“Jan Haaken is professor emeritus of psychology at Portland State University, a clinical psychologist, and documentary filmmaker.
From refugee camps, shelters, war zones and mental hospitals to drag bars and hip-hop clubs, Jan Haaken’s documentary films focus on people and places on the social margins, drawing out their insights on the world around them. As a psychologist and documentarian, Haaken weaves research and historical analyses into rich and vividly drawn landscapes that represent the perspectives of her subjects. Through the lens of psychology, she takes intimate conversations with people in crisis into wider social vistas, bringing forces on the periphery of the action into focus.”
Tara Miller: You have a background in nursing, clinical psychology and in education—what drew you to documentary film initially?
Jan Haaken: Well there were two paths going into this form of work, which is now my major work. One was through my field research. I was doing field research in West Africa in 1998, going to refugee camps on the border of Sierra Leone towards the close of the civil war. I was interested in the perspectives of women who had fled the fighting in the Sierra Leonean civil war and I felt like a camera would more vividly capture the ways women were communicating about the war. I also was interested in disrupting a lot of the visual representations of the war that had cast women, and Africans in general, as tragic victims who were faceless and voiceless and mowed under by the forces of history. When really, in the refugee camp there is a lot going on—people get up, they cook their meals, they take care of their kids, they have sex. I thought the camera could capture better some of the ethnographic and lived experience of a refugee camp.
My work over the past three decades or so, as a researcher and documentarian, centers on the psychology of storytelling. In pursuing this path into documentary filmmaking, I became very interested in how you construct a story that exceeds the accounts of the participants, but preserves the integrity of each of their individual stories. This has been an ethic that has guided all my projects--to cast people as complex agents in circumstances not of their own making but nonetheless as active agents in a world that they inhabit. To draw out their active agency while but acknowledging that they are subject to forces beyond their control, some of which are oppressive.
There is always a system on the periphery of the worlds of my subjects that constrains them and that implicates all of us in their suffering.
TM: What was the other route that led you to focus on documentary as your primary work?
JH: The other route was through my activist interest in films and popular culture as a medium for how we think about the production of ideology. I am interested in what’s called reception theory—and specifically how people understand and interpret images through film culture. For years I taught a course on psychoanalysis, gender, and film theory that was a way of bringing students into an appreciation for psychoanalysis as a tradition in film criticism.
Very few students knew about the rich tradition of psychoanalytic feminist film criticism and how you could take a set of ideas in psychology and look at culture and the production of culture, and particularly moving images.
One year, some of my students were working with the idea of gender as performativity. We went down to Darcelle’s, a famous Portland drag club, and were interested in that space as a case study for approaching psychoanalytic feminism to gender performance. There were debates at the time around whether drag mocked women, whether it took up this idea that you had to really be a man to be a woman, and what it means to be gay. A lot of gay people thought it was a parody—that it was homophobic at its heart and that Darcelle was a buffoon.
So there were big debates then about drag and I became very interested in that controversy—of different ways of being queer, different meanings of cross-dressing, and also then turning the camera on the audience. Rather than the question of why do these men wear dresses, we pursued the question of why do people come and what is the nature of the pleasure produced at the club? This led to the film Queens of Heart: Community Therapists in Drag.
That project got me thinking about documentary film in a more serious way and particularly thinking about gender as a performance and how to capture that dynamic cultural activity on film. So that was how my work came to be guided on the theory side by psychoanalytic film theory and psychoanalytic cultural studies.
TM: The bio on your website says of your work: “from refugee camps, war zones, domestic violence shelters and asylums to drag bars and hip hop clubs, Haaken’s projects focus on people who inhabit the border zones of society and their insights on the broader social order.” What draws you to these border zones? How is the documentary film medium uniquely equipped to tell these stories? Are there ways in which this medium makes those types of stories challenging to tell?
JH: I’ve always been critical of conventional representations of poor people, of people in crisis. They are usually cast through one of two stereotypes, both of which reduce the complexity and humanity of people. One is highly degraded, where people are in a state of abject wantonness and degradation, where violence has destroyed any semblance of humanity. When actually, people are still living in many of these conflict zones. But this stereotype can relieve Westerners of responsibility because they think everybody and everything is destroyed, a kind of apocalyptic vision, and therefore they can ignore it.
On the other hand, there is the project uplift, a romanticized picture of oppressed people, used often by feminist NGOs. A valiant story of survivors, the preferred survivor story. It’s often a very virtuous woman who has no part in the evil doings around her—who remains a moral virgin.
And both are oppressive in different ways. I've always been interested in ethnographic projects that draw out the complexity of subjects and their circumstances and move away from a moral innocence that often is the ticket women, especially, pay for admission to mainstream cultuas victims. The camera lends itself more to that complexity than a tape recorder or writing field notes.
But it's also tricky because a picture can seem to substitute for a thousand words and of course it can be very manipulative, and seductively so, because people feel they are seeing right into a world, that they have direct access. Whereas, when you see charts and graphs, data plotted in a standard way of rendering findings, people know there is a researcher who is manipulating data.
Working with these methods is a mixed bag, where there is a fuller representation of subjects but you are still making all kinds of choices about what you include, how you put it together, and so forth.
TM: The ethics of storytelling is so important. How to navigate the ethics of recording stories and having interviews and then having to construct a narrative and tell a story around it.
JH: Yeah, which then exceeds what the participants often intend themselves.
TM: How do you navigate those ethical questions? Do you have a standardized process, or are there aspects of your process when you're creating these films that you make sure to include from the beginning?
JH: I've been interested in ethics and different modes of inquiry for all of my career. I think if you come into academia as a leftist or feminist or a political person, these are always central because of course, your aim is, like your website, to be attuned to how oppressed people have been very injured by the dominant ideology. And without intending to cause harm to people and mow them down, you can end up doing just that.
But I think you can also pull back too much from really grappling with dilemma. When I taught documentary methods or field research methods, some of my students would say, “I come with no biases or assumptions, I just want you to have a voice, I want to give a voice to the voiceless.” I think that's really patronizing and I also think it's not true. You always come into a project with both conscious and unconscious dynamics that motivate it. And why should someone take time out of their busy day to talk to you if you don't bring them something that interests them?
So I always come with a question that makes people want to spend time with me --- a question that really guides the project in a serious way. With the films I've done around gender and war, a lot of my foot-in-the-door questions have to do with why women have to be morally innocent of all of the villainy of the world, in order to be heard. Why do women have to meet such a high standard of virtue in order to be sympathetic victims?
For my most recent film, Milk Men, which is about dairy farmers, it was a question of why does the strategy for defending what they’re doing need to involve shutting out outsiders, which is rarely helpful? And why rely so much on commercial images of dairy farms if you expect the public to understand the real dilemmas of modern farmers? As long as you rely on these airbrushed commercials to present your work, somebody else is going to tell your story for you.
So I had to pitch this argument that it's not very useful to build higher fences, that there are risks and benefits to being more open about the serious problems of raising animals for food rather than trying to sanitize it.
My pitch to progressives around this project is that most of the social advocacy films about farming present this romantic fiction about the small family farm--which often has been very patriarchal and conservative. It’s important to defend small farms on many grounds, but it’s also important not to romanticize them. Often, traditions of gender relationships have been very narrow historically for women, so I was also interested in more of the lived experience of farm wives and some of the tensions in farm families, to get away from this narrative of saying the family farm is the heart and soul of America. And a lot of the farmers themselves resented being frozen in time in the nineteenth century, as American icons of a bygone era.
Sometimes the title of the documentary comes up as an issue—how could a feminist filmmaker make a film and title it Milk Men. It was somewhat inspired by Mad Men, which is a series that I love and is very much about women and gender, about an industry controlled by men. The Milk Men documentary is party about gender in a subtle way. Most of the owners and producers are men but women play very important roles behind the scenes, so I wanted to draw that out.
It also has the aim of looking at areas of farming as gendered activity. One of the themes is how the relationship between farmers and their cows is different from farmers’ relationships with other animals produced for food. It is a more intimate relationship but also these animals will be slaughtered for food at some point, so there is this double-sided relationship with the cows.
TM: One of projects you run, Subversive Storytelling, is “a website that creates space for critical reflection on the use of stories that challenge the status quo. Through respectful and creative dialogue we work to unpack socio-political and historical ethical questions that arise in documenting, analyzing, and consuming the stories and our aims is to rethink the role of storytelling in social movements particularly as they are deployed to persuade others to join efforts at social change.” Where did the idea for this blog project come from?
JH: I was visiting professor at London School of Economics in 2014 and a lot of my work there was with graduate students who were doing field research in a health psychology program and a lot of their research was in areas of Africa. They were gathering narratives as their primary field of data. These are all students who saw themselves as very committed activist academics but were struggling with the idea of what makes a good story in terms of the validity of the account and its truth-value. A number of them were doing projects around HIV work and the AIDS crisis and how communities were mobilizing around that problem and countering the tragic narrative of AIDS. Many working on this issue were becoming attuned to how the management of the AIDS crisis could create pariahs out of people and actually perpetuate a problem and reproduce it.
TM: Can you say a little bit more about that?
JH: One issue was assuming it was that many of the strategies and campaigns focused on unmarried people. The assumption was that the only people who could get the infection were single or young people. This made it more difficult for married women to make claims on their husbands to wear condoms because it assumed then that the only people who could get infected were single. There was also a tragic narrative that your life would be ruined forever that made it difficult to welcome people or include people who were HIV positive into the community.
After the first push for all of this education around safe sex, the film I did with my son and a group of hip hop activists called Moving to the Beat was an attempt to tell the story of sexually transmitted infections in a different way that was more integrating risky sex into sexual pleasure.
I think that was important for these LSE graduate students and where we came together. We were interested in questions about how you talk about risky sex, sex that could kill you -- images that are part of the consciousness of younger generation coming of age. But how can you talk about sex as resistance, and also not relinquish sex as an act of pleasure?
A lot of the NGOs that fund these international research projects also bring stories back to their donors for fundraising purposes. Students carrying out field research were talking about pressures on these NGOs to get stories that are authorized by donors. Some of the NGOs really sanitize sex and are very attached to abstinence campaigns. Many of the students are very aware of the politics of storytelling because a lot of their research is funded by these foundations.
I used the term “subversive storytelling” in some of my early work, including Hard Knocks. In the field research that led to this book, I was interested in storytelling strategies in the women’s movement around battering. How do you tell the story of domestic violence in a way that doesn't reproduce a narrative that it was just a woman’s poor misfortune that she became a battered wife? How do you go beyond the narratives that she is simply in need of being rescued by feminists and not a complicated character in her own story?
TM: Without agency.
JH: Yes, without any agency in her own story. I used this concept and developed it quite a bit in that work. So the LSE students set up a series of meetings on what it means to be involved in this project of subversive storytelling. How do activist academics sometimes revert to very conservative ways of telling a story in order to be heard? So after that year, three of us started the blog together.
It's still a work in progress but it was meant to break from the excess of virtue surrounding activist use of stories, where the most dramatic story of suffering is what carries the day. The belief that the most horrifying violation you can document is what carries the day.
The Subversive Storytelling project also grew out of an interest in not relying on conservative conventions, like the restoration of an earlier golden era of harmony, which is a trope that’s all over the place, including in activist uses of stories. And we wanted to to think more critically and analytically about how we tell stories, how we use them, how we mobilize support, and the cost of various narrative strategies.
TM: I know that there is nothing on your website yet about Being There, the recent film that you've been working on, but I are you able to talk a bit about that project?
JH: Oh yeah! There is still a decision with the University of Michigan team and the Kenya team about what to do with those films and what the next steps will be, but both are films about the work of abortion providers. Like my other films, they explore the struggles around navigating a contested area of work where the relationship between those who carry out the work and the broader public is an anxiety-laiden one.
In most areas of the world, not all, but perhaps most, abortion has been contested by significant parts of the public. The Michigan group had been doing research on abortion providers and their struggles and bringing providers together to have conversations about their work to counter the stigma of abortion. After doing this for many years they wanted to take it into the medium of film.
They also were interested in my emphasis on subversive storytelling. They wanted to tell not just a tragic narrative of the abortion provider or the tragic story of a woman seeking abortion, but people struggling with some of the tensions around their socially necessary labor and the people who depend on these abortion care providers but don’t acknowledge that dependency.
There is a theme in both the Kenya short film and the US one of the disavowed dependency of the medical community and the society on providers who offer abortion care. This is also a psychoanalytic idea that informs my projects—one guiding other people who work around oppression or anti-oppression activism—that the dominant group disavows its dependency on the oppressed group. It's like the work of United Farm Workers. Farm workers are people who grow our food, but we don't acknowledge how much we depend on them.
TM: Exactly, and then we don't want them here.
JH: And we don't want them here and yet…
TM: But we need them.
JH: We need them, we don't want them. There is a form of psychological defense operating here--what psychoanalysts call disavowal. It’s a refusal to see something even when it's before your eyes. So we were working with this idea that emerged from a lot of their research, where the same people in the community who would be morally, righteously offended by abortion would then take their daughter or wives to get an abortion. Or they would knowingly depend on this form of care and leave women at the door of the hospital to get the care but say, “we don't kill babies.”
TM: And even within the medical community right, so that one provider and one hospital or one clinic who refuses to provide abortions or acknowledge the need for abortion providers will then pass off a patient to the few that are willing.
JH: Yes, there is a morally righteous religious stance that is quite pious and yet these films expose the hollowness of that religious piety, of how women are put at risk by not helping them decide on their pregnancies.
I also didn't want to over-romanticize, to create images of providers as heroes necessarily, because a lot of them do this work for different reasons and you can over-idealize people. But they're remarkable in many ways, because they get so much shit from so many places and are seen as greedy when a lot of them schedule these procedures during their lunch hour, because the clinic won't acknowledge on their books that they are doing this work.
There are various ways they express these small everyday acts of kindness and I wanted to draw that out. It's not the big drama that is often the abortion story but the everydayness of it and in both of these countries. Seeing the films together is interesting because in many ways it's easier in Kenya than in the US. There are different forces operating in the two countries as well and some common ones.
TM: You touched on some ways in which particular types of feminism or feminists can be harmful to different marginalized groups, particularly women of color. Do you identify as a feminist and what does feminism mean to you?
JH: Oh yes. There are different traditions of feminism, though, and I see that as the strength of a movement, just as there are various traditions in the left. Any movement that's had an impact on history has differences. I think that the repression of difference in the portraits of feminism is itself an erasing of our complex history. When I became involved in the women’s movement in the 70s, there were radical feminists, cultural feminists, liberal feminists, Marxist, socialist feminists.
And part of what was problematic about what the tradition of Marxist and socialist feminism identified with was that it’s primary avenue was through academia. It drew on a lot of the intellectual traditions of feminism, so we were kind of egghead feminists (laughs). It didn't have this in-your-gut feeling of radical feminism. I started out as a radical feminist. Radical feminism is very driven by visceral gut reactions. It was very in your face, very visceral and ready to fight, which I always admired.
I think the socialist traditions of feminism rely very heavily on history, of understanding a mode of production and its complexity, understanding social class formations as they shape gender categories and the intersection of race, class, gender, queer identity. All of those questions still interest me. I think that most younger feminists haven’t embraced the rich complexity of the traditions they have inherited and the many ways of approaching feminism.
I am very interested in Black feminist theory and what Kimberle Crenshaw made famous around this idea of intersectionality of sexuality, gender, race, class, ethnicity. This was an important challenge to second-wave feminism in arguing that gender isn't a product of nature but is a complex product of history—and that culture is fluid, it's contested, and open to change because of that dynamic flux.
My feminism also has been shaped by psychoanalysis--through psychoanalytic feminism. So I'm deeply attached to feminism as a historical project that’s on going and I always welcome debates. Hilary Clinton, for example, is a feminist and she’s a liberal feminist and comes out of a tradition that doesn't question the fundamental structure of inequality of this country. I feel an alliance with her as a feminist. But her version of feminism still depends on the oppression of most women because it does not question the fundamentals of class and race as it is structurally organized, as a system of inequality.
You can follow Jan and her work at her website: https://jhaaken.com/ and Subervsive Storytelling project: subversivestorytelling.com