Ph.D. (by Practice): Filmmakers with Disabilities and Creative Expression in Contemporary, Urban India
Research Supervisors: Dr. Simone Knox and Dr. Lisa Purse, Dept. of Film, Theatre & Television, University of Reading, UK
Current Status: Completed
This PhD research project commenced in 2016, and explores filmmaking and creative expression by people with disabilities in India. It examines the current contexts of film and video practice by people with disabilities and the reasons for their limited participation in media making. The research aims to find and support existing innovative filmmaking practices, with a final aim to identify opportunities and develop pathways for inclusive avenues for filmmakers with disabilities in India.
The employment of People with Disabilities (PwDs) in the media industry is significantly under-researched at a global scale (Ellis 2016). In India too, significant scholarly contribution on disability and media has centred around on-screen representation but not on production contexts and practices.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is the product of a landmark convention to “promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.” It came into force in 2006, and India became a signatory in 2007. Among other rights to life and liberty, equality, diversity and accessibility, it also guarantees the right to creative and artistic expression. India, however, has done little to support its disabled citizens as creative contributors to society. Art and media expression by PwDs have been considered for recreation and therapy but not as viable career options.
One would expect that the launch of the ‘Accessible India’ and ‘Digital India’ campaigns, and the new Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 in India, would result in a more progressive outlook. However, problematic words such as ‘divyang‘ (implying divine body) have been adopted as formal nomenclature for people with disabilities. The technological boom has promoted a reductive form of embracing technology rather than more meaningful engagement. Assistive devices have been distributed as ‘freebies’ at high-profile events, but have been taxed via the recently introduced Goods and Services Tax.
In such a context, it is more important than ever for everyone to contribute to ongoing debates that counter the regressive narrative. Media participation by PwDs is an excellent way forward for grassroots social change, and this film project works within such a participatory framework.
Themes & Questions
This study understands FwDs’ creative work as a product of the filmmakers’ contexts of impairment, socio-cultural experience and environmental factors. It seeks to examine issues of technological and physical inaccessibility and the social and economic factors that determine PwDs’ access to film experience and film training. It also explores if and how ways of seeing, hearing and making film may be related to the embodied and cultural experience of disability. This research therefore aims to explore diversities in filmmaking techniques and aesthetic that could enrich debates and practices within the larger discipline; however, it does not seek to establish causal relationships.
- Phase 1: Literature & Film Review; Participant Selection; Preliminary Interviews: Completed (July-August 2017)
- Phase 2: Documentary Film Production; Data Collection; Personal Interviews: Completed (April-June 2018)
- Phase 3: Documentary Film Edit; Data Analysis and Thesis Writing; Animation, Video and Sound Post Production: Completed (August 2018 – April 2021)
- Film Accessibility – Subtitling, Captioning and Audio Description (English, Hindi and Indian sign language): Ongoing
- Phase 4: Documentary Release and Research Impact (Screenings, Discussions, Workshops and Talks): Ongoing (November 2021 – December 2023)
This research adopts a multi-methodological, interdisciplinary approach. It uses a mix of visual ethnography interview techniques, participatory research and film production to explore its research questions.
This project intends to make an impact on making creative avenues available to PwDs in India in the near future, while enriching global perspectives on film expression and inclusive practice. The research will culminate in a documentary film (We Make Film) and a written thesis.
Through the production process and screenings of the film, the project intends to garner national and international interest and eventually organise an advisory group based in India. This will consist of diverse stakeholders and work towards a policy engagement pathway in India. The aim will be to create future inclusive opportunities for people with disabilities in audio-visual media production, to connect collaborators across abilities, and to contribute to the currently topical discussions on diversity and filmmaking in the world from disability and global south perspectives.
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