Village Earth

Developing a Shared Community Narrative (Past, Present, Future) Through Community-Based Film


Participatory video can be powerful tool for creating a dialogue and building consensus around a shared community narrative for “where we came from”, “who we are now”, and “what do we want to be in the future.” This post synthesizes the community film approach developed by Village Earth over the course of about 10 years working on such projects on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and with indigenous communities in Peru and Ecuador.

The community-based film workshops, developed by Village Earth, allow entire communities to work together dialogue and link past, present, and possible futures into a shared narrative with the express purpose of communicating with outsiders to raise awareness and support for their situation while attempting to mitigate the distortion or framing of issues by outsiders.


The roots of this approach stem from the cinéma-vérité approach Village Earth utilized in earlier films such as Pine Ridge Session One (2004) and REZONOMICS (2005). In these films we attempted to limit our influence on the subject and topic by avoiding elaborate staging, lighting, large-intimidating cameras, and even narration. However, even with these precautions it was difficult to avoid framing the issues from the outside through the selection of subjects and especially while in the editing room. Yet, despite these limitations the power that these films had to giving form to an emerging narrative for issues on the Reservation, especially the growing movement to recover and utilize lands, was readily apparent. It became clear that film would be a powerful tool, not only to educate outsiders about complex issues but also to mobilize communities for collective action.

Theoretical Perspectives

Village Earth believes that western values are not determinative and that all communities have the right to self-determination. This core belief has guided our work with indigenous communities around the world and has allowed us to be allies despite our position as ‘outsiders’ and with our less than complete understanding of their world-view. Furthermore, we recognize that leading up the end of the 20th century there emerged a growing crisis for the Western world-view. The crisis of scientific positivism brought about scholars such as Kuhn and Feyerabend, the delegitimazation of cultural imperialism, the rise of cultural relativism, and the acceptance of the environmental crisis caused by capitalist globalization created a paradigm shift for the totalizing meta-narratives of the Western worldview. According to the French Philosopher Jean François Lyotard, these meta-narratives were the basis of the social bond for western society, in their absence society is faced with a crisis of legitimacy especially in how it defines “development”. According to the Arturo Escobar:

“First, modernity’s ability to provide solutions to modern problems has been increasingly compromised. In fact, it can be argued that there are no modern solutions to many of today’s problems. This is clearly the case, for instance, with massive displacement and ecological destruction, but also with development’s inability to fulfill its promise of a minimum of well-being for the world’s people… Second, if we accept that what is at stake is the recognition that there are no modern solutions to many of today’s modern problems where are we to look for new insights?”

In the absence of the meta-narratives of the West (summarized by Escobar by the concept of modernity) we must create new narratives that become the raw material of a new society and a renewed social bond. But for this new society is to be based on equality, reciprocity, and compassion we must exchange the totalizing meta-narratives of the modern era, based on the on a notion of “Truth” and exchanged and monopolized for past several centuries by the Western States for a more relativistic notion of “truths” and the acceptance of differing world-views. Thus, this is a two part processes for individuals and communities. The first is rejecting the legitimacy of western knowledge as being implicit because of its reference to the Western meta-narrative of logical positivism. The second is creating new, more localized narratives where legitimacy comes from self-reflexive dialogue and community consensus.

According to Lyotard “A collectivity that takes narrative as its key form of competence has no need to remember its past. It finds the raw material for its social bond not only in the meaning of the narratives it recounts, but also in the act of reciting them.”

While this may be a paradigm shift in western world-view its the basis of the social bond for many indigenous communities who have been able to avoid, for whatever reason, the assimilation and acceptance of western meta-narratives.

Another principle that guides our work is the right that communities have to opacity. “For Glissant, “opacity boils down to the “irreducible density of the Other,” suggesting that it is not possible to ever fully know, understand, or be the Other. More importantly, Glissant recognizes the inherent violence in appropriations of the Other and warns against the types of appropriations that are evident in the social sciences and that tend to dominate the Western way of thinking. Western understanding, in this context, is based on transparency, measurement, and reduction. Glissant argues that in the West, “In order to understand you and thus accept you, I have to measure your solidity with the ideal scale of providing me with the grounds to make comparisons and, perhaps, judgments. I have to reduce” (Glissant 1997, 190). Moreover, the seemingly benign act of understanding, from an etymological perspective, constitutes an aggressive act.”(Stetson, 2007)

[A] “right to opacity,” which is a right not to appropriated, not to be objectified, not to be essentialized, and not to be understood (too deeply), arguing that is time to give up the “old obsession with discovering what lies at the bottom of natures”. [Glissant] develops a theory of difference that rejects pure… In this sense, opacity acts as an ethic that encourages a shifting of the gaze away from objectifying the other. However, while it leads us away from essentialization or objectification, (Stetson, 2007)

In 2006 Village Earth was invited to facilitate a community-strategic planning session with the Shipibo-Konibo of Peru’s Amazon Basin. After a discussion with community members it was agreed to structure the planning around the creation of a shared narrative of drawing from the past, present, and possible futures. The reasons for this decision were multiple: For one, it was thought that this approach would be more practical since at the end of the workshop they would not only have a plan but a compelling way to share that plan with other’s in the community who were not present at the workshop but also to outsiders and potential funding agencies. The other reason was that it was thought this would engage the participants more as they saw their story take shape. We also decided to venture further away from creating films of people to facilitating communities to create their own films and thus have greater control over the framing of the issues, the level of opacity, and the creation of their own narrative.

The central idea was to create a cohesive narrative of the community, what it was, what it is, and what it could be. By participating in the creation of the community’s story, workshop participants take an active role in framing and re-framing a shared narrative of the community and archetypal images. While also framing their own representation(s) for people outside of their community. Simultaneously creating a narrative that is empowering internally to your own community – addressing the role of individual/community agency but also analyzing the structural changes that has limited personal/community agency and self determination.

The process of the film workshop has four steps:

  1. Identify important defining images/stories from the past, answering the question “who were we and how did we live?” this is accomplished by writing or drawing pictures on pieces of paper.
    Aspects of their past they want to discuss and share with others.
  2. Identifying important defining images/stories form the present answering the question “who are we and how do we live today?,”Present
  3. Identifying important defining images/stories for the future “how would we like to live and who do we want to become?” The final stage of the workshop is tying together past, present, and future by identifying narrative “threads.” An example might look/sound like this: “In the past our rivers were clean and full of fish (past). Today, because of the oil companies drilling upstream, our rivers our contaminated and there are no more fish (present). However, we plan to organize with other communities along the river to make our voices be heard and let the world know about what these companies are doing (future).”Aspects of their future vision that they would like to share.
  4. Once the group has come to consensus on the most important threads, the next step is creating a storyboard. We accomplish this by having the workshop participants break into groups, one for each thread. We then give a brief explanation of “shots” and “scenes.” Scenes are collections of individual shots that tell a story. A particular thread might contain several scenes.

Narrative Threads that tie-together past, present and future. For example, to tell the story of river contamination you might want to have a scene explaining how children get sick from swimming in the river. This scene might have several shots – children swimming, a sick child, an interview with a doctor, or whatever the participants believe will tell the story best. Once they are satisfied with their scenes they create a “shot list,” basically a list of of their shots, where they will do them, and who will be responsible to get it done. Finally we give a brief explanation of how to use the cameras and then let them go out with their teams to start working on their lists. Each night we would collect the footage, digitize it and work with each team to edit together their scenes (below).

Editing footage captured by the community during the day.The final evening of the workshop was the film premiere of the community’s new, completely participatory, documentary which they decided to title Paromea Ronin Bakebo, which is Shipibo for The Children of the Anaconda. Many people from the community showed up and there was quite a buzz throughout the community about the film. This was very exciting for everybody involved. The film premiere was amazing. As one American observer remarked, “It was like the Shipibo Academy Awards.” After many long speeches, songs, and special recognitions, the film was projected onto a make-shift screen in the community hall for all the people to see. Everyone was very happy with the film and the children were so excited to see themselves on the big screen.

The impact of the film was readily apparent. According to one participant, “Working on our Cosmovision has brought us together and gave us an opportunity to keep the dreams of all the particpants’ families with us.”

Stetson writes, “in the video the Shipibo express themselves in terms of the possibility of re-living or re-making Shipibo culture (via language, traditional medicine, pottery, dress, reciprocity, sharing, and community integration). The film also reveals practical and material needs such that the interests in getting micro-projects funded reflects the reality of being indigenous in a modern world. As mentioned, the video deals with the real structural constraints that both individuals and communities face. However, to look at the Shipibo only in these terms would be a mistake. The workshop participants, in Children of the Anaconda, framed Shipibo culture in terms of the past, present, and future. The past is dignified, beautiful, and even romantic; the present is a crisis, economically, environmentally, and culturally; but the future is potentially bright, given the potential to re-live and re-new Shipibo culture, of course, with the help from, and relation, to the world.”

The community film we developed with Communities along the Rio Tigre in Ecuador in partnership with the Zapara Nation followed a similar process and highlights similar concerns about loss of habitat and contamination by nearby oil and gas.

Click here to learn about Village Earth’s support for Narrative Evaluations.

Ideas and concepts discussed in this post are also discussed in the following courses: Community MobilizationParticipatory Monitoring and Evaluation & Development and the Politics of Empowerment

Upcoming Courses in the Village Earth/CSU Online Certificate Program in Community-Based Development

Fall I Session

GSLL 1518 – Community-Based Food Systems

During this five week course, you will learn about various approaches to building community-based food systems and movements for food justice around the world. Together, we will evaluate successful efforts at food system relocalization and the protection of community food resources, as well as the factors that threaten these efforts.

Register Now »
Summer II Session

GSLL 1510 – Community-Based Mapping

This course explores theories, ethics, applications, and methods of community-based mapping and its role in participatory learning and action as well as larger processes of integrated community-based development.

Register Now »

Related Posts