Namita Singh is currently pursuing her PhD on Participatory Video in the UK, at the Open University. She is a researcher and consultant focused on participatory media. This is what she loves talking about.

So, let’s get the conversation flowing..

The time is around 9 in the night and the setting, an otherwise sleepy, remote village in the state of Gujarat, in India. You can sense something different this evening. Instead of being in their homes, sleeping, everyone is in the village center and a hot discussion is going on. There are around 300-400 people, including women, who are discussing their land rights. They have just watched a film on Agricultural Land Rights, produced by few youngsters from their own village, in their very own language. They are surprised to know that the landless are entitled to land from the government, an information, they never before had. Villagers from across 25 villages, who have seen this film on Land Rights, decide to get together, take out a rally and file applications with the Collector, asking for the land they should rightfully get. Around 750 Dalits, from the most feudal parts of Gujarat, file applications to get their land rights with the Collector and are forcing the government to distribute land to the landless, marginalized communities – land, which are illegally occupied by the so-called ‘Upper castes’ or, are being given out to big industrial units.

This is just a glimpse of what Participatory Video (PV) can achieve. It has the ability to inform, educate and empower people, give them a voice, organize communities and initiate social action. A strong alternative grassroots media movement is springing up, all over the world, and the Indian story is a big part of it. Participatory Video (PV) is all about turning the conventional mass media upside down.  The traditionally passive ‘receivers’ of mass media information and messages, are turning into active media ‘producers’, creating their own messages and meaningful information.

Conventionally, it has been the upper middle class and the rich, who have always found representation. The stories of the marginalized have continuously been ignored by the mass media, and they find no voice, no space, and no visibility in the dominant paradigm of it. Messages, which are important to the under-privileged, are hardly ever communicated to them. They have no control over the content in the mass media, and hence, they cannot communicate their issues to the larger world, either. Inaccessibility to technology, to media and hence, to a ‘voice’, has further pushed aside the marginalized. Another dimension is added to disempowering the (already) ‘have-not’s’. Development communication has long followed the ‘top-down’ approach. It hardly has ever focused on providing the marginalized, with their ‘Right to Communicate’, have a media, which serves their needs and encourages learning through interactive participation.

This is what PV is changing. It provides the underprivileged and marginalized, access to technology and skills to produce their own media and use it for empowerment and development. Communities are making themselves heard and visible, show-casing their cultures, establishing their identities and expressing their realities. They are looking at the world from their perspective and telling everyone, how it looks to them.

After a film screening in a tribal hamlet in Andhra Pradesh, this is what one of the villagers had to say: “For the first time in my life, I have seen a film on issues like this. How come the government has never shown us films like these? Whenever I start watching such a film, I always wish it could go on and I could keep watching it. This film has brought out the issue very well and now, I know, we can approach the government to build roads here. It is my right.”

In a few initiatives across the country, marginalized communities have been trained in filmmaking and producing videos on their own local issues. These issues range from communal harmony, to basic infrastructure to women’s rights, etc.. The videos are used to open up a space for communities, to discuss issues pertinent to their development, and deciding on individual and community action to be taken to resolve issues. People confront and challenge government authorities on issues, like, departments getting non-functional or getting Public Health Centers restarted; they participate in an active citizen life, taking responsibility for improving their own conditions, for instance, organize cleanliness rallies in the villages; meet in a public sphere as a community, where they get together and make decisions that impact their lives. In many places, it was for the first time that people got together to discuss issues, and women could speak up in public. In short, they get initiated into an active citizen life, making democracy a functional one – fighting oppression in their personal, as well as political lives.

One comes across stories of both individual and community empowerment through such endeavours. For Sofia, a young married Muslim woman, from one of the Muslim Ghettos in Ahmedabad, being a filmmaker was the last thing she had thought about. She could not even think about staying out of her house, after six in the evening. Today, she moves around her community with the camera, walks into government officials’ rooms with ease and confidence, and motivates her community members to take action. She has been able to convince her in-laws and husband to let her work. She has worked on around 12 films over a period of two years and tackled issues that are of utmost concern to her community, and has even become a community leader.

The all-Dalit team in Gujarat was able to enter a village temple, only because, they had a camera in their hand. No Dalit had ever entered the village temple before. In the very words of one the team members, Jeetu, ‘This was when, I realized the power of the camera and knew, it could fight Untouchability’. Through their films, this team has brought into light, the plight faced by Dalits on an everyday basis and also figured out solutions to make lives better.

A transgender woman not only learned how to use the camera and report on issues, but started her own project and trained other transwomen as well.

Through PV, and many such initiatives, the discrimination on the basis of technology is being fought against, which globalization of media and communications have increased even more, keeping away those, who have needed access to technology, communication and information, the most. It is empowering communities to negotiate power relations, forge their identities and question the oppression around them, which is on the basis of caste, religion, gender, economic backdrops.

These initiatives help set up several localized, small-scale media units producing meaningful and responsive media by communities, in response to the corporate or state-run media, which is seemingly pervasive and homogenous. It is a media, which is building capacities of the communities to initiate media activism and start a social process leading to positive change. PV is both democratizing media, and using it for a functional democracy. It is opening up far more spaces for individual and community action to move towards a democratic and participatory society, getting people organized, and encouraging the people at the grassroots lead this alternative form of media movement and impact their own lives. The movement has just begun, it still has a far way to go before it can become a substantial opposition to the pervasive mass media, but it is with these beginnings, that a new meaning of democracy is being discovered.

Further Information on Namita Singh:

“It is intriguing that women affected by gender-based violence during conflict in Liberia, women refugees in Thailand, women living with caste-based discrimination in Mumbai slums, and young girls from a Muslim community in Hyderabad share the same experiences. It has pushed me to think more deeply about what I call the Participatory Video Process.”