Participatory Video: Talking about our world(s), one frame at a time

Ellada Evangelou is a cultural worker and dramaturge. She is part of the Build Peace Arts team.

Two videos, presented below. One made by a group of young men, entitled “Majok Nyithiou: a center of trade and peace” and the second by a group of women, entitled “The Shortage of Water in Majok Nyithiou”.

Our Films, Our Peace is a project facilitated by Build Up as part of USAID’s VISTAS program, which took place during March 2015 in Majok Nyithiou, a border trade town on the Sudan — South Sudan border. The choice of story, location, images, questions and answers were all determined by the participants, whereas the editing process had two stages, with the first being a rough paper editing by the participants and the second phase the actual editing and addition of music by the facilitation team.

Let me now invite you to an exercise of ‘seeing’, a practice that moves far beyond just ‘watching’. Seeing entails allowing your eye and your aesthetic sensors to pick up information transmitted through the image, thus opening up new potentials for what this visual information could mean. It moves beyond pleasing the eye, to awakening analytical processes.

Enough talking about it, let’s see together:

The young men’s’ video has a music carpet, upbeat 1980s electronica. It starts with the setting up of the spatiality and temporality of the group (where are we, and what is our day like). The main focus is on faces and activities. The public space, which is showcased for the majority of the time, is mostly inhabited by males, and the ethics of the space are visible: men in positions of power, exchanging money and engaging in economic activity. Half way through the clip we are introduced to an important notion and to an alternative voice: we hear about the violent past, as well as a woman’s presence acquires a voice, giving information about life and the existence of a subtext (another reality to that seen at first glance). The second half of the clip offers richness in story-telling, with matter-of-fact narrations versus metaphoric narratives, like stories and parables. Displacement is not presented but is seen through its effects, especially in the relationships between people. When we hear about the future and its potentials, what we see are visuals of activities and sports. If one were to talk about a message, it would be “Power in numbers” is the collaboration model fitting for this community.

The women’s video presents a rather different world, focusing on the private space, more specifically activities in the home or around it; that is where things are said and activities are witnessed. The video has no music, and its beginning is (literally and metaphorically it seems) an effort to focus; the frame stops in the desert landscape. From the beginning, the testimonies of the women center on the shortage of water. The shattering of the dream for a better life in this community is linked to the lack of water and it is the cause of concern for all the women who speak. A breakdown of the practicalities of getting the water is put forth in a collage narrative, indicating that it is the job of the women to provide the water in the house. There is also a recurring mention of the connection between water and the human body, for drinking or cleanliness. The male presence in the clip is very specific: a male appears after the first half of the video, talking about the difficulties with the water as well, and the images of men in the public space are connected with narrative about collaboration. Moreover, there is the co-relation of water with freedom, and the clip ends with an appeal to the people in power for more water pumps. This is also interestingly the first time the word ‘borders’ is mentioned, as if using the language of politicians will make the request more powerful and relevant.

This is what I saw in the two participatory videos created in Majok Nyithiou, near the disputed Abyei territory, by “Arab” and “African”, Christian and Muslim, Misseriya and Dinka, that pushed me to revisit a conversation about one of the fundamentals of art: its mission to facilitate communication.

It’s true that art makes people nervous.

The question ‘what is art and what are its boundaries’ has been innumerable times. The line between individual (random) expression and artistic expression has been blurred to such an extent, that much of the mental and emotional processes linked to the appreciation of art, now rest in the subversive space inhabited by WTF.

How much artistic value can we really bestow upon a work that has questionable artistic purposefulness? Or, to reverse the question, what can levels of randomness and naïveté really add to a work of art? These are not new questions, asked, for example, by the Romantic poets of the 19th century, who struggled with their innate desire to be rid of formats and rigid neo-classical structures for the sake of their imagination-based, artistic expression.

However, the pretext for this conversation is now radically different, from the benign yet narcissistic romantics: we are under a Peace-Tech-Art umbrella. We are aiming to generate a broader discussion around the practice of Participatory Video and to engage peacebuilders with the rich array of possibilities related to it. Possibilities that emerge from a process of connecting a new practice (video), to a very old one (participatory art). Learning to ‘see’ a Participatory Video can be an incomparable source of information, carrying the potential to be used as “a first glance at the community” all the way to bring utilized for rigid monitoring and evaluation processes.

At its core, the utility of the Participatory Video practice lies in its astounding candidness, its openness and resilience to our ‘seeing’, in ways that reports or even qualitative research often resist.

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Build Up transforms conflict in the digital age. Our approach combines peacebuilding, participation and technology.

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