Not only does Dr. Michael B. MacDonald’s latest film, Unspittable, shed light on the lived experiences of the Edmonton hip-hop group of the same name, the 32-minute work of ethnofiction is also breaking new ground in the study of music and culture.
“Cinema allows us to share information about the communities we’re working in with a much broader audience – at film festivals, screenings and ultimately by making films freely available so anyone can watch and learn,” explains the associate professor and ethnomusicologist who studies music in its cultural and social contexts. “This research is about trying to understand the legitimacy of the approach and figuring out a way forward.”
Unspittable expands on MacDonald’s research into Edmonton’s hip-hop scene, and fills a gap he identified after publishing his 2016 book Remix and Life Hack in Hip Hop. In part through conversations with members of Unspittable, MacDonald says he realized the book was missing the lived reality of young hip-hop artists in Alberta’s capital city.
“I could see that it was a problem and I wanted to address it,” says MacDonald.
So MacDonald, who has been making films since 2006, teamed up with Unspittable in the group’s infancy, following them over the next three years and shot individual scenes shaped by timelines that explored how each group member got into music, their individual perspectives on Indigenous hip hop in Edmonton and how their experiences interconnect.
Those individual scenes are woven together as flashbacks peppered within footage MacDonald shot before a live Unspittable performance, as group member Amplify reflected on the group's two-and-a-half years together and the struggles they endured.
The film has already appeared in six film festivals, most recently at the Hip Hop Film Fest in New York, winning two awards and reaching audiences far beyond those MacDonald says he could reach with a book.
The most satisfying part? “Seeing people watch the film and say, ‘This is where I’m from. This is the version of Edmonton I grew up in,’” says MacDonald. “From an ethnographic perspective, it means we presented the culture accurately. It also means that people who haven’t experienced that version of Edmonton get the opportunity to see a more expanded version of the city, and a better understanding of the lives of some of the people they may find themselves walking alongside as they make their way down Jasper Ave.”
As Unspittable finds its way to audiences around the world, MacDonald is continuing to conduct interviews and surveys to learn more about how audiences are receiving the film. The eventual product of his work will be another film – one that again uses ethnofiction, this time to dig into the ways Unspittable was studied and to show the process an ethnomusicologist goes through to plan, design and shoot an ethnofiction film.
Unspittable and Hunters, both filmed by MacDonald are being screened at Metro Cinema on Saturday, August 29.
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