War in Chechnya. Refugees in Burma. Murders in Mexico. AIDS in Malawi: Four crises in four different parts of the globe. Within each one, countless stories most people haven't heard.
Mia Kirshner was one of those people. An actor, known for the Showtime TV series "The L Word" and the Brian De Palma film Black Dahlia, Kirshner realized she knew very little about these different regions of the world. So, when a creative impulse grabbed hold of her, she came up with a plan: to find a way to document those tales. Not so much through her own interpretation, but by having the affected people tell their experiences themselves. Eventually, she hopped on a plane. Her entire journey lasted years.
The result is a book called I Live Here (Pantheon, $29.95,) a... Well, just what is it? On one level, it's a collection of stories she gathered from those in the afflicted areas; on another level, it's a compendium of journal entries from her travels; on still another, it's a global narrative that incorporates graphic novellas, photography (taken by the people she met), and artwork. The text and images from each region are collected in their own beautifully bound glossy books, each 84 pages long. All four books are housed together in a foldout, hardback cover, the words "There are too many untold stories" scrawled inside. Taken together, it's a mesmerizing, yet educational, treatise of some of the world's abandoned citizens, with proceeds going to Amnesty International.
In every sense of the word, Kirshner calls the book a collaboration: Graphic illustrator Joe Sacco contributes a devastating novella of Chechnya; journalist J.B. MacKinnon adds non-fiction about Burma; a former creative design team for the alt magazine Adbusters offers assistance. But most importantly, people caught in the very vice of conflict relate their own experiences.
Just beginning a tour to spread the word about the book, Kirshner, who will be at Town Hall Mon., Oct. 27, spoke from L.A. about the project. In that conversation, she talked about the book's impetus, her trip south of the border, the woman she met in Malawi, and her cousin.
They call this sort of book a "paper documentary." So how did this come about?
It happened just before September 11, actually. It was just one of those light-bulb moments where you have that epiphany, like, "I have a very nice life, and I'm very fortunate to be able to work in my business, but creatively, I'm not satisfied." I also feel like I don't know a lot about what is going on in the rest of the world, except for what I read in the paper. Then September 11 happened. My biggest question about that was what responsibility do I have in terms of what happened? Because it's important to understand the events that lead up to that. And I think that, often, ignorance is a sign of abandonment. So that was the impetus.
How did you pick the locales you visited?
Basically, it was reflective of my own interests. I love comics, I love Joe Sacco, and I put together a very crude mock-up of what I aspired the book to be. And I did a lot of research, a ton of research. I basically looked for places that I felt, as a non-journalist, were really, really out of the media's eye and out of my eye,, and places that really caught my attention. Then I contacted Amnesty [International], and I told them I wanted to give them all my proceeds. And then I told my partners, Mike [Simons] and Paul [Shoebridge, creative directors of Adbusters], that the book would take seven months.
How long did it take?
Uh, seven years.
Where did you visit first?
Ingushetia, which borders Chechnya. I hadn't even heard of Ingushetia to begin with, and I could barely pronounce it, to be completely blunt. So it was this big leap of faith going to this region that I had read so much about at this point, and just doing my best to understand what had happened and what these people who had lived in Chechnya were doing in Ingushetia.
And had you ever been to a place like that before?
No, I hadn't. I really was going in with sort of -- how do I say this? -- I felt like I represented the average person out there who really didn't know what to expect. I came in there very humble, really not knowing what I was doing.
What did you see? What were your first impressions?
Everything I had read on the country -- I just expected the place to be overturned by bombs. But I saw a very beautiful place: rolling hills, pastures. And then I went inside the camps. They're not traditional refugee camps: They're in abandoned factories. And I was surprised by how open people were. I told them as much as I could about the project, because at that point the form was still a bit ambiguous. I was very clear in telling them I'm not a journalist. And the one thing that amazed me is, you would think that people that live in that kind of poverty would steal expensive photography equipment because I was giving them cameras to take pictures and a couple of times, stupidly, I left [equipment] behind. I always got it back. It really moved me: Nothing was ever stolen. I was never mistreated by anybody that I spoke with.
You also went to the border of Mexico and the United States.
Yeah, I went into Ju