Daily.  “When someone who actually lived through it tells you their own story, you enter another universe.”

The stories are both heartbreaking and utterly compelling. History is rarely relayed in such a direct, unmediated way, and the resulting exhibit is hard to look away from. Despite the grim subject matter, the exhibit never makes any situation seem entirely hopeless. André Gauvreau, a coordinator of cultural events at the Centre d’Histoire de Montreal, said he was surprised to find that even though they’re talking about difficult aspects of their lives, “there is a lot of life in these stories.” Cayouette Ashby echoed this sentiment, and added that “these are incredible stories of resilience.”

The “We Are Here” exhibition is part of the larger Montreal Life Stories Project, which began in 2007 and is co-ordinated by the Community-University Research Alliance and Concordia’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling. It originally focused on genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia, unrest in Haiti, and the Holocaust and other persecutions of European Jews. The team was made up of people from different backgrounds (academics, researchers, businesspeople, artists, filmmakers, volunteers, and activists from French and English Canada, Cambodia, Rwanda, and elsewhere), and their first interviews were with their friends or family members. As the project expanded, it came to include other Montrealers with roots all over the world, spreading almost exclusively through word of mouth.

The exhibit takes a humanistic approach to history, focusing exclusively on oral histories, Ashby said. Gauvreau agreed that the exhibit departs from traditionally understood history, and emphasized the specificity of the exhibit’s methods. Interviewers for the project were given general guidelines, but no set questionnaire, and approached the ensuing conversations as dialogues: they allowed the interviewees to tell their stories as they saw fit.

Interviews usually began chronologically, not with episodes of violence but with the subject’s early childhood, their families, their experiences in school. After that, they would talk about whatever the interviewee wanted to discuss. “We were there to listen until they decided to stop,” Cayouette Ashby said. Some interviews lasted only about thirty minutes, others were conducted over months and totalled almost 25 hours. There are only about three hours worth of interview footage on display in the exhibit, cut down from what Cayouette Ashby estimates are thousands of hours of recorded interviews. This editing process, she said, was one of the most difficult parts of the exhibit’s preparations.

Considering the limits of its time frame, the exhibit does an impressive job of showcasing many different points of view. It uses a variety of mediums to tell the survivors’ stories: visual art, photographs, artifacts, children’s drawings, and, of course, visual interview footage. Some of these interviews are broadcast on a large screen at the exhibit’s centre, others play on smaller monitors distributed throughout. There is also a seating section that contains handheld screens, where viewers can sit and listen to individual interviews for as long as they want. The other aspects of the exhibit help to round out a more complete picture, but watching the interviews is by far the most powerful transmission of these stories.

Some people tell stories of adapting to the city right away; others encountered extreme racism and xenophobia. The approach values honesty, making sure to incorporate critical opinions of Montreal along with laudatory ones. The exhibit also makes a point to focus not just on specific events and those directly affected by them, but also on the aftermath. Some of the people interviewed are the Canadian-born children of refugees, who – while bypassing the struggles of their parents – still find themselves dealing with the burden of family histories and dueling national identities.

Cayouette Ashby wants people who leave the exhibit to look at the city with a new eye. “The Holocaust is not just something confined to Europe in the 1940s, but could relate to your neighbour, or a guy on the bus. Same for Cambodia in the 1970s,” she says. The xenophobia some refugees have experienced in Montreal is further proof that there is, in fact, very little distance between the human rights violations we read about in the news and those in our own city. After seeing this exhibit, she hopes we can look at these neighbours and realize that “maybe, [they have] a wonderful story to tell.”