Students editing their video for the Fantasy Newscast at the Islamic Center of Southern California’s Muslim Youth Group in June, 2013. Photo by Karl Baumann.
In June of 2013 we ran a world-building workshop with the Muslim Youth Group at the Islamic Center of Southern California. This was the very first such workshop that we facilitated, collaborating with an existing community of young people and their mentors to imagine a fantastical world where anything is possible and then to tell stories within that world. Students worked in groups to flesh out discrete narratives under their shared world umbrella, and then to make short videos telling their stories in the style of a news segments so that they could all be collected and tied together as a Fantasy Newscast.
We went into the project thinking that we would present the idea of storytelling as a way to engage with the political issues facing the community. In our planning discussions with the group’s organizers, however, we learned that what the community needed even more was simply a space and structure that encouraged creative collaboration and play because as American Muslims, the young members of the group experienced a politicization of their identity all the time.
This information was something of a revelation for us. We had often found ourselves having to explain and justify the value of such wide open fantastical creativity within discussions of leadership, pedagogy and political participation. With this new perspective in mind, we ran a workshop where fantasy was encouraged and where students blew us away with their imaginations. Stories they came up with included knowledge spitting lions that could imbue you with wisdom via expectoration, cows on the moon, transformers, presidents, scientists and corporations dedicated to immersive media making. Students worked hard on their stories and on their video shoots and were excited to tie them all together and screen them together at the end of the weeklong experience. In the group discussion session that we had afterwards to reflect on the stories and the process, one story got extra attention from the group.
In this narrative, spun by a group of all girls that also happened to be amongst the youngest of the teams working together, babies inexplicably fell from the sky, were adopted by families, but then started to explode. The tone of the piece could only be described as absurdist, which was reflected in the exuberant humor of the young video makers at each stage of their production and post production. They worked efficiently and with great focus as a team, from the writing and shooting through the editing phase. We often think of video editing as a solitary process, but for the young people working together, each decision about what to cut and what to include was a productive moment for discussion and collaboration.
To represent the explosion caused by the mysterious sky born babies, the young women decided to use stock footage they found on YouTube of a hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific Ocean and it’s gigantic mushroom cloud. They could not have picked a more over the top visual image to include in their already extremely silly piece. They and most of their peers found it to be hilarious. But there was one young man of middle school age who had a problem with the image of the explosion and when encouraged to expand on his reservation about their piece he opened up and offered an insightful explanation.
He said that as a Muslim, he felt that any depiction of bombs and explosions was taboo. That despite the fact that it was just a joke, as the girls explained it, to him, it could not be funny. He explained that in his own school he had been called a ‘mad bomber’ because he was Muslim, and that if the girls who made the video had experienced something similar, they might not feel the same way about including this imagery. It was a loaded, somewhat tense discussion. But the vehicle for these reflections, the video series that they had all worked so hard to create and make together, provided a safe and productive lens through which to engage these issues. It was just as organizer Susu Attar had explained to us, that these young people's’ lived were already fraught with political complication and prejudice. This act of creative art making offered a way into a nuanced and difficult discussion about exactly this issue.
The experience was fun and educational for the young people and eye opening for us. It set us on a path to grow this idea, to take these workshops to other communities, and eventually to settle on the idea of civic imagination as central to all of our other efforts.