Written by Sabine Hellmann

As part of the CSA programme that Kusamala is conducting in Dowa District, an intriguing monitoring and evaluation tool will be used throughout the project, Participatory Video or PV in short. PV is a means to capture local stories and ideas in a one-week process of filmmaking lead by the community. With this method, we encourage creative local discussions about the issues they are facing and ensure our project goals align with what the local farmers aim to achieve. PV is a great tool for the communities to explore their ideas with an intense, but playful training in technical skills.

I had the pleasure to conduct the first PV workshop in Nambuma village in Dowa District. The goal was to work with a mixed group of local farmers to gather their ideas and understanding of environmental changes within their communities.

My background is in documentary filmmaking focusing on environmental and social issues and this passion brought me to Malawi four years ago. At that time, I worked on a film about the JANEEMO tree planting project. This time my role has changed from filmmaker to facilitator of a workshop in filmmaking. The concept of completely letting go of control over the filming process is new to me, but with help from InsightShare, an organization that runs PV courses in Oxford, I learned skills that enabled me to run a one week workshop full of engaging learning exercises and games and a film made entirely by the community. The stakes were high for me as a PV newbie; here is my account of a week of PV in Nambuma village:


Image: Chisomo with the workshop rota/”Nambuma Wheel” spurs discussions.

To make any participatory video process a success it takes a lot of planning and preparation from buying the most practical camcorder, microphones, hard drives, cables, and batteries to planning a week of games and exercises, while simultaneously preparing for any eventualities like powercuts and bad/hot weather; it is quite a challenge. I was lucky to have the best possible translator with me, Chisomo, who is also Kusamala’s project coordinator for CSA.

The first day at Nambuma we had a diverse, colorful mix of farmers trickling in from surrounding villages, some of whom had to walk for nearly 2 hours each morning to attend the PV workshop. Once we had the group assembled we got to know each other in fun engaging ways and set up a group agreement to remind ourselves how we want to experience the workshop.

Soon after it was time to get the hands on the cameras, learning how to handle the camcorder, an ‘ice cream-cone’ microphone, and headphones while explaining the basic recording techniques to each other – quickly the barrier between technology and the participants disintegrated. Men and women enjoyed seeing themselves on screen and we all had a good laugh, especially at all the great mistakes that were made. It is vital with a rapid learning curve to experience all those mistakes and be able to improve skills promptly with the following games.


Image: Exercises in filmmaking in Nambuma village.

I was so proud of my lovely group, all showed interest and excitement in pushing buttons, flipping out screens and plugging in microphones, but also took their time very seriously swapping roles and taking part in every task I presented to them. Of course it wouldn’t be a truly Malawian workshop experience if we couldn’t energize with dancing and singing in-between games, keeping a good flow in the excruciating hot season.

During the first exercises, themes started emerging and the second day we concentrated mainly on finding ideas and stories. Discussions unfolded about how the environment has been changing over the past decades and how that influenced harvests and soil fertility. When drawing the River of Life, the participants beautifully expressed the ongoing changes on large posters, detailing the decline in wildlife, overpopulation, erosion, impact of fertilizer and the destruction of forests.


Image: Finding a story with the River of Life drawing.

Surprisingly (or maybe not?) the participants saw the river as their very own Nambuma River, now a dried out swampy riverbed, not providing any water until the rainy season. At this stage the participants were divided into two groups and everybody got down to their storyboards fueled with ideas from the discussions and river drawings.

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Image: Making a storyboard.

The third day was the big filming day. The two teams were equipped with their storyboards and film kits and got to work filming their stories. Once everybody returned it was time to sit down and watch the footage. This is often an eye opener on how much filming differs from the original storyboard and how an audience perceives the scenes. Great discussions ensued, figuring out which scenes were working and where too much talking tired out the viewers. It was clear the filmmaking fever had gripped the crew, the group reshot scenes that didn’t fit and worked late to finish their tasks.


Image: Community film their stories.

Finally, the editing day dawned upon Nambuma. First, we made a paper edit, using sticky notes and paper, assembling the scenes in a timeline. Next, we used the computer and projector for a participatory editing session. It was a fun process transferring the structure of the paper edit to the computer, shortening speeches considerably and underlying songs or sounds. My every move was intently watched and discussed. Every single time the sequence was played back, the team was bursting out with laughter, hiding giggling or discussing vividly how to change things. The films emerged quickly and we even had nice dance performance in one of them.


Image: From paper edit to finished film – lots of laughter in the making.

My future filmmakers learned so much, you could almost hear their brains clicking with realizations of shaky panning not working well and long speeches being boring. Everybody rejoiced when they watched intently how a tiny cut of a few seconds could eliminate annoying ‘ah’s’ and ‘ehms’ and how to overlap singing with observations from the next shot to create a good flow. Brushing it all up with a nice credit section my two teams were incredibly happy and proud of their results, and so was I. They absolutely LOVE their films and want to spread them all over the country to teach their fellow farmers how to improve farming practices to preserve the environment and to make their communities resilient to a changing climate!

Next year a group of 10 coordinators working in Dowa will start doing their own PV workshops, hopefully experiencing the same fun and fast learning while creating important stories right from grassroots level, telling us much more than any survey or questionnaire can get across.

I’m grateful for my team of helpers who were arranging many things swiftly and made the workshop a great success, especially Chisomo, Kaundama, Tchaison and Gladson and of course all the participants who also taught me so much. Tatokoza wa zikomo kwambiri!

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Image: Nambuma PV workshop crew

Photographs by: Sabine Hellmann

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