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Shifting Perspectives – A reflection on the use of video in the field

DavidMcEwen23 August 2016

The lens is an eye. Video and photography offer a unique opportunity to represent or share a situation, an event, a person, a moment in time. Within the context of academia and research, where it can be far too easy to dilute a point through a mass of text or statistics (or big words), these mediums serve as infinitely powerful and diverse tools to reflect on a particular subject (or no subject at all).

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Through my experience on the field, I have viewed the capacities of video in a few different, interrelated ways: as a documentary, evidence gathering tool; as a democratising force, a platform with which to share hidden or silent perspectives; as a tool for advocacy, support and ‘legitimisation’. As three broad categories, these ultimately refer to the opportunity to craft a certain narrative to, one that engages with the senses on a scale that other mediums cannot. You see the sights of the cameraman, you hear what and who they hear, you feel what they feel.

Working with local communities on our field-trip to Cambodia (as part of the BUDD masters), we used video to document the results of participatory design workshops we ran alongside community members. This proved valuable as a resource to draw from during presentations in front of key local and national government officials, demonstrating the success of our participatory planning pilot and suggesting a potential future for participation within the planning system. Similarly, while on the field in Uganda, I worked alongside local NGO ACTogether to document community planning meetings in which participatory exercises were conducted to attempt to address the issue of flooding. The video and media content produced as part of these meetings is invaluable in not only sharing the general aims and methodology of the NGO, but in legitimising its efforts, providing firsthand evidence of its work, efficacy and influence.

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The value of crafting a narrative is particularly felt when viewing video as a democratising tool, as an amplifier for those voices unheard. Within the context of London, I have used documentary films as a platform with which to express and elucidate the concerns of various community groups fighting juggernaut developers and regeneration proposals. The typical structure for participation within the planning system does not offer many opportunities to voice objections and concerns, and where present, they remain particularly formal and confined. Creating films and sharing them online, we were able to share and voice our views to a much wider audience than would otherwise be available and generate greater opportunities for discussion than standard methods for participation would allow. This felt particularly empowering as we were able to craft a message within boundaries set by ourselves, rather than an outside agent.

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The freedom offered by the last case is something that deserves greater reflection as it is not something that will necessarily be available in situations where video and media is tasked with representing the views of others in research and academic work. There is an inherent bias and degree of manipulation involved in the creation of video/film/photography; this is its greatest asset and weakness. In an academic or research context (perhaps in every context), it is important to meditate on the role of the photographer/videographer, how they may be shaping or influencing their surroundings and the material they record, and consequently the role of the editor or curator, tasked with weaving a particular narrative or message. Questions of fidelity and authenticity are necessary at each of these stages to avoid the potential of misrepresenting or distorting a subject. I am afraid I have no concrete answers though; the ultimate beauty of the medium lies in its ability to be interpreted in many different ways: to portray the right and the wrong, the easy and the hard, the simple and the contradictory, all at the same time.

 

My final advice:

 

Think, record, then think again.


David McEwen is a filmmaker and architect, a recent graduate of the BUDD masters programme, with an interest in design and democratic spatial practices. His work has included the production of documentaries on development processes in Cambodia and Uganda and more recently the representation and advocacy of minority ethnic interests in urban design and planning practices in London.

Cinema as a vehicle for social integration in the city

MarcoTrombetta17 July 2015

Cinema is one of the least accessible forms of art. It demands a certain amount of financial investment into equipment for filming, lightning and sound, people like actors, assistants and editors – not to mention time. Nevertheless our digital world has opened new doors for visual storytelling through the democratisation and affordability of tools necessary for filmmaking [1].

Inhabitants of excluded spaces – those living outside the ‘formal’ city – are able to use the tools of the digital age, from mobile phones and affordable recording equipment, to online platforms for funding and distributing films, to tell their own stories about the cities they live and experience. Informal settlements are part of the landscape in many cities in the Global South, where for some social exclusion, discrimination, drugs and violence are part of everyday life [2].

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Mainstream cinema has picked up these themes through films like El Elefante Blanco, Tropa de Elite and recently Trash. These films have been supported by formal studios and were able to find distribution channels into mainstream cinemas.

However there are directors living in informal settlements who have created fictional depictions of life, while adopting a more realistic approach with its basis in the world within which they live. The interesting link lies more between the cinematic representations of the city than with the story. The mise-en-scène and the urban space not only imply a cinematic setting, but also indicate sociocultural context.

The realistic mise-en-scène of these very low-budget films does not illustrate absolute authenticity but is rather the filmmaker’s articulation of their reality [3]. It is an invitation for the “outsiders” – people living in the formal sector – to understand where these dwellers live and what their perceptions of reality are.

Image by Eflon via Flickr: flickr.com/photos/eflon

These types of films – similar to post-war Italian neorealist cinema [4] – privilege shooting on location and adopt a style of cinematography visually similar to a documentary. The example of Cesar Gonzalez, an Argentine film director living in the informal settlement Carlos Gardel in Buenos Aires province, is relevant.

His films are a testimony to the power of art as a tool for social recognition and integration. Cesar Gonzalez found a voice in cinema that he didn’t have before when he was involved with gangs and smugglers. He directed his first film Diagnóstico Esperanza in 2013 which was filmed with the local people from the informal settlement Carlos Gardel (the film is available to watch on YouTube).

The film depicts life in a space within the city that has its own vocabulary, its own vision of the world, its own soul. As “outsiders” we walk in the streets of this unfamiliar world. His films progressed a wider social acknowledgement among intellectuals and movie critics of informal settlements not just being seen as excluded spaces, but also replete with excluded people.

His latest film “What can a body endure?” (Qué puede un cuerpo?) was made possible by crowd-sourcing funds and then released online via Youtube. It has currently more than 200,000 views. His two films so far have gained critical praise and have been screened in a very prestigious local cinema in Buenos Aires [5]. The National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts (INCAA) is currently funding his third film.

Cinema has been historically involved with political contexts, helping to contribute to a collective perception of reality, and reflecting the state of society at that time. As the example of Cesar Gonzalez has shown, not only can films become a vehicle for telling a story in an artistic way but also as a tool for social recognition and integration – breaking down some of the physical barriers that seem to divide the city.

References


Marco Trombetta holds an MSc in Environment and Sustainable Development from the DPU. He was involved in local politics in Argentina, participating in several NGOs and international forums such as the G20. He has a passion for Cinema and he writes film reviews in his blog Red Curtain Cinema.