By Dr Joel Rookwood

My interest in filmmaking has been shaped more by the unfolding of circumstance than through deliberate decision.  Repeated exposure to significant and diverse places and experiences saw a habit gradually form. My attempts to translate moments to memories increasingly became manifest in the creation of videos, framing and capturing the visual beyond the photographic, augmented with motion and audio. For academic research the written word remains the dominant form of communication; but if a picture tells a thousand words, and the moving image typically has broader appeal than the still photograph, perhaps we need to diversify the mediums. 

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As the advancement of social media might attest, meanings attributed to aesthetic experiences often require that they be shared with others. We are programmed for these connections. Give a toddler a toy, and watch them run with excitement to show a familiar face the gift they’ve received. In grasping an abundance of unique opportunities, and yet conscious of the continued privilege, whilst conditioned to share these experiences, I have spent the last decade experimenting with the medium of filmmaking – employed across various boundaries. Like most of the students I’ve taught over the last fifteen years, I’m a visual learner and communicator. I’ve become in part a teller of stories bound in context, and I value the aid of the animated visual to represent perspectives and convey meaning.

As a senior lecturer at Southampton Solent University my research, learning and teaching focus often centres on various international engagements spanning different continents. Save perhaps for occasional field trips, it is rarely plausible to take an entire student body to such locations. The visual methods utilised as a consequence offer an alternative means of exposing the student population to the various localities and associated issues, essentially serving as connected attempts to ‘bring the world’ to the classroom.

My first film documented Liverpool’s 2005 Champions League victory in Istanbul. Subsequent documentaries included a focus on graffiti art in Chile, conflict in Palestine, development in Malawi, riots in Bolivia, hooliganism in Bulgaria, wildlife in the Galápagos and education in India. These films showcase places others often cannot visit and contexts people might not otherwise be able to access or understand. Not all of my films have been set in fractured communities or dangerous environments however. My wedding videography has perhaps been a significant counterpoint. I’ve also made numerous documentaries and highlight reels of overland travel including Patagonia, Bosnia and Australia. With every project I try to give an honest reflection of people and places, preferably offering a useful contribution in the process.

As an example, on a football-related lecturing trip to Scandinavian universities in Malmö and Århus in May 2015 I took a few days to visit the Faroe Islands. It was the only country in Europe I was yet to visit, and the largely unknown collection of islands are relatively accessible from Copenhagen. Researching the visit in preparation however proved complicated. Not even the official tourism board (which I would usually avoid) offered much insight into the best of the archipelago. So I arranged to make a highlights film for Visit Faroe Islands – travelling through six small islands, showcasing a journey across empty, raw and incomparable landscapes. The visual of ‘Four days in the Faroes’ is inevitably breathtaking; whilst the country’s best known singer, Marius Ziska, agreed to provide the audio, performing Nærveran. The project made the front page of Dimmalætting, the main Faroese broadsheet, and was the subject of a three-page feature article. With a population of 49,000 the film was viewed across different platforms by more than half that number within a fortnight, and has been used in promotion campaigns by the official tourist board. If I’d have written an academic article on Faroese tourism (which is actually on the ‘forthcoming’ pile) I would have done well to have 250 views (never mind citations) – after it had been published, probably two years later.

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Although the locations and subjects of some of these films might seem inaccessible, the medium certainly is not. I typically shoot films solely on my IPhone and edit them using only IMovie – partly out of convenience and partly to emphasize the simplicity of the process. Documentaries may not be suitable for all scholars and specialisms, but if your research audience is exclusively academic, you’re probably doing it wrong. REF submissions require impact statements. Although it can be difficult to demonstrate impact and currency, such criteria have become firmly established in gauging the value of academic research. Meanwhile, the emerging Teaching Excellence Framework is likely to demand creative approaches to educating students; lighting fires rather than filling pales, to paraphrase Yeats.

Many of my films have been related to football and events – and one of these was shot over the course of twenty-four hours in Rio at the 2014 World Cup. ‘Football and favelas’ features games at the Maracana and the Fan Park on Copacabana Beach, set against life in Brazil’s largest favela. Football mega events are typically analysed by scholars in relation to features such as expenditure, impact, legacy and sustainability. Such work however often seems to overlook local perspectives in the communities that may prove to be beneficiaries or victims of these events. More than a million Brazilians were mobilized in street demonstrations leading up to and during the start of that World Cup. The timescale of the collection, analysis and particularly publication of academic analysis means that we still await related evidence from Brazil, especially that pertaining to legacy and impact. Although far more immediate, media coverage from Global North publications had I felt done little to reveal the underlying causes of the protests as the World Cup began to unfold. As a snapshot of Rio life, I don’t claim my film to be representative of the collective, or equal to the depth of other forms of academic research – but it does give voice to local perspectives – and it was published with the event still unfolding.

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The film is of course not without its weaknesses. For instance, some of the linguistic nuances were I’m sure clouded by my attempts to interview locals without a translator in Portuguese, my fourth language. The film is also characterised by a degree of spontaneity, perhaps necessitated by the pace and shape of favela culture. It might seem unwise to follow a man you have just met through a Rio favela, let alone whilst filming the experience – which is certainly not something I’d suggest others attempt. Yet Artur, the subject of the film, had previously hosted Sam (a colleague and friend of mine) for six months, a filmmaker with whom I had worked on peace building projects in Israel, travelled through Jordan and filmed documentaries in the West Bank. Sam was my trusted gatekeeper, and by association Artur became my trusted host. Importantly, the film was also informed by and the product of extensive investment of time. I have spent fifteen months spread over fifteen years in thirty countries of the Americas. I worked as a soccer coach across 25 American States during summers between 1999 and 2003; volunteered on aid distribution projects in Costa Rica in 2004; taught English and futsal in a Venezuelan orphanage in 2005; drove across 46 U.S States and ten Canadian provinces in 2006; worked on a football-based HIV/AIDS education programme in Honduras in 2007; travelled overland from Colombia to Brazil via seven South American countries in 2008, and then from Panama City to New York City in 2010; before covering matches as a journalist in various cities at USA’s 2011 Gold Cup and Brazil’s World Cup in 2014 (and then later at Chile’s Copa América in 2015). My wife and I even spent ‘A month in North America’ for our honeymoon in 2013, and predictably a film was published of the same name. A Caribbean tour followed in 2014, with overland excursions in Central and South America in 2015. A far North Atlantic trip through Labrador and Greenland is booked for 2016. The Americas have shaped who I have become. The world map on my office wall features a line drawn from Alaska’s Arctic coast to the southern tip of Argentine Patagonia, following the course of my Pan-American journeys overland. I am in awe of a people in love with their football – and the decisions made, questions posed and risks taken in producing that film in Rio were informed by those collective experiences.

My Rio film was shown at the ‘Football and culture’ conference run by MMU’s Centre for the Study of Football and its Communities in November 2014 (see here).  I also wrote this piece for Football Perspectives on my work in Brazil, which you can find here.

Conscious of some of the contextual challenges and yet encouraged by the accessibility of the medium,  my use of docu-film and photo-ethnography as research and teaching tools is examined in my chapter in Watt and Wakefield’s forthcoming edited collection ‘Teaching visual methods in the social sciences’. Looking towards subsequent mega events, my article with Paul Brannagan on mega events, soft power and Qatar’s forthcoming World Cup was published last month in the International Journal of Sport, Policy and Politics, which is available below:

Brannagan, P.M. and Rookwood, J. (2016) Sports mega-events, soft power and soft disempowerment: international supporters’ perspectives on Qatar’s acquistion of the 2022 FIFA World Cup finals. DOI: 10.1080/19406940.2016.1150868. Available at: http://irs.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/10/15/1012690214554844.abstract

Rookwood - vimeoSome of my films are published on YouTube (such as my football hooliganism documentary on The Animals below. Links to most of my other films however (including Football and Favelas, also below. All of my videos can be accessed here.

Rio: Football and Favelas from joel rookwood on Vimeo.

To read this article click here and to contact Joel on email: joel.rookwood@solent.ac.uk or to link up on Twitter @Joelrookwood. You will also find more about Joel here on his University profile and his other research on Academiaedu.