Putting academic research on screen

Matthew Reisz reflects on how films can help engage the public with academic work on topics ranging from Chinese pop music to climate change

November 10, 2016
film, camera, reel, cinema
Source: iStock

Much research in the humanities touches on topics of broad general interest. But when the results are made public only through £55 monographs or journal articles, it is obvious that they are never going to reach non-specialists. And that means that the many academics who have interesting and important things to say about sex, nostalgia, national identity or the social significance of music end up largely speaking to their peers.

So what happens when they try to engage the public through media such as films accessible to virtually everybody through YouTube, or a dedicated website?

I have been interested in this topic for quite a while, so I was delighted to be asked by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council to judge the Utopia category in this year’s Research in Film Awards. There were 20 submissions, each up to 30 minutes long, of which 12 were passed on to us to assess. I was deeply impressed by a large proportion of them.

We shortlisted five remarkable films. One explored the different ways that food is central to the spiritual lives of a Catholic, a Muslim and a Jew living in the same London borough. Another considered how the “China Wind” style of music forged by artists such as the Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou has been transformed as it travels between Chinese communities around the globe. A third was a poetic, personal account of what climate change means for coastal communities all the way from Wales to Kiribati. A fourth film documented a photographic project designed to help former drug addicts along the path to recovery. And the last offered some powerful reflections on city living and the ways that we engage with public spaces.

All are based on solid academic research and make imaginative use of film as a medium. I was moved, intrigued and informed, even by topics such as Taiwanese pop music to which I had never given a second’s thought and would certainly never buy a book about.

I therefore decided to write a feature, published on the same day as the awards ceremony (10 November), both to express my enthusiasm for the films and to consider the structural and financial factors in Australia, Britain and the US that encourage or (more often) discourage researchers’ use of film as a means of public engagement. The examples I have seen leave me in no doubt of its vast potential.

While on the subject of academics and film, however, I can’t resist giving a plug to a remarkable documentary called The New Man (due out on limited release in the UK later this month). This was directed by Josh Appignanesi and his wife Devorah Baum, a lecturer in English at the University of Southampton, and may yet feed into her work as a researcher. It starts when she became pregnant and Appignanesi had a Woody Allen-ish existential crisis, constantly worried that it would mean the end of their sex life and that Baum might love the baby more than him. This jokey tone is soon dissipated, however, when they discover that one of their twin babies has died in the womb but still must be carried to term.

At this point, the couple made the extraordinary decision to keep the camera running, recording their many quarrels, some of which they had to re-enact, as well as moments of intense grief. Fiercely articulate even as their lives fall apart and then are slowly put back together, they also include some striking reflections from the artists, psychoanalysts and political philosophers in their social circle.

It would be hard to imagine a film that gives such an unsparingly intimate, and often highly uncomfortable, picture of a family in crisis. But it is also utterly compelling.

UPDATE: The winning film in the "Utopia" category of the Research in Film Awards, which I helped to judge, was Amanda Ravetz’s Wonderland.This forms part of a wider research project known as Wonderland: the art of becoming human.


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