Screening the Social: on filmmaking and methods

NCRM news
Dr Laura Harris, University of Southampton
A close up view of a camera lens (Photo by Colin Lloyd on Unsplash)A close up view of a camera lens (Photo by Colin Lloyd on Unsplash)

On 13 to 24 November 2023, a new online film festival will showcase over 20 films, all of which have emerged from social research projects. The form, length and subjects of the films are substantially varied – as are the research methods that sit behind them. Included on the programme are films by geographers, sociologists, anthropologists, artists, activists and those who sit happily in-between.

A core selection criterion of the festival's organisers – me and Dr Lena Theodoropoulou – was methodological diversity. The programme features films with varying degrees of participant involvement in the production process; with different ways of, and motivations for, generating visual data; and with various approaches to constructing a film. Audiences are encouraged to enjoy the films as insightful and illuminating on their own terms, but also to reflect on the application of filmmaking to different research methods.

Here, I will focus on a handful of the films which epitomise distinct filmmaking methods. All of these films will be available at any time during the two-week festival; register here and you will be provided with a password that will give you access. In addition, panel discussions will unpack some of the methods detailed below and showcased in the festival.


Fictionalisation: Caer (2021)

A highlight of the film programme is Nick Mai's ‘ethnofiction’ Caer. The film is a powerful expression of the struggles for recognition and justice of Latina trans women working in the New York sex industry. Caer follows two protagonists, Rosa and Paloma, as they work, confront law and border enforcement, socialise and protest. Characters and storylines are composite constructions ('fiction'), made from the real-life experiences of participants ('ethno'). In the film, we watch as participants/actors themselves view the film, their own experiences mediated, and debate their representation and what it means for their community.

The film emerged from a long-term research project using ethnographic methods, Sexual Humanitarianism: Migration, Sex Work and Trafficking. Consent to engage in a filmmaking process came only after several months of fieldwork with the activist collective that form the basis of the film, the Colectivo Intercultural TRANSgrediendo. The research team then proposed the film idea to the group. As expressed by Liaam Winslet in a co-authored write-up of the project, the collective decided to participate because "at the Colectivo we have always believed that the stories, the struggle, and the resistance need to be narrated by us, with us, and for us".

A co-creation process followed. Ten collective writing workshops were held in 2018-2019 to produce the script. The shoot came later in 2019, after which a year-long editing process included feedback from the participants – these are what we see as part of the film. The resulting 61-minute film has been shown at several international film festivals.

Caer is dedicated to Lorena Borjas, founder of the Colectivo Intercultural TRANSgrediendo and one of the first victims of COVID-19 in New York.


Video diary: Alin in the Ghost-town (2023) and Lauren's Video Diary (2021)

In a similar vein, the short films Alin in the Ghost Town and Lauren's Video Diary give over authorial control of part of the filmmaking process to research participants. These films emerged from the research project Resilience and Resignation among Transnational Roma and non-Roma Youths, which used ethnography to understand the drivers of educational and post-educational marginality and inclusion in contemporary Europe (focusing on the UK, Spain and Romania). The project also used collaboratively-generated audio-visual methods as a source of ethnographic data.

However, the relationship between the researcher, Stefano Piemontese, and the core subjects of these two films goes back to 2014 when Piemontese was a PhD student and began filming Alin and Lauren as teenagers in precarious housing in Madrid. Their collective dreams of making a documentary together found new form in 2020 as COVID-19 rearranged their lives and Alin moved back to Romania. Adapting to circumstance, Piemontese sent Alin and Lauren smartphones on which to film their everyday life. The result is two short films, capturing routine activities like shovelling snow and working, interjected with to-camera video diaries through which we learn about their dreams and aspirations. Both low-fi and personal, the films show what can be achieved with minimal technology – but also the importance of time and adaptability to these research methods.

Stefano has written on the failures, negotiations and opportunities disclosed by the use of participatory video-making in ethnographic research with underprivileged young people "affected by mobility".


Sensory ethnography: The Lightwell (2020)

Taking a different approach to filmmaking as research, Begüm Özden Firat’s The Lightwell documents the lightwell of the building where the director lives. Drawing on traditions and theories of sensory scholarship, the film focuses on how the "private" sounds from behind apartment doors spilled out into the “public” or shared space of the lightwell. This focus on home and its relationship to public space was in response to the context of the film: the COVID lockdown in Istanbul in May-June 2020.

The filmmaker describes the film as being born out of a sociologist's “boredom and curiosity about alternative ways of listening as a methodology”. The seven-minute film eschews narrative entirely, choosing to use the camera as a way of engaging with and reflecting the sensorial nature of the space and its attached meanings. The use of the visual intersects interestingly with the focus on the sonic. This approach to filmmaking is familiar from those who engage with sensory ethnography, which has produced some of the landmarks of recent filmmaking for research, such as Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel's 2012 Leviathan.


Verbatim Interview: The A-Team (2021)

Finally, filmmaking is not only a method of conducting fieldwork, but can also be used to make research available to wider publics. Such is the case of the verbatim interview films included on the programme, including The A-Team (2021).

Inspired by an autoethnographic questioning of the artist Nnenna Onuoha's own school years, the film includes audio from her interviews of classmates who also went on their Ghanaian high school’s exchange trip to Mississippi a decade earlier. The film itself features blurred out Zoom-grids, uncanny camcorder footage, animation and periods of visual silence to "mimic the group’s memory blocks and uncertainties". A-Team shows that verbatim interview films are not limited to being visual representations of interview methods, but rather that they can be creative interventions in the way that interview data is understood.

Register for the festival