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Film professor Kim NelsonFilm professor Kim Nelson is producing a live documentary exploring the food and culture of Arab-Canadians and -Americans along the Windsor-Detroit border.

Live documentary project to give audience a say

Imagine going to the movies and having a say in the scene that’s shown next.

That’s what UWindsor film professor Kim Nelson is proposing with her latest research project: a live interactive documentary called Pitas and Passports.

The documentary will focus on the concepts of immigration and belonging, and the role food plays in the sociocultural identity of Arab-Canadians in Windsor and Arab-Americans in Dearborn.

The first part of the show will be like a traditional documentary, except that the narration and music will be live. For the remainder of the performance, the audience gets the chance to ask questions or give commentary. Nelson will play clips that illustrate what’s being said or asked, the content being mixed live.

Because of the audience’s influence on the performance, no two screenings will be the same.

And, in what’s described as “edible cinema,” the audience will sample foods during the performance that match what’s shown on the screen.

“Our aim is to expand the borders of live cinema through engaging live music and exploring multimedia staging, framed around cinematic projections and open interaction with the audience,” said Nelson, who is directing the film. “It’s an art form, a performance model, a dissemination vehicle, and an engine of engaged discourse.”

The project, which will involve more than a dozen students, has been awarded a $97,000 grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Filming began last month and will wrap up by the end of October, Nelson said. Fellow School of Creative Arts professor Nick Hector, winner of a Gemini Award and a Hot Doc award for the film Prey, and the 2019 Canadian Cinema Editors Award for his work on Sharkwater Extinction, will edit Pitas and Passports. Nelson’s husband Rob Nelson, a UWindsor history professor who is an expert on the Windsor-Detroit border, is helping with the research. He will narrate the film and field questions and comments from the audience.

UWindsor’s Brent Lee will compose the music for the film. He will perform and mix the live score.

Other collaborators include UWindsor psychology professor Jill Jackson, artist and scholar Jaclyn Meloche, artist and new media expert Chris Salter, award-winning filmmaker Cyrus Sundar Singh, and film scholar Robert Burgoyne. They have consulted filmmaker Sam Green who originated the form.

The plan, said Nelson, is to enter the documentary into film festivals. The project will form the basis of journal articles and research papers.

Nelson said she came up with the idea for the project by looking at the local social landscape.

Windsor is home to the largest concentrated Arab-Canadian population in Canada. Dearborn, part of metropolitan Detroit, is home to the largest Arab and Muslim population in the United States.

“The Windsor-Detroit border runs through the largest Arab foodway in North America,” Nelson said.

The film will examine how the border thickened after Sept. 11, 2001, resulting in a more Arab-Canadian culture that, in food, manifested itself in fusions, such as shawarma poutine.

The documentary takes viewers to various homes and eateries on both sides of the border. Scenes feature young Lakeshore entrepreneur Ameen Fadel who founded food company Cedar Valley Selections on his mother’s fattoush salad dressing recipe and UWindsor history student Ronnie Haidar, taking viewers to a hookah bar and some of his favourite places to eat.

“The goal is to create a communal exchange of ideas, to hear how others react to the experience of the show and to make that a part of the spectacle,” said Nelson. “The audience is engaged in a very specific way. They are invited to raise their hands, grab a microphone, and speak.”

Nelson and her partners last collaborated on the SSHRC-funded Docum’istory Project, which produced the film 130 Year Road Trip.

─ Sarah Sacheli