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Guy Austin

Film, diversity, and the importance of providing a platform for people to tell their stories...

Gender researchers expose injustice or raise awareness, and many have used qualitative methods such as interviews and focus groups to do this. Professor Guy Austin from the School of Modern Languages at Newcastle University uses film. During a Zoom meeting he talked with me about his on-going project Screening Violence, the benefits of using film as a research method, diverse research teams, and why it is important for Western academics to hear stories from people in other parts of the world.

Guy’s research looks at gender and violence in the Algerian civil war, and how symbolic violence is expressed in representations of gender, including myths of heroism and representations of women.

““I used to work on French cinema, particularly in my previous job at Sheffield University. I was working on cinema in modern history, World War Two, the occupation, and started exploring the Algerian war, which was 1958 to 1962. I was looking at it from a French perspective, initially, and I found French film critics very dismissive about the quality of Algerian cinema. They said it was just state propaganda and seemed to entirely dismiss the Algerian side of the story. I immediately took a reaction to that and wanted to investigate the Algerian story of their own struggle for decolonization, the story of the Algerian war and how it was represented predominantly in film from the Algerian perspective. That was initially quite difficult to do because Algerian films don't circulate as much as French ones do. Not all of them are subtitled or commercially accessible. I began working more and more on Algerian cinema, and when I came to Newcastle in 2010, I was lucky enough to be able to organize a brief season of Algerian films at Side, a very small cinema, art gallery and photographic gallery, down near the waterfront. We showed some Algerian films, including one documentary about violence against women, predominantly feminist activists. That got me interested beyond the Algerian war of decolonization, in the civil war, which took place in the 1990s, and I developed research in that direction."

When Guy told me about the feminist film I was fascinated and wanted to know more about those fascinating women who fought for their rights during the upheavals of a civil war.

“It's interesting because Algeria is a very patriarchal society. Assia Djebar, an Algerian writer, said that Algerian women have been doubled in prison. She says, Algerian women are imprisoned by the colonial system, but they are also imprisoned by patriarchy. Even when the Algerians threw off the French colonial power and won their independence in 1962, it wasn't as if it suddenly became an enlightened, gender illuminated state. Far from it, it was a very patriarchal system, dominated by one-party rule for many years, and that party, the FLN, dominated by patriarchal values, some of which were Islamic and some of which were secular, but they were all patriarchal values, so the place for women was still very, very difficult. And what's interesting is that certain forms of militancy, including feminism, were growing through the 1980s, and yet, in the civil war, feminists in particular were targets. Women who were perceived as abiding by Western values, wearing modern dress, speaking French rather than Arabic, or espousing values such as feminism or women's rights, were targeted explicitly by the hard-line Islamist rebels. These women were shot, terrorized, bombed, raped, and assaulted. Some of them had a fatwa, that's the kind of declaration that they were targeted to be assassinated among Islamic hard-line groups. There was a kind of hard-line Islamist terrorist group, which also targeted actually moderate Islamic communities and individuals and targeted the state and the army as well. So, there was this struggle, but women were a major target within that struggle. The documentary film that I showed at Side in 2010 was the director’s debut film and it is called Letter To My Sister. The film is about the director’s sister, who was a militant feminist activist in Algeria in the 1990s and was assassinated by a hard-line Islamist group. The documentary is very powerful. It is about the struggle and the victimization of women and their refusal to be silenced. I am still in contact with the director today, her name is Habiba Dhjahnine."

Guy is currently working on a project called Screening Violence, which is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and looks at testimonies of civil conflict survivors in five countries, including Algeria, Argentina, Columbia, Indonesia, and Northern Ireland. I asked Guy how he experienced talking to conflict survivors.

“It was a difficult experience, but it was eased by the fact that in each of the countries, including Algeria, we were working directly with contacts on the ground, who had a long relationship with at least some of the participants. For example, in Algeria we worked very closely with Habiba Dhjahnine. Algeria is a very difficult place to just simply throw open the doors to a public screening event or a focus group or discussion. You can't do that. There's lots of suspicion and reluctance to speak out publicly, so it's a difficult society to operate in, unlike the other countries where we worked in as a group, the discussions there were much more open. In Algeria we went through Habiba Dhjahnine and her personal contacts, which means those participants were freer and felt more able to express themselves, but they were still very difficult emotional discussions. Particular in one of the group discussions, we had a long debate about an event in 2001, towards the end of the civil war, in the Berber region of Algeria, where lots of activists, male and female, who were all involved in protests against the state, were trying help the injured when the state forces fired upon the protesters back in 2001. There was a real division between the men and the women in the room, and particularly one particular vocal vociferous female activist. Once the men in the room finally allowed her to talk, the room went quiet, you could hear a pin drop. Her testimony was so powerful and so emotional. It was about trying to rescue the injured and take them to hospital, but also about how the women had to mobilize themselves because, even in that community, it was still a patriarchal community, and women felt that they had been marginalized in terms of protests and the public voice of the community speaking out against the violence.”

After listening to Guy’s experience in Algeria, I wondered how he got people talking about such sensitive topics and emotional experiences. Guy told me he didn't go straight into asking people about their experience but used a film as a catalyst for discussion.

“It was very helpful to have colleagues on the ground who knew the participants in countries where one could not just throw the doors open, have a screening and invite people to watch a film and reflect. But the methodology for each of the countries was roughly the same. We would screen a film about civil conflict in a different country. For example, in Algeria we would screen films from Argentina, Columbia and Indonesia. Some of those films had a gendered aspect to the violence represented, some didn't, some were fiction, some documentaries. We screened the film as a kind of hook or a catalyst, to get the people who watched them to start talking initially about the film, because we didn't want to just go in there and straightaway say, ‘what were your experiences of civil war in the 1990s, or your parents’ experience’. We used the films as a stimulus to discussion. We would discuss the effect of the film on them first, and then, gradually, we would move on to elucidate their responses to how conflict felt for them, and whether there were parallels of differences between what they've seen on screen and what conflicts and violence was like in their own society.”

Guy’s team did not only use film as a stimulus to discussions, but they also used it to generate data and analyse it for their research.

“The project is called ‘Screening Violence’ for two reasons: partly because we were screening films as a stimulus to discussion, and partly because we filmed the footage with the consent of the participants. We're making a documentary anthology of these responses in five different countries, so that we can analyse the respondents’ reactions and testimonies. This is not just helpful in terms of the transcripts, questionnaires, and written-down answers, but it means we can analyse the body language, the silences, the pauses, the tone of voice, all those elements that come through the more detailed, granular elements that come through in video footage. We are working on the footage, but we have enormous amounts of work to transcribe, to translate, to work through, to comment on, to write articles on, and, ultimately, to make a film about it. It's a very long project, but very interesting and fascinating for us and for our team."

As a researcher, Guy has worked with collaborators outside the university such as filmmakers. This work was indispensable, as Guy emphasised repeatedly during our conversation.

“Working with people on the ground is so necessary, because when you work in different countries, you don't want to be crass, you don't want to just parachute in some UK-based academics, as if we are what they call ‘the extractive model’, the idea that you go into a country, you extract the data that you want, and then you disappear. No, we had to work with partners on the ground.”

I asked Guy if it was difficult for him to reach out to these ‘partners on the ground’ such filmmakers, and he had some good piece of advice

“In each country, we had an academic and a filmmaker. In Algeria, we changed academics and the filmmakers for different reasons, so I got some footage from one filmmaker and some footage from another one I'm working with currently. I was very lucky. The filmmaker I work with is a well-known, very active, very militant, in a good way. She is really bringing on young filmmakers in Algeria, she’s really enthusiastic about filmmaking, about women, and self-representation in Algeria. It was great that she agreed to work with us. I don't quite know what I'd have done if she hadn't. Each of us took different routes to set up, and with this project it took a long time to set up the team. It took us at least a year to get all the teams in place and in action. My advice in terms of dealing with complicated projects is to try and set things up, at least, potentially before the clock starts ticking, because once the clock starts ticking, you find six, seven, eight months have come by, and you're still trying to establish your team and communicate, and whatever. It was complicated, like herding cats.”

For Guy, it's not all about the university and he told me that collaborating with people ‘outside’ does not only make one’s research more ethical, but it can also help with funding.

“I have a feeling that the collaborative nature, the kind of what we call the co-creation, the participants we worked with, but also the filmmakers and the academics in in those other countries, was quite a large reason why we got the AHRC funding. My hunch is that, if it was traditional academic written outputs only, and conference papers only, and working only with colleagues from your own university, or being in different schools, it wouldn't have quite the kind of dynamism and the scope that it has really.”

Besides the documentary anthology, Guy and his research team are planning on setting up a website for the wider public.

“We are going to make a website which we're going to call Refracted Violence, again with the participants consent, obviously. For those who consent to have their stories on screen, we will have little one- or two-minute mini videos, where people are telling their story, and any user can negotiate the way around stories or environments. There’ll be thematic ways or routes around that, so you might be able to search by country, like Algeria, Columbia, Indonesia or whatever, or you can search by theme, such as gender, or generations, or state violence, or terrorism. Those stories will be on screen for people to negotiate, so that's our next project, which we are doing as a follow-on from this one, even though this one hasn't finished yet.”

For Guy it is very important to provide a platform where people have a chance to tell their own stories from their own perspectives, without academics talking over them. Guy thinks it is crucial for Western researchers to listen to those stories.

“Generally speaking, I think it's really important that people working within academia, particularly working in, if you like, Western academia, in the UK or the States or wherever, are open to hearing voices from other people in other places, be they academics or actually non-academic collaborators, such as, in our case, filmmakers. Being open to the telling of stories from different places is important, because we're all relatively privileged in some sense in that we're working in you know, a relatively secure academic environment, social environment, politically, you know, this is a politically stable country. One only has to look at Ukraine, let alone the countries that we are researching on, to see violence, insecurity, suffering, loss and so forth. To try and hear stories from those places or people - obviously, on any topic, not necessarily violence – but stories about the marginalized, or those whose stories are not often, told I think is really, really important.”

In terms of his work in Algeria, Guy was inspired by Judith Butler's terminology about grievable lives and disposable lives.

“Butler writes about imperialism and violence, but also about lives which are deemed by the West to be disposable or ‘ungrievable’. I was inspired by questions, such as, which lives are grievable and which lives are not, which lives have kind of status and which don’t? You know, can you destroy a life, which has already been destroyed? How do the media represent lives, which are already dismissed? In terms of not having the same weight of human existence, according to some Western media. It is an ongoing concern of mine to try and be open, to open our eyes and ears to stories of others. I'm really interested in the actual representation of groups which are othered or which have been othered, as well. To work in that direction is really, really important. Whether we call that political, I don't know. One could consider that political impetus, I suppose. That's certainly an inspiration for the type of work that I’m carrying out. I haven't always felt that. Newcastle is the place where I’ve really been able to develop that, and this project has really enabled me to develop and kind of grow as a researcher, in that direction.”

During my conversations with researchers, the aim of providing space for marginalised voices was a recurring theme. When Guy is talking about inclusion and diversity, he does not only think about the people whose experience he researches but about the research team, also.

“In terms of gender research in teams, it's important to try and develop a team that is representative of colleagues at different levels: colleagues of different genders and identities, colleagues, perhaps, who are not just senior but junior as well as, ACRs, collaborators, partners, diversity in all directions. Including, obviously gender diversity, that's quite important. Certainly, when building teams of a certain size, this should always be born in mind. Also, working with research associates, and ensuring that those more junior members of the team get career development, and that they are brought on, to avoid that ‘extractive model’. Not just used up on the project and then kind of spewed out at the other end. For example, I’ve just co-written an article with a research associate called Gemma McKinnie, who's on our current project, and we're going to do another one as well with her. While she's on the projects, she is not explicitly part of the project, and her explicit role on the project as advertised, but co- authorship, I think, is a nice way to bring on more junior colleagues whatever gender identity. Keeping them developing this research is quite important.”

For more information on Guy’s on-going project Screening Violence, click here

Further links and resources: 

Butler, Judith (2009) Frames of war: when is life grievable? London: Verso. 

Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences