Audiences, Participation & Engagement, Media Industries

PhD Toolkit: Research-led Filmmaking Workshop for students at the Paul Mellon Centre

Estrella Sendra

On Monday 21 November, Estrella Sendra (King’s College London) and Lily Ford (University of Pittsburgh and Derek Jarman Lab, Birkbek) were invited by the Doctoral Researchers Network of the Paul Mellon Centre (Yale University) to deliver a workshop on filmmaking as research. The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art is an educational charity and research institute that champions new ways of understanding British art history and culture, through the organisation of events aimed at students and scholars.

This was the first of a PhD Toolkit series with a focus on exploring innovative research methodologies, in order to provide a space for DRN members to reflect on how the topics addressed by the speakers might be relevant to their own work. Through this series, network members are encouraged to consider how these methodologies might open up expanded possibilities in research in terms of public engagement, formats that a PhD project can adopt beyond the text-based dissertation and social justice issues.

This particular workshop was aimed at exploring the possibilities that visual methods, in particular, films and video essays, could bring to academic knowledge production and dissemination, not just in film studies, but also, across disciplines. The speakers were invited to address two key questions: How to convey research through film? And how does filmmaking enhance the exploration in the context of their field of work and academic research? This is an area that Estrella Sendra is passionate about, as a Lecturer in Culture, Media and Creative Industries Education (Festivals and Events) with a focus on education innovation. Lily Ford prepared an engaging audiovisual presentation compiling different examples from her extensive filmmaking experience as an artistic researcher and filmmaker. She referred to the value of documenting audiovisually the research journey, for example, engaging with an archive and the materiality of it. Film can also serve to create an atmosphere. It does not have to be used just for backing material up, but it can be done in a disruptive way, through poetic montage. Film can also contribute to stating scenes, such as in historical re-enactments. She was very encouraging of film being an accessible medium, dismantling the idea that we need to have specialist training as filmmakers in order to do it.

Estrella started by providing an overview of her filmmaking practices, referring to documentary films, cultural journalism, video essays, video-recorded creative lectures in times of pandemic (outdoors, and edited) and everyday pleasures, with videos published on Vimeo, documenting, documenting her grandfather Joaquín Fernández González reciting his poems. After briefly outlining her research and education interests, she shared insights on the way in which research can be conveyed through film. This included references to how filmmaking as research can emphasise and archive sources, such as video-recorded interviews from fieldwork, extracts from interviews (that can then also be integrated as QR codes), and short videos of performances, talks, art spaces and audiences interacting in them, which can be very informative despite their apparent ‘silent’ form. She further referred to her open access Introductory Guide to Video Essays, co-authored with Copyright Law expert Bartolomeo Meletti in Learning on Screen.  This explains, step by step, how to make a video essay, what their academic value is, copyright considerations and fair creative (re)use, and dissemination. She stressed the value of producing knowledge from this medium, touching film, as this is being edited. It allows to (film)make nearby, borrowing Trinh T. Minh-Ha terms and filmmaking practices.

Video essay on Gomis

This was illustrated through her video essay ‘Displacement, Intimacy and Embodiment: Nearby Alain Gomis’ Multi Sensory Cinema’, recently published in [in]Transition, the Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies. This video essay is supported by a creator’s statement in which Estrella stresses some of the key advantages of video essays, which are also summarised in a slide during the workshop in response to the second question [How does filmmaking enhance the exploration in the context of our their field of work and academic research?]:

  • By embracing positionality
  • By emphasizing affect
  • By offering a multi-dimensional and multi-faceted approach to our research objects
  • By stressing the collective and collaborative dimension of our work
  • By creating a safe artistic space of production, reflection and analysis
  • By making freedom the foundation of (artistic) research
  • By promoting accessible dissemination and engagement
  • By challenging existing modes of knowledge production and dissemination
  • By… decolonising academia?

As noted in the statement:

This audiovisual essay engages with Alain Gomis’ multisensory cinema from ‘nearby it’ (Trinh T. Minh–ha in Chen, 1992). Having examined Alain Gomis’ work through the written word, both in academia (Sendra, 2018a and Sendra, 2018b) and journalism (Sendra, 2013a and Sendra, 2013b), I had felt compelled to respond further to this moving work on identity quests by subjects who feel somehow displaced through the body. I realised that there was a visceral dimension of Gomis’ cinema which got ‘lost in translation’ when reflected upon through an academic register. 

As a film lecturer and filmmaker, I was thus keen to experiment with the medium of the audiovisual essay and dare to touch the films as a performative and embodied form of knowledge production and sustainable way of interacting with moving image works whose temporality extended emotionally beyond their durations. However, this was a challenge I was only able to embark on thanks to my university class members, who had bravely experimented with audiovisual essays, one of the creative assessment methods suggested for the film modules I was teaching at SOAS University of London. I am not sure about the extent to which those class members I had during my first-year teaching experience at SOAS are aware of how much I learned from them and the extent to which they have contributed to the redesign of such a creative assessment method, as I reflect in a recent article (Sendra, 2020). 

With the global pandemic of Covid-19, rethinking and redesigning our teaching and learning methods became indispensable. That is how I finally had the opportunity to respond to the call I had felt for many years when writing about Alain Gomis’ work. My initial questions were then: how does knowledge production change when it is performed through the medium, or, as Catherine Grant says, by ‘making nearby’ (2021)? To what extent do video essays contribute to decolonising film studies and practice, by embracing an emotional and embodied response, as Dovey and Awachie suggest in their audiovisual academic dialogue on ‘Decolonising Pedagogy’ (2019)? And, more specifically in relation to Alain Gomis’ work: what does it mean to engage with his filmography through the film medium? How can such engagement perform disruption and enhance the situated positionality of the filmmaker, film characters and film audiences, in films that deal precisely with migration and displacement? 

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