It is time we addressed the elephant in the room: violence and discrimination against women, sex workers, LGBTQ+ persons and other gender minorities is prevalent across the world, entering our homes and our lives. It is time for strong social movements and campaigns to raise voices against it. I have been involved in community filmmaking since early 2010 as BOL, an NGO and community filmmaking platform, working mostly in the rural areas of India. I explore indigenous art forms, music and narratives to engage and train youth in their communities to tell their own stories through short animated films. Their narratives ranged from folktales to social issues, depending on the requirements of the local NGOs with whom we collaborated. In this context, Lindsey Merrison, the founder of the Yangon Film School (YFS) in Myanmar (which is also an NGO), proposed a community workshop on gender-based violence at her school. I thus came on board as the animation mentor and in this paper, I will share my reasons to choose animated documentary as a social engagement tool – its advantages, challenges, ethics and the audience feedback.
Background and Context
According to Woman’s League of Burma and AJAR Briefing Report of 2016, between 2010 and 2015, 92 women reported conflict-related sexual violence where only two cases were tried in civilian courts. Rape has been used as an outlet for anger, a weapon of war, an instrument of repression and a ‘correctional’ act of subjugation across all social levels. Keeping this context and background information in mind, YFS aimed to create and distribute films concerning the sensitive topic. However, as the films spoke of the abuse, violence and discrimination often inflicted by the State and the present rulers of Myanmar, the production, distribution and release of such films became crucial. Absolute anonymity was maintained for the contributors; the ethics protocols and permissions were handled with special care; and the mentors and creators involved in the project were subject to similar ethics protocols for the protection of their rights and for their personal safety. The workshop involved identifying and audio recording true incidences from the contributors, whom we often refer to as survivors, and to subsequently train the local community youth in documentary animation, to illustrate and animate these stories. The key objective of the workshop was to make the general public, the government and also the students taking part in the course more engaged with the issue of gender-based violence and increase their understanding that that violence is not a private affair but is instead a matter of social concern. What made the project stand out for me, however, was that the workshop was a tool to expose, engage and empower the student community which came from all corners of the conflict-ridden country, and using film as a powerful tool of social engagement and protest. With this background, we decided to create animated documentaries of the narratives.
Why Animated Documentary?
Documentaries, which were originally known as ‘actuality films’ (Kerrigan & McIntyre, 2010), is a genre of non-fiction filmmaking that aims to document a ‘slice of life’ primarily for the purposes of historical reference, educational material or emotional engagement with reality and instructional video (Jayashanker & Monteiro, 2016). Over time, documentary filmmaking has evolved to include personal narratives and sociopolitical scenarios. Experiments in the field have led to new genres of ‘docu-fiction’ and ‘animated documentaries’ (Honess Roe, 2013). In the burgeoning social media climate, which allows for the documentation and sharing of personal experiences, the audience reception of documentary films has correspondingly relaxed. Documentary cinematic traditions and filmmaking practices are continually being challenged, leading to few clear boundaries around what constitutes a documentary, which provides scope to reshape, redefine and evolve itself simultaneously.
Conventional live-action documentary has the daunting task of creating an aesthetic narrative from the daily lives of the protagonist, initiating a conversation with the protagonist as well as the surroundings, seeing through their point of view, interacting with the surroundings – all with the intention of recreating an authentic representation of ‘reality’ within in the rectangular frame of the film. This task becomes more challenging when the subject moves from one protagonist to many and then, to an environment. It is further contested when the anonymity of the contributors becomes the highest priority and requirement. The docu-fiction mode or non-fiction hybrid, which has not been explored in an extensive amount of scholarship (or films exploring the medium) to date, addresses the concerns we had regarding anonymity and the recreation of past events. In this form, one creates a live-action re-enactment or the incident in question, which combines the aesthetics of both documentary and narrative fiction films. Stephen N. Lipkin explains that most documentary-fiction hybrids have their roots in investigative journalism and can be partially defined by the functions of this type of journalistic practice (Brown, 2010; Lipkin, Paget & Roscoe, 2006). However, it is often a challenge for live-action documentaries and documentary-fiction hybrid films to capture the emotional conflicts of the contributor, particularly in terms of their abstract sensations and thoughts, and to generate a similar emotion in the audience. On the other hand, animated documentaries can depict abstraction or a ‘real-like’ image of the protagonist, travel through space and time and recreate images of reality, memories or dreams. The animated form provides the power to visualise and depict the images that are not always visible, the historical events that exist in memory alone, the vulnerable emotions that resonate in the heart, the thoughts that whisper in the mind and the images that creep up in dreams. This form speaks to the violence, preserving the anonymity of the victims yet raising their voice.
Animators around the world have explored the documentary genre to incorporate their individual animation styles into the narrative in a complementary manner. The Sinking of the Lusitania (McCay, 1918), for example, explored wide-angle panning shots, realistic compositions and timing, along with dramatic inserts of informational text to create an effective narrative style. Other cinematic techniques often mimic what the camera might have captured, with the sole motive to convey a sense of realism and to contextualize the subject as a moment of truth. An intentional prolonged timing in animation, which is often used to reflect lingering thoughts. The long pauses and slow camera movements also reflect the filmmaker’s similar intentions. The simplified realism of these shots helped to build a realistic depiction of the desired ‘truth.’
Over the years, animated documentary has explored other cinematic techniques, such as morphing between two images or two scenes to depict a transition in space and time. Accordingly, some animated documentaries portray political instability, such as Life Inside Islamic State (Coello, 2017); convey nostalgic personal experiences as with Never Like the First Time (Odell, 2006); provide an animated visualization of Oliver Sacks’s groundbreaking work describing a rare neurological condition as in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (Hogg, 1987); and to discover the secrets of the evolution and the diversity of life on Earth, such as A Record Of Life (Gatley & Jinks, 2009), which is loosely based on the scientific recording of the world’s great species. In most of these works, the technique of morphing also helped to generate a feeling of transient emotional instability and to connect to the abstract emotions of their respective protagonists. The depiction of characters through the different drawing styles can itself build a relationship of empathy or disconnect. The animation can emphasize the emotional nuances via vivid imagery juxtaposed with abstract ideas, textures and surrealist patterns. The narrative potential of animated documentary is constantly pushed to simultaneously depict both realism and visual. Thus, complex documentary topics dealing with memory, nostalgia, dream or love can be presented through the medium of animated documentaries.
It was necessary to complete the four films with the 12 participants from the various ethnic groups of Myanmar over the course of the eight-week workshop. We needed to ensure that the key perspectives were communicated, including forwarding the belief that gender-based violence is both a human rights violation and a public health issue. In the workshop, we also aimed to educate the viewer on the different types of violence that comprise gender-based violence. We had to take care that the narrative also promoted the benefits of non-violence.
Selection Process and Team Creation
Within a month, YFS sent out the call for applications on their website and on their social media platforms. YFS pledged to support the participants with accommodations, food and even a small stipend for the duration of the project (approximately two months). Along with Lindsey herself, I was involved in the selection process. On their application form, applicants were asked to provide their educational background, their work experience and – if applicable – a portfolio of their artwork (which did not necessarily have to be film- or animation-based). They were also required to include a statement of purpose and a plan to implement what they learn into their future work. Their background, age, gender, economic status and religious beliefs did not constitute a barrier to participation. We received 25 applications from applicants from the various ethnic groups of Myanmar, including the Kayah, the Kayin, the Shan, the Kachin, the Myanmar and the Sino-Myanmar. Their religious backgrounds ranged from Buddhist to Christian. The age bracket of the participants was from 22 to 33 years of age. From the applicant pool, we created a shortlist of 12 participants.
The selection criteria were based on their interest in the medium of animation, their proposed project and their description of how they would apply the workshop material in their future work. We also reviewed their portfolios. The 12 final participants came from practice backgrounds such as poets, journalists, woodcarvers, sculptors, sound designers, project managers, illustrators and activists. None of the applicants were animators or filmmakers. I consciously decided to engage with the participants and introduce them to the medium of experimental animation. I wanted them to explore the artistic possibilities without any preconceived ideas or any fear of making mistakes. This approach and my previous experience working with the children and youth of India, none of whom had any experience with film production, had produced powerful experimental films on deforestation such as Van-de-Mataram (2012), child trafficking (Born Free ), the universal right to education in Draw Your Rights (2014) and the challenges of rural India depicted in Kowar Katha (2013). We also explored local folk tales such as in Catch Me if You Can (2012) and in The Talking Parrot (2016). I anticipated similar results with the YFS workshop teams.
Fig 1: Van-de-Mataram (2012), Neemkenda village, M.P.
Fig 2: Born Free (2013), Kolkata
Fig 3: Draw Your Rights (2014), Delhi
Fig 4: Kowar Katha (2013), Kowar, Jharkhand
Fig 5: The Talking Parrot (2016), Noida
Fig 6: Catch Me if You Can (2012), Kolkata
Myanmar is one of the few countries in the region for which there is no available national data on violence against women. Even if official figures were to be made available, however, the recorded cases only tell a very small part of the story. In the face of a weak legal system and the stigma of community disapproval, even women who are repeatedly and seriously injured often choose not to report the crime or to take legal action (UNFPA 2017). In a country where less than 10% women choose to stand against the violation of their rights, 70% of our applicants were women. Accordingly, we choose eight women and four men to participate in the course. The 12 participants were grouped into three-member teams for each film. These groups were carefully selected to have an internal balance based on the participants’ previous experiences, skills and personalities. Within the team, there were clearly defined roles for character designers, background painters, storyboard artists, sound designers, animators, production co-ordinators and editors. Key team roles were assigned to those with the skills, interest or experience in the particular task. The other two members would follow the lead. For the set of next tasks, however, the lead and the followers would change. All participants were given equal choices to work out their independent roles within the group and with time, their roles kept interchanging. I found it to be significant that the female participants gravitated to the lead roles of project co-ordinators and editors, which are generally popular with the men of Yangon.
Designing the Modules and Classes
My background experience with BOL enabled me to design the modules to suit the project’s requirements. As the main objective of the workshop was to expose, engage and empower the students, not just to create an engaging social film, the project demanded critical thinking and an informed design for the workshop modules. We created an ethnographic research framework, which was “fed” with the tools of visual ethnography. This methodology assisted both the mentors and the students to immerse themselves in the workshop’s context. This context was guided by the spaces to which the stories belonged (mostly IDP camps), the backgrounds of the community youth participants and the sensibilities of the audiences at whom the films were targeted. The animation modules were thus changed, simplified or modified accordingly. The course was carefully structured to balance between fostering the individual growth of skillsets and the team interactions through practice, discussions and explorations aimed at introducing the students to both the aesthetics and the techniques of filmmaking. Regular screenings of a range of inspiring and diverse short films – particularly animated films – helped the students understand how simple and complex content can be expressed using different approaches to storytelling and a range of visual and audio strategies. These screenings were followed by discussions to enable the participants to understand their technical and conceptual decisions.
The method of evaluation gave equal weight to self and team assessments that were based on daily self-reflection exercises and weekly presentations.
Research Methodology and Ethics in Animated Documentaries
As I discuss above, an ethnographic approach was chosen to be the qualitative methodology for the data collection. In this instance, we were recording actual incidents from peoples’ lives that were sensitive, deeply personal and often traumatic. Moreover, in most cases the storytellers were unknown to the workshop participants. Prior to approaching the field and also during the storyboarding process, the students were introduced to cases studies of films dealing with sensitive topics. The students also took classes on ethics and permissions to guide them through the sensitive recording process. Care was taken to ensure that the questionnaires did not trigger the contributors and cause them additional distress. Trust and relationship-building were encouraged between the students and the contributors, and in the process they created a common ground to find a purpose and to share the story. This entire process took approximately two weeks.
Creating Audio Stories
The first part of the workshop called for the students to contact the people (usually an NGO officer) who could connect them with the survivors. They then identified several survivors and met with them at IDP camps or NGO shelters to conduct interviews. The students travelled to the interview sites on their own, without the supervision of the tutors. The presence of such a ‘foreigner’ among the interview crew would draw unnecessary attention from the military and also make the interviewees uncomfortable. The students worked on relationship-building with the different contributors, keeping in mind their lessons on ethical research with human subjects. The students received written permissions for their interviews and promised to keep the contributors in the loop throughout the filmmaking process. From the hours of recorded audio, the students needed to edit a four-minute narrative. My colleague Paromita Vohra, a documentary filmmaker herself, carefully mentored the workshop participants to create these shorter narratives from the lengthy recordings
Fig 7: The students entering a camp site
Fig 8: The students interviewing a survivor
Creating Visual Narratives
The second section of the workshop, lasting six weeks in total, involved creating the visual material to accompany the recorded audio. We started each day with warm-up sessions of live drawing followed by Ed Hooks’s ‘acting for animators’ exercises. For the first two weeks, the students also attended theory classes in traditional animation techniques, stop motion animation, storyboarding, filmmaking, sound and music to ensure that all of the participants had clear concepts. In the third week, the students explored analogue and digital animation techniques in a series of hands-on tutorials. Experimentation with the medium was strongly encouraged.
Fig 9: Understanding form and anatomy
Fig 10: Daily live drawing sessions
Fig 11: Film screenings on similar topics
Fig 12: Audio and sound design
Fig 13: Team discussions with Paromita Vohra
Fig 14: Script and storyline
Fig 15: Storyboarding
Fig 16: Material exploration
Fig 17: Sets and layout
Fig 18: Character design
Fig 19: Stop motion animation filming
Fig 20: Compositing
We stressed the use of visual metaphors, poetics and parallel narratives in the storyboard and discouraged them from merely translating the audio into images. This helped to bring out the emotional resonance of the recorded interviews and edited narratives. The sound design and the music were then added to enhance the emotional effects. The students presented their storyboards and animatics to the whole class and engaged in critical discussions to determine the effectiveness of their work.
Fig 21: Home: Visual metaphors for entangled thoughts
Fig 22: Kayah Lily: The pain of rape is depicted as traffic moving over the victim’s body
Fig 23: Limbo: A failed abortion
Fig 24: Wave: The emotional turmoil of being uprooted from your native home
Once the four narratives were finalised, careful thought had to be given to the style of the animation. Each group decided to work with a different style of animation; thus, each team received personalized tutorials from the instructor accordingly.
The stories were from four IDP camps of four states: Kayah, Kayin, Shan and Kachin. The first story Kayah Lily, from the Kayah region, told the story of a 13-year-old girl who was raped and finally received justice. We chose to change the context of the story to the animal world, with an innocent rabbit standing in for the survivor and a man in a tiger jacket as the violator. The Kayin region narrative, titled Limbo, was another story of rape – that of a 19-year-old girl who still awaits justice. A single mother to the child born from the assault, she bravely continues to fight against her society for justice. As the survivor underwent many instabilities and transitions over this period, we chose to use sand animation as the means to best translate her state of mind. The third story, Wave, was from the Shan Region. The protagonist was a successful career woman who discussed the hardships she experienced during the war and the reasons she came back to the war zones to continue working on behalf of other women. This was a story of a brave survivor who, during the course of the animation process, bravely agreed to share her real identity and speak up for her community. We choose a contrasting black and white style to share her experience and portray the ends of her character spectrum in terms of the journey from being a victim to a supporter. The Kachin story, called Home, told of a woman residing in the IDP camps who was tormented for years by her husband. We chose a muted colour palette, a realistic pencil rendition and stop-motion animation to portray how domestic violence can seep into any ordinary household.
The Production Process
The students used both analogue and digital animation techniques ranging from stop motion techniques such as painting under the camera, sand animation, paper cut-out and material animation, charcoal drawing and animation using Adobe AfterEffects software. They shot their stop motion footage using Dragon Frame 4 software and later composited the material with Adobe Premiere Pro. The use of handmade animation techniques and styles emphasized the visceral content of the films. The students explored various media until each film had a distinctive look that aligned with their topic. Each film had to be completed on time by its three-person team, none of whom had any background or experience as animators. Each group showed their work in progress and received feedback on a daily basis.
Although the project was an international collaboration, both of the tutors were from India. Our translator, Aww Jay, took care to translate the nuances of filmmaking and the cultural barriers. Instead of being a hindrance, language provided a neutral ground for sharing stories across borders and for connecting with one another. This may also have been due to the historical commonalities between India and Myanmar (formerly Burma) as part of British India from 1824 to 1937.
Personal Experience and Reflection
The films were successfully completed in eight weeks. The students were a curious bunch of talented souls, very hard working, with a strong work ethic and a commitment to the idea of enacting positive social change through film. Their lack of previous film experience worked in their favour, as the students were akin to clean blackboards and came into the workshop with no preconceived ideas. Their drawings were highly original and they brought a fresh and local approach to the stop motion animation techniques, such as using rice for a shot of a dinner table, or ground-up local bricks to create a particular shade of red.
Fig 25: Home https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tX43c_LjI8w
Fig 26: Kayah Lily https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-mshi8nsT1w
Fig 27: Limbo https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SNAQOtyPUzA
Fig 28: Wave https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQswW7CBjtE
Legitimising Animation as a Form of Documentary
While the powerful imagery of an animated documentary can often portray the unspeakable, this is often argued to solely be the animator’s artistic depiction. Criticisms of the genre include the reduction of the protagonist to a visual interpretation, the background or landscape is reduced to a shadow of nature and the narrative or scenario can be considered merely a visual abstraction of the artist’s imagination, questioning the strengths of the medium of animation. Filmmakers working within the genre of animated documentary still face the daunting requirement to balance what the ‘protagonists’ have consented to be represented and representing historical fact or actual events to the audience. The genre thus generates a set of concerns, including the ethical issues involved in representing real events versus the fabrication or exaggeration necessary for creating emotionally resonant yet respectful imagery, in the context of both audience expectations and cultural or political sensibilities. Within these films, there needs to be a subtle balance between the representation of the facts or a sense objectivity and the emotional engagement of the audience.
The Role of the Voice
One important yet oft-overlooked aspect of the debate around whether animation constitutes a legitimate form of documentary is its audio narratives. As an animated documentary filmmaker as well as a researcher, I believe that the voice of the subject guides the visualisation of the character, establishes the situation or context as an organic landscape and generates empathy through this artistic visualisation. The timbre and texture of the voice emphasises the emotional nuances and helps to give form to complex emotions that would be otherwise impossible to communicate through words alone. The pauses between the words provide space to engage with realistic representations, or to engage with abstract imagery, which can amplify or condense the film’s message. The voice of the narrator or subject thus becomes the bridge between the lived reality, the truth, and the visual constructions of the animated documentary form. In this fashion, animation is a legitimate form of documentary depiction.
Community Engagement and Response
To measure the efficacy of the course’s objectives, we generated a series of quantifiable and reasonable markers of success, including the feedback of the students, the community or audience and – most importantly – from the interviewees and contributors.
Over the course of the eight-week programme, the students completed four animated documentaries with both English and Burmese subtitles. The students were now prepared to create short, stop-motion animated documentaries as either independent animators or within a group. Out of the 12 students, 11 remarked that they did not realize that animation could be employed outside of the context of cartoons for children. In our workshop, they learned how to use visual metaphors, morphing techniques and to create parallel narratives that, combined with a strong documentary voice, could be a watchable and powerful statement for social change. The students were trained use their acquired technical knowledge to identify the participants and record their stories for their documentary soundtracks. We also trained them to generate promotional and associated materials such as film posters, trailers and teasers. In the post-class discussions, the students affirmed that the course had increased their knowledge of GBV issues and were now aware of the power of animation as a tool to create powerful documentaries. We contacted the students after six months of the course and it was interesting to see their present professional careers and how they choose to incorporate their learnings to animation as a social tool. I am including the names of the participants and their current occupations:
- Aung Ngwe Phyo – A painter and portrait artist.
- Doris @ Htwe Htwe – Women rights’ activist.
- Eain Met Cheint Cheint – Recently participated as an artist in ASEAN event.
- Maung Nay Oo – Was previously employed as an animator at an animation studio but is now a freelance sculptor.
- Mi Mi Lwin – Freelance editor, mainly for documentary projects.
- Mon Mon Thet Khin – Script writer.
- Nann Win May Aye – Working as a graphic designer and participated in the recent women’s rights movement.
- Nwaye Zarchi Soe – Freelance filmmaker in documentary field and being active to share documentary filmmaking knowledge in rural areas.
- Sai Naw Kham – Freelance editor and film colourist.
- Saw Eh Doh Poe – Created a small team to make animated films. Also works in graphic design and postproduction works for live-action film and television.
- Soe Yu Maw – Video editor at an online media firm.
- Thida Swe – Freelance editor and sound recordist.
The films were first screened to the contributors and the protagonists who were generous enough to share their stories and lend their voices to the films. Mai Mai came forward to reveal her real identity in the film, as not only could identify herself in the film but also felt empowered and saw the film as inspiring others to raise their voices against the violation of their rights. Our youngest protagonist, who was only 13 years old when she was violated, reported that the film brought closure to her experience. At the same time, her parents were relieved that her complete anonymity was respected in the film. We thus understood the importance and outreach of animated documentary films as a tool of social protest.
We held screenings of the films with small audiences of community members to solicit their feedback prior to our social media launch. It was emotionally satisfying to see the audience response across the various age groups to both the animated documentary form and the sensitive issues being portrayed. These film screenings initiated and triggered a long-awaited discussion on these global concerns. The films were also screened at several international film festivals. Two of the films won awards at the following festivals:
- HIROSHIMA International Animation Film Festival 2018 (Hiroshima, Japan) Animation from the World Section: Kayah Lily, Limbo
- ANIMATOU International Animation Film Festival 2018 (Geneva, Switzerland) – Best Short Documentary Competition: Limbo
- Factual Animation Film Festival 2018 (London, United Kingdom) – Special Mention: Limbo
- Watersprite Student Film Festival 2019 (Cambridge, United Kingdom) – Nominated for Impact Award & Documentary Award: Limbo
At nearly all of the international screenings, the post-film audience Q&A or interactive sessions went overtime. On social media, the films have done quite well, with an approximate 1,000,000 views for all four films. We have also received general release permissions to screen the films in theatres in Myanmar.
Fig 29: Public screening at Mahar Bandula Park, Yangon
Fig 30: The mixed audience at Mahar Bandula Park, Yangon
Using our workshop as a case study, I was able to explore the form of animated documentary as a tool for social change, both in terms of the filmmaking process and the filmed ‘output.’ The process involved giving a voice to the contributors and a chance for expression and closure, as well as engaging local community youth and the participants and empowering them to address national and global concerns though this medium. The films themselves, or the workshop output, travelled across borders to engage a larger audience who could relate to the films’ concerns. Moreover, the films were also a tool for counselling and encouraged the survivors to share their experiences and – most importantly – report and file complaints. There is further ground for exploration, however, to design workshops and modules that will suit different contexts in different countries and speak to multiple different concerns.
Debjani Mukerjee is presently an Assistant Professor and HOD at the Animation and Motiongraphics Department at Unitedworld Institute of Design, Karnavati University, India. She is also a research scholar at the IDC School of Design at the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay, India. Her research interests include animated documentary, collaborative filmmaking and indigenous art pedagogy. She is currently working on an animated documentary using ‘collaborative perspective’ as a process: https://debjani5376.myportfolio.com/
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© Debjani Mukerjee
Edited by Amy Ratelle