Drive to School is a short film created by Dr Charlie Rumsby, Lecturer in Childhood & Youth at Sussex University and Visiting Research Fellow in Anthropology at LSE. A recipient of the Digital Impact Award from ASEAS, Dr Rumsby sat down with us to talk about Drive to School ahead of its exclusive online screening on Thursday 29th June (you can register here)
- Could you please tell us a little about your new short film, “Drive to School”?
Drive to School is a short film that documents the motivations of young Christian missionaries, Charles and Ai who are striving to bring education and hope to Cambodia’s stateless children. Moved by witnessing the vulnerability to entering prostitution faced by these children as they seek to make ends meet, they attempt to offer alternative routes to learning and employment, though not without challenges along the way.
- Please tell us about the process of filming it—how did you decide that the story of Charles and Ai was what you wanted to focus on, and what was it like to film a documentary in the field?
Whilst my doctoral research considered modes of identity and belonging among stateless children in Cambodia, my post-doctoral research focused on those who provide education to these marginalised children. I met Ai for the first time in 2013 just before embarking on my master’s degree at Goldsmiths, University of London. Before meeting Ai, I had ideas to research the sex trade in Thailand. I knew little about Cambodia or its history. My only reference point was a film I was invited to see the début of a couple of years earlier called Holly.
Holly tells the story of a 12-year-old Vietnamese girl sold into slavery in Cambodia by her impoverished family and the American expat who tries to save her from a life of sexual enslavement. Shot on location, the film grittily depicts the despair and horror the sex industry inflicts on its young victims. The summer before beginning my master’s degree I was travelling in Cambodia and a friend suggested I meet with Ai, who drove into Phnom Penh to tell me about the communities she worked with – which were living examples of the stories of the children represented in the film Holly. Children within these communities had historically been sold into prostitution, spurring Ai’s decision to open a Christian school offering free elementary education to the affected communities.
After that meeting, I decided to return to Cambodia to spend a month in the community in which Ai worked as the principal of what was known locally as the God School. My objective was to conduct a scoping study as part of my MA thesis on whether the God School, an NGO which works directly with a vulnerable community of children, can build a culture of aspiration as defined by Arjun Appadurai (2004). This period of research also revealed that many ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia are without valid citizenship papers and do not qualify for any government assistance. They are denied basic rights such as education, decent wages and political legitimacy, leaving them on the margins of Cambodian society (Brown, 2007). So, whilst my MA research journey began following a lead that looked into the aspirations of children who were vulnerable to prostitution. What emerged was an awareness of the risk of inter-generational statelessness among the Vietnamese community. Accordingly, I decided to focus my doctoral research on the understudied everyday lived realities of de facto stateless children.
Image: Courtesy Charlie Rumsby. Illustrator: Ben Thomas
During the early days of my doctoral research, I lived with Ai in one of the most impoverished and crime saturated areas that bordered the village of the God School. Over time, I transitioned to live with the rest of the teachers at the God School on the main campus. I ate my three daily meals with the teachers, attended their early morning prayer meetings, listened to their late-night conversations, and gained an insight into the motivations of the teachers who were led by Ai, who mid-way through the research period married Charles. After my doctoral research was completed, I was keen to go back to Cambodia and make a short ethno-documentary that focused on Charles and Ai’s drive to offer education to these children. I had been invited to witness their labour, but I had not documented it in a way that enabled them to be the orators of that story.
I was drawn to the story of Charles and Ai because of their sacrificial lifestyle choices. They had had two of their own children in the area that they lived in and, enthused by the Christian mandate to serve the poor, they had committed themselves to live in and among the communities they worked with. Their overarching goal was to provide opportunities to children so that they in turn could have access to knowledge and safely generate income for their families. I saw their passion for the children they aided, and they challenged many of the stereotypes of Christian missionaries that I had encountered. For instance, I did not detect a rice bowl Christianity in their service. Whilst the education delivered had Christian overtones, conversion was not a prerequisite to access and many people did not adopt Christianity as a religion.
Filming in the field was an interesting experience. The budget that Pip Cree (the maker that I collaborated with) and I had was tiny and we had only three days to gather the footage. We entered the process without a script. I had a loose plan of some key I shots I knew I wanted, but I also wanted filming to be as organic and observational as possible. As we filmed at the end of the school term, Charles and Ai were both very busy planning the preparation of the graduation day which took place on the last day of filming. During research, the timetable of those we work with dictate the pace and possibilities of the data we collect. I knew Charles and Ai were going to make that car journey to school as part of their daily rhythm. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to talk to them without interrupting their schedule too much. Moreover, driving to school is an experience that I felt most people could connect to. It added a sense of normalcy to the narrative. We shot the drive in one take, and it then became the overarching container for the film. The direction I gave to Pip was that I wanted the film to feel like an authentic conversation, one that followed the unforced flow of responding to things being said. Aside from the first question that I had planned to ask, the proceeding questions were devised in the moment.
I wanted the film to represent an ethnographic encounter. To that end, we used the camera to observe the daily activities of the school, highlighting the curriculum and subject choices available to children. This material then became the visual cues that complimented Charles and Ai’s narrative. In the editing process, we decided to change the aspect ratio of the scenes that took place outside of the school bus, to give the audience a sense of stepping out into the school but also to foreground the protagonists as the story tellers.
Whilst Charles and Ai were the primary characters I was keen to capture another story, that of Cô Thanh. Cô Thanh, a tailoring teacher at the school, had made a remarkable decision to give up her job and life, as she knew it in Vietnam, to move to Cambodia as a teacher. Following the theme of sacrifice, I knew I wanted to include her narrative and capture the essence of what motivated her to forgo a life of comfort and earning power to upskill the students at the God School.
As the film’s director I made the decision to include myself in the film, to remind the audience about the presence of the ethnographer and to avoid the appearance of neutral objectivity. The film presents what Faye Ginsburg calls a ‘relational frame’. That is one that has at its foundation a strong sense of accountability for the ethical/political relationships that accompanies the privilege of making films about other people’ s lives (Ginsburg, 2018, p. 42). Thus, the conversational style of the film could also be likened to an extended interview. This is also a political choice. It reveals, quite plainly, how data is delivered to the anthropologist. How the anthropologist responds, and what prompts they do or do not follow up. In that sense, research becomes something guided by the subjective leanings of the interviewer. All the questions I asked were also included in the final edit.
Photo supplied by Dr Rumsby
- How does this documentary relate to your broader research on Southeast Asia?
Cambodia has been the home of my research in Southeast Asia. Yet, the themes of this film highlight an issue that impacts children across the region. This film highlights the realities of living as a stateless person, something that will echo many experiences across the region. Especially the insecurities that living without documentation breeds. The film takes the vantage point of a service provider. This view will have resonance among those who seek to make a difference through offering provision or advocacy i.e., policy makers and practitioners who because of the red tape and political sensitivity of the subject have seldom got close to the communities.
- What is the relationship between this film (as a visual artefact) and other forms of your research (which are presumably more textual in nature)? What are your thoughts on what visual methods and representations can bring to academic research more broadly?
This is a great question! As a researcher who is committed to public scholarship the motivation to create a visual artefact, as opposed to one that is more textual in nature, is to primarily take data as far as possible when it comes to dissemination and accessibility. To date, my creative process has been to first complete ethnographic research, write it, and then ask the question how I can take this forward? For instance, I first captured Charles and Ai’s story in my doctoral thesis, and then considered how to retrospectively tell the story using the visual. Echoing Roxanne Varzi, I treat ethnography as an evolving and artistic practice. As an anthropologist I seek to respond to the materiality of the ethnographic and the direction it takes me; in terms of multimodal research practices and multimodal communications. Consequently, I have invested in (with the help of funding from the Association of Southeast Asian Studies UK) extending the reach of my ethnographic work by communicating via different mediums.
Multimodal anthropology presents an opportunity to traverse narrow disciplinary boundaries. Participation with interlocutors in the processes of meaning making becomes central, as does collaborative practices to make knowledge public. To read an academic text on the topic of statelessness requires a certain level of training. For those in the academy with access to such resources (and libraries) I hope my work will inspire an understanding of how statelessness is experienced day-to-day. For those outside the academy, I believe telling stories in a way that does not involve a textual encounter can engage, inform, and encourage debate in a digestible way. I have screened the film twice, most recently in March 2023. At the end of the screening, I asked the audience, largely made up of members of the public with little to no understanding of the issues of statelessness, their opinion of the film. Respondents said they felt they could connect with the mode of storytelling, that they felt informed, and that the film had inspired them to take political action. Excitingly, the discussion that has followed the film has also been a safe space for questions to be raised, for myself to remain accountable, and for networks to be forged that are active and responsive to research findings.
- What are some of your reflections on collaborating with others beyond anthropology? How has this benefited your practice? Conversely, did you also feel like there were any frictions or practical issues that had to be resolved in the pursuit of collaboration?
Multimodality is not just working across different media, it also invests in collaboration and engagement. Thus, the often-interdisciplinary nature of multimodal projects enhances the reach of research. Collaboration serves to acknowledge that different forms of communication are required to speak to different audiences. These different forms require a broader set of skills.
For my practice, collaboration has been a helpful aid in storytelling. Working with others to translate ethnography beyond the realm of text heavy accounts has opened new possibilities when considering how I can give data back to participants, and the impact creating a visual artefact can have. The film’s narrative oscillates between the feeling of joy, purpose, and agency within the space of the God School with the impinging reality of statelessness and the intense insecurity it creates, which is highlighted by the community’s eviction. On the latter point, when shooting the floating villages without knowing it, we serendipitously created an archive of the community’s infrastructure that no longer exists and have captured in the post script the politics of eviction. Collaboration has enabled me to highlight modes of exploitation and oppression from the vantage point of those that seek to help.
Whilst collaboration invites ideas, it provides challenges too. There is a balance to be maintained between being the overseer and director of what is being produced and being open to aesthetic ideas. The challenge comes if there is a difference of opinion on these matters. I would say that working with people you know and trust cannot be understated. It is the bedrock of any successful collaboration. This has motivated me to choose to work with friends, who are established in working in creative environments and in teams. Ensuring that terms and conditions are agreed before beginning a joint project is a fundamental principal that cannot be bypassed.
Photo by Humphrey Muleba on Unsplash
- Can you tell us more about your concept of retrospective (re)presentation and what inspired this conceptualisation?
As a means of anthropological knowledge production, the multimodal can build bridges connecting the insights of anthropological knowledge with the concerns of non-specialists. Multimodal anthropology offers (English language anthropology) an opportunity to break out of the old wine skin of speaking largely to other anthropologists and to enter the public sphere. ‘Retrospective (re)presentation’: using the visual to offer alternative modes of (re)presentation to the written ethnographic text (Rumsby, 2020), conceptualises my multimodal practice. It is about ensuring communities receive their data in ways that they can process, and that requests made by participants to make research widely known are honoured. Multimodal anthropology unsettles disciplinary boundaries and provides an entry point into debates from different angles, whether that be text, film, drawing, theatre, photography etc. The unsettling of boundaries offers an opportunity for the anthropologist to engage publicly in meaningful, impactful ways. Retrospective (re)presentation respects the written ethnographic text and takes inspiration from it. It elevates the idea that ethnography has a life beyond the text, and that the visual can offer new forms of depiction, and in my case collaboration.
- What advice can you offer researchers interested in alternative methods?
The advice I would give is threefold. First, you are not limited by your own skill set. The great thing about a partnership is that you can lean into other people’s skills. This broadens the scope and potential of data collection and dissemination. Second, be comfortable with interdisciplinarity. Read around anthropology, take time to investigate the digital humanities, visual sociology and multimodal representations of research. Get inspired! Third, get advice from good mentors. Reach out to those whose work you admire, ask them questions. Most people are happy to share their experiences. Often, it is the case that those people who you reach out to have at one time or another reached out to someone for guidance. They understand the principle of paying it forward. Try not to be shy! Send that email.
- Do you have any final thoughts on what applied research means to you?
This is what inspired me to be trained in an applied research centre during my doctoral studies (Coventry University’s Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations). I entered academia after a career as a public health researcher and policy maker, so my work has always been framed by the belief that the knowledge and understanding researchers generate is what the world needs. I am happy to now work as a lecturer in Sussex University’s School of Education and Social Work. It is a place that embodies the values of applied research. Multimodal anthropology is particularly effective for using our research to cast a vision of an alternative future (Salazar et al., 2017) one where communities and their cultures are understood, structural inequalities are challenged, and society can flourish. Applied research encapsulates that vision.
ASEAS thanks Dr Charlie Rumsby for taking the time to speak with us and Kellynn Wee for conducting the interview
Appadurai, A. (2004) ‘The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the Terms of Recognition’, in Rao, V. and Walton, M. (eds) Culture and Public Action. Palo Alto, California: Stanford University Press., pp. 59–84.
Brown, E. (2007) The Ties that Bind: Migration and Trafficking of Women and Girls for Sexual Exploitation in Cambodia. International Organisation for Migration. Phnom Pehn.
Ginsburg, F. (2018) ‘Decolonizing documentary on-screen and off: Sensory ethnography and the aesthetics of account ability’, Film Quarterly, 72(1), pp. 39–49. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/fq.2018.72.1.39.
Rumsby, C. (2020) ‘Retrospective (re)presentation: turning the written ethnographic text into an “ethno-graphic” | entanglements’, Entanglements, 3(2), pp. 7–27. Available at: https://entanglementsjournal.org/retrospective-representation-turning-the-written-ethnographic-text-into-an-ethno-graphic/ (Accessed: 22 April 2021).
Salazar, J. F. et al. (2017) Anthropologies and Futures : Researching Emerging and Uncertain Worlds, Anthropologies and Futures : Researching Emerging and Uncertain Worlds. doi: 10.5040/9781474264914.