Rethinking Participatory Cinema

A short while ago I did a post on participatory cinema . At the time, I felt fairly optimistic about the prospects of this approach. After some thought, I’m not so sure it is likely to be all that successful.

I thought back many years, to when I tried to make my first film through the CSIF. In retrospect, I wasn’t ready to take on a project of the scope I had in mind. But, there is another lesson I can learn from the experience that is relevant to participatory cinema.

I had an outline of the story with a list of scenes, but didn’t have a script. That didn’t stop me and I recruited about 8 or 10 people to work on the film. Everyone seemed enthusiastic and we had a couple of sessions to plan the movie. In my mind it would be a collaborative effort, with everyone making a contribution. That didn’t really work.

I realize now that everyone waited for me to take the lead, which I didn’t. After a short time, people started to drift away and the whole enterprise faded away. While I was disappointed, I did learn from the experience and move on to make several films.

How you recruit people to participate is critical to success. I think you need to start with a small core group who are committed to the project. As you develop the project it should start to take on a life of its own and will gain momentum. Once that happens, and the project starts to look like it will succeed, more people will be drawn to the project.

When I first developed the idea for the $100 Film Festival, the core goal was for people to see a clear benefit to themselves if they supported it. When I saw people’s eyes light up when I first explained the concept, I knew it would work. That is an approach that I think you need to take with participatory cinema. People will be less interested in “your” project, than in “our” project.

There is a delicate balance that we would need to strike if we want participatory cinema to work. If we provide no direction at all, nothing will happen. If we provide too much direction, then others will not contribute. Exactly how we would achieve that isn’t clear to me.

While I don’t plan to make a participatory cinema project any time soon, some of the same methods would be valuable in a more traditional approach to filmmaking. I’ll continue to look for examples of successful participatory cinema projects to emulate.

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