DRAFT – Media 4 – Studio Reflection – Participatory Documentary

To say that this semester was a challenging one might be an understatement, and yet despite the tumultuous events outside of the course itself this studio proved to be one the most enjoyable among those in which I’ve taken part over the past few years. So, let’s dive into my reflection piece.

This studio at its core posed a simple question for students to consider: ‘What is participatory practice in Documentary?’ The curriculum encouraged students to probe this question, unpack the relationship between filmmaker and subject within the context of non-fictional works, and then piece together a project of their own trying to employ various tactics to expand the level of participation within these projects.

Weekly classes provided an opportunity to look at existing participatory documentary projects, in many forms; from linear short films like The Mystery of the Flying Kicks to crowd-sourced feature-length films like Life in a Day;  and from participatory art installations the likes of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Untitled, to non-linear online projects collating numerous threads of a common theme into a single space, such as Question Bridge or The G Word, and short films that fall somewhere in between like Long Story Short. Each example provided ideas for ways to engage subjects in the filmmaking process, as well as raising flags on questions of ethics and logistics.

Contact hours of the course also created a space for students to exhibit their work in front of peers, leading to valuable feedback and insight from others who had a little more distance from the detail-intensive workflow that can trap the filmmaker, this was more than likely as useful to those exhibiting as it was to those critiquing in many cases.

So, what was the answer to that question mentioned earlier? The following was one of the most succinct I came across during the course:

“A participatory documentary is an inclusive and collaborative process that engages communities in designing and carrying out the collection and dissemination of their own story.

It is not simply about producing stories. It is about designing a storytelling process that honors and reflects the voices and leadership of people impacted by an event or ongoing situation. We understand that affected communities are uniquely positioned to offer expert documentation, research, and analysis to help understand and shape how we respond.”

Sandy Storyline

Increasingly we live in a world where we are all participating in one great big participatory documentary. Social Media has become a staple of our daily lives, and even before it with the level of access consumers have to prosumer level media production tools we were making home videos and filling photo albums with documentation of our ventures in life. Now was craft online narratives of our lives through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and many other platforms through which other people documenting their own lives interact with and co-create our own stories. There are a plethora of breakaway topics from this point from the commercialization and commodification of this process, the collection of information by third-parties, and the censorship and shaping of this content by the private corporations which own these platforms to name a few of interest; but for now let’s just focus on the fact that we are living in a moment where participatory culture and self-documentation are redefining our media consumption and production.

Coming from a Graphic Design and Event Management background there is a certain methodology to the way I approach most tasks. It essentially involves a specific set of steps, in a specific order to get from A to B. Inherent in this is a lot of pre-planning, and a view that a clear outcome will emerge through the research and pre-production stages, which in turn allows an efficient path to be laid out with specific tasks to achieve and check off the list on the road to the final product.

This approach is probably not too different in a lot of filmmaking either. However, this approach held me back considerably when it came to making a film that was more participatory and less authored. The final shape and form of what I was to submit remained entirely unclear to me until I began to shoot interviews, all I had was a topic. Even my film-essay pitch on that topic was produced with the notion of a linear narrative film as the final outcome, though there was still an almost immobilizing uncertainty at that stage about what exactly I was trying to produce.

During the interview filming process, certain aesthetic, logistical and thematic variances arose that drove my thinking towards an online non-linear final form; this shift both required, and opened me up to the idea of, different participatory practices. As I explored new options the actual concept of participation itself became more interesting to me than knowing the objective of the film, or knowing what final shape it would take – these uncertainties even became points of potential participation where I could ask interview subjects what they thought it should achieve, or how they thought it should be shaped.

Through the semester, I’ve come to consider participation as somewhat of a scale. Most documentary films have some level of participation, perhaps it’s just getting people to agree to tell their story in an interview. This is where my thought process started off: go out and get interviews; interviews equal participation. This is perhaps the most basic level form of participation on the scale, and yet there were still several hurdles to overcome to even get this base level participation.

Firstly, initial contact. Where do you find the people who are going to participate? How do you ask them to participate? If you’re not 100% sure what the final product will be, then what are you asking them to participate in? And why would they? What are they going to get out of it? Secondly, the logistics. When and where will you interview them? Is this convenient and comfortable for them? How much time do they have and how much of their time do you need? Thirdly, the specific participatory questions. What questions are appropriate or necessary? Are your questions allowing them to tell their story as they want to or are you guiding them too much?

I continued to consider these questions while in search of my first interview, but the studio and the assigned readings were about looking at the emerging trends of inviting participation at a higher level than just filming their interviews and the film-maker cutting it together. How would I avoid playing the Auteur?

As Sandra Gaudenzi wrote in one of our readings:
“With the rise of social networks in the past 10 years, and the general acceptance of Web 2.0’s collaborative logic, online documentary producers have been tempted to invite their audiences into what was previously considered their very own walled garden: the production of the documentary itself. One way to transform what was previously called an audience to what has been called prosumers in the world of collaborative media is to allow User Generated Content.”

And with this logic, and the aforementioned questions I tried to apply some new approaches. like repurposing gay dating apps to find participants rather than simply asking existing friends, putting posts about the project in social media forums for the LGBTIQ community calling for submissions of their stories, and having participants film or write their own coming out stories to submit for inclusion. Each had varying levels of success, and ultimately the bulk of my material came from one-on-one interviews I conducted, but these participants came from a range of online sources. Wanting their participation in the production process to be increased but not having the time to go back to them many times over I opted to edit as little as possible but instead just curate their interview responses, grouping them together by common themes.

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