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Participation and Beyond : Handing Over the Camera
By P V Satheesh, Deccan Development Society, Hyderabad, India
 

In order to start understanding Participatory Video we may have to look at it from a number of perspectives simultaneously. It may in fact become more and more difficult to separate PV, as it is being gradually enclosed into certain structures of definition, from a number of precursor efforts which may have more than one element of PV as it is currently understood.

From the participation perspective
From the literacy perspective
From the media perspective

It is needless here to say that all these perspectives together have the possibility of shaping PV as it gets more and more structured in definitions.

The attempt in this paper will be the following

Trace some of the historical beginnings of PV in various parts of the world
Look at the structure of media which made it important for PV to emerge
Argue the case for stronger and increased use of PV to challenge the contemporary media in a globalising world

Look at the links between PRA and PV and see how PV can be seen as a vibrant offspring of PRA and in many cases a possible correction to the misrepresentations that have crept into PRA

More importantly look at the structure of Literacy as it is understood and practised in the developing world and the possibility of PV emerging as a tool of empowerment for non literate, socially excluded populations of this world.

Argue for a global alliance of grassroots groups, international NGOs, Development Academia.

The Media Perspective

Media as an issue of control has been at the heart of animated debates all through the history of media. It is quite ironical that the Press which was called the Fourth Estate, making it the fourth leg along with the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary became as distant from people as the other wings did. This was truer in terms of representation of the excluded sections of population. Particularly those who were not in tune with the dominant discourse of the times.

The trends became clearer as the media ownership and big business became synonymous. With the growth of electronic media and the megabucks in terms of the advertisements it needed to survive, the gap interests became so thin as almost indistinguishable.
When uncomfortable questions about the ownership and the need to move media from information domain to communication domain where communication was described as bidirectional, horizontal and participatory, started getting asked, the governments which supported began to get hostile.

Nothing can so dramatically illustrate this than the McBride Report commissioned by UNESCO in the '70s. The report and the radical discourses that surrounded UNESCO debates around that time were so revolutionary for its times [especially the fact that it came out of a staid and respectable UNESCO] that the rattled governments of USA and UK actually stopped funding UNESCO for the next ten years, to spite it. [MacBride Report was one of a series of manifestations of a radicalised UNESCO to the utter distaste of the USA. The report was the proverbial last straw on the US camel's back].

Since then a continuous battle has been raging between mainstream media and people's movements to gain control over people's voices across the globe. However, with more of the economic right wing with their slogans of Market is the King coming into power in large parts of the world and a triumphant Reagan-Thatcher combination at the vanguard of the western democracies and a host of right wing governments in Latin America supported by the USA, the battle seemed to be over in the eighties.

The scene changed quite radically with the installation of an antiapartheid regime lead by Mandela in South Africa, the defeat of Marcos in the Phillippines, the rise of Zapatismo in Mexico, the civil society movements in Nordic countries appearing to usher in a new life for people's voices and their own media in the early nineties. But all these gains seem to be getting offset by the rapidity with which globalisation is sweeping the world.

As a result, just when the poorer and disempowered sections of Third World populations is managing to emerge from the shadows and make their first efforts to participate in the national governance, it appears that sovereign states themselves are disappearing.

This globalisation-created situation is frightening. The world, definitely the Third World, is all set to be taken over by the transnational corporations. This casino capitalism ushered in by TNCs is being established by the media supported by them and in turn supporting them.

The avalanche of media channels and media tools signals this arrival and with that, the entrenchment of a new global village controlled by Pepsis and Coca Colas. And terrifyingly enough, these media are becoming a huge success. Within a span of a few short years they have been able to design and create a new all consumer population across the globe.

Under this unrelenting attack of the mainstream media [irrespective of their ownership], poorer and the less privileged people are on the verge of completing losing their voice. The media is by the elite, for the elite and of the elite. It is not just reporting the elitisation of the Society. It is making sure that the elitisation happens.

Far more dangerously the newest trend started by Sony of producers of media technology also becoming the producers of media content.

The traditional structures which supported their voices and views do not exist anymore. How can this media imperialism be challenged? How can people's voices be restored to them?

Can P V be a tool for this?

From the Participation Perspective

Where is PRA situated just now, at the beginning of a new millenium? Is it looking a bit tired? Is the family of approaches getting a bit inbred? Losing its lustre? Cleverly manipulated by some of its high priests in the South? Is the sound of PRA hymns becoming less inspired/inspiring?

Can Participatory Video be seen as a reaction to make participatory methods
more transparently people-owned in contrast to a large part of PRA practice that seems to accept the term facipulation as a natural thing to do?

In the history of PRA there has been a constant search for techniques and methods. Refining and fine tuning have been going on constantly. At one point of horror [when it was rudely realised that there has been a befuddling array of techniques being created and emphasised, which confused rather than clarified participation] there was a move to deemphasise techniques and lay more emphasis on B & A.

Such shifting discourses in participation have been necessitated by certain practises
where "IPRA is a structured process that consists of a sequence of particular tools with defined outcomes."

In spite of this special emphasis laid on B & A, for the hardened practitioners B & A is another tool to manipulate. It is an act of being nice to people in the field and go back and carry on business as usual.

In spite of the inherent power of PRA, in practice it has been so totally emasculated from its political possibilities. Several times PRA is described as spiritual. It almost sounds like an intentional character PRA is asked to wear so that in its spirituality it can forget to address fundamental structural patterns of dominance without addressing which participation becomes meaningless.

Critical issues like representation, mediation and authenticity, therefore, seem to have been slipping out of the domain of PRA. In this context, can we see PV as a practice emerging to rescue participation from such manipulation? By its nature PV offers a possibility of self representation of people without the need to use the written word and an intermediary text for negotiation.

From the Literacy Perspective

There have been constant debates in Literacy circles on how the empowerment aspect of literacy gets lost when it is detached from its Freiraian character and used mechanically. Which it seems is happening in most parts of India.

Literacy often gets imposed from outside with no contextual relation to the populations it is intended for, as against being allowed to grow organically as a part of people's lives and contexts.

The extraordinary emphasis being placed on the skill of literacy which excludes a
lot of rural women from a generation earlier and makes them impotent. Even worse, makes them feel like second class citizens.

Has video the capability of being a great leveller between privileged urban people with their formal educational background and non-privileged, non literate rural people? Especially in terms of learning capabilities. Will it offer the same handicaps/advantages to both these sections? In that sense is it an equaliser?

Literacy taught the way it is now, can never enable these people to make the kind of interventions they are capable of making in any system of governance.

Oral cultures of most southern countries are excluded from the discourse of literacy. How can such rich oral cultures be sacrificed on the altar of literacy? Who gains from literacy : people or the mediators?

Are there newer ways of bringing the non literate rural people, particularly women into the debates and practice of governance system. To amplify their voices and make them heard in the policy and other circles? Can Community Media, especially video be such a tool?

The beginnings of Participatory Video

Contrary to what one would expect, the early beginnings of the community - controlled media came from the mecca of manipulative mega media, the United States. [US law for a proportion of free media access to communities] However when we look at the history of cinema, we see a number of attempts to move cinema from an auteur's statement to a people's voices. There have been dedicated movements devoted to this.

But the real horizontal, community-produced PV came from the inititative of the National Film Board of Canada in a project called Challenge for Change. The Fogo Experiment as it is known today, handed over a portapack -- a portable half inch television camera/recorder to the indigenous fishing communities to express their own issues and start a dialogue with the distant Canadian Government which had no time to visit and talk to them. This was a huge success and is a landmark in the history of activist cinema.

In succession came a number of new initiatives in Latin America where the political pot is always boiling and every new initiative for self representation is either born or adopted quickly.

Very interestingly two initiatives came from India, one relatively less known from an
organisation called CENDIT which, for the intensively participator vision it had, carried a very misleading name Centre for Development of Instructional Television. The other and more well known initiative is Video SEWA in Gujarat, India.

There have been some stirrings of PV in other parts of Asia especially in the Phillippines and the most well documented Oxfam experiment in Vietnam.

In Africa the South African underground Alternative Television networks have contributed a huge amount of exciting work in representative television.

One of the more recent but a very powerful and defining experiment was in Tanzania with the Mtwara Media Centre and the well-known fishermen PV project.

It would be interesting to study whether the PV made any strong links with the local
political and developmental history or emerged as an expression of eager activists. Was this kind of a socio-political vacuum [?] gave rise to a number of conflicting definitions of PV is also worthwhile looking at.[But beyond the scope of this paper]

How is PV perceived Globally?

As Therapy,
As Activism
As Empowerment
As a Process vis a vis a Product

What has it been used for till now?

As a Construction of identity
Policy dialoguing
Policy impacting
Raising intra and inter community debates
For cultural preservation,
Exchange of video letters;
video journals

In these cases, planning processes struc-tured by PV have expanded participatory process rather than attempting to replicate it. Access to video has expanded the pro-cesses both vertically, through policy dialogue, and horizontally, through mobil-ising political support for locally articulated causes and claims. As a complement to or extension of PRA methodology, video has helped to resist co-option of local agendas and de-emphasise the focus on technical solutions in favour of more important institutional obstacles to development. Through letting grassroots groups and individuals speak for themselves, PV fuels political struggles over democratic rights and power. This can be challenging to powerful stakeholders and attract attention from politicians and policy makers, while disturbing the predictable project cycles of development agencies afraid to rock the boat. But then - How long can development workers continue to talk about participation and empowerment without allowing people to speak for themselves?

How do we go beyond PV and really hand over the camera and mike to the community?


DDS & People's Video

One of the initiatives which seems to have come closest to this concept has been the DDS initiative which I would like to explain very briefly here. The Deccan Development Society [DDS] is a non governmental rural development organisation working in the Medak District of Andhra Pradesh with over 4000 dalit rural women for the last 15 years. In 1997, the Society took up the task of working on community controlled media as part of a UNESCO project called Learning Without Frontiers. The basic experience of the project is described below.

DDS is a grassroots organisation working with Sanghams (village level groups) of poor women most of who are dalits. The society has a vision of consolidating these village groups into vibrant organs of primary local governance and federate them into a strong pressure lobby for women, poor and dalits. The Society facilitates a host of continuing dialogues and debates with the people, conducts educational and training programmes to try and translate this vision into a reality.

The Deccan Development Society is also trying to reverse the historical process of degradation of the environment and people's livelihood systems in this region through a string of activities like

  • permaculture
  • community grain fund
  • community green fund
  • community gene fund etc.

The way of doing this has also been structuring a A SERIES OF AUTONOMIES for people so that they gain conclusive control over critical aspects of their lives. These have been in the areas of :

Autonomy on their agriculture
Autonomy on the seeds
Autonomy on their food security
Autonomy on their natural resources

These controls gained by the communities has inspired two larger controls which are both local and global in nature have come into being. These are the controls over market and media.

Communicating through video

We began a series of video workshops for rural women. The Phase I started from January 1998. Each workshop took four days. Spread over eight months these workshops trained a total of seven women of whom four are non-literate. Of these seven women, two are students, four are farm laborers and one is a DDS worker. All of them are Dalits in an age group of 16-35 years. (The workshops started with a total of eleven persons, ten women and one man. But four of them dropped out during various phases of the workshops and seven made it to all the workshops.) In the Phase II we have been working with a group of rural women and men from the South Asian region. This includes two persons each from Nepal, India and Sri Lanka and five women from Bangladesh.

The women trained in the Phase I gave the following reasons for choosing to learn video production:

Why Video : their expectations

  • We would like to let our issues known outside (Ippapally Mallamma)
  • Our news must go outside (Zaheerabad Punyamma)
  • We are working on the Gene Bank in our village. Several times you people come to shoot our work. But there are seasons when it is very important to shoot. At that time you people may not be available. Therefore when you people do not come, we can do our own recording and give it to you. (Humnapur Laxmi)
  • When big government people come to our village, we would like to record what they tell us. That becomes a document for us. (Eedulapalle Manjula)
  • So that we can communicate with people in other sanghams. Whenever some events take place in our sanghams, you people come to video it. When you don't come, we have to wait for you. Instead we can do the recording ourselves and take it out.(Pastapur Narsamma)
  • To photograph; marriages etc.(Bopanpalli Nagamma)
  • How can we tell about the work we are doing?
  • To know whether it (the video) can record what we talk and say
  • To understand what parts it (the video) has know whether it records from a distance; how to make pictures big and small; how to make sound big and small;

Methodology

  • Group discussion
  • Visual explanation : drawings on the blackboard of concepts and terms.
  • Participatory Glossary Formation : Creation of a new technical vocabulary in the local dialect using the women's words and their experiences.
  • Creation of learning games to bring home the concepts.
  • Hands on training in using the camera and editing the pictures
  • Group analysis of each other's work to facilitate a group learning process

What did they learn?

  • Parts of a video camcorder and how to operate each of them
  • Use of a camera tripod
  • Shots and image sizes
  • Camera frame and simple principles of picture composition
  • Camera distance, camera angle and camera movement
  • Simple microphones and simple techniques of sound recording.
  • Shot breakdown for a simple shoot
  • Plotting camera positions for a simple shoot
  • Logging the shoot and finding editing points
  • Executing an edit on a VHS system

On the basis of this experience we can deduce a series of

  • Video can be a very effective tool for use by non-literate rural people to express themselves to the outside world
  • Being non literate is no barrier in learning video as a mode of expression. Therefore instead of literacy being pushed down the throats of adult rural women and men, new media of expressions can be found.
  • Non literate women can turn into excellent videographers. Their traditional narrative and pictorial understanding of the world around them can find wonderful expression in the videos made by them.
  • The trainers in these workshops who have long experiences in training professional television practitioners in the Afro Asian region, were struck by the ease and quickness with which non literate women were able to learn and use video. In many cases they started wondering whether literacy is after all a barrier in learning new media of expression.
  • In their ability to understand and express through video the non literate women were not even a slight shade inferior to their urban counterparts who come to media education with formidable academic backgrounds.

FUTURE

  • Extend the skills into programme making : conceptualising ideas, scripting and editing for communicating with the sanghams and outside world.
  • The women should produce short films regularly on agricultural practices, permaculture, community leadership, health, childcare, forestry, animal husbandry and a whole range of issues.
  • Rural, non literate women are able to tell their stories in their own words and focus on issues of their concern. The impact of this will be seen when DDS can persuade the local television networks [Andhra Pradesh has three local language satellite television neworks : two private and one public] to have a regular time slot.
  • If this is made possible they will be first group of rural women who will be regularly reporting their own stories to large groups of viewers of the mainstream media.

FILMS MADE

  • Our Balwadies A film on the pre schools of DDS sanghams
  • Community Biodiversity Registry Documentation of the community biodiversity knowledge through video to serve as a legal document against biopiracies
  • Dalit Watersheds Documentation of the process of the way dalit women have designed and executed their special watersheds
  • Sangham PRAs The extensive PRA process through which the 70 sanghams of DDS designed their development plan for the years 2000 - 2003.
  • Biodiversity Fair The unique biodiversity fair conducted by the DDS in which the 4000 women members came together to take a collective look at the wealth of seed and crop diversity in their environments, analyse them and take a pledge to conserve and enhance this diversity.
  • Short news capsules for World Food Day, Women's Day and such occassions and submitted them to the India's national television system : Doordarshan and to Eenadu TV, a local satellite channel which covers about 10 million Telugu homes.

In more ways than one, the DDS efforts have addressed the larger issue of globalisation through local actions. These efforts have addressed the need and possibility of building on local strengths to face the assault of globalising economies.

Assignments for the Young Asia television, FAO, IPGRI, IIED, Farmers Jury on GM Crops, UN Habitat etc. Not primarily because of their great technical superiority. But the authenticity of their cinema. The simple way of looking at truth and a direct way of dealing with people, both of which are fascinating to say the least.