The Privilege of a Story Teller

The Privilege of a Story Teller

By Revy Sjahrial

I was watching a not-so-new documentary titled “My Kid Could Paint That” the other day and it reminded me of the privilege of becoming a story teller. Whether in fiction or non-fiction, about other people or own self, the story teller has the power to set the direction and tone of the story, to pick and choose the details of what’s in and out, to decide on how the story begins and/or ends; all of which in the end pretty much shape viewers’ perception. Having watched that documentary, I have been made aware of the immense privilege that a story teller of non-fiction holds.

At the end of last year I had the opportunity to tell my own non-fiction story without even realising the privilege yet. I was instead worried that my story was too personal, ashamed of it being judged which would lead to my being judged by other people. It was funny that I had not expected I would end up telling that particular story in the form of such an output. And it was all a result of a training I was lucky to be part of, i.e. my first ever digital story making.

At first, I was asked to respond to a work-related framing question, a response which I initially thought could turn into a platitude too easily, until I heard the instruction to “find a story that comes from your gut.” Never had I felt that connecting to my gut could make me fixated on what’s truly significant amongst all of other significance. The story needed to be told in 3 to 5 minutes’ time, and having a limited time to tell it in a digitally visual way, pushed my creativity and compelled me to focus on details that really mattered.

The ‘premiere’ of my digital story was before trusted colleagues who I consider friends, and whose digital stories were also premiered. It was an experiencemixed with curiosity, excitement and apprehension. So many “what if’s” in my head, ranging from technical issues like whether or not my voice was audible enough, were my swiping of pictures and drawing timely enough with the sentences I wanted to bring out… All those with the addition of more profound questions: what does it mean now that I have got this story ready to tell to the wider world, to whom should it be shared with, why them, why not them, what would their reaction be, what would I expect to be a good reaction, how would bad reaction be like?

I didn’t know why, I still don’t, but I was suddenly reminded of the phrase ‘the personal is political’.

I don’t consider myself as a feminist – as I see myself more of a pro-equity advocate – nor am I a political person, but having told a personal story about what has changed my life and the way I see the world, I felt that it would be meaningful if my sharing could have an impact socially, no matter how small it could be. And that is again the privilege of a story teller, telling meaningful stories which entail social impacts, whether or not they would then bring political impacts – after surviving all the negotiations and probable co-optations – is not the point.

Another privilege I gained was being trained to facilitate others in making their own digital stories for the first time. These were people who provide health services at the frontline as their daily responsibility as public servants. A little bit of background about public service in my country which may not be so alien from other contexts: it is hierarchical, formal, where ‘going the distance’ as an ethos can’t always be expected. But take them as story tellers connecting to their gut, eager to share their personal and meaningful story with the wider world, then what you will encounter are engaged people who would go out of their usual way to make things happen.

They had started the first day of training being very aware of their time spent, wanting to make sure that they would finish in time like they would when at work. Like an accounting principle in inventory, FIFO – first in first out, so is the usual practice of signing an attendance record for public servants.

As days passed by, when story shaping had taken place, they started to own the process, became reflective of what the real meanings were to the things they had held dear all this time, envisaged what they would like to do next when the story was ready. I remember I was amazed at how they ended up spending a lot more time than they had been willing to give in the beginning, to actually finish the whole process of digital story making. They became excited anticipating their premiere. I was equally amazed and, in retrospect now feel even more privileged, to be part of the few people who could listen to the complete stories and to witness the struggle I believe all story tellers face, that is to choose which details worth representing the complete one, as we are bound to time and attention span.

Each story each one person told is a powerful one, with a promise to touch other people’s lives, if not to enlighten. They have made them with dedication, as a remembrance for that one point in life that has made a difference to them.

The take-away for me having gone through the process of both making my own digital story and facilitating others’ is: although the personal is not always political, a life-changing personal makes a great social impact.


An image from my digital story