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It's complicated: Exploring identity and belonging through filmmaking

Kai Allen Blakley with camera 
Kai Allen Blakley, MFA student

The Office of International Relations funds Northwestern MFA in Documentary Media students to engage in filmmaking projects abroad.

Growing up in a military family, and later enlisting in the U.S. Army himself, Kai Allen Blakley has spent the majority of his life on the move.

Such transitory experiences have formed Blakley’s understanding of memory as connected to physical space. Now a student in Northwestern’s MFA in Documentary Media program, Blakley is utilizing documentary filmmaking to explore how individuals attach memories to physical spaces, and what happens to identity and memory once that space is destroyed or repurposed.

Blakley’s film is centered on Schweinfurt, Germany. During World War II, Schweinfurt was an important manufacturing center for the Third Reich, with symbols of the Nazi era still emblazoned on the architecture today. After the war, the city became host to U.S. Army Garrison Schweinfurt, a military base for service members and their dependents. Blakley knows the area intimately; from late 2010 to early 2013, he was stationed in Schweinfurt for 15 months between deployments to Afghanistan.

In 2014, the U.S. Army pulled out of Schweinfurt as part of its strategy to concentrate American military presence in the country. The base has since been repurposed into a refugee reception center that houses only a fraction of the thousands of asylum-seekers currently in Germany.

For two weeks this past summer, the German government granted Blakley access to the center’s buildings, staff, and residents, allowing him to gain an in-depth understanding of the complications that arise in housing asylum seekers in a confined space. 

Blakley noted many differences between his own experience at the facility in Schweinfurt and the experiences of those who are currently working and living there. An area that used to house a Taco Bell and a barbershop, both frequented by Blakley, is now a detention area, where refugees are put when in trouble. “I was actually surprised by how quickly my memory was able to replace the images I held of the base at Schweinfurt with what it is now. Being so fully invested in the film, nostalgia kind of took a back seat,” he says.

The center mostly houses individuals and families from Algeria, Armenia, Ivory Coast, and Somalia, whose reasons for and paths to migration are extremely varied. In interviewing the staff, as well as the refugees themselves, Blakley learned that some individuals sought access to healthcare, while others fled violence and political persecution. Whatever the reason, each refugee faced the same long and arduous immigration process at Schweinfurt.

“With the access I was given, I decided to take on more of a journalistic role than I had anticipated so that I could better understand what was happening within the center,” says Blakley. “Overall, the state of limbo the refugees were in felt very similar to my own experience at the base while active duty … just waiting, you know?”

In an effort to weave together a narrative highlighting the various populations Schweinfurt has hosted over the years, Blakley will feature a number of voices within his film in addition to what he had shot this summer. For example, Blakley has incorporated archival footage of U.S. Army Garrison Schweinfurt in 1990 and 1991, capturing the base through the eyes of an American soldier. Desiring an intimate perspective from those living there now, Blakley also gave his personal camcorder to refugees, who shot footage for him.

With such a vast amount of footage, Blakley is looking forward to spending the next year editing the film. Blakley says this project taught him about the complications of documentary filmmaking, particularly in negotiating the ethical obligations of properly representing the number of subjects involved in the story, while also finding his own voice as a filmmaker.

“I had to be very cautious every time I turned on my camera — where it was pointed and who it was pointed at,” says Blakley. “This project is a crash course in ethics and will be for the next year. I am looking forward to workshopping my film with others in my program, and having conversations about the film to see what is and isn’t working.”

Supporting Filmmaking Abroad

Blakley remarks that completing a project abroad can be a costly and risky endeavor. He argues, however, that this is where one can truly grow as a filmmaker.

“I think it is a positive and an eye-opening experience when you travel somewhere else,” says Blakley. “Working in a different environment, with difficult subject matter, has helped strengthen my skills as a filmmaker.”

Committed to providing transformative experiences for its students, Northwestern offers a number of study, research, and work opportunities abroad. For J.P. Sniadecki, assistant professor of radio/television/film, global engagement can be a powerful pedagogical and political tool.

“As filmmakers working overseas, these talented students are creating a transcultural dialogue not only with the people and cultures with which they are collaborating, but also by sharing this experience with others, whether they be audiences at international film festivals and conferences, or with members of the Northwestern community. And it is likely an understatement to say that this dialogue - and greater understanding across cultures in general - is needed now more than ever,” says Sniadecki.

“There is tremendous value in pursuing international documentary media projects, and our Office of International Relations is filling an important need on Northwestern's campus by offering support for innovative global research and practice that operates through the transformative power of art. Through engaging globally, students such as Kai, Elodie, and Chad can gain a greater sensitivity to the world and its inspiring diversity, ” he adds.

Supporting increased access to international opportunities, the Office of International Relations awarded grants to Blakley, as well as Chad Wallin and Elodie Edjang-Mengueme, two other aspiring documentary filmmakers in Northwestern’s MFA program. Wallin’s film Elmina took him to Ghana, where he explores how a castle once used during the West African slave trade is now a repurposed social space for the local community.

Edjang-Mengueme’s film, Green Card Lottery, is a personal documentary that follows her mother, a green card lottery winner, and Edjang-Mengueme’s boyfriend who is actively attempting to migrate to the U.S. through a similar program. Edjang-Mengueme traveled to Yaoundé, Cameroon, where her family is originally from, to film her mother while revisiting pivotal moments of her childhood, capturing a glimpse into one portion of her immigration story.

“This grant gave me an opportunity to explore outside of the Unites States. If we are committed to tell international stories, our program allows that,” says Edjang-Mengueme. “Through my work, I want viewers to see the different paths people take to immigrate. I want to remind people that the concept of home is very complex and means different things to different people.”

These students — through exploring the complex concepts of identity and belonging — are fulfilling the program’s ultimate goal: to tell stories that matter.

"I was deeply affected by this experience. While there I came to recognize that I, like the barracks, had been altered by the years since I left the military service and the city of Schweinfurt,” says Blakley. “Returning to this space as a filmmaker has clarified how I understand my past and exposed me to the realities faced by the refugees I encountered, leaving me more confident to continue creating documentary films influenced by my own experiences."

Learn more about Northwestern University's MFA in Documentary Media.