Lucía Guerrero Rivière: NCRM Impact Prize entry

The title of this application was Finding the Stories, Finding the Narratives: Impacts of Participatory Film Training on a Documentary Project with Survivors of Ocular Mutilation in Colombia.

It was submitted by Lucía Guerrero Rivière, a PhD researcher at the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health, at the University of Exeter

Summary of NCRM participation

I attended the November 2022 sessions of the Research Film Maker training programme led by Grace Letherby, Emmanuel Johnson, and Benjamin Cook. The first session focussed on broad and complex methodological, political, and ethical reflections around using film in research, and the role of the researcher who uses creative methods to engage with participants and audiences.

The second workshop was geared towards the formal and technical aspects of producing films that are connected to a research project, including considerations about timelines, equipment, and editing. After the interactive online sessions, I joined the WhatsApp group that was opened as a platform to share resources and ask for help to collectively. I also later followed up with Benjamin Cook about specific questions related to my project, and received practical advice from him prior to beginning my fieldwork.

Impact achieved

In November 2022, I was granted funding by the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health to co-produce a documentary with Movimiento Contra las Agresiones Oculares del ESMAD (Movement against ocular aggressions from the ESMAD, known in Spanish simply as MOCAO), a group of survivors of ocular mutilation by police in Colombia, about their activities and practices of resistance. Filming this documentary was to be part of the data collection process for my PhD research on debilitation and disablement caused by state violence, alongside narrative interviews with survivors, street medics, and other people who had close experiences with ocular injury. As an early career researcher and a relative newcomer to the social sciences, the risk of doing more harm than good with my doctoral project terrified me; I wanted to avoid producing a 300-page document in English (a language inaccessible to most Colombians) that hinged on the extraction of traumatic testimonies from an already deeply marginalised population. Instead, I wanted to ensure that participation in the research would be worthwhile for survivors. Drawing on engaged research methods and Latin American participatory action research, I decided that co-producing an audiovisual output would serve this end in two ways: firstly, providing a platform for closer engagement with survivors, and secondly, facilitating their own communication of activities and demands for reparation. Moreover, because many protesters were filming or taking photographs of the demonstrations when they were attacked, I also saw documentary co-production as an opportunity for survivors to reclaim audiovisual creativity after such a traumatic experience, one that impacts the capacity to see and be seen as a citizen.

However, I had no previous experience in filmmaking, which was not only a limitation of skill and training but also an emotional barrier. Even at the beginning of the NCRM workshop I remained intensely apprehensive. This affective blockage was manifest most clearly in the first workshop exercise, where we were instructed to write for 10 minutes about our relationship to our methodology. I wrote: "... I'm really worried about my lack of experience. I have the funds to do the research film, and the support of my supervisors as well as my research centre, but am DEEPLY WORRIED [sic] about my capacity to actually pull it off when I've jumped in at the deep end."

Looking back at these words almost a year later, after having completed the bulk on my fieldwork, reviewed the rough cut of the documentary, and presented at conferences and engaged research workshops, I am struck by how my confidence in my research has grown. In retrospect, the first platform where this confidence was fostered was the NCRM programme, as it allowed me to hear from other researchers across different fields who were facing similar qualms, as well as from more experienced practitioners who had completed successful projects. It is thus difficult to oversell the impact my engagement with the NCRM had on my work: the workshop made possible the documentary (and a significant contribution to my fieldwork) through both its emotional reassurance about my project and by connecting me to a community of participatory film practice across peace and conflict studies and disability studies. Crucially, this impact has not been limited to my own research, however. The enhancement of my research practice and skills has gone hand in hand with improving my capacity to support the organisation and communities with whom the film was made.

To begin with, in the design phase, the workshop helped me understand how participatory film fit in with my broader research aim of identifying and characterising individual and collective narratives about ocular mutilation in Colombia. For this, I am using a combination of participant observation and interviews; where the interviews give me a sense of the personal biographical narratives of survivors, the observations I’ve been able to gather through the participatory film project - the planning meetings and filming sessions, as well as the upcoming review sessions - have given me glimpses into how a collective story of the eye wound was being negotiated among the members of MOCAO (which, to be clear, does not include all ocular injury survivors, some of whom have had fallouts with the group). Therefore, the aim of ‘finding the story’ of the documentary, as was advised in the workshop, has neatly converged with my research objective of finding narratives. I also found unexpected stories: we hired a filmmaker on the project to support us, as well as a mental health professional with experience in cases of political violence, both of whom contributed their own reflections and narratives about police violence and disablement. The stacks of fieldnotes I have accrued from these encounters show how collective debates about how to frame MOCAO’s activities and demands overlap with practical considerations about what, how, who, and when to film, for which the second session of the workshop also prepared me. Throughout the process, I have also been able to broker the relationship between the filmmaker and MOCAO precisely because I am more familiar with some of the operative aspects of filmmaking for research, which has helped me build trust and rapport with both parties.

The process has also clearly benefitted MOCAO. Some of the group members already had some basic photography and film knowledge, which they were able to strengthen and contribute during the filming process. On a broader level, however, the main impact I have observed has been the facilitation of a discussion between members of what keeps them together as a collective. In other words, by having to think about how to portray themselves in a documentary, the group was also encouraged to think about what their shared goals and identities are, which in turn will help them communicate more clearly and articulate more specific demands for justice in the long term, as well as share their strategies with other groups of police violence survivors around the world. For instance, the decision of including footage where MOCAO members wore hoods over their heads (frequently worn to conceal identities of demonstrators, and a feature of the highly stigmatised figure of the ‘vandal’ that has been used to undermine social protest) entailed a discussion about the idea of a "perfect victim" of police violence. This has complex implications for their relationship to the general public and how they are perceived, which in turn impacts their ability to garner support and funding for their activities.

To conclude, the NCRM workshop’s impacts have not been limited to the practical skills and methodological reflections that I was able to hone through my participation. Rather, it has made a direct contribution to the quality of my research data, the theoretical framing and intellectual work of my thesis, and the potential accessibility and community impact of this research. Similarly, the involvement of MOCAO has also directly contributed to their own self-reflection and representation, and shaped the internal dynamics of the group. Finally, my experiences in the workshop and on the project have also had enduring effects on my thinking and interests as a scholar. I have, for instance, become more attentive to creative ways to conduct and communicate research. At conferences, I more drawn to the creative methods panels, where I’ve connected with other participatory video researchers. I’ve been encouraged to engage with other creative visual fields, including comics and graphic medicine (on which I am currently developing a project with colleagues based in the UK, Colombia, and Spain). I also credit a keener sense of visual communication cultivated in the workshop with earning me the Postgraduate Research Prize from the Association for Medical Humanities for a poster about my project (the prize money was later used by MOCAO to fund costumes for a play they produced about their experiences). The sentence that follows the one I previously quoted from the writing exercise reads: “But I feel it is necessary to do what I want to do, which is research that will be worthwhile and actually useful for participants and for the most impacted.” Suffice to say that, today, I agree more with this last sentence than with the first.