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When Women Make Media…

There is something about marginalized women making their own films. And it’s about something similar in all their experiences. I was (pleasantly) surprised to hear from Lauren Goodsmith of Communication for Change the same impacts on women that I heard from Sapna Shahani of WAVE, and that I have witnessed in my own work over the years. It is intriguing that women affected by gender-based violence during conflict in Liberia, women refugees in Thailand, women living with caste-based discrimination in Mumbai slums, and young girls from a Muslim community in Hyderabad share the same experiences. It has pushed me to think more deeply about what I call the Participatory Video Process.

I would want to define PV very simply as a participatory process during which marginalized people make their own video, and which is used to further a change-process at the personal, group, community and societal level. This process aims to build capabilities of the participants and drive their agency as citizens.

Millions of women, across the world, do not get the opportunities to act fully as citizens and have an active role in their own development. So, how does PV help do that? What is it about the process that has ‘empowered’ women to speak up, represent themselves and their issues, make their own decisions, and bring about a change?

My many conversations with PV participants are my major inspirations. During one of such conversations a woman mentioned, “I mark a change in my society as I am seen with a camera, I speak up and talk about community issues. People are proud of me now.” This is what motivates me to contribute towards the understanding of the PV process and extend it to more communities.

At the very onset, I would think it is erroneous to imagine that handing over a camera to her, is the end of the process. In fact that is where the complexities begin and that is where the opportunity lies to get women involved in this life-altering endeavour. It is definitely not linear, but a very iterative process. I describe it below. It is also not a prescription or a formula, but more a demonstration of how things can be done effectively:

1. Creating a Participatory Space

Women, often, do not have the space, where they are welcomed to participate in social, political or cultural issues. This non-participation extends from spaces, like households to like village meetings. Creation of such a space, where women can participate in the different arenas of life is one of the most basic steps.

2. Facilitating Shared Experience

The power of a participatory process in a group lies in the ability of people to share experiences. This works at two levels. First, they are able to share their own experiences. This sharing is very cathartic and eventually, self-esteem generating. Second, they are able to recognize that a lot of them share similar experiences. This realization gets people close, and forms a sense of togetherness and community.

3. Encouraging Expression

Expression is the one of the strongest ways of asserting one’s self. Women are denied expression in many ways. They are in endless forms, like being not allowed to speak up in front of men in their families, to books being banned written by women on sexuality, to not being allowed to take up certain kinds of profession, to rules on the clothing women have to wear and so on. Video becomes one form of expression. It is interesting to note that a ‘video story’ is not the only expression in this process. Through the medium of video, women express themselves in many ways, like, how they dress up in front of the camera, the way they talk (maybe authoritatively?), the kind of stories they bring out (like highlight women, who have broken the stereotypes), the gender perspective that they give to issues, the gender-sensitive solutions they offer, etc.. They even express and assert themselves, when they go around with cameras in their hands shooting in their communities.

4. Building a Community

As I mentioned before, having shared experiences builds a sense of community. That feeling needs to be converted, in terms of actually building a collective, a group, a community, that will get together to make changes. The opportunity to do so lies during the process of making the film, where the group of women is not simply making a film, but where they are being a community committed to gender issues. A larger community can be build from mobilizing audiences, People who watch these films should be inspired, and encouraged to think about change, and be a part of this community.

5. Ensuring Action

Inspiring and encouraging people or getting them emotionally involved with the issues is only an intermediary step. The actual impact lies in bringing people to action. The PV process does not end with just information dissemination. It bears the larger goal of bringing social change. The action can always vary from advocating with the government, to protests, to active citizen engagement in local civic issues, or even to aiming at behavioral change.

In the various contexts, I’m sure, there are, or can be experiences differing from the ones, I have mentioned here. There will be many underlying smaller processes that can hinder or further the PV process. What is ultimately needed to make it relevant to the change and development women want, is to be truly participatory and respect a participant’s needs, knowledge and understanding.

Thanks to:

  • All the wonderful women and girls I have had several formal and informal conversation with over 5 years of my engagement with PV.
  • Lauren Goodsmith from Communication for Change, for sharing the ‘Through our Eyes’ experience.
  • Sapna Shahani, who explained to me the whole thought behind WAVE.

You can watch some videos here:

Communication for Change

Videoactive Girls

WAVE

www.ch19.org

Also, definitely see Videoactive Girls: Girls’ Media Toolkit if you want to start a video project with young girls. The PV Handbook for the field by InsightShare is another great resource.

The time is around 9 in the night and the setting, an otherwise sleepy, remote village in the state of Gujarat, in India. You can sense something different this evening. Instead of being in their homes, sleeping, everyone is in the village center and a hot discussion is going on. There are around 300-400 people, including women, who are discussing their land rights. They have just watched a film on Agricultural Land Rights, produced by few youngsters from their own village, in their very own language. They are surprised to know that the landless are entitled to land from the government, an information, they never before had. Villagers from across 25 villages, who have seen this film on Land Rights, decide to get together, take out a rally and file applications with the Collector, asking for the land they should rightfully get. Around 750 Dalits, from the most feudal parts of Gujarat, file applications to get their land rights with the Collector and are forcing the government to distribute land to the landless, marginalized communities – land, which are illegally occupied by the so-called ‘Upper castes’ or, are being given out to big industrial units.

This is just a glimpse of what Participatory Video (PV) can achieve. It has the ability to inform, educate and empower people, give them a voice, organize communities and initiate social action. A strong alternative grassroots media movement is springing up, all over the world, and the Indian story is a big part of it. Participatory Video (PV) is all about turning the conventional mass media upside down.  The traditionally passive ‘receivers’ of mass media information and messages, are turning into active media ‘producers’, creating their own messages and meaningful information.

Conventionally, it has been the upper middle class and the rich, who have always found representation. The stories of the marginalized have continuously been ignored by the mass media, and they find no voice, no space, and no visibility in the dominant paradigm of it. Messages, which are important to the under-privileged, are hardly ever communicated to them. They have no control over the content in the mass media, and hence, they cannot communicate their issues to the larger world, either. Inaccessibility to technology, to media and hence, to a ‘voice’, has further pushed aside the marginalized. Another dimension is added to disempowering the (already) ‘have-not’s’. Development communication has long followed the ‘top-down’ approach. It hardly has ever focused on providing the marginalized, with their ‘Right to Communicate’, have a media, which serves their needs and encourages learning through interactive participation.

This is what PV is changing. It provides the underprivileged and marginalized, access to technology and skills to produce their own media and use it for empowerment and development. Communities are making themselves heard and visible, show-casing their cultures, establishing their identities and expressing their realities. They are looking at the world from their perspective and telling everyone, how it looks to them.

After a film screening in a tribal hamlet in Andhra Pradesh, this is what one of the villagers had to say: “For the first time in my life, I have seen a film on issues like this. How come the government has never shown us films like these? Whenever I start watching such a film, I always wish it could go on and I could keep watching it. This film has brought out the issue very well and now, I know, we can approach the government to build roads here. It is my right.”

In a few initiatives across the country, marginalized communities have been trained in filmmaking and producing videos on their own local issues. These issues range from communal harmony, to basic infrastructure to women’s rights, etc.. The videos are used to open up a space for communities, to discuss issues pertinent to their development, and deciding on individual and community action to be taken to resolve issues. People confront and challenge government authorities on issues, like, departments getting non-functional or getting Public Health Centers restarted; they participate in an active citizen life, taking responsibility for improving their own conditions, for instance, organize cleanliness rallies in the villages; meet in a public sphere as a community, where they get together and make decisions that impact their lives. In many places, it was for the first time that people got together to discuss issues, and women could speak up in public. In short, they get initiated into an active citizen life, making democracy a functional one – fighting oppression in their personal, as well as political lives.

One comes across stories of both individual and community empowerment through such endeavours. For Sofia, a young married Muslim woman, from one of the Muslim Ghettos in Ahmedabad, being a filmmaker was the last thing she had thought about. She could not even think about staying out of her house, after six in the evening. Today, she moves around her community with the camera, walks into government officials’ rooms with ease and confidence, and motivates her community members to take action. She has been able to convince her in-laws and husband to let her work. She has worked on around 12 films over a period of two years and tackled issues that are of utmost concern to her community, and has even become a community leader.

The all-Dalit team in Gujarat was able to enter a village temple, only because, they had a camera in their hand. No Dalit had ever entered the village temple before. In the very words of one the team members, Jeetu, ‘This was when, I realized the power of the camera and knew, it could fight Untouchability’. Through their films, this team has brought into light, the plight faced by Dalits on an everyday basis and also figured out solutions to make lives better.

A transgender woman not only learned how to use the camera and report on issues, but started her own project and trained other transwomen as well.

Through PV, and many such initiatives, the discrimination on the basis of technology is being fought against, which globalization of media and communications have increased even more, keeping away those, who have needed access to technology, communication and information, the most. It is empowering communities to negotiate power relations, forge their identities and question the oppression around them, which is on the basis of caste, religion, gender, economic backdrops.

These initiatives help set up several localized, small-scale media units producing meaningful and responsive media by communities, in response to the corporate or state-run media, which is seemingly pervasive and homogenous. It is a media, which is building capacities of the communities to initiate media activism and start a social process leading to positive change. PV is both democratizing media, and using it for a functional democracy. It is opening up far more spaces for individual and community action to move towards a democratic and participatory society, getting people organized, and encouraging the people at the grassroots lead this alternative form of media movement and impact their own lives. The movement has just begun, it still has a far way to go before it can become a substantial opposition to the pervasive mass media, but it is with these beginnings, that a new meaning of democracy is being discovered.

Following are some initiatives in India on PV:

Byrraju Foundation

Children as Media Producers

Deccan Development Society

Drishti

The Modern Story (working with schools)

Video SEWA

Video Volunteers

WAVE (working with women on Video Blogging)

This article was first written for Samas Media Lab. It has been modified.

Picture this: Kailash, a young school drop-out (Std. V!) is a film-maker now, shooting and editing, on her own! Mahesh Bhai, a former farmer, who knows basic English, does it too. Not too common a sight, is it? We don’t really bump into people with such backgrounds, who are filmmakers. But what happens, when such people can, and actually make their own media? The Citizens’ Media Diaries is about them, their media, and how they affect diverse change in their own lives, and that of others.

Since this is my first post, let me start with my own diary: I was a college student in Delhi, studying media – the usual post-school routine, to aspire to take up a discipline of one’s choice. I still remember my uneasy discomfort, when we were supposed to make our final film projects – the kind of feeling you get, when you know very little about your ‘subject’ – about making a film, a documentary, on someone else’s life. No wonder, the film we finally made, was about ‘us’ – three college students! The concept and implications of citizens making their own media, about their own lives, has inspired me ever since that experience. A sneak preview of our college production is here:

(Thanks to Charu for this edited version)

This feeling only grew stronger, as I went on to study Social Work at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. The more closely I saw common people’s lives as a social work student, the more I felt, they needed to have their own expression, their own voice, and so, the ability to produce their own media. So, I went ahead and pursued this idea in my professional life as well – working with organizations and people, promoting it.

Being with communities and working on video projects with them, has probably been the most enriching experience in my life. I have been their friend, their mentor, sometimes, even like a teacher(!). I have had my moments of un-self-conscious fun, innocent joy, immense frustrations and ‘I-want-to-give-up’ moments, as well. But it’s only worth the effort, when you see eyes lighting up, faces brightening up, as these self-made films appear on the screen. At times, it’s hard to decide, who’s happier – you or them?

In an endeavour, to understand this world of peoples’ media, to help it further its journey, and be a part of this hugely potential field of active citizen involvement, I have started on a PhD, researching on Participatory Video, and its multiple facets, at the Open University, in the UK. This blog is my space to literally, pour my thoughts out. I want to also share all the great resources, innovations and experiments that I have come across, from my earlier work life and experiences, and the ones that I gather from now on, with this new beginning. I envisage, this will be a dynamic space for all those, interested in media made by people. It aims to provoke discussions and debates, to enrich me and all who participate, further, with your observations, thoughts and experiences, as well.

Here’s wishing me, Happy Blogging and you, Happy Reading. Don’t be shy to shoot back!