20 Threats to Social Film and Participatory Video

The advent of affordable technology (cameras and software) together with popular platforms designed to share and to show work (such as YouTube) appeared to promise a golden age for social films and participatory video-making. What went wrong? What happened to all that social energy? Is there hope for the future?

All the really interesting films are still out there, but they can take a lot of finding; or perhaps they are just swamped by more commercial forms of "entertainment." If you want to find out about social protests such as the Occupy movements across the world there are thousands of films to watch. But should we be anxious that the mainstream appears to be so frivolous and trivial? Is there an argument that being serious, social and participatory is just not radical; that it's out of fashion?

For the sake of debate this blog explores one side of the topic: the failure of social film and participatory video to catch on.

  1. In the non-commercial world of filmmaking, the emphasis is on family and friends; the personal and the domestic dominate. The safe ideology of “Home” video is what populates YouTube. It is a journey into the same rather than an encounter with the “other”. The community function is minimal, absent, or illusory.

  1. Note the popularity of film as a passive memory box.  The archival function predominates in recording life events, holidays and travel. But the critical and interpretative function is generally weak, and serves as a barrier to a social, political or ideological dimension to film making.

  1. Self-promotion, vanity, and ego-driven production values are strong motivators for camcorder enthusiasts. In that regard making films mirrors the dominant and mainstream values of western societies.

  1. A culture of short-term attention spans, instant pleasure, disposability and waste means that reflective projects with strong research values, crafted productions with technical mastery and experimentation, or caring and fastidious editing, are seldom undertaken.

  1. The preoccupation with humour, fun, parody, laughter and entertainment-driven values predominates on platforms such as YouTube. Attempting to be serious results in ridicule or oblivion.

  1. Social action and community issues are a low priority in real life; so why expect more from the digital film productions, distribution channels, or consumers? Social media does not entail progressive social values.

  1. In education at school-level few children encounter video production because their teachers lack the skills. Further, they are restricted by a tightly-regulated curriculum; by a lack of resources; lack of time; ethical concerns; by the inability to sanction a space for creativity and play. All too soon video becomes geared to the functional needs of the syllabus and to instrumental outputs.

  1. The toxic mixture is completed by the perceived need to protect children from the internet, from challenging issues and the outside world.

  1. In the academic domain film can be anything apart from its social and participatory functions. On one side we find cultural studies and popular culture where dreary critical and theoretical analysis of light, ephemeral and worthless commercial productions leave many students bored and alienated; or art films are wrapped in a poorly understood post-structuralist daze or psycho-analytic fog.  You can't watch film unless you've read Jacques Lacan. Or it's Sesame Streets and Jacques Derrida. I'm not against academia; I just feel that its main media and culture industries have always had a poor understanding of creative communities, punk, and DIY cultures; what people on the street are doing now, together is very far from what they doing and how they are doing in that academia.

  1. In a different sense, the social and developmental components of participatory video making are poorly understood or simply not encountered in film schools. Often the emphasis will be on technical skills and managerial competence enshrined in the multiple levels of hierarchy which militate against collectivist, co-operative and collaborative approaches. Commercial and for profit functions exclude socially-driven processes and goals.

  1. The prevailing romantic notions of the lone genius, and the popularity of the ego-master-auteur authority-figure undermine the possibility of  egalitarian and participatory approaches. Individuals make names, not collectives.

  1. Funding bodies seldom understand adequately the distinction between developmental process and the film product. Consequently there are tensions between participation / personal growth on one side, and gilded messages / predetermined outputs on the other.

  1. The lack of national organizations and professional bodies means that there is no means of validating relevant qualifications and experience in the field. A free-for-all exists instead of structured training and career development. Quality assurance is patchy. Entrepreneurs and grant-writing experts may prevail at the expense of better-skilled and more experienced educationalist and creative practitioners.

  1. The social films and participatory videos are often of value or interest to a narrow community. There is limited learning between communities and the sharing of resources and experiences is uncommon. There are few opportunities for public discussion in terms of the mainstream festival or conference circuits.

  1. High culture is always funded generously; community arts are historically undervalued and under resourced.

  1. Fashions and issues prevail rather than longer term community engagement and development. Projects tend to be specific interventions with narrow goals and limited outputs.

  1. There is a lack of trainers who can cope with technical, creative, entrepreneurial, educational, developmental and collaborative functions. Smaller enterprises lack the capacity to have teams with a full range of competences. With patchy funding, career development and diversification is a luxury, or progresses in an unstructured fashion.

  1. Participatory video is every-where and no-where. It is fragmented across public services and across academic departments. Is it a branch of the arts or the social sciences? Or both?

  1. Where mangers work in silos, adequate cross-funding and collaborative working will not happen. Hybridity and mixed identity dilute resource allocation and inhibit research clusters from emerging.

  1. Is participatory video a tool, a toolkit, or a subject field (in its own right)? Consider the related identity problems for process drama, or ‘mantle of the expert’ approaches – these were less about teaching people to be actors, learning a script and theatre skills, than a facilitated ability to explore action-research scenarios through role play, social and experiential discovery, ethnographic research, and therapeutic processes. We’re talking social factories not X-factors.

As I stated at the outset, I’ve only worked through one side of the debate in order to explore all the negatives ...

Are there issues and topics missing? Understated or overstated? What are the counter-arguments? What do you think?

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(2013) ... also available on Kindle, or to download. A bargain!


  1. Lots of things that could be said here, but I ultimately I think that as soon as you start framing the question/debate like this then the answer will always be contained in the question.
    The parallel with community theatre is an apt one, and it often fails for the same reason. People are most interested in people, not causes, ideologies or abstractions. People respond to stories, to the authentic voice of experience. There are very specific skills required to tell good effective stories, (which can be taught) and they have little to do with the medium of delivery. A lot of collective/community based efforts fail because they are concentrating on the wrong things. Accessible technology only matters when you've progressed to the stage of knowing and understanding the story you want to tell.

  2. I did say at the outset that the aim was to state one side of the argument only - indeed to push the negatives as far as I could. the aim then is to find out how they can be turned around. I think that you are right to point to the emphasis on people and story as king. but isn't ideology also a story, and politics too ? credibility as king ? Freud, Marx, Jesus - three great storytellers?


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