Mobilizing Knowledge Via Documentary Filmmaking - Is the Academy Ready?/mobiliser le Savoir Par la Réalisation De Films Documentaires - le Milieu Universitaire Est-Il Prêt?

By Petrarca, Diana M.; Hughes, Janette M. | McGill Journal of Education (Online), Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Mobilizing Knowledge Via Documentary Filmmaking - Is the Academy Ready?/mobiliser le Savoir Par la Réalisation De Films Documentaires - le Milieu Universitaire Est-Il Prêt?


Petrarca, Diana M., Hughes, Janette M., McGill Journal of Education (Online)


Two researchers, two purposes, two different research topics - one common question - might documentary filmmaking serve as an alternative form of "publication" within the academy? This article explores how documentary filmmaking might serve as an alternative form of legitimate scholarly work within the deeply embedded "publish-or-perish" culture of universities. We examine this possibility by narrating how two colleagues arrived at this notion independently, and how a call for papers for this journal served as a catalyst for sharing how we merged our interests, and why we feel documentary filmmaking might serve as a powerful medium for research knowledge mobilization.

This paper first provides a selected overview of documentary filmmaking as it relates to other related film genres such as ethnographic and anthropologic film, and follows with an examination of the notion of visual research in the literature. Next, we describe how we integrated documentary filmmaking within our scholarly interests. Our joint findings suggest that documentary filmmaking might be a legitimate and alternative form of scholarly work.

A REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE

Academic research is typically written in a style and for venues that remain largely inaccessible by the general public and even by the practitioners who might benefit from it. Glesne (2010) suggested that to make our work accessible "to others beyond the academic community...means creating in forms that others will want to read, watch, or listen to, feel and learn from the representations" (p. 262), such as "drama, poetry, and narrative" (p. 245). Eisner (1997) added that alternative forms of data representation "make empathy possible when work on those forms are treated as works of art,", "provide a sense of particularity that abstractions cannot render," generate "insight," and invite "attention to complexity" (p. 8).

Weber (2008) also suggested that visual images serve as effective tools for researchers in a variety of contexts within the research process. Examples of how visual images could be incorporated into various phases of research include: the production of visual images by researchers or participants, the use of visual images (that already exist) as data or "springboards for theorizing" (Weber, 2008, p. 48), the use of visual images to produce other data, the use of visual images for feedback and documenting research processes, and the use of visual images to interpret or represent their work (Weber, 2008). We address several of these examples put forth by Weber, however, the key focus of this work is based on the latter example - the use of visual images to interpret or represent work via visual research which in this case takes the form of documentary filmmaking.

Theoretical, epistemological, and technical debates regarding documentary and ethnographic film is abundant in the literature (Nichols, 2010; Ruby, 2008), and lie beyond the scope of this paper; however, a brief distinction between these genres of film warrants attention since part of the distinction serves as an underlying reason why we deliberately chose documentary filmmaking as an alternative form of scholarly publication. Documentary filmmaking, a term coined by Grierson in the 1930s as a "creative treatment of actuality" (as cited in Nichols, 2010, p. 6), continues to be a genre and term debated by documentary film theorists (Bergman, 2009). Neutral representation, the filmmaker's inf luence, the type and format of documentary, and the audience are examples of several areas of tension within the documentary film genre (Bergman, 2009).

We base our conceptual understanding of documentary film on the propositions put forth by Nichols (2010). Grounded loosely in Grierson's original definition of "creative treatment of actuality," Nichols suggested that documentary films are comprised of three key elements. First, they honour and are grounded in "real" events and circumstances that happened, as opposed to being grounded in "unverifiable" (p. …

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