Reflection on Gathering 5: PV enables us to share community voices further

by Christoph Warrack, Chief Executive at OpenCinema

Christoph is a former full-time filmmaker, who between 1998 and 2009 worked as a writer, director and producer on six short films, three documentaries and four feature films. During this time he also worked as film critic for the Times Literary Supplement, and as a volunteer in the homelessness, prisons and care sectors. In 2005 he connected these areas of interest and founded Open Cinema.


The global Better PV Practice Web Gathering series entered its second calendar year with a session focused on advocacy. Bringing together 39 participants from at least 12 countries, discussion focused on two case studies of PV use at the frontline of development and public policy.

My Rights, My Voice – Oxfam GB, Nepal

Over the course of 2013/14, Oxfam GB’s ‘My Rights, My Voice’ programme in Nepal trained a group of young people in advocacy methods to campaign for their rights to health care. The group learned processes to assess, report and advocate on safe motherhood, sexual and reproductive health, particularly amongst the young. Sukra, one of the youth campaigners reporting during the gathering, said that the project enabled the collection of data on child marriage and on connected health issues. In the course of one year, in two districts, 400 child marriages had occurred. Moreover, the collected data showed that the majority of health problems experienced by girls and young women derive from child marriage, whenever experienced. There were also a shortage of health facilities, and a shortage of power to those that existed.

The PV workshop, facilitated by InsightShare in February 2014, helped galvanize efforts amongst residents of remote southwestern Banke district to gather and present information, and search for solutions, both in the process of production and in subsequent community screenings and discussions. Parvati, another youth campaigner, emphasized the critical importance of engaging all stakeholders in the discussion of the issues; implicit within this was the capacity of such a workshop to facilitate such an engagement.

The youth campaigners who participated in the PV workshop faced and continued to address numerous challenges. The limited nature of a specific period of funded delivery meant that the experience, skill and confidence of sustained use of the PV eluded. Limited financial and technical resources continue to hamper efforts to embed the PV process in the working life of the young campaigners. But confidence, skills, and encouragement were all seen to grow through the course of the project.

And there were signal successes. The film (watch here) went from being seen at community, to district, to central government level, and discussion on a widely-accessed FM radio station. One of the issues addressed by the film – the lack of solar panels available to the community – was solved by the allocation of Rs 40,000 by the radio station to the community, supporting the introduction of a five-cell photovoltaic array. Participants were also enabled to coordinate efforts with a forestry group to develop a village laboratory and health post, boosted by the donation of a microscope. We also learnt that the young people of the community were inspired by the “real stories of real people” to see PV as a tool “for them to bring about change, worldwide”.

In 2014 the group clarified some of the core challenges facing them: a lack of medication, the lack of a laboratory facility, and a lack of PV resources. All of these have to some extent been addressed through the project and accompanying activities. Next the group aim to produce a new film focusing on child marriage and resultant health issues, “to let stakeholders know the gravity of the problem”. Purna Kumar Shreshtha, one of the web gathering participants, suggested that there are “hundreds” of similar FM radio stations in Nepal, able and eager to feature these issues. Could they be an avenue for further distribution of the created media, even if only the audio elements?

VideoVolunteers, India

Next we heard from VideoVolunteers (VV), an Indian-US video advocacy agency with 170 correspondents in 18 states of India. Kayonaaz, Communications Manager for VV, said that “every video has the potential to bring change” – as we would soon discover. Critical social and development challenges being tackled by VV teams at present include forced evictions, corruption and the abolition of untouchability.

Sarita, a VV correspondent in the low-income, interior state of Orissa, said community residents find they “can’t always believe the information emerging from government channels”. PV, by contrast, offers participants direct access to issues which those government channels cannot reach. It also produces “evidence that is very hard for them to refute”. In the first film we saw (watch here) how Sarita explored the corruption and land-grabbing practices of local timber cartels, which were having a deleterious effect on ecology as well as livelihoods. A screening of the film impassioned the audience to apprehend cartel members and hand them in to the police. Sarita said that “the biggest achievement [of the project] was to mobilize the people to get behind the campaign.”

“The good news is that the achievements of one filmmaker can help others affected by the issue, and a story can become a movement. This is because videos are not only powerful to the beholder, but travel fast. The press attention created gives further wind to these sails, and makes the advocacy harder for political leaders and exploitative companies to ignore.”

Next we heard from Anand, a VV correspondent from the central state of Maharashtra, which borders Mumbai. Anand related that he had long been an activist, but that PV brought “a new dimension” to his work: “the ability to share community voices further”. Before harnessing these new tools and methodologies, advocacy efforts normally comprised filing ‘right to information requests’, and the carriage of letters and signatures to government offices – “which really doesn’t work.”

Anand’s film (watch here) challenged corrupt pricing practices at a community food store, visited on them by a powerful merchant with links to the council hierarchy. Many “were going to sleep hungry each night”. Until Anand elected to explore this story on film, the local community had felt powerless, “unwilling to say anything”. Then, hearing about his work, “a few snuck out to tell Anand” what was going on. The film brought the corrupt businessman and  his practices to light, and as a result 300 people in that community receive rations at correct prices, which it is hard to conceive of having happened without the project.

Questions and challenges remaining

In the subsequent discussion amongst the web gathering participants, it was agreed that in many cases PV projects can succeed in eliciting responses from the local leadership, but perhaps only to ‘make the problem go away’, leaving the systematic issues unresolved, despite the best efforts and successes of communities and PV practitioners in bringing their documentaries to a wider audience.

Is it possible that an ‘adversarial’ approach may not always be the most effective? Perhaps if communities are able – with or without external support – to quantify the effects on local / regional or central governments, and particularly on their budgets, of the failed policies in the areas under question, they might be more easily spurred – incentivized, moreover – to act.

Female governance over some of the issues explored was felt to lead to an increase in transparency and efficiency, and to an enhanced capacity to engage women themselves, many of whom experience much greater levels of marginalization in the societies here reporting.

Community correspondents and participatory video participants or facilitators are sometimes initially greeted with the suspicion accorded conventional journalists; but the sustained nature of their engagement fosters an increase in trust and support for their efforts.

Many felt that a “sense of ownership” over a given issue was critical in efforts to empower communities to tackle the problems facing them, since it leads to a sense of mobilization.


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