Researchers are increasingly using audio-visual equipment in order to document and disseminate their research findings. Film can undoubtedly be a powerful tool for communication. However, there are also a number of ethical and practical issues which need to be addressed when it comes to how audio-visual content is collected and disseminated. There is one principle above all others which must take centre stage: local communities and survivors must have a voice in how their stories are told.
This article reflects upon how the Refugee Law Project (RLP) deploys video advocacy within local communities. Much of this work has focused on male survivors of conflict related sexual violence (CRSV). These survivors have different backgrounds. Some come from northern Uganda, where communities of people affected by the conflict between Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and the government of Uganda (1986-2006) are living in internally displaced persons camps. Others are refugees who have entered Uganda in order to escape wars in neighbouring countries, such South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia and Eritrea. Both internally displaced persons and refugees are forced migrants, and have endured many hardships.
It is not easy for anyone to talk about sexual violence. Filming men talking about sexual violence can be especially challenging. RLP has produced three videos on this topic 'They Slept with Me', which is the story of one survivor, ''Men Can Be Raped Too'' which was scripted, filmed and acted by members of a unique support group ‘Men of Hope’, and “Gender Against Men”.
These films are designed to challenge stigma and silence, creating a platform for survivors and their communities to be able to both speak about and, hopefully, heal from their experiences. Male survivors of sexual violence typically face shame and embarrassment, contributing to self-isolation, rejection, low self-esteem and, in the worst cases, suicide. Making a film about these experiences is tremendously challenging for all kinds of reasons. Filmmakers cannot extract individual stories of suffering and trauma and then run away to make their films, never to be heard of again.
Video advocacy and social therapy
Building trust during location visits is paramount when filming personal stories involving extreme trauma. From the very beginning, it is important to ensure that one of the crew members is a member of the local community. This not only helps to bridge the language gap in translation, but also the community feels part of the project once they realise they are not isolated – that one of their own is part of the team and can identify with the issue at hand. Contacts are furthermore shared in confidentiality or secrecy at the initial stage, a precaution that is crucial for CRSV survivors, and the community leader is later cautiously brought into the project at a later stage.
The first or many meetings must be convened without any filming equipment. It may involve the protagonist and perhaps somebody else that they trust, depending on the level of confidentiality of the survivor's story. This stage is simply to explain the purpose of the project and its anticipated benefits to both the participants of the film and the community. Cultural gestures must never be undermined or bypassed, for they are commonly and naturally expected from the community. Building trust is likely to take a long period of frequent engagement, involving months of back and forth visits and preparation.
Survivors who share their experiences can be extremely vulnerable, and the process of opening up can bring out many difficult and negative feelings. This can be partially addressed by ensuring counsellors are within reach to help process issues as they arise. In some circumstances, it may also be necessary to call upon and/or refer to partners who are able to offer services and support. There may even be a need for medical rehabilitation. All of these protective measures need to be in place before even contemplating pressing the record button.
RLP tries to combine video advocacy with social therapy. The most important component of this overall process is the formation of survivor groups that can offer psychosocial support and peer-to-peer counselling between members. These survivor groups can play an important role in healing both individuals and communities. They can also give survivors the confidence to openly share their stories, both on film and in person.
Nothing which gets revealed can be shared without consent. Signing a piece of paper which confirms consent is not always sufficient or effective, since these forms can be misconstrued as involving an exchange for monetary gain. RLP therefore prefers to employ on-camera consent. The local team member communicates details of the intended activity to the person whose story is being recorded, who then confirms or amends the proposed plan, and an audio-visual consent is recorded on camera before engaging in actual filming. These recordings which confirm consent are separately edited and archived. There are also some exceptional occasions when both on-camera and paper consent are combined. For a situation that requires either filming or a film screening involving a large crowd, community leadership plays a key role in securing collective permission. Community leaders can personally mobilise and introduce the purpose of a particular project, and can also open space for members of the community to share their opinions and views.
All of the videos which RLP produces go through a two-part validation process. For example, when producing 'They Slept with Me', the main protagonists was shown an advanced cut of the film in order to ensure that his testimony was captured correctly. This also provided an opportunity to check for any private content which did not need to be shared with the public. Once the film had been privately validated, the community then engaged in a facilitated public screening. This screening ensured a second level of validation, since community members could affirm or challenge the content of the film. Such facilitated film screenings provide a great platform for uncovering additional developments and issues, and for ensuring that community members are invested in both the issues raised and final version of the film. When community members identify specific issues, it can be necessary to re-edit sections or change titles. Small changes in specific scenes can dramatically change the overall flow of the entire film. The film cannot be final without validation.
Producing films which feature personal stories of suffering and trauma can also be challenging for the production team. Filmmakers must walk with survivors through their most traumatic experiences. These stories can trigger strong emotions and secondary trauma for filmmakers, creating an emotional and psychological burden. The production team tends to be emotionally drained by the time the filming process is complete. The postproduction editing process can be similarly challenging, since it frequently involves frame by frame editing of highly confronting material. It is therefore essential to recognise that filmmakers also need safety nets and counselling in order to protect their mental health.
The politics of video advocacy
Films about sexual violence are not always politically popular. People and organisations who have felt threated by RLP films have sought to frustrate their distribution, and to deny permission/permits to hold public screenings. There have even been threats against the safety and security of the organisers, filmmakers, and participants in the films.
This backlash is a testament to the power of video advocacy to document abuses around male survivors and to advocate for corrective action. As we celebrate this innovation and appreciate the use of technology in contributing to research and activism, more work is still required in order to ensure that the same tools can be used as primary evidence before the courts of law in order to hold perpetrators accountable for their past behaviour.