Next Steps For Filmmaking With Older Adults
By Nick Gray & Tot Foster, 8th January 2024
In this blog post, CTC Researchers Nick Gray and Tot Foster reflect on their participatory film work in Connecting Through Culture (CTC) and discuss how they are planning to carry this forward.
Nick Gray: I’m so happy that you and I have just been awarded some funding for a community project, making videos with older adults and then transferring the knowledge that we gain from that process into workshops with creative practitioners in the city. Can you explain the thinking behind this new project and what you think we might achieve through it?
Tot Foster: Through CTC, we’ve learned the importance of supporting stakeholders, who might be co-researchers or community organizations, to expand their creative toolbox. We’ve developed our own practice as well – it’s important to acknowledge that. Somehow it feels like we’ve established a virtuous circle of us learning together. That has really paid dividends, because we’ve now been awarded university public engagement money to work with two arts organizations in the city. We hope to learn more from them about their practice in delivering and holding creative spaces for different groups in their communities. And they can learn from us some of the skills that we have brought to and developed in CTC. In this case, it’s participatory video production skills. One of the first things we’re going to do is look at is what we bring to the project, and what our partners bring to the project and plan the best way to deliver a programme that then empowers older people. It’s a multi-stage process. So, after that we can get together with our partners and the older filmmakers and really analyse what happened in those workshops in order to learn from them. And then that will inform a further round of workshops for creative practitioners in Bristol, to spread our learning about successful practice.
NG: The approach taken in CTC was quite a slow process: a three-year project. This project is in a much shorter time frame, just six months. What strategies do you think we could use to encourage older adult co-researchers to contribute their insights into the workshop process, so that knowledge can be mobilised in a much shorter space of time.
TF: I think it’s about our partners’ experience in knowing how to inspire confidence, excite and hold – that’s a word that comes up a lot – hold a group of people. And the knowledge they have of individuals within their communities; using the familiarity of participants with those spaces and structures to help them feel at ease with sharing their ideas and their thoughts on the process – they know better than anyone what the opportunities and challenges there are when they make films in a workshop.
NG: Now two concepts that don’t often come up together in academic or cultural discourse is ‘filmmaking’ and ‘health and well-being’, yet this is central to this project – what insights have you gained from CTC into the relationship between cultural production, such as filmmaking, and health and well-being in older adults?
TF: There are multiple aspects to that. One is the idea of age being limiting. Filmmaking is often perceived as a younger person’s activity, generally because it involves digital equipment that older people might feel less confident with. If older people can claim that creative space, it can give them a sense of achievement, of empowerment. Second, there’s a power in having a voice – that’s come out over and over again in conversations with co-researchers on CTC; that people gain a sense of value and self-worth by being given the opportunity to have a voice and to speak about what matters to them, rather than speaking about what other people think matters to them.
NG: That relates to the third phase of this research – the public exhibition of these films.
TF: It’s part of having a voice. One aspect is being able to express what it is you want to express, and that has positive mental health aspects to it. And the other is being seen, being visible, and part of being visible is having a voice in the public sphere. What I’ve learned about filmmaking through CTC is that even if that public expression reaches only a small number of people, the act of being in public is important. Having what you want to say validated is important.
NG: How does that extend to the production of knowledge itself? Do the co-researchers have the same feeling of contributing something positive through the knowledge they’ve created as a collective? I suppose this all goes back to the way we consider the older people we work with in the research – not just co-producers of films, but co-producers of knowledge: a group of researchers with a shared purpose: a knowledge community.
TF: It’s harder to get to that but, when our co-researchers saw everything that we’ve done on CTC drawn together at the project Showcase event in October 2023 it really brought home how much we had achieved together, and they also saw how other people who were attending were bowled over by what they had done. I don’t think necessarily people always identify their individual contribution, but if they feel part of a collective that has achieved a lot I think that has had a really positive effect. There’s pride there.
NG: Yes, and I think that the diversity of the people involved in CTC really strengthens a knowledge community. This is one of the great things about a media text like a like a film, that it can travel, that it can reach audiences, that it can raise awareness and it can let people see very clearly the potential of individuals from a wide range of backgrounds. You talked about visibility. You talked about being heard. It also promotes the potential of these voices to actually do something, not just for themselves, but also to actually change something, to make a significant contribution to knowledge that will have a tangible effect in the real world. To offer insight, but also share knowledge.
TF: I think that’s absolutely right. As long as we can get them out to an audience, which does take some organisation, but luckily, we have already established strong relationships with local cultural organisations like Watershed where we are going to screen the films in June 2024.
NG: As well as building capacity for local organisations to deliver film workshops, being able to make films has, potentially, other benefits for our community partners. I’m thinking here about some of the practitioner work you have already done, Tot, with community organisations, which has borne fruit in terms of the rich media they have produced to advertise their projects, facilities and services.
TF: Yes, it’s not just about capacity building in terms of their work with older people and adding another string to their bow in terms of the arts and cultural activities that they can offer to people they work with; it’s also adding to their capacity in that they can use the results of that filmmaking in their communications, to promote their offering in the community, particularly through social media. So there’s professional development for the people involved that can be passed on within and between organisations.
NG: This idea of sustainability is a key feature of this project. We’ve developed our practice working on CTC, and now we’re going to take that outside of the project. We’re going to work with other community partners to develop their capacity and so it goes on, in what you have termed a virtuous circle.
TF: That’s exactly the point about enabling and empowering and knowledge exchange, as opposed to instructing or sharing our knowledge and hoping that will evolve. I think enabling and empowering has a much greater possibility of being sustainable because it makes its own momentum, and people learning together spreads. And the sheer enjoyment of being involved in something creative together, that shouldn’t be underestimated.
NG: Another aspect of the project that I would like to touch on is the social element. I mean video production is innately collaborative, it’s very difficult to make a film with just one person. You often need others, and there will be people contributing in all kinds of different ways across the group and even in families and communities between workshops. So connections are made and communities are built as a result of that. The concept of the life course was central to the CTC project, as it is to this next stage of our work. It’s the idea that people’s health and well-being, both in a physical and mental sense, are affected by a range of other factors, including their previous experiences and social and cultural participation. These workshops are specifically targeted at communities where these participatory opportunities may be limited. To what extent is this next stage of our work an attempt to bridge these participation gaps: to address the inequalities that negatively affect the life course?
TF: CTC has worked with people who have faced challenges at one time or another or even throughout their whole lives. One thing I have personally noted is that several of the co-researchers have not been afforded, and sometimes not given themselves, the space or credit for their own creativity. CTC has supported them to unlock that, opening doors to creative activities in a way that has the potential to bring a wellbeing benefit. One of the aspects of CTC, and obviously this filmmaking workshop programme, will be using certain technologies with people who may or may not be familiar or comfortable using those technologies. Using phones to make films could lead to the possibility, for example, of recording and sharing video images with friends and family, or participating more actively on social media platforms.
NG: So our approach, our offer to communities of older people, is not about using technology to solve problems or attain better health, but to use these tools to enhance and enrich their everyday practices, their everyday creativity and their relationships?
TF: Yes, what the last three years have really shown is that it’s social connection that really matters. As CTC has gone on, we have seen that the technology has been in the service of making social connection, of discovery new ways to express yourself, to participate in things going on, to communicate. Digital competencies are only relevant in that they enable people to do other things, to make those connections, to be the creative beings that they want to be.
Nick and Tot would like to extend a big thank you for this funding, which was awarded by the Public Engagement team at the University of Bristol from the Research England QR Participatory Research Fund (QR PRF) 2023-24 – Making Change Together Fund (DARO).