Author: Sara Penrhyn Jones
Published: February 2017
Shortlisted for the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies Practice Research Award 2017.
TIMELINE could be judged on the:
– Ability to convey a complex but compelling trans-disciplinary narrative about climate change through creative practice
– Ability to utilise the language of film, which includes cinematography, sound, editing, storytelling and juxtaposition
– Understanding of medium and genre. This can include expanding or blurring the boundaries of documentary, activist videos, film essay, ethnographic film, video art etc.
– Originality and richness of visual storytelling, especially with a hard-to-visualise subject such as climate change
– Innovation of creative strategies deployed in order to ‘speak’ authentically, as a woman filmmaker
– Ability to convey a rich and nuanced understanding of the connection between climate change, heritage, place, identity, and community
– Exploration of time as an idea and motif in both the content and form of the film
– Demonstrable commitment to the pursuit of knowledge over time reflected in the film itself, as an example of the slow scholarship called for by environmental humanities and feminist scholars (Bergthaller et al. 2014; Mountz et al. 2015; Rose 2013)
– Overall coherence/resonance/ambition of the film as a creative research output within the research portfolio overall
I would ask for the film to be viewed in full, in one sitting, in order to feel the varying rhythm and pace. It would be necessary to see the film to the end in order to appreciate the narrative structure.
My point of encounter with climate change was initially during my professional practice as a freelance media producer and climate activist, working in the international UN climate change summits. My exposure to hundreds of personal perspectives on current and projected vulnerability to climate change was formative, and continued to interest me when I subsequently became a lecturer in Media Production at Aberystwyth University. Working in an academic context since 2010, my own activist agenda in climate justice developed into an engrossing creative and scholarly challenge. It seemed that the general public in the UK were indifferent to, or unable to adequately act upon scientific knowledge about climate change, and as a filmmaker, I struggled to imagine how to create a persuasive and affective film.
I became a Principal investigator and Co Investigator on two relevant AHRC-funded projects (details below), and this anchored my personal creative research to a broader and collaborative effort to better understand community resilience to rising seas, and the way that our sense of self is tied to place and the natural environment. It became clearer to me that climate change was a global phenomenon that would, nonetheless, be experienced personally and very locally. A source of frustration was the way that climate change was often represented in mainstream media (or even academic research) as only affecting ‘the environment’, somehow conceived as oddly separate to our cultural or social selves, or even our bodies. I had not found it particularly gratifying to work in an activist filmmaking setting either, making short online videos that were ‘on message’. Instead, I became preoccupied with the idea of how we could explore the dark truths and complexity of climate change, in a more poetic, embodied or heartfelt way, through the medium of film.
My research questions included:
– Can I find my ‘voice’ from a peripheral place and position to express my most authentic thoughts about climate change, through the medium of film?
– How can climate change be visualised in/for the UK, when it seems to happen in distant places, or in future time? Does this call for more experimental creative strategies?
– How is climate-change relevant to cultural identity, and how can this be explored/conveyed/argued in a film?
– What creative methods, approaches and metaphors can be used to connect the local and global, within the climate change discourse?
As the work developed, as well as the political, social and scholarly context between 2009-16, further questions were formed and negotiated:
– To what extent should/can I make myself the narrator of this film; can I be a physical presence in the landscapes, yet avoid objectification through the default ‘male gaze’ of the camera?
– What creative devices can be used to make visible the fact that I am behind (and controlling) the camera, and why does this feel important to me as a feminist?
– Is there a non-reductive way in which I could incorporate Kiribati into the film’s narrative, beyond the ‘sinking paradise’ or ‘drowning nation’ cliché?
– How can the challenge of language be negotiated creatively- should a film about threatened cultures be mostly in English?
– To what extend can I/should I try to consciously attempt to convey the idea of hope in a climate change film, and what are the implications (ethical and creative) of this decision?
– Is there a way in which I could convey humility in my own narrative, and create space for the viewer’s own thoughts and responses?
– How can the linear concept of ‘time’ be disrupted through the content and form of a climate-change film?
TIMELINE draws from research and footage that I have generated over some time, and across two AHRC-funded projects. TIMELINE can be contextualised comparatively alongside a body of mainstream environmental and climate change documentaries, such as ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, ‘Age of Stupid’, ‘Flow’, ‘After the Flood’ or ‘How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change’. This comparison becomes particularly rich when considered alongside the creative, political and feminist capabilities of the experimental film or film essay. By bringing the environmental documentary into dialogue with more meandering, self-reflexive, elusive and playful forms, I attempt to create a new kind of language for eco-feminist filmmaking. This could advance a more nuanced understanding of what constitutes an environmental film, as well as generally drawing attention to the often-invisible workings of film. Such work is of relevance to film and media practice, but also geography, gender studies, and the environmental humanities. In terms of film content, the dwelling on the connection between heritage, cultural identity and climate change in TIMELINE meant that it was of value- and therefore partly funded- as research that also significantly advances the field of heritage studies.
One ambition for my own creative-research is to advocate for the use of more creative approaches towards knowledge production and dissemination across all disciplines. As a Co-investigator on the large three-year AHRC project ‘Hydrocitizenship‘ (2014-17), co-managing the project’s case study in Wales, we worked with and through local artists and two community partners to explore the relationship between communities and water. TIMELINE is one personally authored work within a much larger body of arts outputs generated with/by the local community. I used my experience of working on this Connected Communities project to lead another AHRC project, Troubled Waters, (2015-16) which considered the effects of climate change on coastal communities in the UK and in Kiribati, providing some of the footage in TIMELINE.
I continuously push the boundaries of what is researched through film. This is a mode of research that is in danger of being instrumentalised as an impact-only tool (a research film may be judged by the number of You Tube views, for example, rather than a complex and multi-layered research method and output). It is this capacity to explore issues in a more open-ended, flexible, holistic and responsive way that makes creative methods valuable for trans-disciplinary research on urgent, global issues. During this current shift towards collaborative research with communities, known as the ‘participatory turn’ within the arts and humanities, creative practice offers a method of research that is intrinsically impactful, and often naturally collaborative. It can facilitate a potential ‘tuning in’ or listening to local knowledge, and a bottom-up approach to the setting of research agendas. This may lead to more sustainable research and collaborations, driven by the communities’ own expressed ideas and priorities.
As part of a personal research trajectory, the main methods utilised and fused have been practice as research and participatory action research. A feature of such research, like relational art, can involve encounters over time, and the developing of deep relationships and connections as part of a greater desire for transformation, both personal and social. This has manifested tangibly in the newly awarded project ‘Enduring Connections’ (AHRC, 2016-18), for which I am a Principal Investigator, which will follow on from ‘Troubled Waters’ as an exploration of sustainable development, heritage and climate change with community partners and artistic collaborators in Kiribati. The creative practice element (a collaboratively-produced film) is part of the overall approach towards understanding culture, and nurturing sustainable development that is meaningful, and achieved collectively. I’m also a co-investigator on a new research project in the Marshall Islands, which utilises multiple arts-based methods to better understand the experience of displacement, and to explore development (ESRC-led, 2016-18). Both new projects have built on the foundation of TIMELINE, and it’s associated research projects, to work with and represent some of the world’s least developed communities, most vulnerable to climate change.
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The relevant field of practice that I am affiliated with is Film Production, including: Documentary Film, the Film Essay and to a lesser extent: Experimental Film, Online Activist Film and Video Art. I researched, produced, filmed, scripted, edited, and narrated TIMELINE.
The work itself could be characterised as practice as research within trans-disciplinary, national and international contexts.
My research projects/collaborations have been trans-disciplinary (Geography; Heritage and history; Post-colonial literature; Environmental Humanities; Digital Humanities) and multi-partner (arts-based, community, environmental, heritage and cultural organisations).
The main outputs include the 30-minute film TIMELINE, various forms of reflection and documentation, but also a whole set of relationships and networks within and beyond academia. This has provided an excellent basis for further research.
Other practitioners in the film and media field may be inspired by such examples to apply their research methods to trans-disciplinary and international research and community engagement outside their usual ‘comfort zone’. This may fall within the area of sustainable international development, for example, which is a growing RCUK priority.
Academic researchers outside film and media practice may consider incorporating art/media practice in future research collaborations. I have already seen examples of this, based on a shared, positive experience of working through creative research methods.
TIMELINE was shortlisted for an AHRC Research in Film Award 2016 in two categories: ‘Best Research film 2016’ and ‘Utopia Award 2016’. It was described as ‘a master-class in visual storytelling’ by the foremost climate blogger in the USA, Peter Sinclair
As art historian Claire Bishop has noted, art has been reconfigured as a never-ending ‘project’, and TIMELINE exemplifies this. It has been shown in different versions and contexts, ranging from a street projection onto houses in Wales, a 60 second clip in BAFTA London, a five minute extract at the climate summit in Marrakech last month, or a full 30-minute video embedded on the Times Higher Education website. It will also be screened to the Eastern Academic Research Consortium in March 2017, as part of an event promoting the general value of film in research.
Funding (spread over academic research projects):
£55,000, AHRC, Principal Investigator on ‘Troubled Waters: heritage in times of accelerated climate change’, Early-career development grant under the Care for the Future theme (2015)
£1,183,350, AHRC, Co-investigator on the AHRC large grant project ‘Towards Hydrocitizenship’, part of the Connected Communities programme (2014-17)
Coleg Cymraeg/Welsh College grant (£2,250) to support creative research on climate change, cultural identity, and representation in Kiribati (2013)
Aberystwyth University Research Fund (£3000) and Wales Arts International Opportunities Fund (£3,000) to creatively investigate the effects of climate change on communities in Greenland, with glaciologists (2012)
Crowd-funded activist/media production for Science Collective, Dark Snow, Greenland (2013, 2014 & 2015)
Crowd-funded and NGO-funded media production in UN COPS: Copenhagen, Durban and Cancun (2009, 2010 & 2011)
Screenings (those before 2016 are work-in -progress or extracts prior to film completion in 2016):
‘Past Matters, Research Futures’ AHRC Conference showcasing ‘Care for the Future’ research, Royal Geographic, Dec 12-13, 2016
Short clip screened as part of AHRC Research in Film awards, BAFTA London; Nov 10th, 2016
3 public screenings of TIMELINE funded by AHRC as part of their ‘Being Human Festival’, in Aberystwyth Arts Centre; Friendship Inn, Borth; Burdall’s Yard, Bath; November 19th and 25th, 2016
5 minute extract played on a loop at International National Trusts Organisation exhibition stand, and at 3 side events (including UNESCO pavilion), COP22, Marrakech, November 2016
Live projection on houses in Mid Wales in collaboration with artist Esther Tew, ‘Water, Water, everywhere’, October 2015
‘Communication as a two-way process: how alternative film and media practice enacts eco-citizenship’. Film and the Environment, University of East Anglia (2016)
Invited speaker: ‘Troubled Waters: The role of practice-led research in understanding and documenting heritage loss’. Keeping History above Water, Newport Restoration Foundation, Rhode Island, USA (2016)
‘It must be interesting to travel around with a camera, but is it really research?’ Association of American Geographers, San Francisco, April 2016.
‘Troubled Waters: Representing Kiribati, a ‘sinking nation’, through Artistic Production’. Pacific Waves: Reverberations from Oceania, Sussex University (2015)
‘Ymladd, nid boddi: Sut mae cofio Tryweryn mewn ffordd sydd yn hybu empathi cyfredol ar draws y byd oherwydd colli tir i newid hinsawdd’. (Fighting, not Drowning: How to ‘remember’ Tryweryn in a way which promotes empathy with others losing land, to climate change). Public symposium: ‘Boddi Mewn Celfyddyd’ (Drowning in Art), Bangor University, Bala, UK (2015)
‘Poetics of place and trickeries of time: the creative challenges of evoking the anthropocene’. Symposium: Im/mortality and In/finitude in the Anthropocene; perspectives from the Environmental Humanities, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden (2014)
Online- the video has been embedded and/or reflected upon on the following websites:
AHRC (Research in Film Awards 2016)
Climate Crocks (USA)
The Journal of Disrupted Media, where I explore multi-modal/ practice-as-research as part of an ongoing dialogue
There is further reflection and documentation of research-in-progress on the Hydrocitizen’s blog , for example here. I also share my thought on research in film in a Times Higher Education article, illustrated by my photography from Greenland. There has been regular coverage of the work in the local press in mid Wales, with some of this collated here, and further outputs and engagement related to ‘Troubled Waters’ collated here.
Through a range of artistic commissions in ‘Hydrocitizenship’ at least ten local artists in my own case study in Wales have benefited directly from creative opportunities. Hundreds of local residents have benefited in terms of quality of life, not only from screenings of TIMELINE, but from a whole year of artistic events related to ‘Hydrocitizenship’, freely available to the local community and actively involving participants, like local primary school children, in many creative activities. TIMELINE could be an important educational resource for organisations such as the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth. Research participants in Kiribati expressed a fear that people beyond their own borders would never hear their stories, and so this body of research has tried to address this fear in a concrete way. Some of these voices will have reached thousands of people through this creative work (including through screenings at the international climate change talks in Marrakech in November 2016). This work has also enabled me to successfully gain further research funding from the AHRC (‘Enduring Connections’), and follow-on funding for impact, (‘Troubled Waters- Reaching Out’) where a total of £20,000 will be made directly available to resource sustainable development in Kiribati through the grassroots organisation Kirican in 2017. The Global Gender Office of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (the largest environmental network in the world) is also a partner on ‘Enduring Connections’, and will use our approach to showcase gender aware environmental work. Heritage organisations such as the National Trust, the International National Trusts Organisation (INTO), have been able to use the video material in presentations and publicity materials to raise the prominence of climate change within the heritage field. INTO have also been asked to contribute to the next IPCC report on the impacts of climate change on heritage, and will use the research associated with TIMELINE to feed into this international climate policy and advocacy network. This may in turn benefit anyone living in low-lying and coastal countries where their cultural heritage is threatened by climate change, by contributing to a greater awareness of what is at stake for such communities. The Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg have invited myself and co-researchers to present a screening and talk in Gothenburg in 2017, and there are discussions about featuring some of the research-in-film as part of a permanent exhibition on water, climate change and displacement.
The peer reviews that follow were part of the BAFTSS Practice Research Awards shortlisting process as this volume is published in association with the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies.
Review 1: Shortlist
TIMELINE aims to bring “the environmental documentary into dialogue with more meandering, self-reflexive, elusive and playful forms” and through this dialogue it is an attempt “to create a new kind of language for eco-feminist filmmaking” [quotations from its accompanying statement]. I do agree that it is very successful in these aims and manages to generate new knowledge and understanding to the field of environmental filmmaking, especially when reflected upon in its accompanying written statement. TIMELINE very profitably uses elements of the personal essay film form, together with documentary (inc. desktop documentary) and collage film aesthetics, and so experiments with a very compelling combination of affectual as well as informative approaches, combining a local focus with a global one in highly effective ways. The film admirably avoids some of the over-weaning melodramatic tactics of some other climate-disaster films. Such work is of certainly relevance to film and media practice, but also geography, gender studies, and the environmental humanities. As for the film’s content, it also clearly contributes to debates about heritage, cultural identity and climate change, and this, along with the fact that it was funded as research (by the AHRC) and had been quite widely circulated means that it has an instrumental value in a number of ways.
The statement was very effective, too, clearly locating the work in a field of scholarship, and making a very strong argument for the film’s production as an academic research project of great value in that (as well as other) context(s).
Review 2: Shortlist
This is a powerful film because it makes the political personal both formally and in its subject-matter – the intermix of environmentalist / activist stance, with the autobiographical elements is innovative and effective because it brings what feels like a huge and inexorable problem (which precedes the filmmaker’s birth, as she points out in the film’s opening) into something that cannot be ignored, despite its magnitude. The use of the first-person narrative voice over throughout, together with archive imagery from the family album, firmly locates this with in the genre of auto-ethnographic, self-reflexive filmmaking. Yet this tactic, used in combination with the more traditional documentary techniques, creates a layering of meaning and responsibility which doesn’t let the viewer off the hook. It’s a call to action, located within, what the filmmaker describes as an “eco-feminist” framework. The statement is strong and situates the practice within a rigorous research framework, and the project’s AHRC funding and dissemination suggests that the film has considerable potential for public engagement and impact as a piece of practice research / activism.