Author: Sue Sudbury
Format: Participatory Documentary
Published: February 2017
Shortlisted for the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies Practice Research Award 2017.
To what extent can a combination of observational documentary techniques, video diary interviews and participatory filmmaking methods be used to explore the interior and everyday lives of women from another culture?
Through layering together footage from 5 different cameras, I have attempted to form a seamless narrative that aims to give a Western audience a unique insight into the everyday lives of 4 women living in rural India.
I am happy for this film to be viewed on a laptop with headphones but preferably in a quiet and dark room, with mobile phones and email alerts switched off, if possible.
A group of young women in rural India were being trained as video reporters, as part of a local government initiative to give women a voice. As child brides, they chose to make their first film about the problems of child marriage, a continuing practice in their villages. In Village Tales, I film the women as they made their film and find out how the project was changing their lives. I also asked four of them if they would use their cameras to film their everyday lives and make video diaries to allow them to express their thoughts and feelings.
My intention was to locate “the third voice” – a concept created by Barbara Myerhoff in which, through participatory research, the filmmaker’s and subjects’ contributions are edited together to form a new perspective. Anthropologist Jay Ruby described such films as “blended in such a manner as to make it impossible to discern which voice dominates the work … films where outsider and insider visions coalesce”. (https://www.jstor.org/stable/20687963?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents) Through this innovative layering of footage from different cameras, the audience is given a unique insight into the lives of rural women in India today.
I was also asking if it is possible to move beyond the concept of Orientalism (Said, 1978) and create nuanced representations and articulate difference within the Orient? Ashcroft and Ahluwalia (2008) cite the work of Ross Chambers who, in reaction to Said’s Orientalism, asks if it is possible to have a kind of humanistic knowledge that does not play a dominant role over the people it seeks to study. Can the silent achieve a voice and represent themselves despite the inherent problems identified by Spivak (1988) when western researchers attempt to let ‘the subaltern speak’.
One of the earliest recorded uses of participatory filmmaking was by the American documentarian, Robert J. Flaherty, who, while making Nanook of the North (1922), would solicit Nanook’s criticism of the rushes and ask for his suggestions as to what he should shoot next (Flaherty, 1960:15). In the 1960s, anthropologists Worth and Adair (1972) at the University of Philadelphia gave 16mm cameras to the Navajo Indians; they produced ‘Navajo Filmed Themselves’ (1966) by teaching the Navajo the mechanics of camera operation. Other degrees and forms of participation can be found in Jean Rouch’s work such as ‘Chronique d’un ete’, (1960) and in MacDougall’s ‘participatory cinema’, ‘Kenya Boran’ (1974) and ‘Lorang’s Way’ (1979).
British television responded to the increased availability and quality of domestic video equipment when in 1990 the BBC’s Community Programme Unit started compiling and broadcasting a series called Video Diaries, which by 1993 developed into the Video Nation project; this continued to be broadcast on BBC2 until 2000 when the archive and new films were moved online. Mandy Rose, one of the producers of Video Nation, described it as injecting the subjective voice and an ‘amateur aesthetic into the heart of the mainstream schedule’ (quoted in Kilborn and Izod, 2000:183).
Nowadays, participatory visual research methods are increasingly used to generate new forms of knowledge and to decrease the power differential between the researcher and researched, including in the museum sector, as discussed very thoroughly by Thumin (2012). For this research project, I was keen to see if I could use this collaborative way of working with women in another culture, to explore their daily lives and allow them to reveal their inner thoughts and perhaps even emotions. For me, it was important that the women were in control of image production; individually they decided what to film and how to film it. As an introduction, I asked each woman to ‘walk through’ their house with their camera and introduce their home and family. I subsequently discovered that this methodology was used by the visual anthropologist, David MacDougall, in ‘Lorang’s Way’ (1979) and is similar to Sarah Pink’s video tour method. Pink asked her subjects to film video tours of their houses in an attempt to identify ‘a sense of the (gendered) identity, everyday life, priorities and morality of my informants (and) representations of their actual everyday practice’ (2006:95).
I have used video diaries before in Britain when making a charity-funded research film about families experiencing domestic violence (‘Moving On’, 2007). I felt this ‘direct address’ could be an effective and powerful way of connecting a Western audience with the ‘other’ and allowing the women to reveal their inner thoughts and perhaps even emotions. However, it soon became clear that they were unfamiliar with this convention of using the camera like a personal diary. So, I decided to ask them to talk straight to camera while I was still there and able to ask them questions about certain subjects. I filmed them while they did this and picked up the necessary cutaways. I describe this methodology as ‘video diary interviews’.
In this research film, which formed part of my doctorate (Village Tales: an exploration of the potential of participatory documentary filmmaking in rural India, Bournemouth University, 2015), I used observational documentary techniques to film the women as they made their own film and to discover how this Indian government project was changing their lives. However, I also asked four of them if they would use their cameras to film their everyday lives and developed this use of ‘video diary interviews’ to access the women’s thoughts and feelings. I am not aware of this combination of methodology having been used before in another culture. One of my examiners, Professor Ben Highmore from the University of Sussex, concluded that “Sue Sudbury has created a radically new aesthetic form driven by a profoundly ethical practice”.
In Village Tales I am aiming to give ‘a snapshot’ of the everyday, inevitably partial and subjective and embracing the subjectivities of all the different camera operators, including myself, who chose to point the camera in a particular direction at a particular time. To a certain extent, the film has been able to capture the ‘movement of the daily’ (Highmore, 2002) and add to the body of work around this notion of ‘the everyday’.
As a documentary practitioner, I see one of my roles as interpreting people’s stories and selecting the best way to deliver those to the largest audience as possible. This, as well as the difficulty of dealing with over 23 hours of research footage generated from the five different cameras, was the reason I decided to make an initial rough cut myself. I then sent this to Jayasree, the translator, who arranged for the women to view it and feed back their comments.
I have edited the film so that it is a ‘standalone piece’ so that these women’s stories can be heard by a wide audience beyond academia. However, Village Tales forms part of a body of academic work and is accompanied by a recently published article in The Journal of Media Practice listed in the Bibliography and accessible here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14682753.2016.1248191.
Another article detailing the findings and new knowledge created about the everyday from this research project has been submitted to the Visual Studies Journal.
Ashcroft, B. and Ahluwalia, P. (2008) Edward Said (2nd edition), Taylor and Francis elibrary.
Flaherty, F. 1960. The Odyssey of a Filmmaker, Urbana: University of Illinois.
Highmore, B. (ed.) 2002. The Everyday Life Reader. London: Routledge.
Kaminsky, M. 1992. ‘Myerhoff’s “Third Voice”: Ideology and Genre in Ethnographic Narrative’, Social Text, No. 33, pp.124-144, Duke University Press.
Kilborn, R. and Izod, J. (2000) From Grierson to Docu-soap – Breaking the Boundaries, Luton: Luton University Press.
MacDougall, D. 1974. ‘Beyond Observational Cinema’, in P. Hockings (ed.) Principles of Visual Anthropology, 2nd ed., Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
MacDougall, D. 1998. ‘Beyond Observational Cinema’ in Lucien Taylor (ed.). Transcultural Cinema. Princetown: Princetown University Press.
Myerhoff, B. 1986. ‘Life Not Death in Venice: Its Second Life’ in Victor Turner and Edward Bruner (eds.) The Anthropology of Experience, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Pink, S. 2006. The Future of Visual Anthropology. Oxford: Routledge.
Rouch, J. 1974. ‘The Camera and Man’, in P. Hockings (ed.) Principles of Visual Anthropology. 2nd ed., Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Ruby, J. 1991. ‘Speaking for, speaking about, speaking with, or speaking alongside: an anthropological and documentary dilemma’ in Visual Anthropology Review. Volume 7, Number 2, Fall 1991, pp. 50-67.
Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Pantheon.
Spivak, G.C. (1988). ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in C. Nelson & L. Grossberg (Eds.) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (pp.271-313). University of Illinois Press.
Sudbury, S. 2016. ‘Locating a ‘third voice’: participatory filmmaking and the everyday in rural India’.
The Journal of Media Practice, pp. 1-19
Sudbury, S. 2015. ‘Village Tales: an exploration of the potential of participatory documentary filmmaking in rural India’, unpublished PhD thesis, Bournemouth University.
Thumim, N. (2012) ‘Self-representation in museums: therapy or democracy?’ in: Self-mediation: New Media, Citizenship and Civil Selves. London: Routledge.
Worth, S. and Adair, J. 1972. Through Navajo Eyes, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Young, C. 1974. ‘Observational Cinema’ in P. Hockings (ed.) Principles of Visual Anthropology, 2nd ed. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Flaherty, R. J. 1922. Nanook of the North, USA.
MacDougall, D. 1974. Kenya Boran, Africa/USA.
MacDougall, D. 1979. Lorang’s Way, USA.
Rouch, J. 1960. Chronique d’un été. France.
Sudbury, S. 2015. Village Tales, UK.
Sudbury, S. 2007. Moving On, Bournemouth Churches Housing Association, UK.
Worth, S. and Adair, J. 1966. Navajo Film Themselves, USA.
In this film research, I have combined methodology used in visual ethnography and anthropology with traditional documentary techniques.
I believe that the use of the video diary interviews and participatory filmmaking in my research has encapsulated some of the women’s feelings and subjectivities in a way that conventional observational documentary filmmaking could not have done and produced a nuanced
picture of the interior lives of four rural women.
I have experimented with form to discover what story I can tell about the ‘reality’ of these four women’s lives and shine a light into a particular part of rural India. Asking them to use their cameras to film whatever they wanted to of their everyday lives, and contexualising that with my own camera, has generated different perspectives. To some considerable extent, this technique has allowed me to access and capture some of these women’s interior feelings at a particular moment. This research has shown that it is possible to get close to the feelings of the ‘other’ and allow them to reveal universal emotions; from Indira’s anger at a husband’s disrespect, Parvati’s grief at the death of her son, to Indira’s amused irritation at her teenagers leaving the kitchen in a mess.
This way of working highlights, in an innovative way, the women’s relationships with their husbands and children and also how they feel about their homes; feelings and interiority that would have been very hard to illustrate without using participatory filmmaking and video diary interviews. Neither perspective (the filmmaker’s or the subjects’) dominates the other but would not ‘work’ without the existence of each other – these ‘outsider’ and ‘insider’ visions coalesce to tell a unique story to a wider world.
Village Tales was partially funded by the WorldView Development Fund and subsidised by Bournemouth University and Sequoia Films. A longer version of the film was part of my PhD submission at Bournemouth University, 2015. Village Tales won the AHRC Research in Film Innovation Award in November 2016. Following on from this award last month, The Conversation has featured the film and there have been over 400 views of the film on the web link. A journal article about this work, ‘Locating a “third voice”: participatory filmmaking and the everyday in rural India’ has just been published in The Journal of Media Practice. Conference presentations and festival screenings are also planned now that the film is finished. The AHRC will be submitting it to the Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival 2017.
The demonstrable impact beyond academia falls into 2 main areas:
Latha, Parvati, Indira and Vinodha are very pleased that their stories are being heard by the wider world. When Indira turned on her camera for the first time to record a video diary, she broke down and said she was so happy to have, for the first time, this opportunity (afforded by this research project) to express her feelings.
The women’s stories have moved Western audiences who have seen the film so far. At a time of emerging nationalism, my work strives to connect us to people in different cultures around the world.
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
Village Tales mixes observational documentary, video diary and participatory filmmaking to examine whether the combination of these techniques can enable the western observer to document “the interior and everyday lives of women from another culture”. The film also seeks to explore the impact of giving a group of young women in rural India cameras and training them to become video journalists. Stylistically the film is very professionally made and gives voice to the participants effectively, knitting a persuasive narrative about their empowerment through gaining control of the means of representation. In addition it examines the impact of the women’s filmmaking practice on the wider community, observing a screening of their films, and their reception and capturing the women’s reflection on their experiences in pieces to camera. The film’s use of different documentary modes offers a multiperspectival approach which the tackles the question of whether “the silent achieve a voice and represent themselves despite the inherent problems identified by Spivak (1988) when western researchers attempt to let ‘the subaltern speak’”. It is notable that participants were given access to a rough cut of the film, as outlined in the research statement, in effect contributing beyond being documentary subjects / image acquisition and becoming co-creators.
Review 2: Shortlist
This is a compelling film that combines observational documentary techniques, video diary interviews and participatory filmmaking methods with the aim of exploring ‘the interior and everyday lives of women from another culture’. As such it sets out to test the suitability of the form for this enquiry, and does so through a careful layering of footage from 5 camera positions, form a narrative that gives Western spectators insight into the everyday lives of women living in rural India. The film seems to have been motivated also by the desire to document a project whereby young women in rural India are being trained as video reporters. It is notable that the film won the AHRC Innovation award and is to be submitted to Sheffield IDF.