Posts tagged ‘film’
July 17, 2012
Not too long ago I was fortunate enough to be invited to be a discussant at the Göttingen Ethnographic Film Festival Symposium, Participatory – what does it mean? Participatory cinema and participatory video under consideration. Participatory is a word we hear with increasing frequency in visual anthropology, particularly in relation to filmmaking (indeed I have used and written about participatory video on this blog). But the word is often bandied about with little consideration to what it actually means, either in theory or in practice.
During the GIEFF symposium we spent three days talking about this term, and its practical applications. Turns out there is almost no consensus on how the term is used, with just about everyone using and understanding the term differently: from hardcore believers who advocate no input in the video / film-making process themselves, to others whose use of the term relates only to their seeking feedback from certain participants. To still others anything anthropological is participatory, because anthropological knowledge is built through intersubjective relations with others, and thereby participatory in their very nature. Neither did we come to a consensus on the term during the three days. But we did have a lot of interesting debates, some of which were fairly energetic, particularly those concerning whether the methods robust enough to be used in academic research?
Participatory video and participatory cinema essentially have two different theoretical foundations, but as time goes on and their popularity grows, the terms are becoming increasingly blurred. Evolving out of Development, Participatory Video (PV) is about working as a group to solve a problem. It assumes an issue to be dealt with, and insists on limited or no video-making from the ‘facilitators’, but on all elements of the video-making process being done by the participating community. But there are many issues caught up in these assumptions: to assume a problem in a community inevitably creates one, although it may not be the one that is the most important or pressing to various people in the group. To assume that a group or a whole community is inherently honest, cohesive and homogenous is both unrealistic and problematic. To insist that communities would be video-making if only they knew how, and we are the ones who can teach them that is both paternalistic and derogatory.
Participatory cinema meanwhile was a term initially developed by David MacDougall in opposition to Observational Cinema: participatory cinema encouraged an active participation from the film’s subjects, although mostly with the control being maintaining by the director / film-maker. It shares some intellectual concepts of Jean Rouch’s ‘shared anthropology’, not least in that in reality the levels of participation are somewhat limited and in some cases appear to be more a wave in the direction of a contemporary buzzword.
Narratives on participatory methods tend to be celebratory. Many filmmakers and researchers (myself included) have been somewhat over simplistic in their discussions on the subject, and whilst the positive aspects of the methods have been repeatedly emphasised, there is almost no critical discourse on the subject. It does exist (for example Wheeler’s (2009) article on her work in Brazil outlined several issues) but it is hard to find. One of the subjects that repeatedly arose throughout the symposium was the potential of participatory methods in anthropological research. Anthropology is about learning about other peoples’ worlds. This might be explored through participatory methods, but can we really learn the intricacies and nuances of life in a group? Anthropological knowledge is built on intimate relationships of trust, which are invariably built up one-to-one. How do you build trust and intimacy in a group? How can you avoid ‘invisible’ power relations from acting? Can you get to the discords that are so telling about informants’ lifeworlds? What about the missing voices: who doesn’t take part and why? Do participatory methods encourage a simplified version of events that ignores the complex nuances of community issues? Is a film made using participatory methods really any more ‘honest’ and ‘authentic’ than a more traditional film? What effect does the participatory method have on the actions and attitudes of the community?
The disjunctures that inevitably exist within communities, and the nuanced complexities of life are rarely (if ever) made apparent in participatory film or video, which almost exclusively present communities as cohesive, homogenous groups with shared aims and desires. As anthropologists we should be careful of presenting such simplified stories. On the other hand, good anthropology includes reflection by the researcher on their position, assumptions, presentation of the other, and effect on the research. Participatory methods potentially help this reflection, especially where participants have active control of the media: by enabling people to present themselves, participatory methods encourages the researcher to question their presentation of others, and it potentially can encourage a more collaborative, inter-subjective building of knowledge. In addition, using methods such as PV may allow us to align our research interests with the concerns of the community, which is an ideal ethical position.
To really explore the potential of PV as a research tool we need to push beyond the celebratory nature of most presentations and critically analyse both the potentialities for use, and our motivations for using it. We need to avoid the assumptions and paternalistic approach that so often accompany discussions on participatory methods: that they avoid hierarchy and power relations; that the story heard is the most important one; that everyone who wants to be involved is able to; that visual methods are the best (or automatically culturally appropriate) mode of exploration.
This post may sound extremely critical of the use of participatory methods. That’s not my aim: I think there is a strong potential in their use both as a research tool and as a means of encouraging collaboration and a more engaged, public anthropology. But before unquestioningly adopting these methods, we have a duty to ourselves, our discipline and, more importantly, to our participants to question our motivations behind their adoption, and to assess their place in our work. Only when we have asked these questions of ourselves, and addressed our concerns, should we jump in to participate.
February 23, 2012
Ever wondered what visual anthropology is all about? What does it include, and what sort of research is conducted by visual anthropologists? We thought you might, so we’ve put together a short video compiling some of the work from the MA programme at the University of Kent, UK.
The programme teaches students a range of visual techniques to allow students to explore the world of anthropology – techniques ranging from still photography, to digital video making, to social media. With a number of external experts teaching on the course (for example the photographer James Kriszyk, the editor Alan Miller, campaign filmmaker Zoe Broughton to name but three examples), as students on this course we learnt a huge amount, not just about the academic applications of visual anthropology, but also how it can feed into the wider world at large, and ultimately therefore a more publically engaged anthropology. As a result our final projects have ranged from exploring life within a community of people with and without learning disabilities in Kent, to documenting threatened traditional medical systems in Ladakh, to looking at the impacts of their work on human rights workers, and much more besides. But enough from me: watch the video and explore what visual anthropology is all about yourself.
November 4, 2011
The use of visual research methods is often celebrated as a useful method in participatory research. But what happens when the research centres on vulnerable people, including people with quite profound learning disabilities? How can you conduct participatory research in these communities? Are visual methods appropriate?
During the research for my MA dissertation I had to confront all of these issues. I spent the summer of 2011 with the community of L’Arche Kent as part of the research for my MA thesis. My research explored concepts of home and community, and how it is within these structures that the community enables an environment of acceptance and equality for people with learning disabilities that is so rarely achieved in the wider society. The final product of my research was a dissertation in two parts: the film Living Together (above) and a written thesis (read it here).
Who are L’Arche Kent?
Part of the wider L’Arche International community (5,000 people in over 130 different countries), L’Arche Kent is a community of over 100 people with and without learning disabilities living in six houses across Kent. The severity of disability in the community varies from mild with only minimal support needs to profound with intensive one-to-one, or sometimes two-to-one 24-hour support needs. The ages in the community range from 0 – 60 something, and right now there are people from 17 different countries in the community.
Evidently, if I wanted to conduct inclusive research in such a community I had to use a method which not only cut across age barriers, but which was also understandable to people from different countries as well as accessible to people of many differing abilities. Which meant I needed a very accessible research methodology, something that would enable participation by even the most disabled people. And so I decided upon video.
Video lent itself to this research because of its flexibility and the number of ways it encourages participation between the researcher and the people they are collaborating with. It also meant I could produce a final version of the research which was accessible to the community. Video really lets people take part in a way that more traditional research methods do not. This is especially true with people who are non-literate and / or non-verbal, or with learning disabilities of varying degrees, who may not be able to undergo long conversations or interviews.
Cameras, video and TV are a part of everyday life here in the UK, and as such are understood and understandable to the majority of people. Add to this the flexibility that filming provides and we start to see some of the advantages of using this method: I had people filming me, filming themselves, filming each other, putting on plays for the camera (alone and in groups), directing me and each other, interviewing me and each other, helping in the editing, taking part just by being in the room and occasionally shouting suggestions. People borrowed cameras to film their own lives; some people simply enjoyed watching what was going on. The beauty of a camera (both still and moving) is the number of people who want to take part. And because people were having fun it made my research really easy – I had no issues with access, no problems with getting people to take part and most importantly no issues of people feeling disconnected and therefore exploited by the research. This also meant that the community had equal ownership of the project. All of these meant that most people within the community wanted the project to succeed as much as I did, which made a huge difference, and helped balance the ethnographer – informant relationship in their favour.
Using Steady Wings to improve accessibility
One of the major factors helping make video accessible in my research was the use of Steady Wings. Designed by filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich, Steady Wings are an amazing piece of equipment which offer a range of filming possibilities outside of the traditional norms. You can see them in use during Sarah’s portions of Living Together – nearly all of her filming was done using this equipment. In my research they helped make a camera easy to use for less mobile people, and less intimidating for many others – having the camera mounted on a set of Steady Wings allowed people to easily hold and move with the camera, pass it amongst themselves, or simply explore different angles and views – offering different views of the world, smoother movements, and the freedom to play without worry. They took the worry out of handling unfamiliar equipment and made it fun, and ultimately led to a much greater involvement by some of the disabled members of the community than I originally imagined possible.
Of course as with any research there are some aspects of using film that need care and consideration: informed consent was a concern; ensuring people understood what was happening was sometimes challenging, although not as challenging as managing the expectations of some members of the community who thought they were going to become famous Hollywood stars following my time in the community, and the one problem that I did not forsee was the difficulty in getting back some of the borrowed cameras at the end of the research period! Whilst some have argued that any research with vulnerable people is exploitative, I personally believe that so long as proper care and consideration is taken, these issues are no more complex in conducting research with people with learning disabilities than with any other group, and in fact film offers quite the reverse, allowing people to speak for themselves, rather than have others speak for them.
I really enjoyed my time with L’Arche Kent. As well as being integral for my MA thesis, the filmed work has enabled me to produce a number of shorts which L’Arche Kent are using on their website, and I continue to be involved in the community. My findings on home and community made a contribution to the literature, but in the end the learning I will take away from this was that research in difficult circumstances becomes, if not easy, then at least possible, if you use a method that allows people to be involved as much as possible and to feel really involved. I’m not sure there is a better method than video for this, but that point remains open to debate.
April 10, 2011
In her film Rehearsing Reality, Nina Simoes explores the lives and faces of Brazil’s Landless Movement and their struggle for land at the point of interaction with Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, a technique that breaks with the conventions of traditional theatre by transforming passive beings into active participants of a theatrical scene. As part of the Film & Advocacy Series, Nina Simoes participated in a Q&A on the 2nd of February 2011 concerning the above issues.
March 25, 2011
A retrospective examination of Hugh Brody’s life in Film and advocacy. Presented as part of the Film and Advocacy series, hosted by Visual Anthropology at the University of Kent, 26 January 2011.
February 1, 2011
Kicking off the Film and Advocacy series for 2011 was Hugh Brody, with a retrospective look at his career and his work in filmmaking and visual anthropology. Below are some photos from the evening. At some later point, there will be a podcast to download and a film of the event, but this has yet to be edited!
Vodpod videos no longer available.
November 9, 2010
In 1955, filmmaker and anthropologist Jean Rouch made Les Maîtres Fous, considered the first film of the ethnofiction genre. Ethnofiction, a branch of Docufiction, blurs the line between documentary and fiction, using actors and scripts (or, in some cases, improvisation) to portray and represent ethnographic issues. Although it is sometimes a difficult genre to define, according to Wikipedia (often a useful source in defining such contemporary terms), it can refer to “any fictional creation with an ethnographical background.”
The other week, we were lucky enough to be given a talk by a prominent figure in the study and making of ethnofiction films, Johannes Sjöberg. Working at the University of Manchester and focussing on the overlapping of Anthropology, Media and Drama, Sjöberg discussed his recent ethnofiction film, Transfiction. After 15 months of fieldwork in São Paulo amongst transgender communities, Sjöberg asked Fabia Mirassos and Savana Meirelles to use improvisation to act out scenarios that they felt represented transgender identity in São Paulo. As the film’s website explains, although Transfiction is a fiction film, “it is made as an ethnographic documentary where story and dialogue are created in the moment.”
Hearing Johannes Sjöberg speak and learning about ethnofiction reminded me of an article I read a few weeks ago, David Samuels’ Alien Tongues. In this article, published in the book E.T. Cultures: Anthropology in Outerspaces, Samuels speculates on what an alien language would sound like, whilst also revealing a lot about human language. As anthropologists often try to describe the “other” – or “alien” cultures – Samuels believes it would seem appropriate to discuss the anthropological aspects of the belief in real aliens. Suddenly, science fiction films such as Blade Runner, Planet of the Apes and District 9 came to my mind. I realized that many films (including science fiction films) can, to some extent, be regarded, as works of ethnofiction. Indeed, at times, some of the most powerful critique of present day culture can be found in fiction, where filmmakers create whole worlds, stories and characters based on the issues of today. Perhaps the genre of ethnofiction is wider than we imagine…
As well as being a pioneer of Cinéma Vérité (the genre to which his most famous work, Chronique d’un été, belongs), Jean Rouch is also widely regarded as one of the forerunners of the French New Wave movement. Therefore, we can compare, for instance, Rouch’s Chronique d’un été with Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave classic Breathless, which depicts a realist 1960s Paris. Jean Rouch and Jean-Luc Godard were even friends, often exchanging ideas and critiquing each others films. French New Wave, in turn, was heavily influenced by the Italian Neorealism movement of the 40s and 50s, which includes a favorite film of mine, Vittorio de Sica’s Umberto D. This film follows the elderly Umberto, as he copes with poverty and desperation in post-war Italy. Typical of Italian Neorealist films, it aimed to reflect the difficult economic and social conditions of every day life, whilst also using non-professional actors and on-location filming. More recently, we have films such as City of God, which draws upon these traditions of the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism, depicting organized crime in Rio de Janiero and using actual residents of the favelas as actors. This brings us nicely back to Sjöberg’s Transfiction.
To briefly sum up, as Jean Rouch points out in his article The Camera and Man, there has been a close link between anthropology, ethnography and film since the very dawn of cinema itself. And, since 1895, when Felix Regnault used “time sequence photography” to study the movement of the human body in motion, it is clear that this link has evolved in countless ways. Many anthropologists, such as Jay Ruby or Marcus Banks, claim different, sometimes quite narrowminded, definitions of what they call “ethnographicness” in film and photography (Ruby, it should be pointed out, believes only an anthropologist can make a true ethnographic film). But, in my opinion, “ethnographicness” is not even something found exclusively in documentaries, although these are, perhaps, the only types of films where “ethnographicness” is intentionally made explicit. Many films, whether we realize or not, may contain aspects of ethnofiction and, to varying extents, use fiction to deal with anthropological issues. I think the genre, if we can call it that, really is wider than it seems.