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Crowd-Sourcing Contemporary History: François Beaune’s Histoires Vraies and the Cultural Capital of the Mediterranean
- Written by Eman Jueid
- Category: Culture
Beaune, author of Un Homme Louche (A Strange Man) and Un Ange Noir (Black Angel), has shifted gears, now traveling the Mediterranean in search of “true stories,” that will result in a “crowd-sourcing” of contemporary social history. For the next year, he’ll be traveling to 13 Mediterranean port cities- Marseille, Barcelona, Tangier, Algiers, Tunis, Benghazi, Alexandria, Haifa, Ramallah, Beirut, Latakia, Izmir, Athens and Palermo- meeting locals and documenting true stories of ordinary people. The stories are then published on his travel log Histoires Vraies de Méditerranée, also open to the public, and users can upload their own stories directly on the project website. The collected stories will be featured as part of the celebrations for the selection of Marseilles-Provence as the Capitol of Mediterranean Culture in 2013.
I asked Beune what prompted him to collect the stories of others: “In 2009, I discovered writing as a job but I was stuck behind this table in literature salons or festivals and book fairs, and it was completely absurd. I told a guy doing the festival that if writing was going to be a job for me, to make it useful, the thing to do would be to give me a table and tell me his story; that’s what I’m supposed to be doing…” Beaune’s inspiration came, in part, from Paul Auster’s similar 2001 project on 20th century America for NPR. “It’s really the micro-history incarnated in daily life that, being an ex-history student, is really relevant,” he elaborated. “For example, the perspective of an individual that tells his intimate story, his own experience, the important essential anecdote that you will never forget… that’s really what a true story is.”
What accounts for the shift from Auster’s America to Beaune’s Mediterranean? Histoires Vraies is based in Marseilles, but “one thing that was important…I wanted unity and something that’s beyond [France’s] borders. I started working, collecting from Paris, but it was much more interesting to use the Mediterranean pretext. I’m not looking for inherent characteristics, I don’t want to use ‘Olive Oil’ and ‘goat cheese,’ because things are much more globalized than that. Also, I didn’t want to deal with ‘the nation.’ I don’t want to use culture to sell the weapons …I just want to hear individuals, I don’t want to help countries, nations, get together and have a nice chat. It’s the individuals.
“Take a look at the American economy: it wouldn’t work without Hollywood. That makes everything come to life, it’s like the glue and the purpose and the consequence and the cause of everything. Without it, products wouldn’t exist...The merchandise America sells to the world is all based on storytelling and, ‘how sexy I’m going to make history.’ It started with the nephew of Freud in 1917, when he was asked to sell the first World War to the Americans, and there’s pros for that—invented mass merchandization of stories, basically.”
We discussed at length the differences in material, given variant political climates of Mediterranean countries in comparison to the United States, and Beaune noted, “people wouldn’t feel so free, for example, in Libya to talk freely. They’re not used to talking that freely or to reinventing themselves. Even if the culture is mainly oral, people would be more hesitant because…I would say because story telling is something you do between friends. Having said that, we don’t really know yet, because we’re just starting the project. I hope many people will contribute and see it as an open field—a space where they can express themselves. It can be anonymous, and in any language the user chooses.”
The choice to include a multiplicity of languages is not merely for ease of access, but, rather Beaune argues, a necessity: “We can’t avoid, in my opinion, listening to people, the music of languages, which is what Salmon Rushdie was trying to do when he wrote Midnight’s Children. What’s so important is trying to show what a crowd is about—seven or eight languages at the same time, in those massive crowds of Bombay… he created a literary style with long sentences, enumerations, mixing images that could actually express this crowd to the world…it may sound pretentious, but it’s all globalized—even in a small village in France, you have to be aware of what’s going on in Morocco.”
More than a celebration of culture or a forum for communication, François Beaune views Histoires Vraies as a forum for creativity and collaboration. Stories are published unedited, uncurated, as public domain and rights-free so that others can take a story and re-interpret it any way they like. A group in Morocco is currently adapting some of the stories into a graphic novel. A filmmaking class in Tunis is producing 14 short documentaries based on a selection of stories. Beaune himself will write a book and a play based on the project, both expected for release next year. Of his control over the material Beaune explains, “It’s an open source we are creating. All the language coming from those countries, they are completely copy-left. There’s no author, there’s no text. I’d be the one writing it in my way, if he wants to write the same story his way, it’s not the same story. It’s the talent of the author that makes the difference. For me, stories are copy-left… Copy-left and copyright—if everything was copy-left, we would have more rights.
It’s a stark contrast to our pop culture celebrity-driven culture, yet Histoires Vraies’s power comes from its quest and ability to capture the beauty of daily minutiae that so often goes unnoticed or taken for granted.
“I hope people will share their stories for the pleasure of it,” Beaune concluded. “That’s essential to the project. Something I always say, my grandfather always says, is ‘we don’t all have a book to write, because it’s a just a pain in the ass to write a book, but we all have a true story to share.’”
*Photo Credit: Courtesy of the author
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