Virtual-Dinner-Guest-Project-Creativity-Peacemeal

The Virtual Dinner Guest Project

The Virtual Dinner Guest Project is an innovative idea that sets the table for peace-making.

Within the context of a shared meal, two groups of people from different countries are brought together.

Both sides are linked by video conferencing, hence the ‘virtual’ part of the project’s title. The participants ask each other questions and learn about each other’s culture while enjoying their food.

At the end, each side poses a final question to the other. They then take back the question to their own streets, talking to ordinary people and learning about their own communities. The entire thing is filmed, producing a collaborative film which is then shared with the rest of the world.

We spoke to Eric from the Virtual Dinner Guest project to find out more…

 

How did the Virtual Dinner Guest project originally start?

Well, I’m going to have to go back a bit here to give some context.

I completed my graduate field research in the West Bank, studying international conflict resolution. I travelled back and forth across the wall, to interview people who had gone through the creation of the state of Israel.

After running around with a camera – I knew nothing about film – I had a very basic documentary, which was just filming people in their kitchens and getting some environment shots. That led to winning a grant from the film office in New Mexico. I received a small amount of funding to go and do a similar project, but this time across the US – Mexico border.

US Mexico Border Virtual Dinner Guest Project
US-Mexico Border, Nogalez, Sonora, Mexico (Many of the crosses read ‘Desconocido’ or ‘unknown’).

I started travelling back and forth across the border, doing street interviews, going into people’s homes and just trying to orient myself with all the different stakeholders in that conflict. People who are for the existing fence, people who are against it, from all walks of life.

At some point in 2009 or 2010, I had an epiphany. I thought, ‘I don’t want to be the filter here.’ People need to talk to each other directly, Americans need to listen to Mexicans and vice versa.

I wanted to figure out a way to get people to sit and talk together in an informal way, without any imbalance in power dynamic; and without creating something that’s culturally familiar to one side and not the other. It’s important that everyone’s on an equal footing.

So I thought, well, food and dinner are two things that everyone has experienced. The dinner table is a common place for people to discuss all manner of subjects. The dinner table is arguably the world’s oldest and most universal social form. All people know how to create community around food.

The dinner table is arguably the world’s oldest and most universal social form. All people know how to create community around food.

I decided to have a dinner in Juarez, Mexico, just across the river from El Paso, Texas.

I published a story in the local paper about it: the context was meeting with local Mexican families and having them agree to put Skype in their living rooms and connect to people in the US.

I did a couple of these encounters, and then some people in Pakistan found out about what we were doing and they wanted to do it, too. So, I did another connection from New Mexico to Karachi, then one to an NGO in Uganda. Since then, I’ve been all over.

Virtual Dinner Juarez Mexico
Getting ready for the first ever Virtual Dinner in Juarez, Mexico.

 

When people take part in a virtual dinner, do they cook something from each other’s countries?

The ideal scenario is that you cook a recipe from the other side.

You can then open the dinner with talking about your experience of cooking and eating it. You’re literally being nourished by the other culture as you open the engagement.

Virtual Dinner Guest food Cairo
Traditional Yemeni food.

But what do you do when you’re connecting the Netherlands to Mexico? Mexican food is easy enough but what’s the other side going to do?

If it’s a place like India and Pakistan where the food is pretty similar, that’s its own kind of icebreaker. More or less Urdu and Hindi are the same language and they can see how the food is similar too.

However, I’m working out in countries where sometimes the infrastructure, or attitudes about punctuality, make it difficult to do a lot of preparation.

 

Are these dinners only possible where both sides speak the same language?

I’m glad you asked that. It’s an Anglo-centric project, which is a limiting factor.

If everybody’s speaking English on both sides of the connection, and you’re in a country where most of the population doesn’t speak English, you’ve reinforced all sorts of class divisions.

When we go out on the street, we conduct all the interviews in the local language, we don’t select people for their ability to speak English at all. In India we had to use five languages: English, Hindi and 3 local languages.

When we go out on the street, we conduct all the interviews in the local language…In India we had to use five languages.

In the Middle East it’s mostly done in Arabic. My Arabic isn’t great, and I couldn’t moderate one of these conversations.

I’ve done a few where I’ve said, “Look, I’m the only obstacle here to clear communication, so speak Arabic and I’ll trust that you’re going to have an interesting conversation.”

Virtual-Dinner-Guest=Project-Cairo-Netherlands
Egypt dining with The Netherlands.

 

Where does film-making come into the project?

The reason that we do the film-making is that just having people meet to talk and eat, can be insufficient to create any kind of measurable impact.

There are five to seven people on each side (any more than that and it can lose its intimacy) and how is anyone else going to see this if it’s only fourteen people at a time?

So, we give the participants something to do that gets them out in front of the public. That’s where the film-making part comes in. There’s more to it than just creating content. Getting people to go out on the street is a transformative process in itself.

There’s more to it than just creating content. Getting people to go out on the street is a transformative process in itself.

Virtual Dinner Guest Project Creativity Peacemeal
Syrian refugee camp, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon.

If you’re a cultural elite in your country, say it’s a developing country, you might have more in common with the people on the US side of the connection than you do with the public in your own country.

You’d have a privileged background, an English language education and the free time to do something like this.

It’s a requirement that they go and interact with people that they might normally ignore, people in their own community.

In doing that they have their minds opened, and by filming it they are sharing that new understanding with others.

 

So, then you end up doing some sort of internal peace-making within the country, as well as peace-making between different nations and cultures.

Exactly. And I think that’s essential.

That was a failing that I realised I had, after a year and a half of doing this project. It was emphasising too much the kind of exotic nature of these intercultural connections, instead of realising that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done within these communities.

There’s tons of prejudice within any community. There were Egyptians that wouldn’t meet me in downtown Cairo, or when they did come they were taking selfies and treating is as if it was an exotic place to be.

I’d say that 80% of the actual work that takes place is through interface with your own community.

Virtual Dinner Guest project filming
Street interviews in Amsterdam for The Virtual Iftar Project: Amsterdam-Gaza.

 

Is that one of the things which makes the Virtual Dinner Guest project special? That it shows the full diversity of the community and makes people more ‘human’ to each other?

Absolutely, that’s a huge part of it.

The content of what people are saying matters, but in some ways it’s just about putting a face and a voice to a particular group. When people sit down and eat together, it’s a purely practical way of connecting.

When people sit down and eat together, it’s a purely practical way of connecting.

Coming from a pretty conservative background, I’ve had a lot of awakening experiences in my travels through random acts of charity and hospitality. In a lot of places where I’ve travelled, hospitality is a real point of cultural pride.

Virtual Dinner Guest Project Gaza Food
Family dinner in Gaza City, Gaza, Palestine.

For people who’ve never met a Palestinian before, their idea of a Palestinian could be an amalgam of various stereotypes, based on recycled media presentations of extremism and violence.

But if your first actual encounter takes place through something like the VDG project, you just see some guy in Gaza, bouncing his kid on his knee and eating a meal with his family.

That makes it difficult to maintain a simplistic view of someone’s identity.

Travelling in the Middle East, I started interacting with people within those communities and realised that Muslims are just as diverse as Christians are.

Not everybody takes their religion super seriously in Muslim countries, and the overwhelming majority of those who are devout are not extreme or violent people. That’s the reality I’ve encountered, face-to-face, in many Muslim majority countries.

 

This project could connect different faiths, but also people of the same faith with different understandings. Have you ever done this project with churches?

That’s a good question. I’m not particularly religious but a lot of my programming is focused on religion or faith, particularly the Islamic faith.

I’m really down for interfaith work, but I have to make it clear that we’re a non-partisan, non-sectarian organisation.

I’d love to get Christians from rural Texas speaking to Maronite Christians from Lebanon, I mean they’re barely going to recognise each other’s faiths. I think intra-faith projects could be very interesting, but interfaith work is so critical right now.

Virtual Dinner Guest Project Food Peacemaking Creativity
Beirut dines with Amsterdam.

 

What effect do you think that the Virtual Dinner Guest project has on the people that take part? Have you had any feedback from participants?

The anecdotal examples are abundant.

I remember one occasion when we were going around with an all-female team in Bangalore, India. We’d connected India and Brazil, and the Brazilian group had given the Indian group a question about women’s rights.

We went around Bangalore for a few days asking questions about the state of women’s rights in India. We spoke to everybody that we could get to talk to us on camera, from the tuk-tuk drivers to university professors who were having their lunch, and beggars in the streets.

I remember at one point a participant said, “I can’t remember the last time I spoke to so many strangers in an afternoon.”

I remember at one point a participant said, “I can’t remember the last time I spoke to so many strangers in an afternoon.”

There was some reluctance to speak to people who were very poor. Participants were saying that the beggars wouldn’t feel comfortable, that they wouldn’t have much to say.

I took the approach that there would be no harm in asking. There’s something to be said for validating their right to speak.

Virtual Dinner Guest project filming
Street interviews in Bangalore, for VDG Project India-Brazil.

 

How can people support the project or maybe, if they felt inspired, do something like this themselves?

The short answer is that if people want to support the project, they can go to Open Roads Media website (our NGO based in Amsterdam), or to the Virtual Dinner Guest website to donate.

Virtual Dinner Guest Project
Street interviews in Pristina, Kosovo, for the Virtual Iftar Project.

We need cash to be able to start thinking about our next project. After five years of running around with a backpack and a laptop, everything is starting to fall apart and we need new equipment.

If people want to take part in the project, that requires a budget. Typically, we need an institution to provide the funding.

We work with universities, small media outlets, or small NGO’s to collaborate on a project artistically. They might also provide the participants with the basic media skills to be able to do the film-making side of the project.

You might know of an organisation or community that funds things like this. If you want to do the project, you can reach out to me and we’ll talk about finding a funder.

Find out more about the Virtual Dinner Guest Project

Virtual Dinner Guest Project Peacemeal Creativity
Beirut talks to students at Yale University.

All the information you need, including how to support or get involved with the Virtual Dinner Guest project, is available on the Virtual Dinner Guest website.

The Virtual Dinner Guest film archive lets you watch some of the videos made as a result of the ‘virtual dinners’ and the street conversations that took place afterwards.

All images reproduced with permission from the Virtual Dinner Guest Project.

 

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