3 April 2020

How a PhD Became a Documentary

Science communication

Getting your academic research to reach an audience beyond your immediate peers can be quite difficult. Inge-Merete Hougaard’s fieldwork about villagers in Colombia, however, inspired the production of a documentary. We talked with her about how the filming process influenced her research and why finding other outlets for communicating your research is so important.

By Anneliese Leithoff Christensen

Screenshot from the documentary ‘Arena’, directed by Ricardo León.

“It is often easier to get people and even your colleagues to watch a documentary than read a dissertation. But most importantly, you are able to give people another and deeper understanding of the place that you have been describing in – so many – words,” Inge-Merete says.

A village’s fight for their livelihood

Today she holds a PhD in Political Ecology from the UCPH Department of Food and Resource Economics. Her dissertation explored how the people of the Afro-descendant village Brisas del Frayle in Colombia had found alternative sources of income after being dispossessed by capitalist expansion, state interventions and violent conflicts. The villagers’ livelihood now depended on extracting sand from the local river. However, someone outside the village had applied for the extraction rights to that same river, and while Inge-Merete was doing her fieldwork, they were granted the right. Thus the villagers’ fight for their only source of income intensified.

Screenshot from the documentary ‘Arena’, directed by Ricardo León.

“All of a sudden our documentary had a storyline,” she says. Inge-Merete had already been applying audio-visual methods by producing short videos together with the villagers. When the conflict intensified, the purpose of making a documentary became even clearer.

Filming generates research data

Filming and interviewing the villagers not only served the documentary – it also was a new way of generating data for her PhD: “These methods give you another understanding of how people portray themselves and how, in this case, they relate with local municipalities.” In addition, it was just a good connector to the village: “It’s a good reason to keep on talking. All of a sudden, you have a shared interest with the people you are working with. You being there has turned into a mutual benefit. For you as a researcher it supplies data. For the villagers it is an opportunity to tell their story.”

Applying critical solidarity is crucial

Poster for the documentary ‘Arena’, directed by Ricardo León.

Filming a documentary, however, also comes with challenges: “Working with a filmmaker and the locals wasn't always easy when you want to maintain you academic perspective,” she says. Even though they were all involved in the same project, they each approached the subject from different angles: the filmmaker, Ricardo León, as a creative, the villagers as stakeholders and Inge-Merete as a researcher.

For her, being an academic who in her fieldwork was working with real people with real issues meant applying something called ‘critical solidarity’: “Of course you take a position and build a connection with the people you spend a lot of time with – but as a researcher you are able to evaluate the situation critically.”

Two years have passed since she concluded her fieldwork in Colombia. In March, she finally returned to Brisas del Frayle and with her, copies of the documentary that she shared with the village.

Inge-Merete Hougaard achieved her PhD in October 2019.

Check out the trailer for the documentary “Arena“ and Inge-Merete’s PhD dissertation “Settled in Sand”.