We’re Drinking the Tears of Our Ancestors:
Reflections on a music video as decolonising PhD practice towards water justice
Sarah Van Borek
Featured vocal by Zane Mbizo in 'Please Don't Blow It' (2021) music video
“We’re drinking the tears of our ancestors” (Van Borek, 2019). These are the words of Gregory Coyes, a filmmaker of Métis/Cree and European descent, who is based on the traditional territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) and səl̓ilwətaɁɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) currently known as Vancouver, Canada. These words emerged from Gregory as we were sharing a conversation reflecting on a university course I had co-developed and implemented at higher education institutions in Vancouver (2018 and 2019) and Cape Town, South Africa (2019), as part of my PhD in Environmental Education at Rhodes University. The course was intended to become a form of reconciliation practice between diverse peoples and ecosystems, with a focus on water justice.
Gregory and I had met in 2018 when I first piloted the curriculum at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver. Gregory had coined the term and developed the concept of the ‘Slow Media Community’, which he described as a community of filmmakers with a practice that centres on an “Indigenous sense of cinematic time and space” (Van Borek, 2019, p. 32). With this countercultural practice valuing sustainability called ‘Slow Media’ (Rauch, 2018, p. 5), contrary to traditional filmmaking practice which captures short, controlled clips and strings them together in editing, the camera remains fixed in a select location to become witness to the unfolding movements of the environment within the camera’s frame.
Through the course, students applied this slow media approach, and another audio-based approach to enhancing sensory perceptions and aesthetic appreciation of the natural environment called soundscape recording, to develop relationships with local water bodies. Alongside this process, students met with local `Knowledge Keepers` (people outside the university with non-traditional/academic backgrounds, who had existing relationships with the water bodies) to learn about their lived experiences of and perspectives on the water bodies. The process contributed to students’ de/re/constructing water narratives towards more water sensitive futures in the videos they produced through the course. These videos were shared with diverse publics in dedicated engagement events.
It became apparent early on in my study that various aspects of traditional, formal university education were contributing to a growing global water crisis. The legacies of colonialism were evident, for example, in institutions biasing cognitive knowledge and academic reading and writing over affective knowledge and multimodal forms such as video, sound, and storytelling. Essentially, the untapped knowledge and lived experience of many knowers from different backgrounds and perspectives were being left out of solution-making practices. The importance of emotions to behaviour change were being underestimated. Market-driven priorities of institutions were exacerbating narratives of water as a commodity for human consumption. Not only did this mean that I felt the need to start considering how my water curriculum could contribute to decolonising higher education, but it also meant that I questioned, every step of the way, what it meant for me to be doing this work as a PhD student within a higher education institution with its own legacies of ongoing settler-colonialism.
It became clear that a traditional thesis consisting of academic writing would not adequately, nor ethically in my view, do justice in representing the wide range of knowledges I wanted to share with a much wider public than my PhD examiners or fellow academics. It was in making a commitment to producing a multimedia PhD thesis, inclusive of audio and visual materials with which I could attempt to be emotionally impactful while simultaneously emphasizing the importance of affective knowledge, that the concept for a music video first emerged.
“We’re drinking the tears of our ancestors” is a song lyric that evolved out of a Zoom conversation I shared with Gregory Coyes from my home base in Cape Town, midway into the first year of the global Covid-19 pandemic. Gregory was one of approximately 25 people from either South Africa, Canada, or Australia, I had selected from the 200+ people who had been part of my PhD process in some way, shape or form, and who I had invited to be part of this music video making process. The invitation included an opportunity to review my initial findings through one or both of 2 options: (1) reading 4 short papers I had written as part of my PhD-by-publication: or (2) watching four 1-minute videos I had produced, summarising these papers, that included photos, music, and rhyming prose.
After engaging with these materials, the invitation was to discuss whatever might have come up for the person through a Zoom call. With their permission, the Zoom call was recorded and later edited into a podcast, as part of a series called Climate for Changing Lenses, made available to the public for free. During the Zoom call, Gregory and others were invited to contribute a statement that I could use as a song lyric. They could volunteer one or grant me permission to suggest one. With their permission, the visual of them sharing the statement would become part of the music video. I worked with the various statements/voices to construct an overall song narrative, and workshopped this together with Mapumba Cilombo, a Cape Town-based musician/composer with Baluba roots from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Cilombo gave me permission to adapt his original song, Please Don’t Blow It (2019), by retaining the chorus and building all the verses from these new recordings. Cilombo composed melodies for each of the statements and then two vocalists were recorded to sing these lines. The vocalists were Zane Mbizo, a South African of Xhosa ancestry, and Russell Wallace, a traditional singer from the Lil’wat Nation (see figure 2)
In my PhD-as-music video Please Don’t Blow It (2021), the chorus “We’ve got an opportunity to learn much more than we ever, ever, ever, ever have before… Please don’t blow it” is juxtaposed with the visual of a cinemagraph featuring Cilombo, frozen in motion, set against the dramatic movements of a lively Atlantic Ocean. A cinemagraph is a kind of hybrid video/photo where most elements in the image appear as a static photograph with only a certain element strategically selected to be in motion (King, n.d.). I used a cinemagraph in this way in the chorus to emphasise water as a living being, capable of sharing knowledge in the form of stories it communicates (Neimanis, 2017).
What kind of water futures can we imagine when this becomes the way we see and understand water in our world? How might education and learning be part of a global water knowledge commons instead of water crisis? How does it shift our relationship(s) with water when the water we drink is no longer simply water from a tap (and potentially unknown original source), or commercial water bottle, but the “tears of our ancestors”? Is it possible that these multimodalities may allow us to see ourselves as more interconnected with our waterscapes?
A follow up interview with a student, Fatima Holliday, approximately one year following the course, suggests that this was indeed the case for her. Her voice and image powerfully frame the Please Don’t Blow It (2021) music video with the opening line “We are looking at nature from different angles…” and, later, a statement so gripping I felt it important that it be repeated: “trying to reconcile with every bit of myself.”
Note: Van Borek's adaptation of the original song by Mapumba Cilombo; location at Theewatersloof Dam
Featured Vocalists and their Ancestry on the 'Please Don't Blow It' music video
Note: Van Borek, 2021
Mapumba Cilombo at the Atlantic Seaboard, Cape Town, South Africa
Note: Van Borek, 2021
Cilombo, M. (2019, 16 January). Please don’t blow it. [Video]. YouTube.
King, C. (n.d.). What is a cinemagraph and how do they work? Flixel. https://blog.flixel.com/what-is-a-cinemagraph-how-do-they-work/
Neimanis, A. (2017). Water and knowledge. In D. Christian, & R. Wong (Eds.), Downstream: Reimagining water (pp. 51-68). Wilfred Laurier University Press.
Rauch, J. (2018). Slow Media: Why “slow” is satisfying, sustainable and smart. Oxford University Press.
Van Borek, S. (2019). A media arts-based praxis process of building towards a relational model of curriculum oriented towards reconciliation through water justice. Journal of Decolonising Disciplines, 1(2), 6-50. https://upjournals.up.ac.za/index.php/jdd/article/view/35/302
Van Borek, S. (2021, 22 March). Please don’t blow it. [Video]. Vimeo. https://vimeo.com/527110975
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sarah Van Borek is a media artist, educator, and researcher focused on water and wellbeing through a decolonial lens. Currently a Cape Town-based postdoctoral fellow with the University of Toronto, she works across Sub-Saharan Africa and specializes in knowledge translation.