How ya’ going? I’ve been thinking about how much I enjoy watching raw investigative documentaries. Especially on niche, obscure communities. Louis Theroux is the most popular that comes to mind. He has certainly produced some gems. But the best films are usually when the filmmaker has a direct connection with the subject or community. I’ve been inspired many times to run-and-gun a genuine, natural doco on many people and groups I’ve met. Especially the groups I identify with and know from a lived experience. This is something I’d love to one day pursue.
Let’s outline this from a social science perspective. One can perceive communities or people from either an outsider or insider position. Insider positionality is defined as a researcher (filmmaker) conducting a study (film) who currently identifies or engages directly within the customs of a particular culture, organisation or community. Whereas outsider researchers or filmmakers are folks that are entering, and merely observing or experiencing a culture.
I’m going to focus on an insider position. Why? Because I believe this is where one can obtain the best experiences, stories and footage. Plus, to immerse yourself within a community is much more rewarding than being a fly on the wall. Get ya’ hands dirty.
Let’s look at the 2005 Aussie documentary ‘Jisoe’ as a case study. It follows a lower-middle class Melbourne graffiti artist. The doco uses an interview-based approach, as the filmmaker ethnographically places himself within the field of a Melbourne graffiti scene. This is only done through insider methods such as partaking in criminal activity and having prior relationships. You can watch the full documentary here. It is well worth the watch.
Eddie Martin, the filmmaker - gained access to such a secure and secretive community by holding prior interpersonal relationships with the artist being observed. You can see the informality and comfortableness of the artist when he explains their experiences to the filmmaker. Due to the criminal nature of the community being shown, I reckon the difficulty of obtaining access from an outsider perspective would be high (perhaps impossible). Criminal settings such as graffiti scenes, illicit drug communities and prison inmates provide multiple hurdles for outsiders, trust being the major factor.
I’ll throw in another Melbourne-based filmmaker, Shanks Rajendran. Rajendran interviewed the homelessness population within the slums of Skidrow, LA. The documentary is called ‘Los Scandalous’, and you can watch it in full here. There is a key difference in this film compared to ‘Jisoe’, however. It is the addition of an interviewer who has experienced first-hand homelessness and lives in the area. The filmmaker in this case, is the outsider. Therefore, he needed an ‘in’ to access further levels of the culture surrounding Skid Row. This shows that within documentary filmmaking - one can attempt to obtain access to people inside the field at hand. After establishing a professional relationship under the foundation of filmmaking, this can then be utilised to access further data, information, footage and stories.
These insider/outsider positions remind me of the post I did the other day. It was on a Senior Victoria police officer coming out and speaking about the inner-force conversations surrounding ongoing lockdowns and protests. Again, you can watch this in full here. This strengthens my point, yet from a more corporate/professional standpoint. Police staff and inner circles surrounding justice, law and government institutions are incredibly difficult to observe and interview if one is outside of the circle. The exceptions are only when an inner member leaves the circle in which one has an opportunity to document. The long, formal history of police networks hold a hierarchy in which an outsider of the space would not have access to unless engaged within the administration or organisation itself (Gervais, 2013). If you think about it, this can be applied to so many industries, communities, cultures and groups.
As I opened from an academic perspective, I’ll also conclude this through the ‘social science lens’. There are indeed communities and groups of populations where an insider background is very-much needed as a precursor to engage with. Yet, once established, it can give one immeasurable access to a wide range of hidden research data within sub-sections of cultures and communities.
‘‘The conventional ethnographic researcher moves across the boundaries that divides ‘us’ from ‘them’ by becoming an insider for a time. As an insider, access is gained to cultural practices and norms obscure to those outside the group.’’ – (Earle, 2014).
What am I trying to convey? I don’t know… Go out there and meet people, I guess! Life is short, and there are many hidden nuances to life right under your nose. Anyone, and I mean literally anyone, has a story to tell - And every story can teach you something.
Earle, R., 2014. Insider and out: Making sense of a prison experience and a research experience. Qualitative Inquiry, 20(4), pp.429-438.
Hewitt-Taylor, J., 2002. Inside knowledge: Issues in insider research. Nursing Standard (through 2013), 16(46), p.33.
Anyway, it’d be great to find a subject, and broadcast it to the world in a documentary. I reckon I must turn this dream into a reality!
Here is a tune. Enjoy your day.