With the support of the Media & Learning Association, the Evens Foundation and ZaLab organised a seminar on 18 May on the subject of participatory practices in relation to documentary video and film-making. Hosted by Sally Reynolds, the discussion brought together practitioners and researchers from Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands to exchange knowledge around three key themes: ‘Participatory and collaborative work during the pandemic’, ‘Engagement and power in participatory processes’ and ‘Promotion of participatory practices’.
ZaLab is a collective of six filmmakers and social workers collaborating since 2006. Their aim is to produce, distribute and promote independent social documentaries.
Participatory video is one of the main strands of their work. They understand it as a social change process culminating in an audiovisual production. Often it is also a source of inspiration for their other productions. The participatory approach has proven to be particularly powerful with marginalised groups in different settings, supporting them to find their voice and tell their stories. In 2017, they were the Laureates of the Evens Media Education Prize. Committed to furthering the dissemination of their Laureates’ good practices, the Evens Foundation supported ZaLab in the organisation of two online events, one in Belgium and one in Poland.
For the Belgian seminar the concept of participatory practice was deliberately left undefined. The idea was to invite a group of people who seemed to identify with it to engage in a conversation of what it means in reality. The eventual group of participants represented different experiences in the field of participatory practices ranging from film production, education and research to promotion. Prior to the meeting, everyone was invited to share topics they would like to discuss in order to build the agenda of the meeting around these suggestions.
After a short presentation of ZaLab’s work and an introduction round, the discussion focused on the influence of the pandemic on the work of the organisations and people present. On the one hand it turned out to be an important challenge. It was impossible to organise offline workshops whilst the organisation of online workshops was very demanding for organisers. Also participants were not always too eager to join yet another online event, especially young people. Although some organisations noticed that certain participants were also able to express themselves better because of the distance online formats entail. The omnipresence of online activities also made existing socio-economic disparities more visible.
On the other hand this reality encouraged people to find solutions and experiment with new ideas and ways of working. Sometimes organisations even shifted their priorities to focus on more urgent problems like the mental health of the people they work with.
Although the effects of the pandemic on everyone’s work continued as a background theme during the whole meeting, the conversation moved on to more general aspects of participatory activities like participants engagement, cooperation and power relations. Departing from an analysis of what participation represents for all of the players involved in such processes, the approaches that professionals, institutions and organisations maintain in different circumstances were discussed.
If most of those present declared themselves as working bottom-up, different ideas were shared regarding how to create a collaborative group in the most efficient and horizontal way. It seemed important for everyone to always consider which stories are narrated, who is represented, who is involved and how, as participants need to feel part of the whole plan. Moreover, it is fundamental to reflect on the reasons for people to participate and on how to bring together different worlds in the same project, blending and incorporating all necessary elements to portray the most complete image possible.
There is no denying that despite the efforts to keep participative work neutral and objective video-making is – by some means – a hierarchical process; the proposal to limit the negative effects of it would be to co-design projects with all the actors involved (although this appears to be more complicated when it comes to fiction as the production is more rigid in that case). Direct involvement and sharing visions and opinions seem to be key to making people feel empowered and part of the narrative, especially when it comes to young participants. On the contrary, participants who join to learn professional skills may not always be interested in the group dynamic but more in the learning parts of the experience. Lastly, budgetary limits were also stated to have important repercussions on participatory projects.
Financial stability allows organisers to focus on the quality of horizontal and inclusive processes during project development. Different is also the standpoint when it comes to the final output with some participants to the seminar expressing their issues when having to create a product that needs distribution. In fact, the distributing system affects the inclusion paradigm, beyond the positive nature of the initial collaboration with a group or a community.
Federica Mantoan and Marjolein Delvou, Programme Curators, Evens Foundation