Shebana Coelho is a writer, director and filmmaker, who has produced radio and TV documentaries for BBC Radio Four, NPR’s On the Media, the Discovery Channel and Nickelodeon. She received a 2007 Fulbright grant to Mongolia to experience and record life in nomadic communities, and recently completed the radio documentary, On the Move in Mongolia, a series of sound portraits of Mongolian women. Her Vela story “Snow in Mongolia” focuses on her year in Mongolia, and the way it changed her as a traveler. Here, she answers our questions about sound and storytelling.
1. On the Move in Mongolia is a series of “sound portraits of Mongolian women.” You have extensive experience as a producer for radio – NPR, the BBC, and so on– as well as a background as a fiction writer. Why did you choose in this instance to rely predominantly on sound as your medium for narrative? How do you think the stories you found in Mongolia could be told differently through sound, and how does that medium shape storytelling?
In Mongolia, I wanted to travel light. Really the experience was the thing, the recording of it secondary. I took my microphone out when I felt moved to do so, and put it away when I also felt moved to do so. Plus a microphone and a small sound recorder fit into baggy pockets of loose pants. Or in the pocket of my “ger” outfit when I went out herding/walking.
Sound is a wonderful medium for storytelling. A veteran radio producer friend was given to saying that radio is actually very visual. Even more so than film, he would argue. I love the sounds of voices and songs. Maybe it’s because I am prone to getting overwhelmed and with one sense shut off, the other one really resonates. When I’m editing sound for example, when I’m stuck, I close my eyes and listen so I can hear better.
2. You chose to focus on women in particular. Was this an explicit decision on your part, the result of a cultural barrier, or both? What appealed to you about the experiences of these women?
I chose to focus on women only for the first radio/multimedia piece. Meaning when I was in Mongolia I recorded everyone, everything, male female animal mineral. Most of my recording was in the countryside. Usually when I got to the city, I was resting after being in the countryside and recorded little. I came back to the U.S. with hours and hours of audio and images. A wonderful producer named Stephanie Guyers-Stevens got in touch – she is the founder of a remarkable multimedia project called Outer Voices, which tells stories of women in remote regions. Stephanie said, “I bet you have stories of women in Mongolia,” and [asked me to] produce a piece for Outer Voices. Initially I was going to go back to Mongolia and record new stuff but then we talked some more and she said, “I think you might have all the material we need.” And I went through my stuff, thought about the women who had moved me, to whom I had connected and began editing. That’s how I tend to work – I go to the specific, to the story, and let it tell itself, and then shape a larger piece.
So I just kept revising moments – like for example, meeting the horse trainer, Munkhtsetseg. I always meant to return to visit her and didn’t and so she had lingered. And Amaglan and her deep joy of life in spite or maybe because of the sudden tragedy of the accident. It felt like everyone would be graced to hear what Amaglan had to say.
3. What sorts of equipment did you use in recording the documentary? What strategies and tactics did you use, and how did they differ and also coincide with those one might use in traditional reporting?
My mics were Shure VP 64 and Beyer Dynamic M58. I recorded on a Sony MZ N707 – a mini disc player! A hardy one too that lasted for days on one lithium battery. I wasn’t exactly around electricity so having a long-lasting battery powered hardy recorder mattered.
When I recorded I tried to make it collaborative. I’d say – well, I think your story would be a good story for people to hear, what do you think we should record. And people would say, well, I think you need to record me singing to really understand who I am. I would tell everyone this is to be shared – I’m recording to share your stories, whether it’s with U.S. audiences or Mongolian radio audiences.
It was very different from my background in broadcast TV when I would ask questions knowing the answers I needed to edit the piece together. I think Mongolia was my reaction against anything that reeked of that technique.
I just followed my curiosity, really – that was the strategy. I had no idea what would come of all these recordings. Before I went to Mongolia I had all these plans: make a radio documentary series, make a series of immersive multimedia exhibits – all of which I still want to do – but once I got to Mongolia, between learning the language in the city and getting used to life in a ger in the hoodoo countryside and communicating and getting lost, I just simplified and tried to focus on one moment at time. For example, with Onika, we just sat down one evening with her Mongolian textbooks and she began reading that poem about a traditional woman; or with Jainaa the singer. She had a soft voice and I had a feeling she had a beautiful song in her. And it just so happened that evening, we ate dinner and I asked about a song and she said, sure.
4. In “Snow in Mongolia,” you write, “It makes me think that perhaps, my facility with the language had less to do with having a ‘good ear’ and more to do with being so open: without buffers, so that everything around me in Mongolia came right on in. Did I go there without buffers or did the buffers disappear when I arrived?”
How was your journey in Mongolia different from your experiences traveling, recording, and reporting in other places? What changed here? Has your subsequent work been affected by it and if so, how?
Mongolia was my big adventure. I mean big. I mean adventure. I’d always wanted one of those. And with the Fulbright research grant, knowing I had almost a year to explore – that was such a gift. The length of time – that made a huge difference. My other trips were maybe 1-2 months tops at a time. I think the gift of time was the game changer – it allowed me to really settle into the culture. After Mongolia, I trusted my instincts more, and found my own way of documenting or storytelling. Maybe one way to explain it is: I follow first, question later.
5. You grew up in Bombay and now live in the U.S., and many of your stories involve immigrant communities or indigenous communities, and in particular artists and figures who’ve influenced the collective imagination of these communities. What is it that appeals to you about these communities? What kinds of stories do you find yourself drawn to, and why?
It’s always so interesting to hear your work defined. I feel after I’ve been doing my work for another 10 years, maybe I’ll have words to describe it – what, wherefore, how …
Now I’m in this place of reaction – something, some detail resonates and I react by creating. I was talking to a friend recently about how we both are slow to define our work compared to other friends who are quicker. And I said, you know, Meghan – we have to speak our silence as loud as their words. Part of what I think I meant by speak our silence is – well, just do the work, just write the story, dance the dance, sing the song.
Don’t miss Shebana’s story “Snow in Mongolia.” You can watch her full-length documentary, On the Move in Mongolia, below: