On March 30, a crowd packed the gallery at the Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts. They were there to see 19 short videos, each under five minutes, the result of the year-long Digital Storytelling project initiated by writer-in-residence Jocelyn Brown.

“I was working here with the artists individually on storytelling, but for a few of the artists at the Nina, telling a story in the traditional way just didn’t work for them. They might’ve not been able to speak or the stories they wanted to tell weren’t always linear in the traditional way. And they’re here as visual artists, so I was really looking for a way where we didn’t have to rely on text as much,” Brown said.

Aba Garbrah is one of the participants in the Digital Storytelling project. | Leslieanna Blackner Au

Through photos, voice-over, music and short live-action clips woven together, participants created an array of films, from profiles of loved ones to a heart-wrenching remembrance of abuse at a residential school. Each story revealed a slice of a person’s life. During the project, Brown worked with Karen Matthews from Weasel Tales, an organization that leads digital storytelling workshops. Together they established a process to allow the artists to develop, create, and present a piece of themselves.

Cynthia Sentara, one of the Nina’s lead artists, has a background in media arts and helped some artists edit their work. She made her own video about having a stroke 10 years ago, which left her without the ability to speak.

“It’s been a reoccurring issue for me for the past 10 years. It makes more sense to explain it to everyone else,” Sentara said. Through the process, she learned everyone has one story that tells you so much about a person.

Jocelyn Brown helped participants like Lindsey Tiebe (pictured) distill their ideas. | Jocelyn Brown

“You get to learn about someone’s life, their experiences. They’re all so interesting. You can be the most boring person in the world, but you have one awesome story to tell.”

Helping each artist connect to their story was the goal of the project. Working with people who may have literacy or language issues presented its challenges, but Brown helped participants distill their ideas until they were ready to script their videos.

“Most of the time, it depended on the artist, what they wanted to do. You’ll see at least one where there isn’t a voice track, but I would read back to them and they would decide if they want to have that in the story or not,” said Brown.

This was the case for Pedro Burges, who created a video about his experience as an artist at the Nina Haggerty. He creates gorgeous, colourful abstract paintings, and practiced for many years in Portugal. When he immigrated to Canada a few years ago, he discovered the Nina; it has become the biggest part of his life.

His support worker, Jana Niven, interprets for Pedro, who does not speak. “When we started the process, we wrote a much longer story about various things, but with Jocelyn’s help we found what the most important story was, and that was the art he was doing at the Nina.”

As his family congratulates him, she says that he is happy to have done the project and is likely to try another in the future.

“Look at everyone who came out to see what Pedro did. He had a community, it existed with his Portugese family and friends, but he never had anything for them to come see about him. He was always just brought along, so it’s nice that they can come see and celebrate Pedro.”

Some digital stories will be soon be available online at www.thenina.ca and www.weaseltale.com, depending on which storytellers give permission to share their stories.