Soldier Brother

Soldier Brother creator Kaitlin Jones on siblings and war

I have only one sibling, a younger brother named Paul. I can’t imagine life without him. From our earliest childhood (I remember climbing into his crib at 4 – he would’ve been 2 and a half – and rocking out to invented songs involving rhythmic jumping and wild imaginary-banjo solos), to this day, Paul has been part of my daily consciousness. So much of him is me, and vice versa. We share more memories, for better of for worse, with each other than with anyone else.

Kaitlin Jones has a younger brother like that. Except this year, her brother was deployed to Afghanistan. Unhappy just sitting on her hands and waiting it out, she created Soldier Brother, an interactive project documenting her own experience of war, but on the home front. I spoke to her last week, on the phone from Toronto. Here is some of what we talked about.

Carolyne Weldon: To people who haven’t seen it, how do you describe Soldier Brother? What is it?

Kaitlin Jones: Basically, Soldier Brother is an interactive, online documentary depicting my own, as well as my family’s, reaction to my brother being at war. It stems from me not particularly wanting to be involved in a war, not particularly wanting to have an opinion about it, but being forced to, by circumstance. I’m not someone people would expect to have a brother in the army.  Yet I do. And everyone, I learned, seems to have preconceived ideas and notions about that. I suppose stereotypes exist for a reason, but I think we need to, and are capable of, moving past these. This is my attempt to offer a different, new perspective.

CW: You’re an artist. How is this interactive project different from the work you usually do?

KJ: Traditionally, I’ve done drawing. I’m a drawer. These days, I’m attending OCAD University [in Toronto], in the integrated media program. It’s a highly interdisciplinary program. There’s sculpture, electronics, video, interactivity… It’s like electric engineering for artists. University is really opening my eyes to new creative dimensions.

About Soldier Brother… at first I found the process daunting. There was a lot of writing involved, especially for someone like me who isn’t a writer. My interactive producer (Alicia Smith) was very nurturing throughout. She was great. The project, so personal in nature, brought up all these self-confidence issues, ego issues. I did pause and wonder, at points, whether I really did want to share my story… our story… but in the end it was a hugely validating experience, a coping mechanism of sorts.

CW: I noticed your brother is largely absent from Soldier Brother.  I mean, we see his objects, but we don’t see him. Was that a conscious decision on your part?

KJ: When I presented the idea to my family, they were not overly into it. There’s a joke in my family where we say we “don’t like to feel feelings.” This was bound to bring up “feelings”. Yet on my end, I felt the need to formulate a counterpoint to all you hear in the media about having family members at war, how it’s all about PTSD, and “not coming back the same”. And yes. For me, it was a conscious choice to keep him anonymous. It’s a bit a tribute to the Unknown Soldier, type-thing. I felt it was perhaps easier to connect to the narrative if it wasn’t so much about my own brother, but about anyone’s brother.

CW: You also leave the narrative open-ended. By the end of the project, we don’t know whether your brother is dead or alive, here or there.

KJ: When my brother was first deployed, I was glued to the media 24/7. I even saw him on the news once, super briefly. That was really good. It made it more real, in a way. Like yeah, he’s really there. After that, I came to realize no news is good news.

There are 2 things about the project not being more specific about my brother well-being or whereabouts. One, for the entire time I was working on the piece, I didn’t know whether he was coming home or not. Two, you really don’t want to tempt fate, or jinx anything. Until it was a few weeks away, we didn’t even want to think about the possibility of him really coming home. War’s like the lottery.

CW: Who is Soldier Brother’s audience? Who do you feel will relate to the project the most?

KJ: Hopefully, the project can and will appeal to everyone. I mean, I’m 28, I’m young, and you know, the hipster type. My friends are all very liberal. And here I am being forced to legitimize or defend my brother’s involvement in this war. Not an obvious fit! I feel people are missing a bit of perspective, over all. There’s a lot of assumption making. Even though you don’t have to agree with someone’s opinion, you still have to respect it. I’m finding harder and harder to just “agree to disagree”, as we say.

I feel there’s a real necessity, in these times, to revisit the concept of war, and its impacts on families. It will be interesting to see what happens on Remembrance Day this year. We always, consciously or not, relate Remembrance Days to WWII, to much older people, to senior citizens. Now it’s young guys, guys in their 20s and 30s were paying homage to. They’re our vets now.

Experience Soldier Brother on NFB/interactive