The Family Factor: A Global Family Portrait


The Family Factor: A Global Family Portrait

In the barren hills of western Jordan, along the Israeli border, lies the UN-Ghaza Palestinian refugee camp. Despite their best efforts to not call attention to themselves, American documentary filmmakers Kendall Wilcox (KBYU-TV), Stephanie Ririe (Wisteria Pictures) and Brad Barber immediately drew a small crowd as they arrived on a hot Thursday in August 2001. They arrived with a working hypothesis: if technology and globalization are truly shrinking the world, then there are families everywhere who are experiencing the squeeze. Their modus operandi was simple: find an average family, get invited to their home and ask them questions about how globalization, urbanization, modernization, westernization, feminism, AIDS, international public debates on changing family structures, gender roles, the feminization of poverty, and third-world development efforts are affecting their family life. In addition they sought to understand what role, if any, families play in making the world a safer place.

Wilcox, Ririe and Barber began their journey in July and didn't finish until families in six countries had welcomed them into their hutongs, huts, condos, courtyards, refugee camps, cinder-block rooms, split-level houses and flats. The complexity of the issues required a broad cross-cultural comparison that included families in China, India, Jordan, Kenya, Czech Republic and Brazil. In the end they returned with 80 hours of digital video footage, 20 rolls of 8mm film footage, 720 still-photographs, and 7 notebooks full of information about the families they met and their distinct contexts... all of which is being processed and will be presented in the form of a text-heavy coffee table book and feature-length documentary film to be released in 2002.

The following are tiny samplings from the information gathered on this research trip:

CHINA - July 2001

The naming of Beijing as a host city for the 2008 Olympics has given the city an air of excitement that is palpablely heavy with self-consciousness as China seeks to re-position itself on the world's stage. From central government leaders to the peasants in the villages, the potential to emerge as an economic powerhouse has intensified an already entrenched sense of competition (both internal and external) in the minds of the Chinese people.

Eleven-year-old Zhang Tin Ju has mastered an impressive repertoire of piano classics. His education is top priority for his parents and grandparents, who are socially conscious of their child as an economically competitive product or commodity in the new global work force. For them, the process of socialization of their child is better left to the state or organized institutions; the family exists, for the most part, to provide the logistical care of the state's future generation.

The traditional extended family structure of the Zhang household co-exists with the paradoxes of modern life: their family home of generations, set in a traditional hutong neighborhood, is being demolished to make way for an Olympic venue. Wei Dong, the father, is a driver for a Swedish cellular phone company. His wife, Xueng, is an accountant. They both carry cell phones, yet the only running water in their home is in the kitchen sink. They use the public bathhouses and share the public toilet in the ally around the corner with many other families. On a rainy July afternoon, the Zhangs treated the filmmakers to platefuls of Peking duck garnished with lively conversation that invited an inside look into family life in contemporary China.

INDIA: August 2001

Drums echoed all the way from the village to the main road. Funeral drums. Ancient rites of passage were unfolding as Wilcox, Ririe and Barber entered Chavadi, a rural village in southern India. An elderly widow, dressed in funerary garments, was surrounded by her children and grandchildren, who each played a part in delivering her soul to the afterlife. As the body was lifted onto a homemade chariot adorned with colorful crepe paper streamers, the women of the village followed the chariot only to the edge of the village, where they wept out their final goodbyes. Only men are allowed to follow the body into the hills for the cremation ceremony. Stringent roles performed in traditional rites of passage are cultural touchstones tossed into our world's most homogeneous corners, reminding us that there still exists a life outside urbanization and technology. At play in this pageantry is the interconnectedness of traditional familial roles and responsibilities, the moral traditions prescribed by religious orders, and the social traditions of the caste system; all are part of a matrix of tradition that both protects and inhibits this people. Indians trust that the matrix of tradition will keep the negative influences at bay for at least another 100 years, but will they also be left out of positive technological and healthy human rights advances that could help to resolve the country's crippling poverty? When asked if they fear that modernization in its worst forms will negatively influence their children, parents in Chavadi reply with an emphatic "no!" But how can that be? How long can they really escape the global squeeze?

CZECH REPUBLIC - September 2001

Armed with a map and the dim interior light of the rental car, Wilcox, Ririe and Barber drove into the deep interior of Prague. The rain outside created a pool of shine around each streetlight that hummed quietly in the night. On a broad street of trees they found the film-art house Orechovka, where a robust woman and her dog led them to a box seat in the back of the movie theatre. It's not difficult to see why the Czech film, Kytice, has captured the imagination of audiences across that country. This romantic re-telling of traditional fairy tales is part of an attempt to re-build a national identity suppressed during the cultural abyss of the communist era. But as Czechs dig deeper to re-establish the heart of their country, they are also reaching out to the West, particularly America, copying her trends and economic structures as quickly as possible. For some, the transition has been too quick, but everyone seems to agree that the goal is clear: create a free-market economy and foster the democracy that makes it thrive.

Pavel and Maria Bohac live in a flat assigned to them by the government when they married in 1985. Aside from the tiny bathroom, there is a bedroom, a kitchen that also serves as bedroom to their two daughters, and a parlor that is also Maria's office. They become ironically wistful as they compare life during the communist era to their current status. "There is a popular saying here," Maria explains. "During communism, we lived in just a garden....and we were protected...Now we live in the wide jungle. There are many possibilities, but there are also dangers." Compounding the stresses of growth is the fact that today's Czech population playing in the free-market has little experience in economic and social decision making, due to its tenure behind the Iron Curtain. Pavel admits that one of the major challenges is making choices amidst the smorgasbord of opportunity. With women, in particular, having more opportunity than ever before, marriage rates have declined significantly since the velvet revolution ten years ago. Will the younger generation, bent on Americanization and economic prosperity, change the Czech tradition of strong families as the heart of society?

Crowded into a Prague restaurant with American tourists, Wilcox, Ririe and Barber watched CNN coverage of the horrific events of September 11th. Against the focus of their research, the paradox was clear: conservative, traditional families produced the terrorists who changed the world forever; yet for healing, meaning and perspective, people worldwide instinctually turned to their families. This galvanized the notion that the family factors into the full range of human experience, from some of the most terrible events in human history to the most beautiful, fulfilling moments of life. Hence the imperative to always consider "The Family Factor."

Deseret News, Thursday, November 22, 2001

Family values barometer

Traditions still strong in world that is changing

By Carma Wadley

Deseret News senior writer

The family is a universal institution, one commonality shared by cultures and societies around the world.

The men of the village return to Chavadi, India, following a funeral cremation ceremony in the hills.

Family Factor

But the world is changing. And so is the family.

Is that good or bad? How are changes to the world's structure and outlook -- such things as globalization, urbanization, Westernization and modernization -- affecting families? How are AIDS, changing gender roles, Third-World development efforts and other factors being felt in homes around the world? Do traditional family values still mean anything in an ever-shrinking, ever-changing world?

These were among the questions swirling in the minds of Stephanie Ririe and Kendall Wilcox as they set off on a 10-week journey around the world to visit typical families in a variety of countries. Ririe, a co-founder of Wisteria Pictures, a documentary film company based in Provo, and Wilcox, a producer at KBYU-TV, were gathering information and doing research for a feature-length film and companion book scheduled to be released in 2002. They were also accompanied by freelance photographer Brad Barber.

They began in mid-July. By the time they returned on Oct. 1, they had taken 22 flights, visited 23 cities, worked with seven translators, attended four weddings and a funeral, had 12 wild-animal encounters and been confronted by innumerable beggars on the street. They had gathered 80 hours of digital video footage, shot 20 rolls of 8mm film, taken 720 still photographs and filled seven notebooks with information. They had met with more than 50 social workers, academicians, economists, activists, ministers and doctors. And most importantly, they had been invited into the homes, huts, condos, hutongs, courtyards, refugee camps, cinder-block rooms, split-level houses and flats of more than 100 families in China, India, Jordan, Kenya, the Czech Republic and Brazil.

Father and son ride a bicycle in Beijing, China, left, where that's a popular form of transportation.

Family Factor

"The complexity of issues meant we needed a broad cross-cultural representation," says Ririe. "And we tried to focus on both rural and urban settings."

This development phase of the project was funded by the World Family Policy Center on the BYU campus and the World Congress for Families, but Ririe says it is important to note that the politics and agendas of these groups did not in any way dictate the content or the conclusions of the project.

"Basically, they said 'go out and see what you find. Go see how these issues actually play out in families on the ground in different parts of the world.' "

Globalization is an all-encompassing word, tossed around in textbooks and policy discussions, adds Wilcox, "but what does it really mean on a coffee plantation in Kenya or a rice paddy in China?"

Not surprisingly, says Ririe, they came home with a lot more questions to take back to historians and social scientists. And they are still sorting through all their materials, still synthesizing and drawing conclusions. But they did come home with some strong impressions and images.

For one thing, they found there are places where age-old family rituals and ceremonies still take place. In the rural village of Chavadi, India, for example, they watched as an elderly widow, dressed in funerary garments, was surrounded by her children and grandchildren, who each played a part in delivering the soul to the afterlife.

"The body was lifted onto a homemade chariot adorned with colorful crepe paper streamers," remembers Wilcox. "The women could follow the chariot only to the edge of the village. Only the men were allowed to follow the body into the hills for the cremation ceremony."

The ceremony was a reminder that traditional rites of passage still exist outside urbanization and technology, he says. And those families hope this strong matrix of tradition will keep negative influences of modernization at bay for at least another century. "But you have to wonder if they will also be left out of the positive technological and healthy human-rights advances that could help to resolve the crippling poverty," says Wilcox.

Michael Ndirango, 15, went to live with his cousins after his mother died of AIDS. They live in Nairobi.

Family Factor

In the Czech Republic and China, Ririe and Wilcox noted that a lot of changes are already taking place. "Almost everywhere you could see that tension between the way things were and what's happening now."

In Prague, they met with Pavel and Marie Bohac, who live in a small flat assigned to them by the government when they married in 1985.

The Bohacs and others credited strong, traditional family values for the "velvet revolution," which ousted communism a decade ago. And yet, ironically, they were somewhat wistful in talking about their lives then and now. Living under communism was like living in a garden, Marie told them. "We were protected. Now, we live in a jungle. There are many possibilities, but there are also dangers."

Pavel admitted that one of the major challenges was making choices amidst a smorgasbord of opportunity. "With women, in particular, having more opportunity than ever before, marriage rates have declined significantly," said Ririe, and you wonder whether "the younger generation, bent on Americanization and economic prosperity, will change the Czech tradition of strong families as the heart of society?"

In China, while families defend the one-child policy, they also worry that they are raising a generation of spoiled children who have had everything handed to them.

And, says Wilcox, he got a sense that the children were being educated, were given lots of opportunities, not so much out of love and devotion but in order to make them a viable part of the new economic work force. "It was like we're not doing this so you can have a better way of life but so you can support me in my old age. Now, it is OK to be wealthy in China, and this new economy seems to be dissolving old familial mechanisms. They are still raising a new generation to support the old, but in a whole new way. There are now old-folks' homes. It is all very interesting."

Grandmother Kamandengugi, left, who lives in Gikomora, Kenya, is said to be more than 100 years old.

Family Factor

Another interesting concept they found, say Ririe and Wilcox, is that families may not use terms such as globalization and urbanization, but they understand what they mean.

"They know that they used to grow 15 kinds of rice and now they only grow one because markets have shifted," says Ririe. "They recognize that they now don't grow all their food in their own communities."

And all over the world, they have watched the family farm all but disappear, says Wilcox. As families have had sons, the land has been divided and divided. Profits drop. Multi-nationals come in and buy up huge tracts of land and hire some of the villagers, but because they bring in mechanization, they don't need all of the villagers.

"In Kenya, we met families who were the 12th generation on the land, but they had no way to support their families." Many of them, he says, end up moving to the slums of the cities.

Despite all the pressures and changes, the filmmakers found some things that remained the same.

There does seem to be a consensus on the ideal of what a father and a mother should be, says Ririe. "How those ideals play out varies from country to country, but there does seem to be a universal, basic instinct about what those roles should be."

And, says Wilcox, one of the most striking feelings that he came away from the whole experience with was a sense of the importance of individuals.

"It feels almost trite to say it, but I did come away with a very real sense that in this huge, vast world filled with thousands and thousands of people, individuals do matter."

It was a poignant lesson that came home in the slums of Nairobi, he says. There they met with the Ndirango family who had been forced off their land in the Rift Valley by tribal clashes. They had four children and an adopted nephew living in the small tin-roofed shack.

Their circumstances were poor, but they had such a feeling of hope. "And we could see that their strength and sense of resilience came out of their sense of family structure. We asked Marie, the mother, hard questions about what she felt about life, how unjust it was, and did she feel any bitterness. And she said, 'What good is that? It does no good to look back. We have to be strong.'

"Contrast that with another family, a mother with seven children who had six different fathers. We asked her the same questions, but she had no answers. She was a third-generation slum dweller and had no hope life would get better. She had never been taught what it means to be a wife and mother," says Wilcox.

Charles Kamandengugi, with his sons Dennis, left, and Linus.

Family Factor

And that was where he really came to appreciate the importance of one individual, he says. "It was like an hourglass. You could see Marie dealing with all the forces coming from the top, but by accepting her role as mother, daughter, wife, sister, she was able to influence her children, her husband, her community."

He went into this project with the notion that "who cares if the world is changing, let's learn to deal with it," says Wilcox, and he came out of it believing that "traditional families, traditional roles do matter."

This point was especially driven home after the events of Sept. 11, which they watched on CNN while huddled in a Prague restaurant. Against the background of their research, they noticed a clear paradox: traditional, conservative families had produced the terrorists who had done this horrible thing. "Yet, for healing, meaning and perspective, people worldwide instinctively turned to their families," says Wilcox.

It reinforced the notion that "the family factors into the full range of human experience, from some of the most terrible events in human history to some of the most beautiful and fulfilling moments of life."

And so, amid all the change, he says, "it should be imperative to always consider that family factor."

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