Fulbright Student Program Blog

Tag Archives: Storytelling

Snapshots from Life on Kiribati

By Aurora Brachman, Fulbright U.S. Student to Kiribati

During my sophomore year at Pomona College I became aware of Kiribati, a small Pacific Island nation at risk of vanishing forever under rising sea levels. Scientists project that in as few as 30 years the entire country could be under water. Little did I know that Kiribati would play an important role in my life, and ultimately lead me to the Fulbright Program.

At the time, there was little information about how the 110,000 citizens of Kiribati were responding to this frightening prognosis. The media representations available were sensationalistic and objectifying, transforming Kiribati into a symbol of climate change, but failing to acknowledge the reality of the daily lives of the I-Kiribati. Despite never having never made a documentary before, I applied for and received a grant through the Pacific Basin Institute to create a documentary making the I-Kiribati and their stories the focal point.

Navigating Kiribati as an outsider is challenging. It is one of the least-developed countries in the world. Eighty percent of the population lives a subsistence lifestyle and there is severely limited access to electricity or running water. Though life will continue on the island for the next few decades, climate change is already making its mark. Some of my closest friends have had their homes destroyed by King Tides – exceptionally high tides that have become more powerful in recent years and are inundating the island, flooding homes and turning fresh water brackish. One friend lost her baby sister to dehydration from drinking water contaminated with oceanwater.

Yet what struck me most about Kiribati had nothing to do with climate change. Kiribati is vibrant in a way I didn’t know anything could be. I have never encountered a group of people that radiate love the way Kiribati people do. During my time there, I befriended a tight knit group of high school students, and they became my liaisons to their world. I was 19 at the time and so were they, and despite our vastly different life experiences, we related as most 19-year-olds do. We commiserated over our anxieties surrounding our encroaching adulthood, discussed our dreams for our futures, and shared our fears about a world paralyzed to act on climate change.

Yet when I asked my friends what they would miss most about Kiribati when they are forced to leave, and the resounding answer was, “the way we treat each other.”

After returning to Pomona, I dreamt of going back to Kiribati. I applied for and was accepted to the Fulbright Program. As someone interested in an artistic field, I didn’t know if my work would be deemed “scholarly enough” or worthy of a Fulbright – but my worries were unfounded. I strongly believe that no one who is interested in applying for Fulbright should be under the false impression that Fulbright is not for them. Fulbright is an incredible resource, and if you have a passion for something, you should absolutely apply.

In consultation with my Kiribati network, I developed a new project for my Fulbright, tentatively titled Life Between the Tides. An anthology series, Life Between the Tides is intended to be a platform of empowerment and self-representation for Kiribati and to build respect, empathy, and understanding of Kiribati people to ease their transition when they are forced to migrate from their country in the near future.

My post-production work will be supported by funding through a granting institution called “Pacific Islanders in Communications,” an organization funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). I was extremely fortunate to receive the funding as well as a commitment to digital and potential television distribution through the CPB. Life Between the Tides is projected to be released by the beginning of next year.

My time in Kiribati was one of the most challenging but rewarding experiences of my life. I treasure the lessons it taught me, and the fortitude and resilience I discovered that I never knew I had. Any challenges I face now pale in comparison to what I overcame on my Fulbright. I feel a kind of self-assuredness and self-confidence in my ability as a filmmaker, and a person, that I never had prior to this experience.

This September I will begin my MFA in Documentary Film and Video at Stanford University. I am both anxious and excited to be expanding upon my skills as a filmmaker, storyteller, and artist. In addition to refining my own abilities as a filmmaker, I want to pioneer a new form of participatory documentary filmmaking that works with disenfranchised communities to help equip them with the skills and tools to tell their own stories.

Compelling stories do not only lie at the center of the Pacific. Now, more than ever, there is a critical need for fostering greater understanding across communities through nuanced storytelling that honors the lives of its subjects. I hope to always use my position as a documentary filmmaker to uplift the narratives of those who struggle to have their voices heard.

Photo credit: Aurora Brachman and Darren James

Through ‘Racialeyes’: A Brazilian Perspective through Media and Storytelling

Mia Yamashiro and Laura Li

Mia Yamashiro (left), Laura Li (right), 2014-2015, Fulbright Teaching Assistants to Brazil, presenting at the Fulbright Mid-Year Seminar in São Paulo

When I decided to apply for a Fulbright U.S. Student grant, I chose Brazil, and in particular, Curitiba, because of its strong Asian-Brazilian community. I thought that my Japanese-Okinawan heritage and cultural background would be a way to connect with Curitibanos. Yet I quickly realized that instead of creating connections, it often made me feel isolated.

It was difficult adjusting to the racial climate of Brazil where, in stark contrast to the United States, people are not very sensitized to race issues. For example, people pulled their eyes at me as a way to tease me or establish familiarity with me, like, “You’re Japa,right?” (pulls eyes). People asked Laura, who is Chinese-American, if she was my sister. Men on the street cat called me, yelling “Japa!” and touched my hair.

So Laura and I decided to give voice to these racial issues by creating Racialeyes, a project dedicated to further understanding the Asian-Brazilian community in Curitiba, Paraná. Our project was born out of the desire to dispel harmful stereotypes and educate people about the diversity and richness of the Asian diaspora in Brazil. While eyes are often pulled back at us to mark us as “other,” this project seeks to re-appropriate our racialized eyes, diversify the dialogue about Asian-Brazilians, and make us question our instinct to mark different as “other.”

Fulbright-MTP: Inspiration for Action

Fulbright-MTP participant Rodrigo Moran from El Salvador on board the Millennial Train.

Fulbright-MTP participant Rodrigo Moran from El Salvador on board the Millennial Trains Project

For some reason, I have not been able to sleep lately. Maybe I miss the coziness of my room on the train. Maybe I miss the rocking motion and the sounds of the wheels on the tracks that lulled me into a profound sleep every night. Maybe I just miss all of my MTP friends…

Check: All of the above.

Besides the nostalgia I have been feeling, I hit the ground running as soon as we got off the train in Washington, DC. I started a summer internship in the field of international development at Creative Associates International, a company “providing outstanding, on-the-ground development services and forging partnerships to deliver sustainable solutions to global challenges.”

Discovering the Power of Storytelling and More in New Orleans

Pichleap with Mitch Landrieu

Fulbright Foreign Student from Cambodia Pichleap Sok meeting New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, after the MTP visit to the New Orleans Mission, to discuss community innovation and how New Orleans has rebuilt itself after Hurricane Katrina.

The Fulbright-Millennial Trains Project has been one of the best traveling experiences I have ever had. It’s not just about sharing your ideas, experiences and time with 24 millennial participants, but also about discovering different parts of the United States. When the train stops in each city, we have about five hours to visit. Exploring a city in just five hours is definitely a challenge, but the idea of getting to know each city from the perspective of the other 24 MTP participants has been and is – absolutely amazing. Each and every millennial on the train has an individual project they are working on, and when the train stops in a different city, we go to different places to do our projects. When we return to the train and share our experiences, it is great to compare notes on each city’s unique culture, accent, identity, people and food.