Filmmaking as emancipatory practice

Let’s not forget: social progress is about more than the direct outcomes of a campaign. It’s also about the process: the way we convene, the way people feel about their participation, and what we leave behind when a film or project moves on. In this way, the process of filmmaking itself can be emancipatory if the filmmaker’s practice is emancipatory. To truly mirror the work of justice building means interrogating the entire process, says filmmaker and film school professor Michèle Stephenson.

'The history of how documentaries are produced on the ground and financed is one of fundamental extraction at every level of the filmmaking process because it instinctively reproduces the larger inequitable societal context we are all a part of. To disrupt this process we have to be deliberate, intentional and self-aware of how the power dynamics we are a part of play out at every level of our work - from story development, to funding, to production practices, to community engagement and beyond. We have to build in processes and practices that allow us to work towards dismantling inequities that exist at every step and in every sector of the chain of production in the non-fiction storytelling field.'

Michèle Stephenson, filmmaker, Rada Film Group

In her keynote address at the International Documentary Association’s Getting Real conference 2018, she asked everyone who works in the field to “get real” about justice in the context of documentary film. For Michèle this means always being attentive to process and product in filmmaking, but also to the structure of the industry itself in which impact-oriented films are created.

To be attentive means that as filmmakers, funders, impact producers and distributors, we work together in ways that dismantle systems of oppression rather than uphold them. What does this look like?

Interrogating the ways we have internalised oppressive systems so that (at worst) we do not perpetuate problematic ideas and (at best) we produce visionary work and campaigns that lead the way.

Valuing and recognising the importance of multiple voices, perspectives and experiences in their own right, and the shared stakes that bind us.

Building spaces that are truly emancipatory. Are the perspectives we bring into a room representative of the worlds we wish to create? Are the programs we offer accessible to all? Are the people we hire paid a fair wage? Are their jobs secure? Are we distributing resources equitably and disrupting a problematic status quo? Are we actively reflecting on mistakes or broken systems and building solutions that address them and push towards common goals?

Have a look at a few projects that are leading the way in section 3.3, titled: Sustainable and Equitable?

Geek Out: Ideas for further reading

{% trans "Those who work in the culture change space must engage deliberately and thoughtfully. To this end, Working Films has developed a series of principles and praxis for filmmaking in collaboration with organisational and filmmaking partners as part of the " %} StoryShift initiative. The principles are focused on guidelines for accountability to the subjects and communities featured in storytelling. We recommend you read the principles, but a few highlights include:" %}

  • Storytelling needs to be developed by, or in partnership with, those whose experiences are being shared
  • Constantly examine power dynamics, and follow the leadership of the community or those directly impacted by the issues at hand
  • Facilitate participatory processes so that those who are most impacted by the issues raised shape how the storytelling project can be most useful to them and their work
  • Work in ways that dismantle oppressive and colonial structures, practices, habits and instincts

If you want to make movies about us - don’t send in your cameras. Hire us! We can tell our own stories.

Arthur Pratt, WeOwnTV Freetown Media Center

This was Arthur Pratt’s challenge to people working at the intersection of film and impact during a 2018 IDFA Impact Producers’ Summit led by Doc Society.

Pratt - pastor, playwright, and filmmaker - runs a media center in Freetown, Sierra Leone which was the result of an accountability process that he and filmmaker Banker White engaged in. When White first went to Sierra Leone in 2002 to produce and distribute his film, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, he noticed something that didn’t sit well with him.

There’s no formal schooling and very little opportunity in a refugee camp system. So when programs come in, looking to support creativity and the arts, many young people want to participate and lend their ideas to them. But I was struck by the fact that images of the participants and often the creative assets that they created during workshops (music, media, short films) were ultimately owned by the NGOs running the programs. This surprised me and seemed counter to the goals of these mission-driven organisations, and I began working on a workshop with an aim towards helping local filmmakers understand the value of their creative ideas and contributions.

Arthur Pratt, WeOwnTV Freetown Media Center

So White set out to use the resources he had to build capacity locally around storytelling and impact. And he knew that, to do so in the right way, he'd have to work closely with a local partner to interrupt this exploitative cycle. That's how the collaboration with Pratt came to be. Together they co-developed and co-facilitated a storytelling workshop under the name WeOwnTV. In Sierra Leonean Krio, the name literally means 'our own television', and their approach paired encouragement and training with an emphasis on ownership and understanding the value of their creativity. Leaning into the success of that collaboration, Pratt challenged White to lean on his professional contacts and privilege to help grow this work.

Eventually they ended up renting a space, bringing in funding and building the programs. Today this African-owned and African-run centre produces work that has transformed lives and helped shape narratives about the country. This can be seen most profoundly through their work during the Ebola outbreak. Because they were local, the team had a unique understanding of the dynamics at play and created life-saving public health messaging in local languages, and media that reflected the views of affected communities in Sierra Leone.

For directors who say they care about impact, you have to do the work and challenge yourself to think through power and privilege: how you’re using it, both in terms of what stories you tell and how you go about it. You really have to walk the talk. It’s time consuming, yes. But it's also central to impact.

US Filmmaker Jennifer Maytorena Taylor has also been actively interrogating her own process related to ethics and representation, power and privilege. Her new feature documentary explores how a small blue-collar town in Vermont has been struggling with the effects of the opioid epidemic and poverty during a time when they are also experiencing demographic change, including resettling a small number of Syrian refugees.

Prior to filming, Jennifer had observed the national news media descending on the town to portray the hardships people were enduring through a sensationalising lens. The collective impact of this attention and coverage fostered a deep distrust of the media in the community, which was compounded when many of the same outlets swarmed the town a second time to cover what became a bitter controversy over refugees and the town’s identity. As the town’s ideological and cultural rifts immediately started fitting into familiar patterns of liberals vs conservatives, Jennifer knew it would be essential not to get stuck in that binary story, but also to go more deeply and “messily” into how questions of structural racism and class hierarchy shape life and opportunity in this overwhelmingly white community.

For Jennifer, this project had special meaning as she had lived in and around the town for a good part of her childhood, after her mixed-heritage Anglo/Latinx family moved there from Los Angeles. She wondered:

'How do my decisions change when the desire to engage constructively and holistically is my starting and end point? How can I go beyond simply avoiding harm to make something that is constructive of good, while also making a compelling film? I am committed to the well-being of the film’s protagonists and to the town itself, but also to offering an honest portrayal that doesn’t fall into poverty porn or feel-good tropes.'

Jennifer asked the film's main protagonist – a fierce, brilliant woman in recovery who has spent her life in extreme poverty — to be an active participant in the construction of the story. Jennifer wanted this protagonist to be someone with agency, not simply a thing to be observed and represented, who has room to grow and change some of her ideas about class and race but without being pushed into too neat a heroic or 'white saviour' character arc.

Some filmmakers don’t want to talk about their motives or process with their film’s subjects. They fear doing so means that you risk fostering inauthenticity or a performative approach. But I think the ground has shifted from 20 years ago, even 5 years ago. People today are sophisticated media consumers and it’s foolish to pretend they are not engaging with how they are being portrayed. So for me, it’s better to lay out my ideas and develop a vocabulary together about how to be honest on screen.

The result? Hopefully a better, more accountable, and more complex film, she says. And in the meantime Jennifer has watched the main protagonist grow and change as a person through this process. This simple act, for a person who has been overlooked and written off throughout her life, has been transformative.

The film and multi-platform project Notes on Blindness, by Peter Middleton and James Spinney, offers a different kind of example of emancipatory filmmaking. The film is based on John Hull’s original audio recordings of his journey into blindness. Producer/Impact Producer Jo-Jo Ellison aimed to use it to foster a common understanding of blindness, bridge the gap between the sighted and unsighted, and break down fear and prejudice related to it - just as John had hoped to do in sharing his story.

Thus, from the outset, the Notes on Blindness team recognised that a film about the firsthand experience of blindness must be accessible to all audiences – most especially audience members who are themselves living with sight loss and even those who are hard-of-hearing. So, the team strove to make Notes on Blindness one of the most accessible feature films ever made, and in so doing promote accessible filmmaking as a basic right.

From the very beginning they worked closely with the blind community in the design of the project. They held multiple focus groups and worked closely with distributors and experts in the field of audio-visual translation to create four alternative soundtracks for the film. Their ambitious outreach and public engagement campaign included:

A comprehensive program of community and public exhibition events – including previews of an accompanying VR experience that used binaural sound, tethered to real-time 3D visualisation, to map environments built up through multi-layered patterns of sound.

An Accessible Filmmaking App (in partnership with MovieReading) that offered personalised Audio Description (AD) to UK cinemas for the first time, enabling a truly inclusive experience where blind and partially sighted people could attend non-specialist screenings alongside sighted friends and family.

A framework to allow makers to create films that liberate this underrepresented audience, not only in the ability to access the on-screen information (audio and visual) but in the physical action of attending the cinema itself.

The creation of the Future Filmmakers Guide to Accessible Filmmaking, to excite future filmmakers about the creative potential in accessibility, educate funding bodies and academic institutions, and help shape best practices and raise industry standards related to accessible filmmaking.

By working so closely with this community, they were able to identify the most creative approaches to accessible filmmaking and offer visually impaired audiences a choice of compelling, cinematic experiences. As a result, people with sensory impairments were able to full participate in the screening experience.

The project was an important and trail-blazing experiment in accessibility, which led to valuable lessons for the field at large - most importantly, that there is a robust audience that exists for accessible cinema. Offering high quality audiovisual translation opens up new opportunities for foreign and sensory-impaired audiences to consume and respond to film. The team created the Future Filmmaker’s Guide to build upon what they had learned and help support other filmmakers and professionals in integrating this planning into productions from the start. This not only makes the industry more inclusive - these efforts open up new audiences for films, and new agents of impact.

You can download The Future Filmmaker’s Guide here.

Of course, these are all very ambitious and impressive examples. We hope they inspire, rather than daunt you. The challenge is not that filmmakers need to start media centres, build accessibility infrastructures, and the like. Instead, the challenge is:

  1. To consider all these dynamics as you plan your impact, especially your primary impact dynamics.
  2. Be attentive to power and privilege and how it is playing out in a production and campaign.
  3. Be honest about what is working and what is not and share what you learn.

Ideally we are working collectively and collaboratively - as a field and with intersecting movements - to dismantle systems of oppression (rather than uphold them) in our filmmaking and impact producing processes... from start to finish.

In the next chapter we will dive into how to draft your strategic plan - the next step to getting there.

Geek Out: Ideas for further reading


Made byDoc Society Made possible by: Ford Foundation - Just Film Bertha Foundation Sundance Institute Knight Foundation