Participatory video as feedback: Refettorio Felix

Noel and Rosy

My reflections on leading a project for participatory video specialists InsightShare. This post originally appeared on InsightShare’s blog.

Pedicures for homeless guests. Creative writing or cooking courses. More quiet zones to relax in. These were some of the suggestions that emerged after we screened ‘The Place To Be’, a film made by guests at St. Cuthbert’s Day Centre.

St. Cuthbert’s, a drop-in centre for vulnerable people near Earl’s Court in west London, is already pretty special, according to its visitors. As one of them said: “The staff come and say ‘Good morning, how are you?’. You don’t always get that — in some centres, you just sit down and nobody wants to know.” Another said he walks a long way to St. Cuthbert’s every week, even though other places are more convenient: “People here accept me as I am… they never make you feel less important than others.”

That warm welcome has been extended to those in need for some 20 years, but recently St. Cuthbert’s saw big changes as part of the Refettorio Felix project. The drab church hall has been redesigned as a bright, modern, calming space. Instead of queuing up, visitors are now served lunch by volunteer waiters and waitresses, and are offered vegetarian or allergen-free options. Ingredients, sourced from surplus food gathered from around the city, are turned into nutritious three-course meals.

The new approach aims to rebuild dignity by “feeding body and soul”. And as the first of its kind in the UK (similar refettorios have been created in Italy and in Brazil) the team behind the transformation wanted to know if it was having the intended effect. Would the new environment make a difference? Are there things people don’t like? What’s missing?

That’s where InsightShare came in, to explore these questions through a short participatory video project.

Unlike having a filmmaker produce an impact film, using participatory video meant that:

  • Guests using the centre interviewed each other. This gave them the opportunity to direct the conversation towards what they felt was important.
  • They had control over what footage was used — they had a chance to see a rough cut and to remove any clips and add extra ones.
  • They decided who will be allowed to see the film.
  • In the process, they learned new skills (operating a camera / microphone, interviewing, speaking on camera) and got to see a project through from start to finish.

In terms of facilitation, there were some limitations to work around:

  • Limited time: We had just four sessions (three hours each) with the group, spread across four months. With an enticing three-course meal breaking up the day, we often lost a few people for the afternoon session (and had new ones join instead).
  • A fluid group: As a drop-in centre, we never knew in advance who’d be there on the day. Each session brought newcomers, making it hard to build on learning or on discussions from the last time.
  • A very mixed group: People come to St. Cuthbert’s for various reasons (pensioners living alone, homeless people, former alcoholics, people on very low incomes, etc.). Our participants reflected this mix. They were aged from 30s to 80+, and many spoke English as a second language.
  • Limited mobility: For some elderly participants and some with health issues, moving around with the camera was not an option.
  • Small budget: We only had one camera kit for the group, so could only do one interview at a time.

With these restrictions, we had to be flexible in some ways. With limited time and conversations that tended to go off on a tangent, I focused our sessions on interviews (rather than building skills with other camera exercises). We decided to provide the core questions for the group (rather than spend time devising questions together). And I kept the editing session as simple as possible (going through a rough cut with the group, noting down requested changes, and then finalising it myself).

Session4

My task was also helped by:

  • A hugely supportive host organisation / local partner. Tina, at St. Cuthbert’s, was available at all the sessions — but happy to leave us to it when we realised participants’ responses might be influenced by her presence. Because she knew them all, she could let me know of any issues or things to be aware of. She also helped by speaking to participants between sessions, preparing them for upcoming sessions and reminding them of dates.
  • A client who valued the process as a feedback exercise. One of the tensions in these projects is always between a client who wants to spread the word with a great PR video, and clients who may want to be critical, or who don’t want their video to go public at all. Food For Soul (the organisation behind the refettorios) do want to use the video publicly (and as it happens, the group agreed to share it online). But Food For Soul also encouraged the group to share negative feedback too. They were also clear with me as the facilitator that the whole process should be led by the group — in other words, as participatory as possible.
  • Participants who genuinely wanted to share their views. Despite it being such a mixed group, people at St. Cuthbert’s are always rubbing shoulders with unlikely companions, so all participants came ready to listen to each other. And they had plenty to say. In fact, my challenge was more about getting them to stop talking — a good problem to have!

Ultimately, we had 11 different people sharing their views, personal stories, concerns and suggestions in the film. More thoughts and ideas bubbled up in the discussion after the screening, and both Food For Soul and St. Cuthbert’s have promised to take those on board. It’ll be great to see how things evolve next.

Watch the final video here:

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