Since my visit to Queen Mary a few weeks ago, I’ve continued to ponder about the use of films as a social science research strategy. A conversation with my colleague Bradon Smith provoked the idea that when most of us see a film (anthropologists excepted, perhaps), we watch it comparing it to the films we see elsewhere, on tv or at the cinema. So we expect it to have high production values; we expect it to be filmed and edited very skilfully; we expect eloquent voice-overs and carefully-chosen music; we expect a beginning, a middle and an end; we expect to watch it concentrating on it and it alone; and we expect it to speak for itself, that is, we expect to ‘get’ it just by watching it.
Clearly, those are exceptionally high standards for your average academic to achieve, if they haven’t gone to film school or studied visual anthropology. In the age of YouTube, iMovie and smartphones, maybe we should rethink those expectations and in so doing invent a new kind of film genre which fits both the changed contexts in which films can now be made, distributed and viewed.
So here is a list of possibilities for making and watching a new kind of social science film now:
- the film should be very clear what it’s trying to do. This may involve a long title and probably a voice-over too.
- the film should have been made using a tripod and a videocamera with a decent external microphone, but don’t expect panoramavision with surroundsound. It will probably have been edited using software from Apple or Microsoft, so again, make allowances.
- the film might well be pretty short, say ten minutes, so it can be uploaded to a video-sharing website and an academic webpage. But there could be a series of films to be watched.
- online screening means that you can read some stuff about the film too; its paratext could, and perhaps probably will, be be lot more extensive than the posters and reviews that we’re used to. In fact, I think this is really important for a film that wants to make a social-scientific argument/statement; I think viewers need to be told explicitly what the film is trying to say.
- online distribution will affect the spaces in which it’s seen. This will probably no longer be the darkened lecture theatre – though it may be – but it might also be screened on a smartphone. This means its visual scale might be quite crude: simple, uncluttered images work better on small screens. (I remember after I watched Essential Killing thinking that it would look fine on an iPad: all those shots of one man in various landscapes).
- online distribution could also allow audiences to leave comments, for future viewers to see as part of watching the film. The commenting would also be part of the film’s paratext.
So, a film in this new genre might well be fairly small, watched in chunks, accompanied by other materials, and a little rough around the edges; and it would include a fair bit of voice, either written or spoken, some of which would be outwith the film text itself.
The only thing is, I don’t know any films being made like that. Does anyone else?