On using participatory filmmaking in research

This post is part of Dr Amanda Alencar's interview with Dr Kevin Smets for The IMISCOE Migration Podcast on the role of (participatory) film in exploring borders and belonging, developed as part of the Reel Borders research project funded by the European Research Commission.

Amanda Alencar is an Associate Professor at the Department of Media and Communication at Erasmus University Rotterdam, where she specialises in media and migration and intercultural communication. Kevin Smets is Assistant Professor at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), teaching media and cultural theory, visual culture and film studies. The Migration Podcast is produced by Dr Fionna Sieger, a migration expert and sociologist by training with a regional focus on Asia and migration policy with women, children and youth. 

To check out the episode of The IMISCOE Migration Podcast, visit: https://www.imiscoe.org/news-and-blog/podcast

Amanda: Kevin Smets has been studying the relationships between films, borders, and migration. Could you tell us more about your research and how you situate yourself in the field of migration studies?

Kevin: I am primarily interested in migration's cultural dimensions and how migration is represented in stories and visual media to reflect on trajectories of im/mobility. More recently, in how such media can become vessels for belonging.

A: You recently received a grant from the European Research Council: the ERC Starting grant Reel Borders focused on films and borders. Why is it relevant to understand the role of films in the construction of borders?

K: We are now in the second year of this, a team project, which is essential to emphasise. Silvia Almenara-Niebla, Lennart Soberon, and Irene Gutiérrez are also working on the project. We are interested in the tensions between the materiality of the border and the symbolic/imagined dimensions of the border. Indeed, it is rooted in research on border studies, where there has been a lot of attention to the symbolic, the aesthetic, the processual dimensions and constructions of borders. But, at the same time, we want to go beyond making a catalogue of existing border representations like fences, walls, and checkpoints in film. Instead, we want to highlight how borders extend far beyond those infrastructures into people's everyday lives near or even further from those borders, bringing us to the whole corpus of sociological literature on sociological bordering. Likewise, I am in a media studies department, and now I also teach a course on film history, so I wanted to approach all of this through the lens of fiction film, documentary, TV and other forms of audiovisual culture manifestations. So we are pretty inclusive regarding what types of films are looking historically to the borders, but also how film can be used as tools to tell border-related stories from the perspective of those who are witnessing those borders on a daily basis. And the other thing that the project has gradually become is to bring film more central to social sciences and into migration studies as a more serious topic and part of methodologies in social sciences.

A: You and your team have been focusing on three border regions: the Irish, Spanish-Moroccan, and Turkish-Syrian. Why did you choose these border spaces, and what is the most exciting insight? 

K: I wanted to include Turkey in the project because that is where I had been before and where I would say my primary expertise is. And then, when designing the project, I was departing from the typology I developed from the literature on border studies, mainly looking at different types of borders. From that typology, I came up with three borders. For instance, the Turkish-Syrian border has become much more militarised and surveyed in recent years with a long fence that now marks sections of this 900-kilometre-long border, although in some places can be crossed, depending on the sections you look at. The second case study is the two Spanish enclaves in North Africa, Ceuta and Melilla, whose fences, bordering Morocco since 1995, have been for years key crossing points for sub-Saharan migrants into Europe. This is a highly militarised and very deadly border as well. And then the Irish border is quite particular because, due to the whole conflict's history in Northern Ireland, that border was contested before and after the negotiations connected to Brexit. Indeed, the border has reshaped that region regarding identity from a symbolic perspective. They all have very different historical contexts but share some aspects. For instance, they are somehow rooted in imperial histories or the afterlife of big empires. And, of course, all of them are featured prominently in today's political discourses about migration, about who belongs and who doesn't. 


A: Bringing a bit more to the methodological part, could you share the different approaches developed within the Reel Borders project? 

K: Sure. Just like there are three different regions that we focus on, there are also three different sub-studies. One sub-study looks at border representations in cinema, which can be more attached to a traditional film studies approach. In this sub-study, we ask questions such as how are artists and professional filmmakers dealing with the border in these areas. What do they tell us through border representations and border stories, and how has this been done historically? A second or sub-study looks at everyday experiences of belonging in border regions, which is more anthropologically oriented. In this sub-study, we ask how we can use film to understand better the everyday perspectives of people living in or near borders, what we call borderlanders. In this sub-study, we use interviews and participatory observations. Still, we are also developing a methodology called Cineforum, where the participants collectively select, watch, and discuss films as a sense-making practice. And then the third sub-study may be the more experimental one, drawing a lot of attention when we talk about it. In this sub-study, we try to develop with nonprofessional filmmakers in the border regions the stories they want to tell by using participatory filmmaking. So far, we have completed two sessions of participatory filmmaking, one on the Irish border and one in Ceuta. We are currently editing and finalising the films from those filmmaking workshops. 

A: Regarding the participatory filmmaking approach, you said the participants are filming and producing the audiovisual material. Which roles do the participants play in the field?

K: This is an essential strand of the project to understand the experiences and perspectives of people living in borderlands who are not necessarily professional filmmakers, artists, or journalists. Therefore, the ideas we develop together can be seen as more horizontal or inclusive knowledge and stories about borders. For instance, the border is generally seen as a sort of no man's land or transition zone that does not have an identity on its own, so we tried to deconstruct that idea by doing these participatory filmmaking workshops to illustrate how is the daily life of borderlanders in terms of identity, but also how do they see themselves as actors in their processes of belonging and becoming. The border is a dynamic place of constant negotiations and resistance; visualisation is part of the work we are trying to do with the participants. For instance, in Derry, on the Irish border, we worked with The Nerve Center, where we set up a three-month filmmaking course every Saturday opened to everyone interested to learn more about filmmaking where the topic of the border was gradually introduced. Still, participants were left entirely free in how they would create the stories they would like to tell. Since the group had a good size, we could make four films there, and we tried to rotate the different roles to ensure that every participant could taste a little bit, from directing, filming, recording interviews, editing and so on. The participants are usually mainly involved in every role during the pre-production and production of the film. In contrast, the editing is hugely time-consuming and quite technical, so this part is a challenge, but I think we managed to make the editing support for some of these films also quite participatory. We also design the circulation and distribution strategy of the films with the participants, an aspect which is sometimes taken for granted. In our participatory filmmaking projects, a crucial question was what we wanted to solve with the participants where they wanted their films to be screened from the beginning. Which kind of audiences do they want to reach? So according to that, we develop a distribution strategy to ensure the films end up where they want them.

The research and the workshop in Ceuta were quite different. There we collaborated with Digmun, a women's association working with cross-border female workers from Morocco living in the city irregularly in a very precarious socioeconomic status. We integrated the participatory filmmaking workshop into an ongoing Spanish language course that they were taking. The workshop happened from Monday to Tuesday for two hours for three months. In this case, they did not have any previous background in filmmaking, whereas, in Ireland, some participants already had quite advanced filming skills. As this was not the case in Ceuta, the emphasis was on developing personal short stories that connected well to the language course. In this sense, telling and recording their stories was challenging because some did not want to be too visible due to their irregular situations. Therefore, the voice-over becomes the main narrative element of their films, converting their stories into a much more socially and politically engaged denouncement. Indeed, this was the main objective for the women participating in the workshop from the beginning, to make their situation more visible to policymakers, the press and citizens in general.

A: I just wanted if you could elaborate a little bit more on this part of your project that is devoted to the promotion but also the dissemination of the films: How do you think that the stories and knowledge that have been co-produced with the participants could impact on issues related to borders, migration, racism, and discrimination?

K: What we are trying to do in the project is to extend the participatory nature to the sub-studies. I have already mentioned participatory filmmaking, but we have also been trying to make a collective analysis of films through the cineforum. The impact is a big question. Of course, we hope to contribute to progressive values and take inclusive policies. For instance, we aim to raise awareness by bringing borders into discussions and shedding light on those living in the border areas. This is a big theme, especially with the films in Ceuta, because the cross-border workers cannot leave the city. They have been trapped in Ceuta since three years ago because of the enforcement of the border regulation after Covid. In this sense, the work that Irene did together with the Digmun association is really great because they used the platform of the workshop for those three months to contact the local press, the local and national Spanish television, and the newspapers to make people aware of these groups of people's situation. We have also had some feedback from policymakers here in Brussels to screen the films there once they are finished, hopefully. That is one of the fantastic things about film, how magnetic it is cinema to catch the attention immediately. Finally, we decided to launch a webdoc with the films of Ceuta because we want the films to be suitable to circulate on social media. Since, for the moment, the participants cannot travel to show or discuss their, they will be disseminated widely in digital platforms and have digital afterlives. But yeah, we are now more or less almost halfway through the project, so maybe we have to talk again in one or two years to see where we have been able to come to bring all these films.

A: Thank you very much, Kevin, for being here with us today.

K: My pleasure. Thanks for having me. 

More info about Reel Borders: here
More info about The IMISCOE Migration Podcast: here 

To read other PhD blog posts about participatory filmmaking: here

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