PEOPLE are at the centre of most things Nicola Cross does. Her desire to help others tell their story in their way is a reflection of her people-centredness.
The creative producer, consultant filmmaker and filmmaking workshop co-ordinator and facilitator (among other titles) is currently wrapping up a short documentary about a woman and female genital mutilation.
Before getting into film, Cross, 50, saw herself as an ecologist going into the forest and counting “bugs really quietly with nobody around.” But she soon realised that she couldn’t count bugs unless people had access to “proper healthcare, education...”
This was pointedly driven home when she worked on a 2001 case study on the Nariva Swamp. The study used gender theory as part of its theoretical base and she worked alongside Dr Gabrielle Hosein, Newsday columnist and head of the University of the West Indies' (UWI) Institute for Gender and Development Studies. That study looked at “the relationship between people and the environment, using a gender perspective as well as participatory methodology.”
This study, Cross said made her a bit more people-aware, even though in her degrees she had done courses on biogeography (the branch of biology that deals with the geographical distribution of plants and animals) and a study of people's interaction with the natural environment.
But she also already had a base in people-centredness, from her parents, Ann and the late World War II veteran and judge Ulric Cross. As a lawyer, her father practised law in Africa and TT working in countries such as Ghana, West Cameroon and Tanzania. Cross said she learned about human rights from her father who, she said, raised her with a strong sense of human rights and of people being able to achieve. She was taught that "anybody" could achieve. Her mother was a nurse and health visitor.
"I was an only child for a long time until a sister and brother came along. And he did not bring me up as a male or female, he brought me up as a human being. So it was only when I left the house, I was like ‘Oh, you mean there are certain things I can’t do because I am a woman.’ I didn’t know that.”
She described the people-centredness inherited from her parents as part of her DNA, but what the project allowed was for her to “experience theory into practice.”
Cross’ degrees are in ecology, a masters in environmental development and another in documentary. While the intersectionality of ecology and documentary might not be readily discernible, its interconnectedness is evident in the way Cross perceives documentary.
To her, “Documentary (is) really a tool – in the same way as a pencil or being able to write. It is just a tool – or even a laptop. The question is, what do you do with that tool?”
Her growing interest in people, coupled with her knowledge of ecology, gave rise to the 2012 documentary short Floodprint. The 20-minute film was funded by TT’s film company and highlighted flood damage in TT through the stories of a farmer’s damaged crops, a young boy’s near-death experience and a woman’s damaged home.
This was her first film. Ten years later Cross has many more under her belt, among them Visibly Me and On My Shoulders, also shown at TT film festivals. Visibly Me tells the story of a 47-year-old woman with no partner and no children who finds herself invisible and feels she has no choice but to find the antidote. On My Shoulders tells the story of a relationship between a man and his daughter in their youth as well as when they are older.
Her lens has shifted over time from the natural environment to the social and then “at some point it became about the representation of people.”
This representation of people forms part of her latest work on a Kenyan woman called Becky.
Becky’s story is the subject of a short that Cross is currently wrapping up, in which Becky talks about her female genital mutilation and clitoral reconstructive surgery. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines female genital mutilation as "procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons." The organisation's fact sheet on female genital mutilation says currently more than 200 million girls and women have been cut in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia where female genital mutilation is concentrated.
In looking at the matter, Cross makes a concerted effort to see varying points of view on the issue. On female genital mutilation, Cross said, “I don’t believe any girl or any boy, their body should be violated.
"But I think it is complex. So when you’re 18 you get to choose – but do we really have free will? If you are brought up in a society that cuts girls, and if you want this mythological narrative of a husband or whatever, a husband is only going to want a girl that is cut. Therefore if you don’t want to be cut, you might say, 'Well, let me cut, because I want a husband, I want these things that society has taught me to want,' and stepping outside of that can be really difficult. In some cases, you’re shunned (if you don’t cut).
"So how do we support men, women, boys and girls to find their own thing, to excel at their own things?”
For her the only way to do that is by “by listening to people.” Last year, Cross made a visit to Kenya. She did say what the initial purpose of her visit to Kenya was about. But when that did not work out she contacted Amref telling them that she made films and was in Kenya. Amref stands for the African Medical and Research Foundation (Amref) and is a non-governmental organisation founded and based in Africa with 50 years’ experience in health development. Cross did work with the organisation, working on their Christmas campaign about female genital mutilation since Christmas is “peak cutting season.”
This is how Becky's story came about. It came about as she would go home from her work with Amref and talk to Becky, who stayed at the same Airbnb. Sharing her stories about work with Becky made Becky feel safe to share hers. Cross knows there were many aspects of female genital mutilation and it was not as simple as going in and saying it should be stopped.
Cross said for the women who cut there is also economic value. “So if you say ‘You need to stop cutting,’ what are you replacing that with? And if cutting is part of your identity – admittedly it is a violent thing that should not happen, but if it is part of somebody’s identity…”
She said it was problematic to just want to go in there and stop it – which is not to say that she thinks it should be legal. Cross said she thinks things are multipronged and that education was essential. From her point of view, for societal change to occur, the people have to be listened to. And even on female genital mutilation, feelings vary.
“What is interesting about that she did it (clitoral reconstructive surgery) with other women and the experiences varied widely. So some were like it was successful. Others were very disappointed...and others repeated the operation.
“And for some of them it still wasn’t successful.”
In telling Becky’s story, Cross ensures that it is Becky’s story being told. This is why she shows the story to its subject after it's finished to see if they’re on the same page, as editing brings some subjectivity. But Cross does not intend to make unbiased films.
“I am not interested in balance. I am interested in what does it feel like? What does the world feel like for them?”
Her work seeks to validate people’s experiences because “there is something powerful about being heard.”
When she is finished with Becky’s story, in about a month or so, Cross hopes to help tell the stories of refugees and asylum seekers in TT. She wants to help them tell their story “in order for them to heal,” but also, she said, to “provide a counter narrative.”
She has been in TT just a month and has started reaching out to people. She has already found a filmmaker who is interested in the project.
Cross plans to use the short documentary on Becky as a fundraiser. The funds raised will then be used to do a feature on Becky and her family – a family of girls, all of whom have been cut and with different responses to it. She said their responses are so different that “Becky is the only one who felt so incomplete that she felt she needed to have clitoral reconstructive surgery.”
Asked why she makes documentaries as opposed to fiction, Cross simply replied, “Life is stranger than fiction.”
“I think also with documentary, people don’t understand documentary. I think documentary historically is seen as this boring thing with information.
"I think documentaries can be so fulfilling. I think there is something very special about the fact that this is a true story.”
Documentary filmmaking, she said, had been revolutionised by equipment being more accessible and people being able to tell their own stories.
Cross believes the essence of every good documentary is that: “You have to capture somebody’s heart. You have to get the viewer to care about your protagonist. You have to get them to care about this woman who has been cut.
“Things are complex and that is why it has to be participatory.”
On June 20, Cross leaves TT again to pick up a job in Myanmar (previously Burma), where she will be working with an NGO which has built a disabled-friendly market.
Cross was asked to do a film about it so “it can be used to persuade the policymakers to more markets that are disabled-friendly.”
She hopes to be back in TT by August because she believes there are many stories here to tell.