Moments in Pickwick: Opening a window into women’s lived experiences of transitional housing through participatory filmmaking

Author: Minna Sunikka-Blank, Janina Schupp and Matthew Flintham
Format: Short Film
Duration: 9′ 49″
Published: November 2022

Research Statement


This film utilises participatory filmmaking to explore transitional housing in Pickwick, Cape Town. As we join five women inhabiting the space, we gain insights into their lived experience of the environment. The aim of the resulting film is to reveal insider narratives in contrast with top-down imaginations of inhabitation.

Supporting statement

In the inner city of Cape Town, five women have moved from informal housing to affordable, formal housing. How has this change affected their everyday lives?

Despite ambitious housing policies, and seeing housing as materialisation of citizen rights, South Africa faces an acute crisis of urbanisation and affordable housing. Post-apartheid governments have prioritised delivering basic infrastructure within the transition to democracy – the physical extension of infrastructure networks is seen to operate in tandem with the political extension of citizenship rights (Lemanski, 2020). Aiming to address the inequalities of the apartheid past and to boost the economy through housing construction, the South African housing programme has provided over 4.7 million housing opportunities since 1994 (CAHF, 2020). However, the lack of wage-based jobs makes the transition to formal housing unfeasible for many households.

The film focuses on women in Pickwick transitional housing. Transitional housing is meant as a temporary ladder from informal settlements to formal housing. Pickwick is important because it has gone from best practice to demolition – its maintenance is expensive for the City (“it bleeds money”) and it will be demolished to make space for social housing on site.

This film focuses on women as they are key agents in domestic energy transitions and how women’s traditional role at home leads to them having far more influence than men on domestic energy consumption, especially in the Global South (Khalid and Sunikka-Blank, 2017). Black and coloured women were suppressed during the apartheid regime and they continue to face problems of unemployment, gangs and poverty. Yet the lived experiences of women in the transition from informal to formal infrastructure have not been captured in film or even in research – reflecting the dominance of Anglo-centric feminist geography and knowledge production inequality across geographies (Blidon and Zaragocin, 2019).

Through this film, the women share glimpses of how the transitional housing environment has impacted their everyday routines and how they are utilising their new-found access to energy. By employing creative, participatory filmmaking practice within the female community of this transitional housing unit, this film explores an alternative approach to energy and housing studies. In accordance with Gubrium and Harper (2016, p.13), such ‘(p)articipatory digital and visual methodologies produce rich multimodal and narrative data guided by the participant interests and priorities, putting the methods literally in the hands of the participants themselves and allowing for greater access to social research knowledge beyond the academy’.

Our exploration emerged as part of the AHRC Filming Energy Research Network project (AH/T008342/1, University of Cambridge) with the aim to compare and contrast official narratives and institutional opinions on inhabitation with the self-documentation of how these spaces are actually used. Together with NGO partner Development Action Group (DAG0 in Cape Town), five women, who have lived in the site for at least two years, were recruited as research participants. Our participatory filmmakers were adults with young families from low-income households. After an initial briefing on the project objectives and its expected outcomes, consents of participation were collected. Over a period of five days, the women then documented their everyday routines in 30-second clips. To obtain balanced insights into their daily rhythms, the women were asked to record their activities at three-hour intervals between 6am and 8pm. To bridge the lack of access to technology, a male resident, who is familiar with all the women supported the on-site filming. The women were able to choose what was filmed and then again curate which clips were uploaded to the project database. The filmmaking process was framed by two virtual workshops before and after the filming hosted by the NGO partners. During the first workshop, the participants were trained in basic filmmaking, for example how to avoid personal identification features, such as visible faces. During the second workshop, the participants reflected on their everyday life and the moments they chose to capture – guided by semi-structured questions from the research team. This process of participatory action research (PAR) allowed the women to act as research partners by not only collecting their own data, but also analysing it as part of a reflective cycle (Baum et al. 2006).

This process gave agency to the women to decide what aspects of their everyday life and environment they wanted to document and emphasise. This included activities, such as cooking, cleaning, and leisure activities – revealing how the transitional housing is used in practice. 59% of the footage was filmed in the private rooms of the women, showing the importance of privacy and also the development of personal leisure activities. In this process, they began to reflect on the features of their environment, such as the sense of safety and the comfort of privacy.

While the filming was led by the women, the resulting collage video was produced by the research team. It was seen that co-editing as a group with the participants would have led to negotiated outcomes, posing a risk that a compilation film would have represented what could be agreed by a diverse group of people, rather than an output that reflected accurately the collective position, as described by Yap (2021). However, we acknowledge the risk of participatory filming to misrepresent the participants’ views (Lenette et al. 2020), and ‘rough cuts’ were screened for the participants and previous engagement on site and pre-pandemic fieldwork helped us to ensure that the analysis and the film were not misrepresentative. The final film mixes (1) footage independently directed by the women, (2) still images captured during this process, and (3) anonymised comments made by the women during accompanying workshops with the research team. To reduce the intrusion of external biases and research objectives, the editing and very loose scripting of this film aim to let these collected images and voices of the women speak for themselves. We let the structure of the film naturally develop from the themes highlighted in the footage and workshops by the women.

While the first part of the film gives an introduction of the site, method, and purpose of the film project, the second half goes into depth on the most important aspects of the transitional housing site that emerged over the course of the audio-visual data collection. The themes of “Energy”, “Security”, “Privacy” and “Aspirations” intuitively arose from the footage itself and conversations with the women – and developed into sub-chapters of deeper exploration in the second part of the film. Recurrently, cross-cutting and montage techniques are used, which removed the focus on individual stories in favour of highlighting these larger emerging themes from the women’s experience of the space.

Participatory filmmaking has long traditions in the Global South, including ethnographer-filmmaker Jean Rouch’s work in West Africa and visual anthropologist David MacDougall’s observational filming, focused on documenting everyday life without voice over. On the other hand, in social sciences participatory videos and self-representation in video diaries have been advocated as research methods (Lenette at al. 2015, Pink, 2004; 2021, Pink and Leder Mackley, 2014) but primarily as research data without cinematic aspirations. Spatiality in cities (Leigh and Kenny, 1996; Penz, 2017) and climate change (‘cli-fi’) (Svoboda, 2016) have been explored through film but everyday life at home, that the Pickwick film aims to capture, has received less attention.

When participatory film is used in academic research, there is often tension between giving space to the participants vs. imposing the researchers’ more conclusive (perhaps authoritative) narrative – also in our process. MacDougall has discussed the position of ethnographic filmmaking in anthropology and how films lack a fmode of more general abstraction that can be problematic in academia using hypothesis and conclusions – there is always ambiguity about a film rather than definitiveness (Barbash et al. 1996). Filmmaker and academic Trinh T. Minh-ha has talked about ‘speaking nearby’ rather than ‘speaking about’ the participants (Chen, 1992). Her work such as Reassamblage (1982) and Forgetting Vietnam (2016) that have explored women’s experiences and histories, the unfamiliarity and unexpected in ‘everydayness’, use silence to great effect. Trinh’s un-authoritative filmmaking and the concept of ‘talking nearby’ resonate with the emerging decolonialising agenda in energy studies and architecture and needs to be explored further.

In this context, the bottom-up insights generated by the participatory filmmaking process allowed insider perspectives into how transitional housing spaces in Cape Town are actually used. Having research participants film themselves is a methodology that affords insights into the everyday, revealing counter-narratives to technocratic policies. The resulting film becomes a feedback tool for the community to enlighten decision makers and the government about life behind the doors of their transitional housing concepts. Lenette et al. (2020) argue that when research participants are placed as filmmakers and share their first-hand experience, they can view themselves as agents of social change who take initiatives and share opinions as counter-narratives to dominant portrayals of them as passive and vulnerable victims. The filmmaking process aimed not only to understand the ambitions of empowerment from the perspective of the women, but to also create a space for reflection and aspirations. This ambition follows in line with the feedback effect of participatory filmmaking established from the early days of the 1960s FOGO process (Crocker, 2003, p.128) and which could be seen as potentially empowering.


Barbash, Ilisa, MacDougall, David, Taylor, Lucien, and Judith MacDougall. 1996. ’Reframing Ethnographic Film: A “Conversation” with David MacDougall and Judith MacDougall’. American Anthropologist. 98 (2), pp. 371-387.

Blidon, Marianne, and Sophia Zaragocin. 2019. ‘Mapping gender and feminist geographies in the global context.’ Gender, Place & Culture. 26 (7-9), pp. 915-925. doi: 10.1080/0966369X.2019.1636000

Centre for Affordable Housing Finance in Africa (CAHF). 2020. South Africa Country Profile,  Africa Housing Finance Yearbook 2020. Available at:

Chen, Nancy, N. 1992. ‘“Speaking nearby” A conversation with Trinh T. Minh-ha’. Visual Anthropology Review. 8, pp. 82-91.

Crocker, Stephen. 2003. ‘The Fogo Process: Participatory Communication in a Globalized World’, in Shirley A. White (ed.). Participatory Video: Images that Transform and Empower. London: Sage Publications, pp.122-144.

Gubrium, Aline, and Krista Harper. 2016. Participatory visual and digital methods. New York: Routledge.

Baum, Fran, Colin MacDougall, and Danielle Smith. 2006. ‘Participatory action research’. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. 60(10), pp. 854–857. doi: 10.1136/jech.2004.028662

Khalid, Rihab, and Minna Sunikka-Blank. 2017. ‘Homely social practices, uncanny electricity demands: Class, culture and material dynamics in Pakistan.’ Energy Research & Social Science (34), pp. 122-131.

Leigh, Nancey Green, and Judith Kenny. 1996. ‘The City of Cinema: Interpreting Urban Images on Film.’ Journal of Planning Education and Research. 16 (1), pp. 51–55.

Lemanski, Charlotte. 2020. ‘Infrastructural citizenship: The everyday citizenship of adapting and/ or destroying public housing in Cape Town, South Africa’. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 45, pp. 589–605.

Lenette, Caroline, Cox, Leonie, and Mark Brough. 2015. ‘Digital storytelling in social work practice? Learning from ethnographic research with refugee women.’ The British Journal of Social Work. 45(3), pp. 988–1005.

Lenette, Caroline, Blomfield, Isobel, Bordbar, Arash, and Hayatullah Akbari. 2020. ‘Self-representation in participatory video research, ethics and lessons learnt.’ Art/Research Interdisciplinary Journal. 5(2), pp. 399-424. doi: 10.18432/ari29498

Penz, Francois. 2017. Cinematic Aided Design: An Everyday Life Approach to Architecture. London: Routledge.

Pink, Sarah. 2004. Home Truths: Gender, Domestic Objects and Everyday Life. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Pink, Sarah. 2021. Doing Visual Ethnography (4th ed). London: SAGE Publishers.

Pink, Sarah, and Kerstin Leder Mackley. 2014. ‘Reenactment Methodologies for Everyday Life Research: Art Therapy Insights for Video Ethnography.’ Visual Studies. 29 (2), pp. 146-154.

Svoboda, Michael. 2016. ‘Cli-fi on the screen(s): patterns in the representations of climate change in fictional films.’ WIREs Climate Change. 7(1), pp. 43–64.

Yap, Christopher. 2021. ‘Making the city through participatory video: implications for urban Geography.’ Urban Geography. (2021), pp. 1-22 , doi: 10.1080/02723638.2021.1948698


Minna Sunikka-Blank is Professor of Architecture and Environmental Policy at the University of Cambridge. Her research uses participatory filmmaking as method to understand women’s everyday lives and energy use in low-income housing in India and South Africa. She is Director of Studies and Fellow in Architecture at Churchill College, Cambridge.

Janina Schupp is the SOUTHWORKS Career Development Fellow in Digital Humanities at Jesus College, University of Oxford and an Affiliated Lecturer in Architecture and Moving Images at the University of Cambridge. She is also a documentary film producer and held fellowships at the Library of Congress, Camargo Foundation, and Nanjing University.

Matthew Flintham is an artist and writer exploring speculative relationships between film, architecture, power, and place. He has an MA in Cultural Studies from the London Consortium, and a PhD in Visual Communications from the Royal College of Art, and is currently a lecturer at the University of the Arts.

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 (these should be outlined in detail in the review).

This is a practice-based research project that utilizes a participatory filmmaking mode to explore the transitional housing methods as evident in Pickwick, Cape Town, South Africa. In its attempt to explore this housing method the project films five women who are inhabiting the space. The purpose of this film is to narrate and show the everyday living experiences of these women.


Both the research statement and the film have originality. This mode of filmmaking is hardly explored in the mainstream film industry. The authors are venturing into unknown territory to explore one of the socio-political realities of South Africa.

Also, while we usually hear about government housing policies and plans for people who live in informal settings, we hardly hear from the affected people. Mainstream media hardly tells us the stories of the people that are being affected by these policies. This short film is a good attempt to showcase and tell the stories of the people, with the people, by the people.

Both the research statement and the film are contributing to the ongoing debates about government housing policies in South Africa and the world. The authors are exploring the views of ordinary people. That is commendable.

Theoretically, the paper makes a valuable contribution to the study of urbanization. While urbanization is usually approached from top-bottom views, this project approaches it from bottom-top views. It is important to see that the project approaches urbanization with the view of exposing how ordinary people see it and feel about it.


This project falls short on certain aspects. But these do not affect the quality of the work, however, should they be addressed they will certainly improve it.

Both the film and the research statement do not motivate as to why only women are the subjects of the film. Is it only women that are benefiting from these transitional housing projects? If so, it needs to be stated. But we need clarity as to why only women. It should be stated in the film and the research statement.

Also, the location of the study is not contextualized. We do not know anything about Pickwick, except that it is in Cape Town, South Africa. But we need more than that, we need to know why it was chosen, what is special about it, and why it matters to the project leaders.

The context also lacks some insight into South Africa’s housing and urbanization crisis. This is important to understand the basis of the paper as well as the film. A paragraph will be sufficient to just outline the housing and urbanization crisis facing South Africa. 

The context lacks something about the exclusion and marginalization of women, especially black, during the Apartheid regime. Hence, I suggest that while delving into the government’s housing policy, it is wise to touch base on this history just a little bit to show what else influences these policies. 

In just a sentence or two, give us some examples of participatory films that have been made before, they do not have to be about the same issues as yours, but just paint a picture for the reader to see that this mode of filmmaking exists in other parts of the world.

Review 2: 

Invite resubmission with major revisions of practical work and/or written statement.

Moments in Pickwick is a participatory ethnographic film about transitional housing in Cape Town. As a tool to convey social research, it could be useful. However, as a piece of filmmaking, it is problematic. The scenes that the women film are intimate and reveal a level of comfortability with the filmmaking process as we are invited into their private spaces. However, one of the biggest concerns I have with the film itself is the overlaying of large text over the filmed sequences which dominates much of the film. At first, this feels like a stylistic choice, with bold and capitalised statements. As the film continues, it becomes an obstacle with the effect of the researchers’ voices obfuscating the footage filmed by the participants themselves. Rather than us learning about their lives through the material and watching and listening to what is happening in the short clips, we receive the information through research questions and statements about the process and the results. The film appears to be speaking about the participants rather than with or “nearby” (Trinh), which feels antithetical to the project’s aims.

Watching Moments in Pickwick, there is a desire to get to know the participants and their lives more through the filmed ‘moments’. This could be achieved through minimising the expository text and reducing the font size, allowing the time and space for actual participatory process to reveal itself. The excerpts of the interviews are useful although including information like “interviewee D” are not necessary. The use of music, similarly, is excessive.

The accompanying statement illuminates the methodology which is well-considered and appears to follow ethical engagement with the participants throughout the process. It is unfortunate that the methodology used in making the film doesn’t translate to the film itself.

Participatory filmmaking has a long history of attempting to redress documentary’s tendency towards hierarchical practices. The authors would do well to look at some of the well-known scholarship (and films) that encompass documentary and ethnography, including Jean Rouch, Trinh T Minh-ha, and David McDougall for example. This would situate the work more in the field of documentary and film practice-research.

All reviews refer to original research statement which has been edited in response.
Go to top