documentaries, Frankenstein, Marketing, Ownership of stories, Splice the Movie

Why ethics approval really matters – even in storytelling

As a storyteller who works across fiction, communications, journalism,  and marketing, I am interested in whether the participants of the new Australian documentary television series Struggle Street really understood what it means to give consent to their story being ‘sold’ by the media – not just ‘told’ by journalists.

Now that Struggle Street has aired in all its three part ‘poverty porn’ glory, the ratings are in. The series was a winner, but in nabbing such a large audience, who were largely tuned in for a voyeuristic peek into the underclass of the ‘Lucky Country’, it has caused the media to ponder issues of consent in the documentary genre.

The controversial documentary series first aired on Australian television station SBS on 3 May and was the focus of outrage even before it was first screened. Objectors launched a petition for SBS to suspend the broadcast.

Unlike those in the media, who need to use a standard consent form before entering the lives and minds of their subject and then broadcasting that around the country – doctoral students must go through a lengthy process to get ethics approval when using real people.

It is clear that Struggle Street’s phenomenal ratings appeal is the door being kicked open to a new and brutal form of storytelling and marketing when it comes to people’s lives. And one that should force all of us involved in any aspect of the media to pause and question exactly what informed consent really means when we ask people to expose themselves to public scrutiny.

IMG_4151

I did my PhD in Creative Writing so my subject matter – fictional scientifically created human hybrids – didn’t actually exist, so I didn’t need to get ethics approval to research them.

On the flip side, I was writing about fictional scientists in works such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and director and screenwriter Vincenzo Natali’s Splice, which explores the fall out caused by people who really should have sought ethics approval before embarking on their projects.

Imagine trying to hand in a documentary like Struggle Street for your creative project without human ethics approval. In an excellent post in The Thesis Whisperer, Judy Redman writes “I’ve been told by a significant number of experienced researchers that completing the ethics application form helps them to clarify exactly what it is that they hope to find out.”

That’s not a bad thing, surely.

Saliently, Redman answers this following question in her article, which is at the heart over the media’s concern about what happened to the participants of Struggle Street.

Why do I need to do an ethics application?

“We have responsibilities towards our research participants. People are giving up their time (and sometimes also putting themselves at risk) to enable you to do your research. We need to ensure they can give free and informed consent to their participation and ensure their safety, particularly vulnerable groups.”

However, this matter of consent and whether real informed consent about the editing and marketing of the Struggle Street story was given by the participants is at the heart of the controversy about the documentary.

A television series like Struggle Street is aimed at garnering large ratings. To do that, the show must be constructed for audience expectations – tastes that have been weaned on reality television and sensationalism.

In this genre the audience wants to see excess, be it the voyeuristic and aspirational appeal of ostentatious wealth or the suffering and struggle of the underclass.  Participants may willingly let the media into their lives, but remain ignorant of how their stories will be shaped in the editing suite and in the subsequent marketing campaigns.

Yes, Struggle Street was a highly successful documentary. It attracted a large number of viewers. But is it enough to win a ratings war? Media analysis has now rightly focused on the issue of consent – specifically whether it is enough to gain written consent from people who may have no idea what happens once the cameras stop.

I suggest that consent can only really be given when participants are fully informed of the final campaign that will be used to sell their story.

In the communications business the client understands their story will be used to sell the product. In this case, the telling and the selling of the story are entwined. The client sees the final product and has been briefed on the marketing campaign, and is a part of all different stages of the process. They see the rough cut, the edited version and have the right to veto the story and steer the tone of the marketing campaign.

This is not the case in journalism, where the documentary filmmaker asserts control, obtains consent to film, and then the subject hands over their life and good will, not understanding that this is simply one part of the process.

According to SBS Chief content officer Helen Kellie, quoted here in Mumbrella, the role of the program-maker was to “make sure we’re not showing the story the participants wish they could tell…We are telling the story as it unfolded through the six months of filming.”

Indeed, the curation of content is contingent on more than just the filming, or collection and compilation of the images. It is in the editing that a political slant can be made, that references, relationships and dialogue are brought into focus. It is in the final ‘package’ of the story that the participants may feel their lives and views have been distorted to conform to an over arching narrative that is not their own.

In a comprehensive look at the issue of consent and Struggle Street, Denis Muller in The Citizen (7 May) asked: “Has SBS done over the people of Mount Druitt?” pointing out that the editing and of the series raised “questions about betrayal of trust, fairness of portrayal and the effects of stereotyping. But consent, as a cornerstone of professional ethics, is fundamental.”

Journalist Michael Lallo (Sydney Morning Herald May 9) reviewed the first episode of Struggle Street  more kindly than most commentators, writing that the show didn’t mock or degrade its participants, who mostly were portrayed as doing the best they could in circumstances of poverty, and drug abuse, with dignity and resilience. For Lallo, Struggle Street offered “a complex and nuanced look at how some people fall through the cracks”.

Brian McNair, writing in The Conversation (7 May)  also added, “Struggle Street was not racist, nor was it anymore voyeuristic than any reality TV show of the last two decades”.

Yet later commentary, after the massive success of the three part documentary, raised more serious concerns about consent. Michael Bodey (The Australian 18 May) noted that “the ethical issue of consent will be tested more frequently in the future after the success of the three part series”.

I would also add consent for the marketing campaign should be obtained before anyone signs off on giving over their lives to a documentary. Because when it is all said and done, the ‘success’ of Struggle Street is not about whether it effectively tells a story about the inequalities of Australian society but whether that story sold, and how well it sold, and how it was sold.

When success is measured in ratings and marketing spin, then consent must be given on this basis, and the residents of Mount Druitt should have been briefed on the marketing campaign, and allowed final veto of the end product or offered a say in the reediting, just as with any stakeholders in a communications campaign.

So, before you complain about ethics committee approval, think about the controversy surrounding Struggle Street. And then, ask the following question – should the media take lessons from academics about consent and the need for ethics approval?

An Edited version of this blog post was published at:

Online Opinion

RMIT Blog Central

Advertisements
Academic conferences, Academic Study, Chimeras, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, horror, science fiction, Splice the Movie, thesis writing, Time management, Writing strategies

Doctoral companion species? The Creative Writing project and exegesis

IMG_4396

Just as I have spent the past four years exploring the hybrid in science fiction – a character that exists outside binaries – so I realized that the actualized Creative Writing doctorate also existed outside the binaries. 

Throughout the exegesis I have come to realize the hybrid stands slightly outside the human, never properly human or animal, never allowed to fully participate in the human community – or the animal pack. Never human enough, never animal enough. Actually, that’s how I felt growing up – never Greek enough, never Australian enough. A hybrid.

Although they spend the days fighting, at least my cat and dog can play together as well. And the cat can always run away. Take one good swipe at the dog. Or both can retreat and bury their differences. Not so the human-animal hybrid in science fiction. There is nowhere to go.

IMG_4398

It’s the same with the Creative Writing doctorate. The novel and the exegesis have to get along, play nice, and find some common ground. I can hear myself getting increasingly frustrated, saying – “for goodness sake, the damn exegesis has to let me spend some time with the novel – enough already!” And still it demands! Doesn’t it realize it is a hybrid – unable to exist without its other half?

Yes, I am at that “I am so sick of it, I can’t read another word” stage of my research. I have even begun footnoting in my dreams – and worrying about whether I am getting the damn referencing system correct.

In my exegesis, I argue that the hybrid exists in both human and animal categories simultaneously, challenging but never destroying either category. The great fear for the human characters is that the animal within the hybrid will harm them. The good news is, this happens in my novel as well. Or it would. If I ever get time to do the final edit. And, as I have discovered this is the fear writers have when they start the Creative Writing doctorate.

A relatively new higher degree, this doctorate isn’t taken seriously by those who have decided that a/ writers should never undertake a higher degree, and b/  it isn’t like it’s a “real” doctorate anyway as it is “just writing”. Add the fact that I am doing mine on beings that don’t actually exist…well. You get the picture!

That actually fits with my research. By the 21st Century, in science fiction the hybrid’s danger is acknowledged to be its human side. As illustrated in this scene from the 2009 movie Splice, where the scientists examine scans of the newborn hybrid Dren and ponder her potential threat:

Elsa: Not all animals have predatory elements.

Clive: There’s the human element.

That brings me to Donna Haraway’s Companion Species Manifesto. Here, Haraway argues that dogs are not about oneself. They are dogs – not a projection, nor the realization of an intention, not the telos of anything.  (The Companion Species Manifesto: Dog, People, and Significant Otherness. 2003. Prickly Paradigm Press – p 11).

This makes more sense to me now I actually have a dog. I small, joyful, mess creating, life enhancing puppy. Finally asleep in his basket at my desk. He likes to keep an eye on me long into the night.

A friend told me when I got the puppy that things I never expected to get destroyed would. I could batten down the hatches as much as I liked, but things would happen I couldn’t control.

A metaphor for academic research if ever I heard one.

IMG_4395

So, what’s that got to do with the Creative Writing doctorate?

Maybe sometimes we need to look at it for what it just is. Just a dog. Just a thing in its own right and not an end to anything. I think those of us in the thick of it know this, and are too caught up in it and too darn tired working on it to fight the popular opinion that challenges us as to why we are doing it. After all, no one asks why anyone does a doctorate in a science related subject, do they? But somehow, many people do not think it is valid to study – and write – fiction in higher education. But I didn’t start this doctorate to learn how to write – I can do that, thanks. I did it because I wasn’t about to do one in architecture, philosophy or bioethics. Writing is what I do, and that was the dog I was going to study, so to speak. I wanted to push that writing boundary as far as I could, challenge myself and stretch myself in my area. And I don’t feel I have to justify this.

I do argue, however, that many creative writers embarking on a doctorate in Creative Writing fear the “other half” of the work required. They imagine they are “either” a creative writer “or” a researcher, and often feel they do not have the academic language or research skills required to merge the two together. Even those in the media have queried whether this doctorate should be allowed to exist – much the same way that creation of scientific hybrids are debated. 

Will they be good for the community? Or destroy humanity as we know it? Yes – by that I mean both the Creative Writing doctorate, and scientific chimeras. And, while we are at it – fictional hybrids.

IMG_4399

The fear many writers have is that their academic research will harm them, make them less creative, and take away their spontaneity. This is one side of the hybrid dominating the other. Yet it is interesting that unlike, for instance, the skills needed to be a professional tennis player that are seen to need coaching and training, writing is viewed as a gift from God – (quite mythological) a skill that can’t be taught. If you don’t have it, you can’t learn it. But those in higher degrees in creative writing would argue otherwise.

The research, while pulling you away from the creative, deepens your involvement with it. The images in this blog were taken from a tapestry at the Ashmolean Museum last year when I was in Oxford to take part in two conferences related to my doctorate. I think they perfectly illustrate the doctoral battle for creative writers – one part trying to dominate the other, the exegesis trumping the novel, and vice versa. Yet while I went to Oxford to present my academic research, it caused me to explore new areas in my creative project. The impact of that trip is still resonating in my work, in the exegesis and the novel and other interesting ways. I am going back in September 2013, to present the final chapter of my exegesis, on the erotic nature of the hybrid at the Exploring The Erotic conference.   I see this as an invaluable experience. Getting feedback on your ideas and research from your peers – indeed defending your ideas and research to them – pushes forward your work and gets you used to taking your work into the public sphere. 

IMG_4401

My creative project came into being as a hybrid. It was based on a short story I started writing several years ago at a bioethics conference in Queensland, where I was presenting a paper for my MA in Creative Writing. I was listening to a paper about the perils of xeno transplantation – the use of animal parts in humans – when the voice of my protagonist Ariadne came to me. It was one of those creative moments when you realize that something has clicked. As a science fiction/crime writer – itself a hybrid genre, I felt a deep resonance with the idea of xeno transplantation and hybridity.

The short story that resulted was Xenos, a “hard boiled” speculative crime thriller (this is itself a hybrid of cross disciplinary genre) that won the Dorothy Porter Innovation Prize in the 2007 Sisters In Crime Scarlet Stiletto Awards and has become a middle chapter of my doctoral creative project. The short story has been published in Scarlet Stiletto – The Second Cut, available in ebook.

So there you have it – my doctoral creative project sprung to life like a mythological character, plucked from the centre of my Masters research, a hybrid from the start. A direct result of my academic research. Which part of the hybrid dominated?

A metaphor for academic research if ever I heard one.

Academic Study, creative writing, Doctoral misery, horror, science fiction, Splice the Movie, The Island Of Doctor Moreau

The Horror, the horror: When your research gives you nightmares

IMG_3386

I don’t want to analyze my nightmares as they can be so horrible. No surprise, really, considering the steady diet of horror fiction I am consuming. Then again, at least I can take comfort in the thought that the bleakness I envelop myself in isn’t real – yet.

That’s the thing about science fiction and horror. It’s as damn well close to real as the long shadows of the past lapping at our memories, or stark reminders of the suffering all around us.

I have just written a blog “The lust that dare not speak its name” for the website Online Opinion about the German parliament’s decision to criminalize “using an animal for personal sexual activities” and to punish offenders with fines up to $34,000. My research took me into Zoophilia’s surprisingly long history and cultural representation – especially in science fiction. This is quite confronting.

Studying the past, and its particularly horrific events, can give doctoral students nightmares. An author told me that spending years working on a doctoral dissertation of WG Sebald’s Austerlitz (described as “a dreamlike meditation on memory and the Holocaust” ) wasn’t the best thing he could have done for his mental health. It made him depressed. In fact, if he had his time again, he’d choose something else. Maybe comedy.

No one who has studied Austerlitz comes away unchanged.  It tells the story of a Jewish man sent to England as a child through the Kindertransporte in 1939. In war, so much is lost, erased, forgotten, displaced. Of course, it’s not a happy book.

Examining the near future can be equally as bleak, at least if you take my extensive SF DVD and fiction collection as a starting point. It’s dystopia all the way. Even Danny Boyle’s SF movie Sunshine, while offering a ray of hope for the planet’s future, comes at the price of sacrifice. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

A case in point is Kazuo Ishiguro’s book Never Let Me Go. Here there is no such thing as a free life. The clones – humans born and raised to be live organ donors – accept their fate. They must die so that others may live. They have no agency, and as the story unfolds, the reader sees their entire lives are based on the lies they have been fed to keep them pliable and acquiescent.

The clones are human “monsters” created by science (despite the fact that it is society that is the collective monster in breeding clones for this unspeakable fate). The clones are a reverse version if you like of Frankenstein’s creature; a constructed living body that will be carved up until death. The creature was brought to life from the scraps of flesh from charnel houses; it’s to the mortuary the clones will go when they “complete”. This is Ishiguro’s chilling euphemism for giving everything to the greater power.

The one very liberating thing about studying the human-animal hybrid’s lifecycle is that this monster really does like to take its revenge. There is no clone acceptance of destiny for the snake woman of Jennifer Lynch’s incredible 2009 horror film Hisss 

Ditto the biotech monster Dren’s act of defiance in killing her father and raping her mother after she changes gender at the end of the 2009 movie Splice

Even Edward Prendick had to escape from HG Wells’ The Island Of Doctor Moreau, “for fear of the Beast Monsters”.

In some ways, it’s hard not to cheer the hybrid on, because they are treated so badly. Ever since Frankenstein’s creature was run out of town by the peasants unable to accept his abject monstrosity the hybrid in science fiction has been reviled and hunted.

It’s hard not to get caught up in the agony of the monster’s journey. And that’s what makes the research difficult. I discovered there’s a good reason I feel this way, and why my supervisor felt so depressed at the end of his marathon run. It’s also why people have been blogging about how depressed they feel after watching the movie Les Misérables.

There is actually a good reason for this misery – with Les Mis and the monsters I have been studying. In “Becoming a Vampire Without Being Bitten: The Narrative Collective Assimilation Hypothesis”, published in the 2011 journal Psychological Science, authors Shira Gabriel, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo,, and Ariana Young, a UB graduate student working in the field of social psychology, found that by absorbing narratives, we can psychologically become a member of the group of characters described therein, a process that makes us feel connected to those characters and their social world.

Too bad if that world is one horrible, dystopian cesspit.

Narratives help us learn life lessons we couldn’t possibly acquire from experience. Hence the importance of story-telling in cultures. Yet while there is hope and humor in Dr Who and Star Trek, the same can’t be said for the books and films I am studying. Nothing, except the oblivion of death, awaits the hybrid.  For these scientifically created human monsters, it’s a short, brutal time filled with alienation, pain and misery. A bit like sitting through nearly three hours of Les Mis.

Sometimes, carrying around a fictional character’s pain and isolation is too much. That’s why I am becoming a bit concerned about my teenage son’s interest in my DVD collection

As part of my doctoral research, I have acquired a vast research library that he finds fascinating – as do his mates. He’s very popular when friends come for a sleep over. A tentative knock on my study door as I am writing away on a Saturday night will reveal a group of boys and the question, “Mum, can we borrow some of your research material?”

For, as well as the usual amount of books, photocopied parts of books, downloaded journal papers and print outs from every draft of my research, I have a vast selection of truly horrible, compelling, horror and science fiction films.

Research can be lonely, so it’s nice to get feedback from my avid teen audience. “That Japanese version of The Eye –  where the woman gets the transplanted eyes of a murder victim – it’s just – OMG! Revolting. I mean, really revolting.”

Or “My mate says that The Fly is the most disgusting film he’s seen, especially where the scientist totally likes turns into a fly and his jaw drops off and he like puts all the bits of himself that are still human into jars into the bathroom cabinet…”

I have yet to receive angry calls from parents about corrupting their children with Gothic horror, but I am waiting (I don’t allow them to watch my R rated horror). I can at least say I have fostered the idea that academia is really cool. Whether university will live up to expectations is another matter.

I guess that depends on whether they can come up with some hottie research topic of their own.