Forum, October 2021

Overture: Co-Creation Documentary during Pandemic and Protest

Helen De Michiel and Patricia R. Zimmermann, Conveners

The ongoing COVID 19 global pandemic and simultaneous protests for racial, immigration, and gender justice have provoked significant epistemological and structural changes in the international documentary ecology.

The impact is multi-layered, widely dispersed, and ever-changing. Long-form documentaries were halted, then restarted.  Masking, testing, distancing, and pods have been mobilized for both indie and commercial production. CNN now interviews sources at their homes on Zoom. Vastly expanded global streaming features more documentaries. Virtual cinemas now showcase more documentaries than brick-and-mortar art cinemas ever did. Revamped to online, film festivals expanded audiences and accessibility. Cable news has introduced pandemic and protest special programming with town halls and ongoing Twitter feeds.

No-budget small media has gained significant traction, a potential counter to big media. Online short documentaries and political action live-streaming have flourished with a staggering multiplicity of styles and forms. These small documentaries engaged in activism, advocacy, and public health education emerge in music video, animation, parodies, testimony, and investigative exposé approaches, intensifying a world of shareability and engagement. Platforms such as the University of St. Andrews Screen Cultures Playlist Initiative grassroots curation (spearheaded by Leshu Torchin) in addition to YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, EngageMedia (Southeast Asia), and Cinemata (Southeast Asia) bring these projects to the world.

Figure 1. Cinemata platform developed by EngageMedia (Southeast Asia/Australia).

The pandemic and protests disrupted documentary teaching, writing, research, publication, festivals, talkbacks, and programming. The traditional coordinates undergirding our work have been thrown into disarray – dismantling legacy strategies of individualism, form, and argument. COVID’s isolation unshackled a desire for community, conviviality, and convenings.

But these pandemic-and-protest-fueled disorderly entanglements have forced us to question these legacy tenets. They demand we consider the potentialities of these historic recalibrations to broaden possibilities for thinking, producing, and writing about documentary. They galvanize a resolve to gather together in order to invent more collaborative, co-creative documentary practices.

How can co-creation offer new strategies for empowerment and community? How can horizontal modes of producing, writing, and teaching offer a more ethical documentary praxis?  How can co-creation build spaces for collaboration beyond corporate media’s capitalist hierarchies and exchange values? How can we support each other in these unknown, unfolding, unresolved terrains?

To work through these questions, a group of colleagues embarked on an open-door ride without a fixed destination. Patricia Zimmermann, Ithaca College professor and Director of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival, and Raza Ahmed Rumi, Director of the Park Center for Independent Media, offered to host a ninety-minute Zoom-based interactive discussion contemplating questions of “documentary and journalism during pandemic, protests, and beyond.”

In June 2020, we brought together our working group of filmmakers and scholars — Reece Auguiste, Helen De Michiel, Dale Hudson, Brenda Longfellow, Liz Miller, and Dorit Naaman — to design the online gathering.

Participants joined in from around the world, and immediately the potential for a free and open space was evident. Whoever showed up was welcome to take part in a conversation about how co-creative media production, teaching, research, writing, and learning was evolving specifically and broadly during the pandemic. So everyone could speak freely, we chose not to record the meeting. A success from the start, the group agreed to continue hosting monthly gatherings.

The principle that co-creation represents a multivalent concept subsuming a diverse range of applications, interpretations, meanings, and values framed our inquiries. You could find collaborators, collectives, teams, designers, temporary ensembles, partners, and communities. Co-creation offers diverse ways to see the world, to make choices, to communicate with others both like and unlike you, and to put the care of everyone involved front and center of a project. Tuning into these various relationships deepens self-awareness and confidence in this different way of thinking and working.

We used a simple format to keep ourselves focused and moving along. The facilitators welcomed everyone with a brief framing introduction pointing to three discussion questions. In the most recent Summer 2021 convening, “Enacting Co-Creative Futures,” Helen and Liz chose these prompts: “What did you do well this past year?” What did you learn that was new for you?” and “What will you do differently in the future?”

For this co-creation documentary special dossier, Helen and Liz suggested a collaborative live Zoom session to theorize the current crisis and opportunities. They designed a group brainstorming, where we captured ideas, responded intuitively, and organized our virtual Post-It cards on the Miro whiteboard. All ideas were given equal weight and were not criticized. To use the farming and ecological metaphors undergirding co-creation thinking, our work was to till the soil and water the new shoots in a collaborative documentary praxis.

Figure 2. Post-Its on Miro board for co-creation collaborative brainstorming on June 10, 2021.

Dorit proposed that we quickly identify what co-creation was not. It was not closed circuits, on/off binaries, deliberately balanced, capitalistic, a footnote to larger documentary constructs, or part of media exchange values. After tossing out the seeds of many co-creation principles, the team grouped these into seven conceptual areas: post-pandemic publics; circuits and networks; complexities and messiness; forms and platforms; lands and zones; dynamics and movement; and self-awareness.  This graphic fills out these areas with more granularity.

Figure 3. Final grouping of categories and concepts from brainstorming session on June 10, 2021.

This dossier opens up ideas about co-creation documentary—the opposite of manifestos.

Helen elaborates on her work with Liz Miller facilitating discussions on co-creation with international women journalists and MDOCS 2021 Fellows and students.  Liz and Dorit Naaman discuss a co-creation method to embrace process, messiness, nonlinearity, and collaborative reflexive practices for new media productions. Dale Hudson analyzes the Indian collective CAMP’s participatory process with migrants on ships.

Reece Auguiste probes how the pandemic cracks open possibilities to decolonize media education.  Angela Aguayo asks how grassroots participatory media can offer ethical pathways for redistributive justice.  Judith Aston writes about the work of iDocs and collaborative documentary as a form of polyphony, and its impact on curricular design. Ann Michel and Patricia Zimmermann probe how the affordances of Zoom alter festivals and increase accessibility for those with disabilities.

Rather than locked-down final arguments, these essays are invitations to join in, mine, critique, and expand co-creation as a way forward in pandemic and protest to renew political public spheres.

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