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One academic and his camera: how OU lecturer opens a window on life in the steppes

Photo by John Oates of Kyrgyz family at home
29 April 2019

Those who fear traditional local cultures are doomed in our today’s global, interconnected world, can take heart from Open University researcher John Oates’ latest documentary film.

Steppe to City: childhood in Kyrgyzstan, opens a window on to a centuries-old way of life surviving cheek by jowl with the digital age.

The short film, observing nomadic Kyrgyz people as they prepare to celebrate the spring new year festival of Nooruz with modern music and ancient fire rituals, featured in the 2019 Learning on Screen Awards ceremony on 25 April. 

It was one of three nominees in the ‘best educational film from a college or university’ category.

And like John’s earlier multi-award-winning film Vortex, which explored Roma culture in Hungary, Steppe to City approaches its subject from the viewpoint of children. 

John is a filmmaker – he studied photography and graphics at art school and worked at the Royal College of Art – an ethnographer and a specialist in developmental psychology whose work has led to, among other things, the establishment of a network of Sure Start Children’s Centres in Hungary.

His interests in visual media and child development have frequently combined; he spent ten years on the production team of the OU/BBC series Child of Our Time, and was media ethics advisor on the recent BBC drama series about autism, The A Word. He leads the British Psychological Society Media Ethics Advisory Group.

He also produces material for Open University courses – Steppe to City is planned to be incorporated into a new Level 3 undergraduate module being planned on International Childhoods, part of WELS’ Childhood and Youth programme.

The Learning on Screen recognition for Steppe to City is particularly satisfying for John because this film is the first that he has made ‘totally by myself’ – apart from the services of an editor, Nick Calori, director of Shufflefilms.

John was inspired by his fascination with the encounter which is taking place across the world between ancient ways of life and modernity, he says.

“The nomads’ lives are changing because of technology, they now have houses in the winter; but at other times they still travel around with their yurts and animals and there is a strong celebration of their culture.”

The actual filming involved John and his camera heading out into remote parts of the steppe in a four-wheel drive vehicle, taken by a ‘friend of a friend’ to meet and gain the trust and acceptance of nomadic families. 

Although this pared-down approach is dictated by a low budget, the absence of a film crew and its associated paraphernalia was an advantage, he says, creating less of a barrier between him and the people he was filming.

“The key is making an emotional connection with people. You have to show interest and respect.

“I have been very fortunate to have people accept me into their lives – it is a great privilege to see how they live from the inside.”

Watch Steppe to City here.


Photo by John Oates

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