Case study: Story-driven participatory video with mobile technology

By Tamara Plush and Thea Shahrokh

Sonke Gender Justice activists learning story-driven participatory video

Sonke Gender Justice activists learning story-driven participatory video with mobile technology: T Plush

Storytelling processes are known for their transformative power for both the storyteller and the listener. This connection to the personal and the dialogue that ensues can foster mutual understanding and serve as a catalyst for social change. However, despite its value, visual storytelling practitioners often find it difficult to incorporate the personal in collaborative, community-driven storytelling processes such as participatory video (PV).

It is with such intent that we – as researchers and visual storytelling practitioners – partnered with Sonke Gender Justice community mobilisers in Cape Town to explore Story-driven PV.

We describe “Story-driven Participatory Video” as a facilitated community engagement and mobilisation process that uses filmmaking as a catalyst for awareness-raising, personal and group development, confidence-building and strengthening voice. The main intention is that the storytelling and filmmaking process spurs dialogue that feeds into wider social and behaviour change efforts. In other words, the approach’s main focus is not about teaching people how to make their own films; but rather a community engagement and mobilisation process that rests on four cornerstones:

  • group development and relationship building
  • appropriate technology
  • personal and collective storytelling
  • dialogue

Developing Story-driven Participatory Video as a Facilitated Process

To develop a facilitation process for Story-driven PV, we first met with Sonke staff members to discuss using PV in their context in Cape Town. We wanted to share our understanding of Story-driven PV, and to discover how they wanted to use the approach in their work on health, violence and gendered inequalities in local townships. Through the visioning meetings, they challenged us to explore incorporating mobile phone technology into the process since mobile phones are commonly owned by Sonke staff and by those with whom they work. We also saw value in this approach. Because many of the Sonke staff own Smartphones, they would immediately have access to the main filmmaking tool. They could also access supportive equipment much easier and cheaper than if using a video camera. We were also interested in the limitations of Smartphones; and how to work within them (for example, phones have much lower sound and/or image quality than video cameras with microphones or microphone inputs).

As well, as an emerging technology, using mobile phones within the approach proved technically challenging based on the diversity of operating systems; and the fact that most people have android phones rather than iPhones. (This is important because the iPhone has quite a bit of supportive equipment and apps for making videos. Android phones are more limited.) As well, we wanted any app technology that the community would use to be free so they could use the filmmaking learnings for their own videos. While we initially hoped to edit the films on the mobile phone, we discovered that free software was too basic to create the quality of film we knew the participants would want from the collaborative filmmaking process; and need for the type of dialogue they might want to foster in communities. As well, a larger editing screen is important in ensuring everyone can be involved in the editing process.

Building a Framework for Story-driven Participatory Video

Through this  work we have developed a facilitation framework for story-driven participatory video to be used by practitioners. This is because we believe Story-driven PV works best as a process that fits within on-going community engagement and mobilisation activities. As such, the process can be done in a workshop setting; or as a longer process of engagement. We believe that each phase should be completed before moving to the next phase to ensure the full benefit of the process for group development, and relationship building, appropriate technology, personal and collective story emergence and dialogue. An important aspect to always keep in mind that making the film is only one part of the process. In addition to the technical and a focus on group development, how the participants want to use their film for dialogue should have equal weight in any process (supported with time and resources). We believe this should not be taken lightly when planning to use Story-driven Participatory Video.

The following phases share this framework and provide a starting point for others wanting to work towards story-driven and creative visual processes for social-change.

PHASE 1: Introducing storytelling and mobile filmmaking

  • One intention of PHASE 1 is to create a safe space for individual expression in the process of collective storytelling. The focus is on the group getting to know each other; building trust and building respect between participants. Another intention is to introduce basic mobile filmmaking. Facilitators should approach this process through cycles of learning to help build the confidence of participants in using technology, which can be scary at first.

PHASE 2: Framing the story from the personal to the collective

  • The intention of PHASE 2 is to provide space for personal stories to emerge; to identify the broad theme the group will focus on for their collective story; to begin the collective storytelling process; to introduce the story arc; and to connect back to the personal within the broader story. The group will also learn more basic filmmaking skills during this phase to bridge to the more technical aspect of the next phase.

PHASE 3: Technically bringing a story to life

  • The intention of PHASE 3 is to focus on four of the eight technical areas for mobile phone filmmaking: Light, Sound, Stability and Framing. It will also highlight how people can, for personal use, edit their own films using their phones.

PHASE 4: Developing the story content

  • The intention of PHASE 4 is to fully develop the collective story from the 4 Visual Story Cards, into a final storyboarded script for filming. This phase will specifically focus on building the Foundational Elements for the story: who the group would like to hear the story; what do they want this group to see, think and feel when watching the film; and what dialogue does the group want between themselves and those who watch the film. The discussion can also bring up possible actions they hope can occur through this dialogue. The phase will revisit the story circle; focusing this time on the collective story.

PHASE 5: Technically building the story

  • The intention of PHASE 5 is to produce all the elements necessary to technically build the story: film the needed content, record any narration, select or record music, decide the title, create title page (if not created in editing), determine text for credits, and gather any other needed visuals. This phase will include addressing the other 4 technical areas for mobile phone filmmaking: Music, Ethics, Editing and Movie Export for Distribution

PHASE 6: Sparking listening & dialogue

  • The intention of PHASE 6 is to determine the next steps, responsibilities and resources for the dialogue that the group wants to have  using the film. In the excitement of making the film, the focus on this phase often is lost or dropped; or a screening is held with little follow through after to keep the dialogue going in ways that help communities engage and/or mobilise around the issue. As part of the transformative process, however, this phase is key in ensuring the films can be a catalyst for social change. The importance of sparking dialogue is built in throughout the process, we have included this phase as vital to support the participants to translate this planning into action. As such, the importance of this phase should be weighted as high as the previous 5 phases in the film’s creation in the context in which the films will be used.

Supporting resources

Resources to support this case study share the practical content of the participatory video training that Sonke Gender Justice community mobilisers participated in:

Film: Change is Possible


Film: A Journey of Hope