February has been a varied month that has seen our team shift focus from weekly filmmaking workshops at John Taylor Hospice to planning the exhibition at St Barnabas, tentatively set for the 28-29th April. Briony has continued to provide individual support to our film-makers, but otherwise we have been preoccupied with planning the exhibition.
For one, there are a number of questions around the ethics of exhibiting these works, and we are striving to do justice to the content we have. First of all however there is the matter of what content we have available to us – as noted last month, one participant has opted to withdraw from the project (so far the first and only one). There are also a few other participants who have not been regular attendees of the workshops and we are only now seeing footage from them.
There has been some anxiety about how many films we would have, with three films seeming too few to fill an exhibition. The answer in that instance, we decided, would be to provide materials and insights from the development of the three films, a kind of making-of or “behind the scenes” access as it were.
While it may seem that a solution could be to not put on the exhibition (and this has been an acknowledged possibility from the very beginning of Life: Moving) the three films we do have confirmed are strong and powerful pieces, made with passion and dedication, whose directors are eager to publically exhibit their work. In this instance we have an ethical obligation, it seems, to screen these films.
Another interesting question that has come up in February is around the form in which we present each film. One film is several hours long in total, while others are under 10 minutes in length. We have had to think creatively as a team – drawing, for example, on Lisa’s expertise in curating art and gallery spaces – about how we might exhibit such a diverse range of work. Multiple screens displaying footage simultaneously, for instance might be a solution to exhibiting a three hour long work. If we want to do justice to the fantastic films created on the project, these are the kinds of challenges we need to overcome.
At the end of January, I joined the charming Blake Woodham at the brum radio studio in Digbeth for his regular film n’ music slot. The focus of the show was on how cinema deals with death and dying: its mythic fantasies and more realistic fare. Also in the studio, was Dr Anna Locke, a palliative care specialist and member of ‘brumyodo’, a local collective set up with the aim of helping the people of Birmingham have more open and honest conversations about Death.
If you want to hear the show – you can:
This month has seen some of the project participants drifting away from the weekly workshop session format we’ve employed up to this point. We have had to adjust our approach to focus more on one-to-one meetings with participants, either at the hospice or visiting participants at home. It remans an open question as to how much film material we will have to show at the end of the project!
Also in January, we have had one participant review their own footage, only to decide not to continue with the project. The film-making process – representing the self through film – proved too difficult, traumatic even, particularly with consideration to the public exhibition planned for the end of the project. We are currently in discussion with this participant regarding possible alternative approaches that may be less traumatic: anonymising footage, or changing the subject or focus of the film.
This moment in the project raises interesting questions about the potential benefits and/or dangers that accompany public displays of vulnerability. How can we minimise the risks of filming and exhibiting vulnerability?
Going forward, in tandem with continued workshops and one on one film-making sessions, the focus of the project will shift to the exhibition.
If November was about meeting the participants and introducing them to concepts around film-making, December saw participants fleshing out ideas and concepts, and in some cases putting them into practice.
Briony gave every participant an exercise tailored to their specific interests: taking photos or video of meaningful objects and moments in a day, recording thoughts at night just before bed, or recording a conversation with family members looking at old photographs. The results of these exercises were shown to the group, prompting feedback and discussion. This, in turn, prompted some participants to develop the ideas explored through the exercises. Other participants had a set goal in mind – they may have been planning a film on their own anyway, or Life: Moving provided an excuse to start.
Alongside this progress, December also brought its share of challenges: one participant who was particularly excited about the project has been hospitalised, and another died. Our thoughts are with these people and their loved ones.
A development that has emerged this month is the tension and even conflict between Universities’ ethical review structures and Arts-based research projects such as ours. Gaining ethical approval for Life: Moving (or, rather, the Digital Technologies and Human Vulnerabilities project) was a long and rigorous process which Michele undertook in 2015 and 2016. NHS approval could not be given owing to the disciplinary and methodological particularities of this project, that is, that it is s based on neither clinical nor Social Care activities. It took a year to find that out. Therefore, the University’s Ethical Review committee had to provide the approval instead. The approval that was granted did not originally include participants’ filming “post-capacity” in accordance with the 2005 Mental Capacity Act. Having sought additional advice, Michele now knows that there is provision within the act for this filming to take place in accordance with participants’ advanced wishes and consent. This issue, however, did prove disturbing for participants who are adamant that their wishes, and those of their loved ones who have right-of-attorney, be respected. It was also, of course, disturbing to the team in potentially interrupting the research and compromising its integrity: it is after all a project aimed at improving ethical practices through dogged scrutiny of the ethical issues involved in all staged of its activities.
Adrian Banting and Michele Aaron
Having established contact with hospice staff and hospice users in October, we ran the first workshops in the day hospice at John Taylor in November. These initial sessions were primarily about introducing participants to the goals and aims of the project, and to discuss any goals and aims on the part of the participants.
We showed short films made by professional film-makers (see our learning resources page) around themes of death and dying in order to give a sense of what is possible. At the same time we struggled to find films that were not geared towards leaving a legacy for family members. We felt this might be important to show, so as not to limit the role film might play for the participants.
This feeling was also borne out of participants’ wide range of reasons for wanting to make a film. Some participants stated their desire for their film to be a form of outreach about what it is like to live with a life-limiting condition or illness. Other participants are interested in their film exploring philosophical questions about the nature of life and death.
One of the big challenges for us going forward is accommodating these varied aims and goals. In some cases it may be difficult to balance the ambitions of the participants (the film-makers) against the practical constraints of life-limiting conditions, the wishes of family members/carers, and the Life: Moving project itself. These are questions and issues which are sure to develop more in time as participants begin now to produce and edit their own footage.
‘Digital Technology and Human Vulnerability’ is a mouthful, and an indigestible mouthful at that, outside the context of academia at least. One of the first tasks of the team was to choose a clear and appealing title to carry the offer of our project to the hospice users we hoped to get involved. ‘Life Moving’ chimed with other Arts-oriented projects that had taken place at John Taylor, was immediately familiar as well as catchy. That it conjures both the motion and emotion of film that has been so evocative for my own research, worked very well for me too.
We started slowly in October, building interest in what we are doing amongst staff at JTH especially those in direct contact with outpatients who were increasingly being identified as important potential participants. Briony and I visited the day hospice each week to chat to patients and attend different kinds of staff meetings to reach out to the community nurses. This growing support from JTH teams translated into a good number of participants joining us for the first workshops.