The period from 1968 to 1981 witnessed the development of a medium that carried on the tradition of direct cinema and cinema verité but with radically different form and content—that of community video making. The year 1968 marks the earliest known use of portable video equipment in the United Kingdom for community aims in a period of legendary cultural activism. But 1981 saw the development of the Workshop Agreement1, Channel 4, and the new conservative government in the United Kingdom, rendering much of the work taken up by community video groups impossible to continue.
In 1978 the Arts Council of Great Britain issued a list of all the community arts projects known in the country. This totaled 178, of which between 50 and 100 used video (Nigg and Wade 1980). Born out of a combination of grassroots activism, a shift from marches and demonstrations to socially engaged arts practice, and new video technology that enabled mobility and instant playback, groups such as Liberation Films, Albany Video, Interaction, Oval Video, Gay Sweatshop, WACAT, West London Media Workshop, Action Space, and Triple Vision began to use portable video technology to explore developing identity politics of the time and the representation of communities of interest and locality.
The community video movement enabled groups and individuals to use the media that was often used to misrepresent them to now engage in new forms of collective self-representation. Women’s groups, gay liberation activists, tenants associations, and people of color had the means to represent and reflect on their own experiences collectively. The spectator became a partner in media activism, where video’s capacity to represent experience was often a prelude to community organizing (Joselit 2007). They harnessed the utopian ideal of collective filmmaking to develop processes and aesthetics specific to their identities, politics, and interests in order to communicate on their own terms in a shared language.
There is limited literature on this subject, and that which exists tends to have been written at the time of community video development. These works focus on the practical makeup of the projects described and elude much criticality or self-reflection.2 Through my ongoing practice-based research, I seek to examine the complicated relationship between identity politics of the time and concurrent video practices—to attempt to recover, reactivate, and revive this as-yet-unwritten history in order to discover the reasons behind the resurgence of interest in this work and its potential to make manifest the social, cultural, political, and technological landscape. Through investigating community video’s history and its cinematic and theoretical concerns, I intend to interrogate this body of work on its own material and aesthetic terms. In order to do this, I am interviewing community video practitioners involved in the 1970s and looking at publications and archival materials from the time. I will also employ similar process-based methodologies to those carried out at the time of their development, as well as more contemporary practices that have developed since the 1970s, where video making has been used to “bear witness” (Hallas 2009) to cultural and political concerns. One example is in the documentation of the AIDS pandemic of the late 1980s and 1990s, where video made by, for, and about those affected displays the complex historical consciousness of the time through a combination of the work’s form and content.
As an example of the way my practice-based research enacts the processes above, I will describe a project I carried out called Reframed Youth. In February 2013, following a consultation with the education team at the Metro Centre, a British Film Institute (BFI) and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) organization in Greenwich, I co-organized a screening and series of workshops based around the film Framed Youth: Revenge of the Teenage Perverts. Completed in 1983, this video was made by, for, and about young lesbian and gay people as a result of a community video project initiated in South London in 1982. Those involved in the film’s production included Jimmy Somerville, who went on to have a popular music career, and Isaac Julien, who prosperously makes artist moving image work. Framed Youth won the Grierson Award in 1984, and after some complications clearing the music used in the original, Channel 4 eventually showed it as part of the eleventh hour in 1987.
On the first of the three days of planned workshops, I met with a group of young people aged between 16 and 25 who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or queer, and we started by watching the original film together at the BFI. The aim of the screening and subsequent workshops was to use the filmmaking to open up a discussion and ask the viewers if they thought it felt relevant, interesting, or “useful” in a contemporary context. What might a film made by LGBTQ young people look like? Whom would it be for? Who would be best suited to making it? Following the screening, I introduced simple film-based games and experiments borrowed from past community video projects to bring the group together to explore differences and similarities, to create a trusting and safe environment while enabling the participants to become familiar and comfortable with filming and being filmed. For example, at this point I learned that one of the participants who identified as trans did not want their face in the film, and as a group we worked out how they might remain a valid and present voice while being sensitive to their personal requirements. We used film and video techniques borrowed from the original film, such as group interviewing, and from community video, such as filming discussions about the potential for the project on camera. By the end of our first day, we began to share a vision of what the film we were making might look and feel like and how we might go about making it. The group was very clear that it would never present one homogenous idea or version of events but instead would have an agreed language and set of intentions—no matter how diverse and perhaps contradictory.
The second day, I invited performance and video artist Patrick Staff to lead an exploration of oral history, theater, and storytelling. We used drama games and made oversized props to generate discussion around our present lives and experiences. We also explored our ideas of the past using old newspaper articles and created projections of what we see as the future of the LGBTQ community. On the third day, I invited documentary producer Liz Collier to run through various interview techniques, ideas around consent, and the process of vox pops. Afterward, as a group, we went out and conducted interviews with the public very much like that which took place in the Framed Youth. After the three days were over, I had a clear sense of what sort of film the group had in mind and worked on a rough first cut, which I uploaded to YouTube for the group to watch and comment on. With these comments and suggestions in mind, I carried out a second edit, also posted online for any further comment. The finished film was then shown alongside the original to a packed audience at the BFI, followed by a Q&A session chaired by Evan Davis and a panel with two of the filmmakers and one member of the original filmmaking crew. The rest of the filmmakers were in the audience and contributed to a lively discussion.
Community video projects tend to focus on the process of collaborating as much as on the production of the final film or television program. Such projects aim to make visible those lives that are excluded from mainstream narratives, to challenge misrepresentation through channels usually blocked off to such disenfranchised groups, and to make manifest on screen the specific ideologies of the working group. This visual manifestation often occurs through the imperative aesthetics of collaborative approaches to filmmaking and the spaces these projects inhabit, as well as the editing and filming techniques distinct from traditional modes of documentary.
The production processes and final films of both Framed Youth and Reframed Youth embody and enact many of the shared aims of the women’s movement and the gay liberation movement, out of which the original film was borne—to create a space where a group could form and relationships with one another and the wider world could be processed. Then for this to be filmed enables a sense of empowerment for the participants. Together, through the filmmaking process, they become responsible for developing a language and a means of self-representation. The goal of both projects was to reduce isolation, increase visibility, and challenge misrepresentation. What is important is that they were working together against the imagery in mainstream media’s misrepresentations, and their objective was to create and communicate their world in a realistic language that was familiar to them. At another level, they were using this space on and off screen to come to terms with their identity and positions.
By working collaboratively from within their identified group, the participants were able to challenge traditional approaches to documentary, collapsing the subject–object divide and opening up the debate around accountability and consent. These digressions from traditional filmmaking modes contribute to an “aesthetic of collaboration” and, through their oppositional stance, reflect the context out of which they were working. Developed from the outcome of this and similar projects, I have begun developing a taxonomy of community and collaborative filmmaking—a system of organization based on what takes place both on and off screen.
In addition to being accountable to the subject and the audience, as in traditional documentary filmmaking, community filmmaking participants also become accountable to the constituency they are working from and often to themselves as subjects. This complex relationship with multiple levels of accountability manifests itself in what is not shown as much as what is. When working to represent a relatively invisible and unrepresented group, the collectives must ask themselves, How do we want to be seen and represented? What do we leave in and what do we take out? Questions around censorship became acute in the context of truth–seeking, traditional documentary forms—community video enables participants to open up and play with these ideas and expectations. The manifestation of such self-reflective processes can be seen in the specific way the participants subvert traditional documentary techniques taken from verité and direct documentary modes: approaches that typically prioritize a purely observational, noninterventionist, and “hands-off” approach. The methodologies used in community video react against the relative invisibility thus far imposed on the subjects and make manifest on screen the control over their representation these groups are seeking to obtain.
Focusing on the participants’ control over their image, often showing strategies that emphasize collaboration, community filmmaking seeks ways to avoid or disrupt the traditional consent or surrender of the subject. Often borrowing methodologies employed in feminist consciousness raising, community filmmaking subverts the often dogmatic form of the interview by collapsing the traditional roles and hierarchies of interrogation and manipulation. This is seen in the development and production process and in the final film, where much of the footage depicts scenes of the discussion process, showing that there is no one leader and that the formation of the group is circular, allowing each participant equal access and space.
Both Framed Youth and Reframed Youth attempt to maintain the potential and pace of this open and reflective approach in the editing of the work. In both cases the participants carried it out collaboratively. Each film uses long takes and keeps the interviewer and camera in shot, and the questions can be heard. This presence encourages participants to develop arguments and points of discussion, and to use familiar, often colloquial language. The long takes preserve the space for the subject to retain control over their speech and position. This works on two levels. First, it is a rejection of the traditional “talking heads” approach, where statements are implausibly edited together to appear as one. Second, it is also a clear refusal to hide the personal presence that has mediated the subjects’ contribution. This, in turn, can be read in opposition to the traditional mystification of the interviewer as a faceless, “voice of god” authoritarian expert and instead continues to frame them and the process as transparent.
As has been described above, my practice seeks to read these videos as texts—reflections of the processes and politics behind their production. This is particularly pertinent because much of this work focused on the transgression of traditional production methods. My research speaks to and through these processes, relationships, and intimacies. One critical issue that my work considers is that of community video being co-opted into the wider histories of socially engaged or participatory art (often described in the same context and language as community photography, theatre, or printmaking) and the concern that its uniqueness as moving image work is often smoothed over, forgotten or removed from the qualities and issues inherent in its medium specificity.
Through the practice of engaging and facilitating new community video projects by using historical examples, I will continue to instigate and trigger the production of new community video productions supported by partner institution the Showroom gallery. As has been demonstrated by the Reframed Youth project, I will screen archival videos to relevant community groups, based on interest, identity, or locality, and then work with them to create new videos. Thomas Waugh invites us to recover films whose original political context and thus “use-value” have lapsed but which may find new uses and engage new aesthetics in new contexts (1984). By enacting the methodologies of past projects, we will open up a space to understand, reflect on, and critique the history, processes, and aims of community video making in a contemporary context.
Ed Webb-Ingall is a filmmaker and writer with an interest in exploring practices and forms of collaboration. He is currently a TECHNE PhD candidate at Royal Holloway University, England, where his research focuses on the history and practice of community video in the United Kingdom between 1968 and 1981. Recent projects have been with Tokyo Wonder Site, Tate Liverpool, LUX, and the British Film Institute. He co-edited a book on filmmaker Derek Jarman (Thames & Hudson, September 2013).
1. After several contentious years and much debate among the Independent Film Association and the Association of Cinematograph Television and Allied Technicians, the Grant-Aided Workshop Production Declaration formalized recognition of the principles of workshop practices and techniques, centered on collaborative methodologies, and, importantly, it enabled the potential to extend such approaches as a basis for professional integrated participation in the industry.
2. One exception is What a way to run a railroad: An analysis of radical failure (Landry 1985), which charts what it describes as the failure of the radical left in the 1970s.
Hallas, Roger. 2009. Reframing bodies: AIDS, bearing witness, and the queer moving image. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Joselit, David. 2007. Feedback: Television against democracy. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.Landry, Charles. 1985. What a way to run a railroad: An analysis of radical failure. London: Comedia Publishing Group.
Nigg, Heinz, and Graham Wade. 1980. Community media: Community communication in the United Kingdom – Video, local TV, film, and photography. Zürich: Regenbogen-Verlag.
Waugh, Thomas. 1984. Show us life: Toward a history and aesthetics of the committed documentary. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow.
Bishop, Claire. 2012. Artificial hells: Participatory art and the politics of spectatorship. London: Verso.
Dickinson, Margaret. 1999. Rogue reels: Oppositional film in Britain, 1945–90. London: British Film Institute.
Cite as: Webb-Ingall, Ed. 2014. “Community video then and now: Looking backward to look forward,” FocaalBlog, DATE, URL.