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This one week taught me so much about doing Participatory Video, as a researcher. Going in, I never thought, it will be as tough – negotiating the thin line between Namita Singh, the trainer, and Namita Singh, the researcher. The former being my role throughout my working life prior to my PhD, the latter, I am supposed to strictly adhere to, so as not to lose sight and data, while I am at it.
Every bit is important. Every bit might have some key, some vital insight – a hidden answer to my research questions – some serious business, this!

I had wanted to use PV in my research, as I wanted to work with a method that the participants would be very comfortable with. Since both the groups I am doing my research with, have been doing PV for more than three years, it seemed like the most apt method for my research. They know the technique, they are already experts in what they know, and they do make films… I thought, what better than PV, in such a case. It was a rather uncomplicated decision for me. So I discussed the possibility of doing PV as a part of my research with the organisation. It was a definitive ‘yes’… The participating girls were really excited about it too. Then came the little request from them, ‘Why don’t you train us a bit too, while we make this video for the research? We could learn some more’.

Tricky! How could I say no? They are giving me their time for my research. They are participating in it. They just want to learn a bit more, while being a part of it. On the other hand, it is a research, I did not want to compromise on my data-collection, while trying to train them and mixing up two very different things. Would research be research, if things did not complicate themselves?
So I put my dilemma aside, and thought, ‘Well, I could probably design the video-making in a workshop-format. I have done this as a trainer, as it is an extremely participatory process. I can do the same, as a researcher too.
It was not as easy as it seemed. There are things I did as a trainer, which I could not as a researcher, and vice-versa…..

Agenda-setting
Namita Singh, the trainer, has been used to negotiations – between the participants’ agenda and the organisation’s or that of the funders’. Being on the middle ground, as a trainer, it was always difficult to take a position, but I still had the option of choosing one or the other. But, there could never be any of ‘my agenda’. (I had even been told off once, for calling the community ‘my community’, and asked by one of the organisations involved, to stick to the plan!). Choosing the participants’ agenda here, would have meant, making this video to showcase their work. Something they could show to their community, other NGOs… Fair negotiation, this…

But here, Namita Singh, the researcher, had one of her own – the content of the video. It was supposed to be analysed for the research – some serious business, this! It was supposed to respond to my research questions. I had such an urge to control! Fair negotiation, this too…

So I kept looking to balance it out, so that, while they make such a video, I get my data. While discussing the concept of the video, it did take me a lot to not keep pushing my agenda, and negotiate with them on the content of the video.
Fair negotiation… is always a tough task! Research taught me…

Production
The production side of things brought out the other part of the urge to control – the urge to make them use the tripod, the urge of taking the camera in my hand to frame a new kind of shot for them, the urge to set the pace of the video in the edit… Namita Singh, the trainer, after all, has had trained participants in making videos – scripting, shooting, editing…the works! Participants were trained for months to shoot good quality video. They had to learn the nuances of good editing. The video had to look good. There is a norm of what ‘good’ means.

But Namita Singh, the researcher, even with all her training skills? It was clear to me before we began making the video that my prime objective is the research, and I could not lose sight of it. I had to give up my notion of a technically perfect video. I had to keep reminding myself that it does not matter here.
I decided, I would not compromise on their wish to learn more though. Instead, I would attempt to make the entire process an experience, without interfering with the technical stuff…
Falling into the trap of a norm is always such an easy one! The research made me understand…

Girls shooting for the video

Dissemination
For Namita Singh, the researcher, the dissemination of this video would be of the research kind – used as part of the thesis. Probably show it in some conference. Maybe use it in some other research, or with other research participants for… Namita Singh, the trainer, of course, gets reminded, there’s another here, that would be of the organisational kind. They will screen it in communities. They’ll show it to other NGOs. They’ll probably use it to pitch to funders.
There was a suggestion from their coordinator, that they can make the video in English. It’ll make an impact on the NGOs, and the funders. That would make a useful point in my research as well – the confidence of the girls and how far they have come. They are not just making a video, but making it in English. In most of the communities in India, it is a sort of a statement to be able to speak in English.

But the girls pointed out, ‘Our communities don’t know English. They’ll not understand what we are saying. Even if we put subtitles, they don’t know how to read. Those who know English can read. So let only the subtitles be in English’. The girls were sensitive about their community, and vocal about it too. As a trainer, the focus was always to respond to such needs of the community. In fact, use of local words, encouraging local songs, etc. was an integral part of the process. After all, for them, it was for the local community that was to engage with the video more.

My ‘audience’, as a researcher had changed. I was sensitive to the needs of those. Here, it was not for the needs of any other.
An alteration of sight on certain aspects can, and do happen! This research just taught me to be aware of, how and what.

……………………………………….
The week ended with both the participants and me feeling happy. They said, ‘We love our video’, and smiled at me. I smiled back. ‘We liked it this week…come again.’, as I was leaving.
I will be going again, ready to learn some more.

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A very common phenomenon that I have witnessed in these years of my engagement with Participatory Video and communities is that of discontinuation of the process by virtue of sustainability issues, mostly of the financial kind. Endless hours, efforts and funds, by way of grants or otherwise, are spent on equipment and other allied costs – the community producers make impactful media that change the local social landscape, in terms of development, growth, etc…, and stop when the funding stops. The ‘media producers’ can’t fend, for themselves and further projects.

Media all over the world is usually, a money-making enterprise. What’s so different then, with local, community-produced media? Why is there, usually, a struggle to sustain such enterprises? One reason, of course, is the source of funds.

As Herman and Chomsky detail in ‘Manufacturing Consent’, a usual mass/mainstream media house earns majorly from advertising houses (by which, it is also often, said to be held hostage) and/or funding by political parties (similar story), and propaganda is spread due to such financial allegiances. The locally community-produced media on the other hand, are adopted by a NGO, or a social enterprise or a for-profit grassroots production house. For them the question is, do they earn from local advertising, or stay away from any form of advertising or accept only ethical advertising – to fathom, what are the other forms of income that exist?

(Welcome to Community Video Training)

Aiming to realize different forms of income for sustenance, certain NGOs in India, working with Community Video, have tried many ways of making themselves financially sustainable. They’ve taken on projects for other NGOs and made videos for them for a fee; sold their films for a charge to other NGOs and/or even community members during festivals and fairs; made marriage videos and other such, for earnings. There have been many similar small enterprises, but they haven’t really become ways that could sustain them.

In the book, ‘Guidebook on Sustainability’ for Community Radio (CR), the authors study four CR Stations in Africa, and talk about income from donations, ‘commercial’ and ‘development’ advertising, community announcements, programme sponsorships, grants, sales of promotional items, like caps, T-shirts, community greetings etc.. Another book, ‘Financial sustainability model for CR stations in South Africa’, offers exactly that – a financial sustainability model. However, it hasn’t been easy for CR Stations to earn an income and financially sustain, which has been mentioned as the biggest challenge for the success of such independent stations.

Many a times, the economy of the area is too weak to even provide local advertisement opportunities or even people paying for community announcements, etc…, also rendering the donation and/or funding concepts, completely unreliable. I have known very few community/participatory video initiatives from across the world that have lasted the years, like the Chiapas Media Project, with indigenous communities in Mexico.

There have even been some discussion and work around linking local community media to mass media and generating incomes, like, media houses buying stories from these ‘community journalists’. This, in effect, also brings in other questions, like, would the community journalists indulge in voyeurism, to sell their stories to the mainstream media (some connections to ‘Peepli Live’ – the movie)? Or, would the mass media start broadcasting stories meaningful to marginalized communities and the media scene slowly start changing, reducing the wide gap of ideologies?

Then there’s of course, the ‘intent’, which plays harder in establishing roles, when it comes to adaptations of models. A profit-making venture at a local level, for example, might well have its social ethics and sense of responsibilities in place, whereas, a NGO may not be transparent about its earnings and disbursals.

It’s not easy, but what’s inspiring, is that efforts are on, with newer and more innovative ideas coming on board, on how to make community media financially sustainable, maybe even without grants and funding. From simple starts, like making marriage videos to offering professional video-making services to the corporates and NGOs, community media has come a long way. With the kind of thinking and work around it, its sustainability definitely is not unachievable, but complex indeed, especially with the surrounding ethos and ethics.

It’d be great to know of more ideas that might help such initiatives sustain themselves, and would be wonderful to hear from any of you, in this process of supporting locally-endeavoured community media.

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My last post was about children working with video, learning how to make them, and be able to tell their own stories. It is extremely encouraging to note, so much is happening with children and video around the world. There are many projects in India, like CAMP – Children as Media Producers or The Modern Story, which train children in producing their own media. I have also come across the ‘New Generation Workshop’, held during the Rio International Film Festival, where videos made by children were screened, and also the Caribbean Kids News, Not Suitable for Adults etc., where children produce their media.

This post is also about children and video, in a slightly different context though. It is based on my experiences as a video-trainer with an organization called, Sahyog in Ahmedabad, on their Videoshala project, which literally means, a ‘video-school’.

So, is it possible that children themselves contribute to creating their own learning material?

Well, my experience says, why not? Let me elaborate.

Videoshala was about a group of community members, trained to become video producers. They made educational videos for local schools, where their own, or children from their neighborhood studied, and the children themselves were involved in contributing to the learning content. I particularly remember two occasions, which were very interesting in the way the content of videos came about:

One was about the many different religions in India. Sahyog, being based in Ahmedabad (Gujarat, India), where at least eight different religions co-exist, had local children from different religions, as a part of making this video. They visited the different places of worship, gathering answers to their various questions on different religions, from the respective religious heads. Add to that, their own thoughts, conclusions and analyses became a part of the video as well. This video was shown in different local schools as part of the curriculum. Notwithstanding the by now, widely known phenomenon of ‘Hinduization of textbooks’, this video, in contrast, seemed pretty inclusive and candid, as it talked about other religions, like Judiasm, Zoroastrianism or Sikhism, as opposed to the prescribed textbooks with just one photograph of a Gurudwara (worship place for Sikhs), in stark comparison to the comprehensive detailing of Hinduism. It also became an enriching experience for people to indulge in cross-religious inquisitiveness and interest, something, most people otherwise, hardly ever did – not to mention the other children in the classroom, who also saw a different perspective through the eyes of their own peers.

The other interesting video was one on communal harmony. Now, this community is in Vatva, one of the many Muslim ghettos in Ahmedabad, which suffered through severe communal violence in 2002. People, I was working with, were directly and intensely affected by it. One day, while we were discussing about the topic of the next video, a small incident happened, which threatened to erupt into violence, once again. One of the producers was sharing with the rest of us, how her daughter was sent back home after schools were shut, and how she said that the Hindus were coming to kill them. She was quite distraught that her 8-year old daughter came to think like that. That led the team to decide on the topic of the up-coming video – ‘Communal Harmony’. It was indeed awe-inspiring, when they got a real Maulana and a Pandit (Muslim and Hindu priests, respectively) to ‘act’ in the film together and talk about it. An extra effort was always made by the team to ensure focus on the learnings and impacts during the process of the making of such videos, and therefore, children involved in the video production, were acquainted with real-life experiences and truths. They could critically think about and present such related issues, which helped the other children in their own neighborhood, learn and understand more.

On a side note though, we also had to portray it as a video on synonyms and antonyms, so that it fitted in with the existing curriculum, which didn’t talk about communal harmony.

Of course, there are educational videos made by experienced experts in the field that are great on quality, and there is a lot of thinking around pedagogy, as to how children learn and so on. Experts, though, will always struggle to bring in local experiences and realities of children but wouldn’t it be a better educational process, if children were more aware of their own environment and if their educational content was co-related? Isn’t it possible to make such content, which makes a child relate it to her/his surroundings, realities and experiences? Where a child can learn from and about things around her/him? For instance, in one of the children’s videos on different work people do, the kids interviewed a radio jockey, talked to a sweeper and so on, found out that women could be laborers and farmers too, unlike in the textbooks, where they are only nurses and teachers (…and, household work was recognized as ‘proper work’!). All that was actually needed, was to look at the world with an open eye, and not get buried in the biases and stereotypes, as sometimes (or should I say, more often than not!) set by conventionally written and prescribed textbooks. Wouldn’t it be a more real world, with less of such stereotypes?

I would also guess, most of us have had an education, where we could not relate to a lot of things we were taught, when we were taught those. This innovation was about engineering a balanced education of children through locally produced content and imbibing more wholesome values through such education. It was evidently successful, as teachers appreciated the educational content, children seemed to enjoy such topics that stood difficult earlier, and learning, suddenly became fun and relevant for both teachers and children.

How I wish, I had learnt through a similar process, than mugging my way away!

It is despairing though that the organization I was working with, no longer produces such videos. All the community members that I had trained as video-makers, are now trying hard to find jobs for themselves, in quest of basic survival and sustenance. They are all still in touch with me, constantly sending me their documentary ideas or asking, if I have anything better for them, than their current jobs. Sustained interest, funding, and therefore eventual sustainability, is a huge challenge for such meaningful and constructive media to be produced by the communities. I have a feeling I will write about that in my next post – raising questions, looking for solutions.

PostScript: Videoshala project was implemented by four organizations in Gujarat, with both the government and local private schools. The communities and children they worked with, were mostly under-privileged.

See this video made by the community producers about Videoshala:

Sorry, there aren’t any subtitles.

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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.

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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.

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