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Rodrigo Dorfman Behind the Lens: Rodrigo Dorfman

Rodrigo Dorfman is an award-winning writer, freelance photographer, filmmaker, and multimedia journalist/web designer. His work mixes the immediacy of journalism and performance art with in-depth ethnographic fieldwork and flash technology in order to create multimedia documentary environments. For the past ten years he has been collaborating with his father, Ariel Dorfman, on screenplays, notably for the BBC, HBO and experimental plays for the international stage.

POV: In your work, you consider the notion of "borders." What is a border to you?

Rodrigo Dorfman: Ever since I left Chile in 1973 as a child of exile, I've been crossing borders — every conceivable type of cultural, geo/political and religious border. By the time I was living in Amsterdam, at age twelve, I was speaking French in school (I received a French education all through exile), street Dutch with my neighborhood friends and my mother tongue of Spanish at home. As a child, I had the opportunity to reinvent myself a thousand times over, inhabiting the suave designer shoes of a tasty little Frenchman, perhaps taking on the rosy cheeks of a Dutch boy full of milk or masquerading as the naive and exuberant all-American kid with a football and a twang. You name it, I could have been that — and I probably was.

This exhilarating multidimensional experience of being many identities at once created in me a deep desire to challenge all the clearly defined forms apparent in documentary work. Can I document a community from within that community? Can I be both inside and outside? Can I film a funny scene and laugh inside so I don't shake the camera? Can I let my emotions run wild and still preserve the necessary distance to "get the footage"? Or am I ready to put down the camera, join in and to hell with the footage? What is my responsibility as a filmmaker? As a human being?

These are the kinds of questions and borders I come up against in the thick of work. But, in some strange way, even questions about breaking down borders can limit your perception. And then the best thing to do is to get caught up for a while in the beautiful, dynamic energy contained in the diagonal composition offered by a letter-boxed frame!

POV: What borders did you encounter while working on your pieces?

Dorfman: I encountered two kinds of borders during this project. The first one is experiential and it comes about when I have to film my father (or anyone I'm very close to). The process can get very personal and then sometimes I have to put the camera down during moments when someone else (with more distance) might have kept on filming. And that's the challenge I've set up for myself, isn't it? In order to get the footage, I have to play the role of the objective observer. But the reason I'm allowed to film is precisely because I'm not an objective observer. This situation forces me to be two people at once during the filming. I don't know if I was able to straddle both sides of the border — but just thinking about it — makes me grow taller.

The other border is a bit more conceptual. Here we were trying to give form to the shadow of three already highly complex elements of the American identity: innocence, patriotism and security. And to go a step further, the challenge was to explore these elements from the point of view of Ariel's incredibly non-linear life story; a story where language and historical ironies intersect like honeybees on a fat juicy flower. We were coming up against the border that apparently divides idiosyncrasy from a collective experience and having a hard time collecting any honey. It was only when we began to envision this relationship as a quest that the narrative began to make sense. The reason it works is because the quest is in itself a traditional narrative structure. The reasoning is that complex ideas need simple traditional narratives to ground them. Of course, once that border has been established — we happily jump it.

POV: What is possible when innovative approaches to narrative and interactivity are combined? How is your piece different from traditional storytelling?

Dorfman: Multimedia, I believe, offers the best possible narrative strategy for someone like me who is interested in breaking down — not just the interpersonal borders that exist between filmmaker and "subject" — but also the narrative constraints of linear time-based story telling. There are many ways to tell a story. And multimedia allows the complexities of a fragmented life to be told in its fullest form.

I am in search of the ultimate multimedia interactive experience. It's a format I would almost characterize as a holistic experience, actually. This search demands that each medium capture the element of the story best suited for that specific medium.

And so, in my work, I'm always thinking, is this video material? Or would a photograph better serve the moment? Or what about text? Should I put the camera down and write down small details of the scene that will be crucial later. Thanks to the wonders of auto-focus, I've been able to both film and do stills at the same time. But, sometimes I feel like one of those one man-band traveling shows - and often, because I can't decide what format I want - I miss the shot. Actually, I try to tell stories in a traditional narrative manner. The experimentation comes from the juxtaposition of the various 'traditional" stories in one simple rectangular frame that allows the online viewer to find a sense of unity among the narrative fragments he or she experiences. The key is to give the viewer a sense of unity and continuity inside the experience of a non-linear interactive story.

POV: Expand our borders. What's a book, movie, piece of music, website, etc. that challenges or engages with the idea of "borders'" that we should know about but perhaps don't?

Dorfman: My first feature-length online multimedia documentary (it takes more than 50 minutes to absorb — that's my definition) came out of three years of intermittent travels with the Gnawa, a small sub-cultural group of mystical musician healers from Morocco who practice a mixture of Islam and African shamanism. Many of them are the descendent of the African slaves brought into Morocco after the fall of Timbuktu. In the past decade, the Gnawa have undergone a dramatic transition as western world music lovers have discovered their music. And so the Gnawa are moving fast from being part of a poor marginalized sub-culture to becoming "official" representatives of Moroccan culture. They travel; they have cell phones and status. In one of the stories I tell, a Master Musician, after seeing his rotten teeth flash on German TV during a televised concert, decides to get a new set of dentures. He has them glued to his gums because he is afraid of losing them in a hotel like one of his friends recently did!

Gnawa Stories tells many stories across a wide spectrum of this cultural group: young musicians trying to escape the slums of Casablanca, painters breaking down the barriers of the art world, fake Gnawas pretending to be "authentic" in order to make a fast buck, illegal immigrant Gnawas in New York trying to break into the music business and the many adventures of a musical group traveling through Italy while adjusting to the rigors of being "professional musicians". One fundamental current carries all these stories: how do the Gnawa negotiate between their commitment to connect with their traditions while adapting to a new global age? You can visit at www.gnawastories.com.

POV: What are you working on next? Where can we see more of your work?

Dorfman: I just recently bought the Panasonic AGDVX100B and so now I'm the middle of filming a documentary on American Sufism (the mystical wing of Islam), working on creating a multimedia website for the newly formed Duke Islamic Studies Center and documenting the rise of the "Self-Help Credit Union" in Durham, NC — the most successful Latino credit union in the USA. You can see more of my multimedia work at my website www.melloweb.com