The Born-Free Generation, Phendulani’s Story and Me

Author: Paul Cooke
Format: Digital Video
Duration: 20 mins 17 seconds
Published: February 2020

Research Statement

Research Questions

The starting point for The Born-Free Generation, Phendulani and Me was an arts-based development project that I have been working on in South Africa since 2016. This project has involved supporting young people in a number of so-called ‘Safe Parks’ that operate across Ekurhuleni Municipality on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Safe Parks provide before and after-school care for vulnerable young people.  Service users are given a warm meal and the opportunity to participate in a range of recreational and educational activities (UNICEF 2017). This is particularly important in communities where up to 30% of young people do not have enough to eat each day, where 12% of young people have lost both parents, only 19% of children live with both parents and where 25% of young girls are subjected to frequent sexual abuse (Stats SA 2018). Safe Parks provide young people with a stable, safe environment in which they can build their confidence.

In our project, we use filmmaking to help young people to reflect upon their position in society, working in the tradition of ‘Participatory Video’ (PV), which uses community-generated films to support community led-advocacy. This is discussed in more detail below. The project produced a number of fictional and non-fictional pieces. These include films that raise particular issues facing the communities we have been working with (from gender-based violence to the issue of ‘undocumented’ children and xenophobia), as well as documentary pieces presenting the everyday reality of our young participants’ lives.

As a filmmaker, I have become increasingly interested in the relationship between the aesthetics and ethics of PV and ‘Participatory Documentary’ filmmaking. There would seem to be important synergies between both traditions. To a degree, the former could be perceived as a natural extension, indeed a radicalisation, of the latter. However, in the literature, this relationship is hardly discussed. Moreover, while such projects invariably make claims for PV as a particularly effective method for ‘giving’ communities ‘voice’, however patronising such formulations may be (Bery 2003: 108), very little space is given to the exploration of the films produced in such projects, that is the specific articulation of this ‘voice’.

Thus, in this project, I have sought to explore PV through the tradition of ‘Participatory Documentary, in collaboration with the young filmmaker Phendulani Manyala, drawing on a range of films from Chronique d’un été (1961) to Fuocoammare (2016). The film presented here draws on, and in places reworks, some of Manyala’s other work from our project, including a short film about the plague of ‘Blessers’ (Sugar Daddies) in his community (The Journey of My Life), as well as a documentary about his everyday life (Phendulani’s Story, In the process, I have sought to develop an explicitly self-reflexive project that not only highlights how Phendulani explores his work as a filmmaker but also my own subject position as both a project facilitator and chronicler of Phendulani’s experience on screen.

Our core research questions are:
How can the reflexive practices of participatory documentary allow us to reflect anew on the tradition of PV in development settings, in terms of the aesthetic potential of PV practice and the potential of such films to communicate beyond the community and context of their production? Moreover, how does this allow us to reflect upon the motivations behind such projects and the ethical challenges they generate?

A key focus in the PV project that generated The Born-Free Generation has been the legacy of the past and its meaning for the young people involved in the project today. All the participants in our project are part of the so-called ‘Born-free’ generation. This is the generation that has grown up since the transition to democracy in 1994. The ‘Born Frees’ have attracted a good deal of attention recently, as some of them have sought to challenge the post-apartheid consensus negotiated by Nelson Mandela and the ANC (symbolised most obviously at the time in the declaration of South Africa as an inclusive ‘Rainbow Nation’, where the rights of all ethnic groups must be protected and the crimes of the past forgiven. Mattes 2012). The challenge to this consensus, and in particular, the Born Frees’ declaration of the failure of the ‘Rainbow Nation’, is evidenced, for example, in the #RhodesMustFall campaign, where students at Cape Town University demonstrated to have the statue of the British colonial leader Cecil Rhodes removed from campus. This campaign became symbolic of a perceived wider social need to do more to ‘decolonise’ South African education than hitherto, both in terms of the content of the curriculum and in terms of lowering the financial barriers to access, the latter leading to the subsequent, larger-scale, #FeesMustFall campaign (Peter 2018).

What is particularly striking about these campaigns is their metropolitan focus (Archer 2018). As such, their specific concerns are somewhat removed from those of the young people we have been working with in Ekurhuleni. Consequently, rather than focussing on higher education, the concerns of the young people involved in our project that we have explored include, as already mentioned, issues such as the sexual exploitation of young girls by predatory older men, termed in popular parlance ‘Blessers’ (Harrisberg 2017), as well as the precarious position of the sizable community of ‘undocumented children’ that use the Safe Parks. ‘Undocumented children’ are frequently the daughters and sons of illegal migrant workers who were born in South Africa but do not have birth certificates, because of their parents’ status. As such these children have only very limited access to health care and education. This is a highly sensitive and complex issue, influenced by the deterioration of the economic situation of South Africa. It is made more complex still by the fact that the countries where many of these migrants come from are precisely the countries that helped to support the anti-apartheid struggle (Bloch 2010). Thus, their treatment challenges the standard narrative of pan-African solidarity that helped conquer apartheid, the national story of transition and the post-apartheid nation-building project (Cooke, Dennison and Gould 2018).

The main focus of this project has been on supporting young people to make short films about these and other issues that they feel affect them and their communities, but that they also feel are either absent from, or mischaracterised in, mainstream media discourses. After making the films, we then help participants to organise screenings, where they can discuss the issues raised in order to help them to have their opinions heard and to advocate for change.

Here, we have largely been working in a tradition of PV that is generally traced to the 1960s and the Fogo Island community filmmaking experiments, where the National Film Board of Canada worked with the Fogo Islanders of Newfoundland to make films through which they ‘could create a collective image of themselves and their social problems’. Specifically, the Fogo project sought to help the community to mobilise itself in order to raise awareness of its economic precarity with the Canadian government, on the one hand, and to develop its own solutions to this situation, on the other. Islanders were provided with equipment and training to make and screen films, through which they were able to reflect upon their position (Crocker 2003: 122-3). This, Crocker suggests, had two important effects on participants. First, as noted above, it allowed them to see themselves as a collective, a mutually supportive ‘imagined community’ (Anderson 1983: 80-1). Second, it helped participants to appreciate and value their local knowledge – and thus that they were worth listening to – through seeing themselves reflected back at themselves from the screen. (For an example of the Islanders’ work see Fogo Island Improvement Committee 1972)(Crocker 2003: 130).

Crucially for Crocker, it became clear during the Fogo experiment ‘that the process of filmmaking became more important than the actual films produced’ (Crocker 2003: 128). The Fogo process has been adapted to innumerable contexts since the 1960s, and the idea of such filmmaking being about the process products made has remained a central tenet of these kinds of projects (White 2003: 64). However, what fascinates me about the discussion of PV as being centrally about process, rather than product, is the way this seems to limit a good deal of the ‘empowerment’ potential of such projects in as far as they tend to ignore the politics, and in particular aesthetics, of the ways in which participants seek to communicate with their audiences.

Thus PV projects often seem to ignore their potential to learn from the wider tradition of ‘Participatory Documentary’ (Nichols 2001: 115-24), from Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch’s Chronique d’un été (1961) to Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) or Gianfranco Rosi’s Fuocoammare (2016). Indeed, if Participatory Documentary is, as Nichols’ suggests, about the active engagement of the filmmaker with her/his subject, PV projects could be considered to be the ultimate radicalisation of this mode of filmmaking, making the subject into the filmmaker. However, such projects are generally never conceptualised in this way (Nichols 2001: 116).

Further problematising this relationship, in Nichols’ view, ‘[f]or every documentary there are at least three stories that intertwine: the filmmaker’s, the film’s and the audience’s.’ (Nichols 2001: 61).  This is also an important, but seldom discussed, tension in PV projects. However much such projects strive to unify the roles of the film subject with that of the filmmaker, for example, in practice the role of filmmaker is invariably shared between the subject (who are often themselves also the audience) and the project ‘facilitator’ (in this case, me). In particular, the motivations of the ‘facilitator’ in such projects are seldom scrutinised.

It is the tension between Nichols’ ‘three stories’ and the implications this has for participatory filmmaking that became an important structuring device in my thinking about the film presented here, as the project developed. Moreover, I was interested in how this PV project could be set in tension with some of Nichols’ other modes of explicitly ‘subjective’ documentary practice, most notably his ‘Reflexive Mode’, which is often seen as intersecting with the Participatory Mode, not least in some of the canonical examples of the former mentioned above (Nichols 2001: 125). This I sought to achieve by including myself directly on screen reflecting upon the ways in which Phendulani, in turn, reflects upon his own engagement, as a filmmaker, with our project. In so doing, I sought to create a multi-layered self-reflexive piece that not only foregrounds the aesthetics and politics of how Phendulani sees his world, but also the broader politics, and ethics, of working with him and his community within a development context. This, in turn, can also be read through the lens of Michael Renov’s theory of subjective documentary practice, in as far as I seek to challenge the singularity of grand metanarratives (‘the nation’ ‘international development’ and so on), using film to explore ‘the intrinsic plurality’ of the lives presented on any given screen’ (Renov 2004: 118) and that for Renov, drawing on Levinas, can only be understood through an ethics of ‘meeting and dialogue’ (Renov 2004: 147).

My project seeks to use film theory and history to reflect on documentary practice, and to offer new approaches to PV projects within development settings.

There are a vast number of PV projects taking place around the world. However, there is very little aesthetic reflection on such practice. I offer this film as a starting point for further discussion on the potential of PV and the challenges it raises (be they ethical, cultural or political) for filmmakers who wish both to ‘facilitate’ projects that can have genuine impact on, and beyond, the communities within which they are produced, and who also wish to reflect upon, and to develop their own filmmaking practice within this context.

This film emerges from a series of arts-based development projects funded by the University of Leeds, the Bishop Simeon Trust and Comic Relief. It was, itself, however, funded by the AHRC project Troubling the National Brand and Voicing Hidden Histories. This project examined some of the practical implications for the use of participatory arts within global development contexts, where nations are placing an ever greater emphasis on leveraging so-called ‘soft power’ within the context of nation building, on the one hand, and gaining international influence on the other.  Our project explored the potential of film as a tool to provide grass-roots challenges to elite ‘soft-power’ discourses.

So far it has been screened in competition at 4 festivals:
Docs Without Borders Film Festival
UK Monthly Film Festival
Move Me Productions Belgium Film Festival
Mindfield Film Festival, Albuquerque

It has been nominated for:
AHRC Research in Film Awards 2018
AHRC Best Social Media Film 2018

It has won:
Gold Award for Best Short Documentary at Mindfield Film Festival, Albuquerque 2018
Best Global Impact Short Film at Move Me Productions Belgium Film Festival 2018

It has been screened at:
The University of Lincoln as part of the ‘Performance and Conflict’ Conference.
The University of Bournemouth as part of their MA in Social Anthropology
The University of Pristina
The University of Leeds
The University of Southampton
The Arts Mill, Hebden Bridge
The Hebden Bridge Picture House

As well as in several ‘Safe Parks’ and other community venues in Ekurhuleni, South Africa.

The work from which this film emerges was part of the efforts of the Bishop Simeon Trust (BST) to support vulnerable young people living in Ekurhuleni in South Africa to make their voices heard in their communities, to raise awareness of issues that are important to them but that are either ignored or misrepresented in the mainstream media, as well as by many members of their own communities. Our work has had a significant impact on many of the young people we have worked with, not least (as is evident from the film) on Phendulani.

The film, while being a research output in its own right, was also part of the wider evaluation of our work with BST. It has, moreover, been used to leverage the engagement of the South African National Association of Childcare Workers in BST’s work. The NACCW oversees the national standards for the community childcare centres (Safe Parks) with whom we have been working on this project. This subsequently led to the development of an AHRC ‘follow-on-funding’ project, the aim of which was to develop and incorporate our approach to PV into the NACCW’s national standards. This has led to the development of a set of guidelines that have been presented nationally to all the Safe Parks operating in South Africa (currently around 350). Furthermore, the project fed into a larger AHRC ‘Network+’ project I am currently running (Changing the Story) which looks at the ways in which Civil Society Organisations use the arts to support young people in post-conflict settings around the world. We are currently working in 12 countries across the Global South (

Anderson, B. (1991) Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (Revised and extended. ed.). London: Verso, pp. 6–7.

Archer, S. (2018) The case against free higher education: why it is neither just nor ethical. The Conversation. 27 February. Accessed 5 July 2018.

Bery, R. (2003) Participatory Video that Empowers. In Participatory Video: Images that Transform and Empower, S. A. White (ed.), London: Sage, pp. 102-21.

Bloch, A. (2010) The Right to Rights? Undocumented Migrants from Zimbabwe Living in South Africa. Sociology. 44(2),233-250.

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Crocker, S (2003) The Fogo Process: Participatory Communication in a Globalizing World. In White, S. A. (ed.) Participatory Video: Images that Transform and Empower. New Delhi. Sage. 122-41.

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Harrisberg, K. (2017) From blesser to sex trafficker. Accessed 2 July 2018.

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Peter, S. (2018) #FeesMustFall activists still on trial. News24. 2 February. Accessed 5 July 2018.

Peters, R. M. H., M. B. M. Zweekhorst, W. H. van Brakel, J. F. G. Bunders & Irwanto (2016) ‘People like me don’t make things like that’: Participatory video as a method for reducing leprosy-related stigma. Global Public Health 11(5-6) 666-682.

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Walsh, S. (2016) Critiquing the politics of participatory video and the dangerous romance of liberalism. In Area, 48(4). 405–411.

White, S. A (2003) Involving People in the Participatory Process. In White, S. A. (ed.) Participatory Video: Images that Transform and Empower. New Delhi. Sage. 33-62

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Peer Reviews

All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:

Review 1: Accept submission subject to minor revisions of written statement.
This was an engaging submission about an increasingly complex and extremely relevant subject of the ‘subject involved documentary’ process increasingly popular in the field of charity work. As the entire world becomes more and more media savvy and we increasingly see personal ‘visual content’ as the dominant form of self-expression, it is perhaps not surprising there has been such a switch within Participatory Documentary, from a subject’s engagement with the process to them ‘apparently’ being handed over control. The motivations behind this approach to filmmaking are questioned in The Born Free Generation, Phendulani’s Story and Me in which the Director Paul Cooke analyses the film ‘created’ by its subject Phendulani in terms of his relationship with the subject, the process and the on-going ethical dilemmas that arise from this kind of collaborative project. Perhaps even more interesting is his self-questioning about the motivations behind the making of the film and the realisation that in some ways, like all films, he is trying to resolve his own questions about the world. The film itself is a mix of material shot by Phendulani, footage where he is clearly seen holding the mic for Paul (the standard prop for all kids making their first film) mixed in with Paul himself watching the film on his laptop and commenting on it as he does.

There is little to no consideration of the aesthetics of this sequence which is an interesting decision given his articulated awareness of ‘process of’ over the final product itself. As someone who works in this field I think he asks some extremely important questions but also resists the temptation to try and answer them all neatly. The whole notion of filmmaking is a construct, a re-construction or creation of a recognisable or imagined world and documentary, which ever mode, fits as firmly into this as fiction. Paul also places himself in the position of a filmmaker, actually allowed to defend and explain his work and in this way explicitly demonstrates Nichols’ assertion about the ‘three intertwining stories’. Perhaps the area in which it is not entirely successful for the uninformed viewer, who I felt needed some more immersion within the story and its leading character, ie standard narrative drive, to want to then have it reframed.

Fascinating subject. The research documentation is really well considered but the film itself suffers from not adhering to the principles of narrative driven filmmaking to really make its point completely successfully. I think it would benefit from re-editing and more consideration about the relationship between the two ‘worlds’.

Review 2: Invite resubmission with major revisions of practical work and/or written statement.
The main claims and purposes relate to a) the significance of documentary film that adopts participatory methods and b) the possibilities for opening up and extending a discussion about participatory video with reference also to participatory documentary. The context of the filmmaking project is also significant, in supporting young people in difficult social circumstances, and providing opportunities for them to express themselves through film. The potential for a ‘genuine new contribution’ is certainly evoked in reading the statement and looking at the film.

This could be more strongly articulated. Possible approaches to achieving this could include: a) in the written statement, providing more context for the idea of process and the relationship of that to the film – that is, the insertion of the filmmaker into the film itself with reflective commentary on the film’s making. This might include more detail on the purpose of doing this, why it is important, and how it makes a difference; b) the statement is mostly limited to the participatory aspect of the work but this could be widened more fully thus allowing the work’s potential originality to surface. For example, the mode of documentary that Bill Nichols terms ‘reflexive’ is not referenced nor is Michael Renov’s work and that of others on first person narratives. These could provide a further scholarly context for commenting on and evaluating the values of the approach taken; c) the same film but without the filmmaker’s inclusion can be seen on the Vimeo website. This other film needs to be acknowledged and the relationship between the two films identified and discussed, even if only briefly. Given that the thrust of the work submitted is about the interrelationship between the filmmaker and his motivations and the young man, Phendulani, and his perspectives – this fact does not get much coverage, when it could be more clearly prioritised and discussed. The self-reflexivity of the work is not really focused upon, nor is the term ‘self-reflexive’ used; d) the other film is a stronger, more finished work, including helpful sub-titles. Not to say that for the purpose outlined, the film submitted to Screenworks needs to reflect the same production values, but two things are important here: 1) A comparative outline of why it is valuable to make a second matching film, but with the insertion of the filmmaker, including reference to the other film so that viewers/readers are aware of it, and can draw their own conclusions also. 2)A re-edit that matches up sound levels and adds sub-titling, particularly since there is sub-titling on the other film and many viewers will need this to fully comprehend what is said. A re-edit could also re-consider the points at which the filmmaker is inserted and how that occurs. It might not need the inclusion of as many moments of this aspect of the filmmaking process. Attending to these details will make the film more fully understandable for viewers as a reflexive film, will theoretically contextualise it more fully, and will generally help the originality of the work to surface more strongly.

All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response.

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