Participatory Documentaries

by stronged


  • Indigo-participatory documentary – Produced by the members of the community. Obscured by subjectivity and therefore key aspects may be overlooked?
  • Externo-participatory documentary – Professional producer facilitates the production. May be constructed upon agenda of producer.
  • Reflex-participatory documentary – The producer is a part of the community and therefore offers a personal take on community issue/conflict. (6, Weight)


  • I speak about them to you – filmmaker has personal persona (VO narration, addresses audience)
  • It speaks about them or it to us – Voice of God commentator/narrator informs us impersonally yet authoritatively about certain aspects of the world.
  • I or We speak about us to you – filmmaker and subject are of same stock. “Auto-ethnography” presented to “us”, those who remain outside (Nichols, 18) (7, Weight)

“Community is like beauty; everyone knows it when they see it, but nobody can say why.”


  • 5+ people
  • Members you do not know but can identify commonalities
  • You are able to work out ways of contacting members


Internal = divides a community

External = Problem whole community faces together


‘Dorothy Structure’ = linear

‘Alice Structure’ = multi-linear/divergent paths

We don’t, as a rule, conclude our conversations, do we? Rather, we run out of things to say, or we run out of time. The same is true of a participatory documentary. (26, Weight)


  • Name (correct spelling) and title of profession (if relevant) when beginning recording (38, Weight)
  • No talking over interviewee and vice versa
  • Warm up with unrelated topic (favourite film, what they had for breakfast)

RULE OF THUMB: 1 new skill per project is enough of a challenge. That rabbit hole is always lurking. (83, Weight)

This is an important note for me. One that I struggle with approaching any project, whether essay or screenplay or production. I seem to set my sights on enormous challenges to achieve. I never thought ambition was problematic, but it becomes so when the boundaries to what you can realistically achieve with the timeframe and resources at your disposal.

I like this quote though:

“Ambition is the last refuge of failure.”

Oscar Wilde

‘My use of the term ‘participatory documentary’ focusses more on the idea that communities can tell their own stories, albeit usually with the help of a professional, who has the story telling, aesthetic and technical skills. When that professional is also a part of the community, and represents him or herself engaging with that community, an extra dramatic dimension can be added to projects.’ (88-89, Weight)

Filmmakers collaborate with their social subjects (Nichols, 118). The filmmaker may be like an investigative reporter (Nichols, 119) or might establish ‘a more responsive and reflective relationship to unfolding events that involve the filmmaker. This latter choice moves us toward the diary and personal testimonial. The firstperson voice becomes prominent in the structure of the film…” (Nichols, 119) Consider how diary-like much social media is. Social media does indeed seem to be the perfect vehicle for such documentaries. (89, Weight)

Nichols stresses the filmmakers’ (sic) direct encounter (Nichols, 123) in his definition of a participatory documentary. I stress the empowerment of the community and its interviewees to tell their own stories. (Ibid)

From my perspective, a documentary that is going to be published on the web via social media platforms is necessarily participatory, because social media is definitionally participatory — it involves community and identity (however those rather nebulous ideas are defined). So it makes sense to make docos that wear the participation of the documentary maker on its sleeve. (90, Weight)

This ties into the theory of reflexivity quite well. Once uploaded online, a product of narration begins a never-ending conversation with it’s viewers.

The call of more traditional observational documentary is often hard to resist, especially by inexperienced doco makers — whether for reasons of shyness or because they don’t think they are interesting, they shy away from putting themselves in the frame. When you are feeling like keeping yourself out of the frame, remember that drama happens when you place yourself in front of the camera. You are putting yourself on the line, and saying to your community, “I am no better than you, I struggle with the issues too”. (Ibid, Weight)

I am skeptical about the prospects of engaging in a participatory documentary for this years research project.

  1. The time restraints will not warrant a) the level of depth required for the exploration/investigation, b) the organisation of key respondents in a community would require a lengthy time period to coordinate c) the amount of footage accumulated for this type of project will need require a long post production period.
  2. Once I base a project upon a large body of people or significant issue the support network will need to multiply. Instead of depending solely upon myself to achieve the production and post-production I would need to enlist help from other production crew and post-production specialists to ensure a smooth workflow.
  3. I do not have the budget to complete a project of such scale.
  4. I do not have the confidence to engage in a community and establish rapport (in such a small timeframe) to enable the connections necessary for quality footage.

I am meeting up with Jenny Weight today, so I look forward to hearing what she has to say about this form of narrative and interactive documentaries.