Media 4 – Weekly Reflections for Participatory Documentary Studio

Week 1:

Off to a rocky start, I had some timetable clashes and wound up shuffling around my studio out of Seth’s Non-Linear Documentary which I had some concerns about given that the content/topic of our final production was pre-determined and we were essentially taking someone else’s footage and collating it in a non-linear format which I felt was restrictive. I want uni to be a chance to explore content areas I am passionate about, a restrictive course structure with pre-determined content doesn’t allow that. Seth made an interesting point of rather than seeing the studio as not offering the opportunities, but looking for ways to apply what it does offer to the things you’re individually looking to explore, though this was of little interest, much as there are moments in a career of having to work on projects you’re not fully invested in, this shouldn’t be the objective or end goal, to find some abstract lesson or comfort in an otherwise less than favourable career outcome. The contrast in my expectations for the semester ahead was striking once changed into the Participatory Documentary class, a studio which has a much more favourable set of objectives and assessments.

To get the ball rolling Dan and I were the first group to work on the collective blog that all the students will contribute to over the semester, documenting the progress of the course. It seemed that expections of the studio had been the default setting for discussions in the first class for both studios, and so we thought we would interview fellow classmates about their expectations for the studio and whether the first few classes had given them any insights that maybe led to any revelations about what the studio might actually be for them. It was an experiment in participation in itself, we taped an iPhone camera up on the whiteboard and wrote a message inviting classmates to tell us their expectations, in an almost Big Brother Diary Room sort of experiment, it was interesting to note that if the invitation to participate was not prominent and was non-intrusive or not seamlessly injected into the students experience of the class that participation was very low. It wasn’t until we vocally invited people with a direct ask that they actually participated. This was an interesting idea to play with considering the focus of this studio.

What are the barriers to participation? What does a participant get out of their participation? Do certain projects or participants require certain invitations?

In class our discussion focused on questions about “what can documentary actually do?” and “what do we make in the context and climate in which we live?

We looked at a number of projects and what they did differently within documentary as a field. This included art installations where the audience participated in an activity and the participation in that moment that it exists, or experience itself, was considered the artwork. We also looked at a number of film based projects that investigated participation including: Gillian Wearing – Signs that say what you want to say; Lunch Love Community; Natalie Bookchin – Long Story; The Waiting Room; Mystery of the Flying Kicks. This got me considering what participation in my project could look like more so than about the kinds of people who might participate, which was the goal of Project Brief 1 (PB1).


Week 2: Presenting PB1

I was actually ill all week this week and didn’t make it to class on Tuesday and arrived too late on Thursday to present my list of potential topics and inspirations, but I spent Tuesday reading over some of the links provided on the studio’s resources blog and a couple of sites about being a short filmmaker and selecting a topic and thinking about how to document it in a way that maximises participation.

From the Moments of Innovation link on the class blog:

“From photography to social media, communities and technologies have consistently evolved so that what begins as a professional mode of media creation moves into the hands of individuals who can create, co-opt, remix and re-imagine forms of documenting the world around them. And when these skills are shared, new communities of makers and participants are rallied by the excitements of new media forms, generating everything from creator collectives to single projects made by a global cast of characters.”

This site reviews a history of participation in documentation of the world, from 1900 with the invention of the Kodak Brownie camera, through Photo Albums and Vertov, to Public Access Television and
Ricky Leacock, a documentary filmmaker and one of the pioneers of direct cinema and cinema verity, who argued that filmmaking would be most valuable if it was adopted as a practice by people in all walks of life, not just a small class of professional filmmakers. Leacock spoke of small, cheap, excellent and simple picture and sound systems no harder to use than any other common household appliance, these of course are in our hands and pockets daily now. The site ends with 18 Days in Egypt, a project that captures documentation from multiple social media platforms (arguably already a massive example of global crowd-sourced participatory documentation – much as it is commercially owned and operated and in the sense of it’s Ts &Cs is moderated and in terms of it’s functionality and design is curated to direct users to experience it’s content more as a snapshot of present than a documentation or record of past – though with “Facebook Memories” feature it is increasingly filling this space also) and channels it into a unified central project to form a documentary website.

Looking for ideas:

What topics do you find yourself thinking about or talking about over and over again?

What topics or ideas make you tingle with excitement, frustration, anger or intrigue.

Is there something that completely fascinates you?

Are you completely baffled by why something is the way it is?

Is there an injustice happening in the world that you want to try and make right?

From these questions I clawed through my past social media posts and saved links on Facebook and found common threads:


From there I began to try to imagine who’s voices speak to those issues/topics, and how their participation might look, and how the project might look overall. There were a lot of topics so I kept searching for advice on how to narrow down and get a good issue. Did I want to look at soon to be introduced laws restricting protest in Victoria, did I want to look at Safe Schools and how the attacks on it were impacting LGBTIQ youth, did I want to look at the rise of racist nationalism from the Cronulla Riots to Pauline Hansens return to Cory Bernardi and George Christensen and the RA/UPF to Sonia Kruger through the eyes of young Muslim Australians, or the loss of public spheres of discourse with the rise of social media meaning private corporations owning the spheres in which we gather to discuss the world, or something less controversial and universally accessible?

I found some helpful advice in a lesson from the weekend filmmaker:

Choose the Doable, Rather Than the Desirable – this meant I could go through and look for the lowest hanging fruit. I needed to select a topic with which I had access to the people who would participate – the website went on:

If you were in a documentary film class right now, your first assignment would be to write down what you’re passionate about. Topics that are deeply important to you personally, as well as social justice issues that have the power to change the world.

“That’s it, that’s what you should make your films about,” the teacher would say.

Global warming, education reform, health care, food politics. All important, broad sweeping topics. For now, kindly throw those ideas in the trash bin.

What about the story of a farm family, and how the old-timers are facing new hurdles in their everyday battle to stay afloat, while the kids have to decide whether to pursue their own passions or pass on the family legacy?

Sounds fascinating, but not today. As a weekend filmmaker, your job is to tell one person’s – or one organization’s – story. You have maybe a half day to shoot all your visuals, plus interviews. And if you pick a subject that can actually be shot in that half day, you can unquestionably make a video this very weekend. And maybe another one the following weekend.

This is where my course departs from this website’s advice I guess, as this is for the “weekend filmmaker” and I have about 10 weekends in which to make whatever it is I am making, but I do need to hold that idea close this semester, the idea of time management and access to subjects.

Week 3:

I narrowed my ideas down to 5 potential topics they were not much different to the broad topics I had listed at the end of week 2, and I was struggling to select one still. I had been looking at a number of websites for participatory projects and found some really interesting ideas for the final shape and delivery of the project but this was largely putting the cart before the horse. After discussing the ideas I had with a classmate I had moved towards identifying an underlying common theme between them all and trying to do a project that encapsulated all of the themes and delivered them on a platform like the G Word project’s website, based around misperceptions and misjudgements of various marginalised groups. Kim discouraged me from being too broad and too ambitious, both from the point of view that it may not be achievable and that the strength of an individual story might be lost of diluted if it were drowning in a sea of other stories which might only be slightly related. I think was wise advise as reluctant as I was to hear it initially. However this put me back at square one, or at least back at week 2, going into week 4 needing to deliver an essay film encapsulating my research on my chosen topic without an actual chosen topic.I am now very much of the

I was determined to select an idea that I could see as whole. To choose a topic which I could see all the elements of from the start and I just needed to bring those together. Choose a topic where I could see the voices – who’s voices I needed and who they needed to speak to; where I could see the form and it’s shape for delivery – a topic where I knew the platform it would be delivered on and what it would look like and how that would engage people and drive participation etc. My leaning to that line of thinking was a time-management strategy, it was trying to select something that I could see as a completed project so that the path from A-B was simple and clear, seeing as I am time-poor due to commitment outside of university, I didn’t want to get to week 6 and still be wrestling with trying to work out the final form of the project. I am now very much of the mindset that perhaps I don’t need those details, perhaps trying to select a topic that dictates its final form is counter-productive, or stifles possibilities.

Week 4:

Well it’s Monday of week 4 and I have 4 and a half days (3 of which I’m working all day) to make and submit an essay film about my chosen topic and my research thusfar, and I’ve still not settles on a topic or a group of people to participate. I feel like I’m between a rock and a hard place and the decision is now so overwhelming I feel unable to make one. Here’s hoping the next few hours just dedicated to thinking about it and pawing over my ideas thusfar will hold a penny dropping lightbulb moment. Maybe I’m overthinking it, maybe I have too high expectations of what I will get out of this. Maybe I do need to do as Seth suggested in week 1 of the previous studio and just find the silver lining working on something I’m not whole heartedly passionate about.

So I’m taking a different approach, looking at Facebook pages which relate to the 5 broad topics I was interested in and looking for stories where there’s a group of people or an idea mentioned that I think should be explored further, while hunting for these stories I came across a piece on coding and front-end web design on the General Assembly Melbourne page, it didn’t have the lead for my story, but it had some great interview questions:

1. In 140 characters or less, what is front-end web development?

A mix of programming and layout that powers the visuals and interactions of the web.

2. If a website were a house, front-end web development would be ______?

The pretty exterior that gives the house character, or the host that invites guests in and makes them feel at home.

3. What’s your favorite part about programming/coding?

That there are almost always multiple ways to solve a single problem, or achieve any specific functionality. On the outside I think programming can seem like a very prescriptive, direct, binary kind of job. But there’s actually a lot of creativity and ingenuity involved.

4. How would you explain the difference between front-end and back-end web development to a 5-year-old?

Pretend a website is a car. There are a lot of things inside of a car that help it run – make it speed up, slow down, even keep on the lights. All of these things you can’t really see – but are really important – that’s the back-end.

But then there are items that you directly use in the car to make it go: your gas and brake pedals, the steering wheel. And there are also a lot of things on that car that make it fun to drive and cool to look at: a racing stripe, a slick leather interior. All the stuff you can directly touch, see or hear? That’s the front end.

6. What are some of your favorite books, links, resources, for someone interested in getting started in front-end web development?

  • A Book Apart series, especially the books on HTML5 (Jeremy Keith) and CSS3 (Dan Cederholm). Great primers and reference material.
  • A List Apart is a bi-weekly web journal that I’d consider required reading for any web developer, newbie or experienced.
  • Smashing Magazine is a pretty classic web resource.
  • Hacker News is a consistent source of news articles and discussion.

For any developers who also design, I regularly read:

  • Beautiful Pixels for design trends in mobile and web apps.
  • Sidebar is a new link blog where I discover a lot of design related gems.

Finally for the audio inclined:

  • Shop Talk is a web design and development podcast hosted by CSS whiz Chris Coyier.

7. Any advice for an aspiring web developer?

  • Never stop learning. Web development (both front and back) changes quickly, arguably faster than almost any other development genre.
  • Have side projects. Especially ones that cover ground outside of work. It’s one of the best ways to really challenge yourself, and keep growing.
  • Be open to change. You might think you know what area of web development you want to go into, but you’ll definitely discover new interests along the way. Come to web projects open minded, willing to tackle any challenge (QA to database work to production design). You’ll form your strengths and specializations later in your career.

Something I found equally interesting while considering the form and platform for delivering this project was this blog post from introducing the Vox Media’s new Storytelling Studio:

We’re living in a truly distributed world, where our own websites are less and less likely to be the place where a user will read or watch our journalism. We’re leaning into that concept hard as part of our Storytelling Studio approach. That could manifest in more traditional communication (email newsletters?) or new, but increasingly important partner platforms (Instant Articles? Google AMP?) or completely emerging ways of storytelling (Bots? Something else?). There are a lot of question marks in those parentheticals because we don’t know yet. Every story will be different, and every platform is ever-changing.

Week 5:

Nothing like a deadline to force a decision. So having settled on a focus on the Safe Schools Program in the face of continued scrutiny in publications like The Australian as the program on a national scale moves toward being defunded, I’m now reaching out to Safe Schools Victoria and Minus18 to reach kids who are currently in schools providing the program, and reaching out to LGBTIQ friends to provide interviews.

Presenting the essay film didn’t yield a lot of input into the potential form or shape final project, so much as it did feedback on the essay film itself, which I was not 100% happy with due to the lack of time I ended up with to edit, since I selected my topic so late in the piece and since I have so little time outside of class I had to rely heavily on found footage, and just sourcing that took a considerable amount of time, then editing it should have taken more time than I gave it but against a due date I didn’t have space to allow that, and so the essay film itself ended up being longer than it should have and not featuring any of my own footage, though I had not read that to be a requirement in the assessment criteria. My Essay film was a reflection on the topic/issue behind my participants and on the research I’d done into how the issue has been framed within recent media coverage. Other students presented sneak peaks into their participants, journey’s through their personal process of arriving at the point they were currently at, or complications of their own existing footage giving insight into the stylistic approach they might take, overall it was great to see the angles other students had taken towards finding a story and a group of participants and the different interpretations of the PB2 assessment.

Week 6/7:

“I put nothing to paper”

As a person who always has a plan, always has a to-do list, always has a logical process to move forward through, the idea of starting filming without knowing what the film I’m making will look like is terrifying and even seemed impossible to me. Recent events have thrown my ever-planned always-decisive life in the trash, life is chaos. It is unpredictable, unknowable. While trying to get some insights and tips on interviews I came across this clip:

In it film maker Rakesh Sharma discusses his process and increasing tendency towards working out the shape or what the film might look like until about 8 months into his editing process, I obviously don’t have 8 months to put somethign together for this class, but it just appealled to me when he speaks of editing moments and portraits not a whole film.

Week 6 of this course co-incided with one of the worst events in my life to date with the loss of the person closest to me in the world, until now (about to go into week 7 after a week of midsemester break) I have been unable to even think about planning and preparing for filming. I had some interviews lined up and cancelled them all to allow time to process this loss, it’s going to take a long time, more than I can afford to give it, but I am trying to claw my way back from the bottle of xanax and the kleenex box, out of the dent I’ve been wearing into the couch, the dent that seemed to be swallowing me into the cushions, and back to having some sort of productive days bit by bit. In the last 2 days I have rescheduled many interviews for the fortnight ahead. I had been terrified by the idea of trying to piece back together all my neatly arranged plans and of going on with everything according to plan, but am becoming comfortable with the idea that taking an approach that is not ‘set in stone’ and is more responsive may yeild more rewards.

With the events of the last two weeks I’ve reflected in ways I’d never have thought to before on the nebulous plethora of issues around my initial interest in the Safe Schools and Marriage Plebiscite narratives, and in particular the statistic of suicide amongst young LGBTIQ people has now painfully hit home in a way I’d not experienced since a similar loss some 12 years ago, I’ve narrowed my focus and my ideas of who I want to speak to and why. I’m hoping to interview as many LGBT people as I can about their coming out stories, and their stories from inside the closet, a time that for many is a long and dark time of being alone wihtout anyone else truely seeing them, it’s a time that shapes people, and is often quite a trial, and people can carry scars from these years for very long periods of time. On the other hand, for some, when there is the support and understanding there (which ties back tot he Safe Schools Program’s aims) this turbulent period doesn’t need to drag out, doesn’t need to be painful.

I have been asking for participants through Facebook in LGBTIQ+ Community groups, and on Grindr, and thusfar have been really surprised with the level of interest, many people have reached out to me and asked to share their stories. I think there are probably some ethical considerations here I may not have considered yet, and similarly perhaps some particiaption opportunities here that might address some of those ethical concerns. If I’d been more decided on this focus on coming out and stories from “inside the closet” when I’d presented PB2 to the class I might have been able to get some feedback on these. But hopefully once back in class I’ll be able to discuss this and get feedback.

Well, an hour ago when I sat down to write this I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get any words to come, but this blog entry has proven surprisingly therapuedic and helpful to me. And here I was cursing these blog post assessments as irrelevant frustrating wastes of time, guess I proved myself wrong.

Week 7:

I’ve been filming interviews all week, I wish I had a crew working with me so I could get some more dynamic shots, someone to focus on camera work, someone on lighting, someone on audio, so I can focus on asking questions and getting the right material. I think the footage I have will feel very static and that I will have to work creatively in the edit to make this dynamic enough to remain captivating to an audience.

I am still unsure what form the final film will take, will it be a single stand alone linear film or an online collection curated through Klynt? I worry that it is week 7 almost week 8 and I do not know this yet, but I hope in editting I will have a moment of creative insight. I am also still unsure who the audience is for this as I’ve been consumed with finding time to work on production and on finding willing and available participants.

I need more diversity of participants, so far mine are all white-gay-cisgender-men — maybe I should make the conscious effort to focus on this group solely, but I would like to have some lesbain women, and people of colour, white-gay-cisgender men get plenty of media representation, I’d love to have at LEAST one trans or intersex voice, I think deferring from my desire to do a more broad focus on Safe Schools has left me a little confused by what I am now trying to produce and it feels a little like I’m racing to just produce SOMETHING to be assessed so I pass the class, without having the time to be strategic or creative in the production or pre-prod stages, taking a “we can work it out in post” approach is a risk I’m trying to be comfortable with, but I feel there is high chance I will have to invest a lot more time in editing that I have, as effectively I think I’ll be writing by editting rather than setting out from the start with a clear vision on this project which I had with the Safe Schools focus, now with the “Coming Out” Stories, I’m doubting myself a lot even though I’ve had interesting interviews.

I’ve done interviews both at my house and at the houses of participants, it seems to be working better at my house as the gear can be set up in advance, with just one person it’s hard to transport all the lighting and camera setup to peoples houses and the setup process takes a while and I think is offputting to people.

I’ve had a high level of interest to posts on Social Media and Gay Dating Apps calling for interview subjects, I have 12 interviews scheduled, so far I have filmed 4 and am about to go do my 5th. 2 participants have flaked or cancelled so far.

Week 8’s Tuesday Class:

This class was really helpful, even though I didn’t get there until half way through it. I was able to put some of the issues I was facing out on the table for feedback and ideas to fix them being:

1) Video is all very static talking head footage – solution: use a nonlinear form to provide some visual variety, and open to other forms of submission.

2) Respondents who have had time to do an interview are all white men: solution try to film somewhere like Hares & Hyenas or RMIT QSpace to go where the people are. Also open up to written submissions with a photo.

3) Not sure what audience it’s aimed at: solution here I think is to write out a description and objective for the project based on the new direction it’s taken towards coming out stories, which I guess is to provide an archive of stories which might help those who are wrestling with coming out.

Week 9:

I really appreciated the opening sequence of the film “You Won’t Regret That Tattoo” and the “Secret Life of Foley” shown in class this week. The Question Bridge Platform was an amazing way to lose 2 hours, it was an interesting and very sleek example of participatory practice and very similar format to what I’d like this project to end up looking like. Sort of a hybrid between the G Word, Question Bridge and It Gets Better.

I downloaded Klynt this week and have started to play around with it a little, I need to get more familiar with this, and need to accept that in the 3-4 weeks I have left to produce something I’m not going to become a pro at this platform so need my expectations to match that reality, but need to edit the interview footage down first of all.

Watching YouTube videos on Editing Documentary has been motivational, including all of Karen Everett’s NewDocEditing tips, and Phil Ebiner’s Process video.



I also stumbled onto this video about the platform shaping the content which was not totally relevant but was fascinating none the less:

I’ve tried to employ some of the suggestions here:

Including being more organised with my project assets and transcribing, I’ve signed up for a free transcription website/service. It’s not totally 100% accurate, and it’s still time-consuming, but I can see how it would be useful. I wish I had the time or money to have these interviews transcribed properly.

Week 10:

How did we get to week 10 already!?!

So over the past 2 weeks I have been chasing more interviews and more participation from a wider sample of subjects – i.e. a more racially diverse and gender-diverse sample. However I have been running into logistical challenges in lining up interview times with subjects and my free time meaning I have missed a lot of valuable content from classes, but have been pawing through the blogs when I can and extracting the best I can.

One suggestion from week 8 was to contact RMIT Q-Space and Hares & Hyenas to try to take the interviews to where the people are, neither of these panned out with much success. Another approach I added this week was to try to encourage some user-generated content by creating a sort of info/starter pack PDF for people so they could create content to capture their story in their own time and words (and choice of medium) and supply it for inclusion in the project. So far this has not yielded much result, similar projects (like the G-Word, and It Gets Better) relied heavily on promotional partners and media coverage of the project after it’s conception and launch to really drive the critical mass level of participation, this kind of PR is not something I have time to manage.

In response to my issue of lacking a clarity on the audience I have decided to ask participants to help determine this, asking them why they shared their story and who they’d want to see it. Hopefully this generates some interesting ideas about what motivates people’s participation and what their expectations of the project are. So far these run the gammet from hoping to help others to come out to literally “I did it to help you get better grades, it’s a school project and if it was something like the It Gets Better campaign I probably wouldn’t have done it”

I’m currently working on finalising my written reflection for PB3 and something to present with it (originally due in week 7 but with special consideration – due this week for me) so I need to get back to focusing on that as this blog writting is taking away from editing time. I’ll add the text of this reflection into my blog post for next week as it probably has some more detailed reflection on some of the things touched on here.

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