Guest Post: Getting to Know Your Subject: Human Rights Film Festivals under ARCS Studentship

This week’s guest post comes from Alexandra-Maria Colta, a PhD researcher at the Universities of Glasgow and St Andrews, in partnership with the Document Film Festival. Her project is an Applied Research Collaborative Studentship (ARCS) and she has kindly shared some insights into the ARCS experience. 

I think for many of us starting a PhD we first have to adjust, adapt and find our rhythm, especially going through massive amounts of books and information and figuring out our own questions and voice. Before my first days as a PhD candidate I was working in a busy film production company, with 12-hour days of shooting for weeks on end and submitting films to hundreds of festivals. Being in an ARCS studentship I thought it had the right amount of both desk and field research, I would learn by reading and by doing, so the transition from my previous job would not be so difficult. And I was right. Over a year into my PhD, I’m discovering and writing about how human rights film festivals really work, by reading and doing. I have three supervisors from two universities (David Archibald, University of Glasgow and Leshu Torchin, University of St Andrews) and from the organisation I’m studying, the Glasgow-based Document Human Rights Film Festival (Maria Velez-Serna, board member for Document), who are making sure I’m on my academic path and gaining practical, behind the scenes knowledge of the festival I’m looking at.

Alexandra Colta

The poster for the event I organised during Document and brochures

Get involved. Volunteer. Participate

For someone who had not attempted ethnographic research before, this studentship was a first in many ways. I started around the same time as a new team of coordinators at Document, we didn’t know each other and as they were transitioning into the organisation, I was also adjusting to the team, gaining trust and learning how to get involved. The main thing I’ve learned and can safely suggest is a ‘do it yourself’ approach at first. Volunteer for small jobs in the organisation. Ask what you can do to help. Not only will this ease your way into the team, but you’ll also learn by doing and gather notes, details about the work as it’s done in on the ground. One of the best experiences so far was to participate in the programming team for the festival for the fourteenth edition of Document. I watched around 50 documentary films on human rights, discussed them together with the rest of the team and some of the ones I liked entered the festival!


Critical Forum panel discussion. From left to right: Leshu Torchin, Finn Daniels-Yeomans, Sean Welsh, Basharat Khan and me, taking notes. (Photo by Katharina Kamleitner)

Brainstorm. Organise. Write.

I also had the chance to organise an event during Document 2016, an experience that revealed some of the challenges that festivals face. I had to pitch the idea to the coordinators and the board, to the university for funding, to filmmakers for the rights to screen their film, to one of my supervisors, Leshu Torchin, to join the panel as key note speaker and guest. In the end, everything worked out and we screened a Scottish premiere of the documentary film A Brilliant Genocide (Ebony Butler, 2016) and held a panel discussion on the challenges and responsibilities of programming a documentary film festival, bringing the focus conveniently back to my research. At the end of the three-day festival in October, I was tired after spending the entire weekend in cinemas watching hours of documentary footage on serious, emotional stories, but I was in, I became part of the team!

I am yet to analyse and interpret all my notes and memories, and I advise keeping a notebook and a pen handy, as well as a camera, a tape recorder and a bunch of consent forms, you never know when you might need them. As I’m now in the writing stage, I keep going back to those experiences with a more detailed and accurate knowledge of how film festivals really work, navigating the insider/outsider perspectives and looking forward to new opportunities.

Bio: Alexandra is a second year PhD student at the University of Glasgow in partnership with the University of St Andrews and Document Human Rights Film Festival, an ARCS funded collaborative framework for the interdisciplinary study of human rights film festivals: politics, programmes and practices. The project focuses on the Glasgow-based Document Film Festival to uncover the way a festival works within the wider context of human rights discourse in cinema and cultural industries. Alexandra studied media and cultural studies at the Centre for British Studies at Humboldt University, Berlin and worked in film production and promotion in Romania and the UK.

Alexandra-Maria Colta |

2nd year PhD, University of Glasgow

If you’re interested in the idea of an ARCS project, visit the SGSAH site for more information. You can also follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook for regular updates on our opportunities.

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