Ainslee Robson tells her story through her VR graphic memoir “Ferenj”

Ainslee Robson

I don’t know a lot about VR. I did it once before, and I was in this Van Gogh painting, and it made me feel really dizzy. When someone I met through The Girls Club, Tigist Schmidt (filmmaker, producer) introduced me to Ainslee Robson, VR filmmaker, as a potential interview subject, I was excited to hear her story, but also not sure how I’d tackle the interview knowing close to nothing about VR. But what’s great about visual storytelling, in all mediums, is that it always goes back to the story, and that’s where we unite.

When I watched the trailer of Ainslee’s VR film “Ferenj (which translates as “foreigner” in Amharic): A Graphic Memoir in VR”, I was captivated by this beautiful world of dots that brought together images of people and places and moments–particularly Ethiopia, Cleveland, and Empress Taytu–threaded through Ainslee’s recollections of home. I fell in love with the wonder and richness of Ainslee’s story, and how she used the VR medium to elevate it. In our interview, we discussed the technical aspects, but mostly her inspirations for how “Ferenj” came to be. I’m so excited to follow her career, and to be on the lookout for her film and work in the future.

REBECCA MARTIN: How did you come to your current project?

AINSLEE ROBSON: I had just spent two and a half years living in Addis Ababa, after my college graduation, where I majored in philosophy and in French language. While I was working in Addis, I didn’t really know what I was doing with my life. But I did know that I wanted to live in Ethiopia. I started working for this artist, Aida Muluneh, in Ethiopia. That was really inspiring for me, and I got to be surrounded by a lot of these self-taught emerging photographers based in Addis. I was working on the Addis Foto Fest there, which is this huge international festival. For me the fest is really a space where I was inspired by artists on the continent and photographers who are telling stories of where they are from through a series of photos. That was a really cool space for me, and I hadn’t been surrounded by anything like that before. 

After that I was working in this commercial agency in Ethiopia. I had been really surrounded by different types of creative production, from photography to radio/TV commercials and photoshoots. That was my first introduction to any type of visual storytelling, except for a photography class I had taken back in Cleveland before I went to Ethiopia.

Then I realized I wanted to take this a step further, because I really enjoyed being in these environments. But I found I wasn’t always directly in that creative process side of things. Then I applied to a school here in LA called SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture). I was in their one non-architecture program, and it’s called Fiction and Entertainment. It’s a one-year, post-grad program. We all have to develop a creative project, and the program is focused on speculative storytelling using new media, but also film, using different VFX workflows. I had just moved straight from Ethiopia to LA, and it was a difficult time for me. This transition was really abrupt, and I had been thinking about this US/Ethiopia Black/white dichotomy. I mean I’ve been thinking about that my whole life.

Still from “Ferenj”

MARTIN: I think it’s interesting you grew up in Cleveland, and your parents worked in an Ethiopian restaurant. I see that influenced your work in “Ferenj”. 

ROBSON: Coming back from Ethiopia was a reminder to me about the divide I faced growing up in Cleveland. The concept of home and not being able to define that with a geographical reference has been something I thought about and I talked to a lot of people about. So I just wanted to explore that further. 

MARTIN: I can relate to you on some level. I lived overseas during most of my teen years, and I went to international schools. I had people from all over the world in my school, from Nigeria, from Japan, from Saudi Arabia. Then I went back to my white suburbia in the US, and it was always a difficult adjustment. I knew that my home would always be more about the people in my life than a physical location.

ROBSON: That’s super interesting because a lot of people have told me that.  Whether it’s this cultural clash, racial clash, or geographic, I feel a lot of people can relate to that on different levels. 

MARTIN: The next thing we can talk about is how you came to put this film together. Was this just you or was it a whole team of people that got involved? How did the pieces start to come together?

ROBSON: I didn’t really have a team, but I had a series of people along the way who I consulted with and who were helping me along the way. My advisor in the program, the program director I had at SCI-Arc, was one of the producers on the project during the creative process time. 

Genevieve Gaignard

The process started with me developing the concept. I was looking at different references. The references I had were totally different to what I ended up making. I was just looking at people who were processing their identity through some type of creative narrative format. I was inspired by Issa Rae, through her series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. It might look so different in terms of format, but it really spoke to me. Also shows like Master of None and Mo Amer’s stand-up comedy.  Also photographers. Genevieve Gaignard, who is a biracial artist, takes these really visually stunning photos of herself, kind of in costumes, performing one race, and looks stereotypically very white, or puts herself in a “white” context. She portrays her racial identity as performative, and I thought that was really interesting. Also this painter, Njideka Akunyili Crosby–she is a Nigerian painter, and a mixed media artist. I really love how she plays with different layers of meaning in her painting. So I was looking at all of these different references, from episodic shows to comedy stand up to paintings and photos. 

The Making of “Ferenj”

MARTIN: What connected you to the VR medium to tell your story?

ROBSON: In the environment I was in, it made sense to make something new, use new technology. And I really liked photogrammetry-

MARTIN: For those who don’t know, like myself, what is photogrammetry?

ROBSON: It’s basically 3D scanning reality. Reproducing that as a digital asset that is made out of a series of spatialized points.

I had heard about VR, and I had looked into it further. I really liked the aesthetic of pointclouds. I was trying to visualize identity, memory, and nostalgia. To me, pointclouds really just spoke to those concepts. It was just congruous. You can’t scan reflective surfaces, and I just thought that was really cool. I felt like I can’t really reflect myself in certain situations. Visibility and invisibility play a huge role in my struggles with identity, how I could not look Ethiopian or not look “American” in a foreign context. For me photogrammetry really makes sense in this project.

And looking at the points, I find them so beautiful to look at and rotate. Once I knew about photogrammetry, and I knew what I was doing, to me, the natural choice was to do VR. Because it seems like the best medium to really show the full beauty of these points. 

Still from “Ferenj”

MARTIN: I love the themes that your film connects to with the use of the dots, the idea of alienation and exclusion. How you can get close to the dots of the images, and then it dissolves. Can you share what you were trying to convey through those themes?

ROBSON: I’m glad you asked. The movement in the experience is basically that you’re always moving, but backwards. You do get to look at points from a distance, and then you enter them. Sometimes you go through a person, or an object. And then you come out the other side. So you see the scans in a way that makes sense, you can kind of distinguish what they are from a distance, and as you go through them, they become more abstract. you can kind of distinguish what it is from a distance, and as you go through it, it becomes more abstract. 

I just wanted to show the points from different angles because they’re beautiful, but also in terms of exclusion, as you said. But the points are not 100% tied to this idea of exclusion. I wanted there to be moments of abstraction, also for anybody who could relate strongly to this experience. To have moments of respite from the intensity. When I was making this, I didn’t really consider my own experience because I was used to presenting it to a white audience. And that’s also something I’ve been forced to internalize throughout my education in Cleveland. That’s really something I was really trying to unlearn and unpack. 

A person who I consulted with on the project was one of the first people who identified with my experience in some way, and said, “This is really intense for me to hear. I’m so happy that you’re saying this, I’m enjoying hearing your story, and I’m connecting to it. At the same time, it’s really intense to go through it non-stop, and be constantly relating.” That person said, “Did you actually think about how you would feel seeing through this experience for the first time?” And I was like, ‘Oh my god, why did I not consider my own perspective? Even though this whole experience is about trying to center and create space for my own perspective.’ It’s really nice to have those moments of relief in those moments where the visuals are more abstracted. That’s one reason that I haven’t really talked about too much.

Empress Taytu

In terms of exclusion and access, there are things in the back of the restaurant, such as a painting of the Battle of Adwa. It is the battle in which this Ethiopian empress, Taytu Betul, was on the battlefield, and and she was a fierce leader, commander, and military strategist. Adwa was such a key moment in Ethiopian and African history. It was Empress Taytu herself who noticed the malevolent “mistranslation” in the Treaty of Wuchale, which was an attempt to deceitfully establish Ethiopia as an Italian Protectorate, and she pushed her consort (Emperor Menelik) to declare war against the Italians. As a result of her shrewd vigilance, Ethiopia is one of the only African countries that was never colonized, and that’s a huge source of pride in Ethiopian culture, and for me personally as she is the namesake of my parents’ restaurant. There are songs about it, there are paintings about it and one of them is in our restaurant. My Dad, of all people, always talks about this, and customers frequently ask about the painting. It is on this goat skin, goat hide. It kind of looks like an old storyboard. 

So in the story the camera focuses on the painting of the Battle Adwa, and that is an example of something I reference, I talk about, and I even share a clip of my Dad talking about it, but I don’t go in depth explaining everything I just told you. But at the same time, I do have it in the restaurant, and if somebody knows what it is, great, and they’ll be like ‘I’ve never seen that before in VR.’ Or at least I hope they will. 

But someone might not necessarily notice that, and I think it’s maybe a good thing to be excluded in certain ways or alienated in certain ways in this productive context, because it’s showing I’m not speaking to you directly. This whole dialogue is with Empress Taytu, and the audience is just listening in and you’ll take from it what you do.

Still from “Ferenj”

MARTIN: I love that. I think what you’re doing for representation of Ethiopians and Africans is so important. Often you see Africa explored through war, colonization, or poverty. Not enough do we see the life out of African cultures. What are your thoughts about the depiction of African and Ethiopian culture onscreen and what are you trying to bring to the table?

ROBSON: One thing that I wanted to do was just show my own perspective, my own representation of Ethiopia, of Addis Ababa, and what that means to me. I’m not trying to say all of Africa looks like this, or even all of Ethiopia. I’m just one person, and it’s just based on my own memories and my experiences having lived there. That’s why photogrammetry to me is a very important tool because it is so accessible. I just asked some friends to take a few videos and walk in certain patterns so I could then process those videos into these point clouds.  I could capture my own reality instead of depending on pre-existing digital assets that don’t reflect the spaces I come from.

I was able to capture that from real photos and videos, from everyday spaces of resistance, like a fruit stand, like a butcher shop, different parts of town, like a shoe shiner. They’re just everyday moments of life that maybe don’t necessarily get the time of day in global media representations of Ethiopia or Africa.

That’s one way I was addressing it in this experience, but also going back to my education, and growing up in Cleveland. I mean, Africa really wasn’t in the curriculum. There were basic minimal things that we’d learn in terms of knowing world history. We’d talk about Africa for a short time, maybe learn about a king or two.

The Eurocentric curriculum had an impact on me that I didn’t realize until I had actually gotten out of that situation and I was surrounded by an environment, mainly in college, where I could learn more in depth about things like colonialism, and The White-Savior Industrial Complex.  The hierarchies that are perpetuated by systems of aid giving, that are centered on the giver, and not really structured in any way that is a sustainable solution for those who are “receiving”. This hierarchy was also perpetuated in high school; Africa wasn’t a part of the curriculum, it was a destination for service trips.

The only time I felt that Africa came up in school was to talk about this volunteer project where students would go for a week or something in the summer, and then volunteer at an orphanage. They’d come back with profile pictures of these Tanzanian children. That really hurt me at the time, it was really hard to express why it was so painful. I’m not saying don’t do good things, but there’s something seriously wrong with what’s happening here, and every time I tried to express my opinion on this it was just really shut down because people thought like, how can you be against helping people. Especially you, you’re Ethiopian. Of all people, you’re the one African person in your class-

Ainslee Robson

MARTIN: I know what you’re saying, there is so much potential to lift up these stories of these amazing Africans, and it gets lost by the causes. Last year I interviewed Oluwaseun Babalola about her series “SOJU”, and I loved it because every episode focused on a different aspect of South African life. And I asked myself, why aren’t more people telling those stories?

ROBSON: To experience that and to not know that it’s OK to feel upset about this, and have everyone around you reject that that’s an OK opinion to have was a really horrible experience of being silenced. That’s why the restaurant was so important, because I would be in this kind of headspace of self-censoring at school, and then come back home, codeswitch and (as I got older) work in the restaurant. I felt like an ambassador of the culture to a bunch of strangers. I got to brag about Ethiopia all the time, the food, the history, Empress Taytu, the coffee ceremony, and I took so much pride in that.

MARTIN: Coffee ceremony! I’d love to hear more about that later-

ROBSON: So there was such contrast in these spaces, and who I was allowed to be in each of them. I wanted to bring that into this VR experience. The school environment and experience is just represented by one school bus. I have one scene of the restaurant, one scene of the school bus, one scene of Ethiopia, and one in Addis Ababa integrated with scenes of interior spaces from my home. 

MARTIN: What’s next for the film, and how can people see it? 

ROBSON: I was lucky that Tribeca and SXSW had virtual premieres this year. And more people were able to see the film than if it was not online. That was really amazing because they made that happen. 

Then again, it was only reaching people who already had VR headsets, and a specific model. So I wouldn’t say it’s super accessible. I’d really love to take it to Ethiopia. Because these types of experiences don’t go there. That’s just super important to me. I don’t know when this pandemic is going to end, but that’s one place that I’d really like to take the film. It would also be pretty cool to bring it to more museum and university spaces.

VR experience of “Ferenj”, Copyright MU / Hanneke Wetzer / Ainslee Alem Robson

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