Filming the evidence: giving voice to Indian perspectives on bullying and cyber bullying

By Associate Professor Alison Wotherspoon

Once upon a time, in a far off galaxy and before becoming an academic, I worked in film and television as a production manager and for a brief time tried to eke out an existence as an independent producer. In 1997 I was fortunate enough to be appointed on contract to teach screen production at Flinders University and went on to gain tenure in 2001. This was life changing! Apart from moving from Sydney to Adelaide it also meant for the first time in my professional career I had a permanent job and a stable income.

The films I make are not necessarily innovative or beautiful pieces of filmmaking ... instead they are useful vehicles that disseminate traditional research more widely and to audiences who may most benefit from the research findings.

In 2002 I began collaborating with researchers working in the field of bullying and cyberbullying, and consequently became a writer, producer and director of useful evidence-based documentary films. As an academic filmmaker, this collaboration, which could only occur within a university, provides a rich and fertile environment that allowed me to expand my filmmaking skills, complete a practice-based PhD and continues to inform my teaching on a daily basis. It has also made me into a researcher who has produced over twenty evidence-based non-traditional research outputs in the form of documentary films, as well as traditional research such as book chapters, articles and conference papers. The films have all been based on, and informed by, rigorous traditional research, and a number of them have been used, and found to be effective, in anti-bullying intervention programs in schools in Australia, as well as in Greece and in Malta.

The films I make are not necessarily innovative or beautiful pieces of filmmaking, although there is the potential to make such films from the footage. Instead, they are useful vehicles that disseminate traditional research more widely and to audiences who may most benefit from the research findings. These collaborations are funded from a range of sources, none of which are government screen or arts-based agencies. Instead, they are a part of the outcomes of larger research projects that may be funded by State and Commonwealth Health and Education departments, or international multi-country and interdisciplinary EU science projects. I work in a way that does not compete with hard working and usually underfunded screen professionals but does allow me to employ recent graduates and emerging practitioners.

The model of producing evidence-based films within a university context became the basis of my PhD is a repeatable and transferable one. It is relevant to other practice-based academics within universities in particular, as well as to film and digital media producers in general. The need for screen-based works, whether they are linear or immersive, that can inform and educate is an expanding field. Now more than ever people are influenced and exposed to information via screens. Partnerships with other academics and agencies allow screen practitioners to produce work outside the limitations of traditional arts funding.  

It is not possible to gain a full understanding of the range of cultural and religious norms in India in a limited number of weeks ... PAR is an extremely useful qualitative research tool. It allows questions to be refined, re-evaluated and developed as a greater understanding is reached in the field.

In 2014 I filmed a series of eighteen interviews with education and psychology experts working in schools in Punjab and Tamil Nadu, India. Four of the interviews became the basis of a chapter, Indian Perspectives on Bullying and Cyber Bullying: Documentary Interviews with Teachers and Educational Professionals from Punjabi and Tamil Nadu for Cambridge University Press [1]. The Bullying, Cyber bullying, and Pupil Safety and Well-being project, that the chapter and films are based on, was a research collaboration funded by the Indian Council of Social Science Research, the Economic and Social Research Council, UK, the Agence Nationale de la Recherche, France, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Germany and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research. The project brought together academics from ten universities in six countries, with backgrounds as diverse as psychology, education and screen production, to work on an interdisciplinary research project in India.[2]

It is possible to glean a great deal of information from people when you are working in collaboration and they are reflecting upon or discussing their professional practice while sharing their lived experiences. During a filmed interview they share their knowledge and insights through stories, case studies and observations. This material provides a rich source of information and their responses are often emotionally engaging as well as analytical. The documentary process, recognises that the people being interviewed are the experts due to their knowledge and lived experiences. It is an extremely effective way to give voice to people who may not normally be asked to speak or may not usually be heard.

Participatory Action Research (PAR) can play a significant role in practice-based research such as the production of documentary films and effectively describes what occurs in the interviewing process. Working within a multilingual, multicultural and pluralistic country often results in a range of details and concepts being lost, or in some way misconstrued, in translation. It is not possible to gain a full understanding of the range of cultural and religious norms in India in a limited number of weeks and the any amount of preparation undertaken to prepare for a first trip to India is at best limited and superficial. Given these challenges PAR is an extremely useful qualitative research tool. It allows questions to be refined, re-evaluated and developed as a greater understanding is reached in the field. It allows a researcher filmmaker to be fluid in their thinking, open to change and demands that they actively listen to what is being said, process this new information quickly and critically throughout the interviews so they can build and extend on the newly acquired knowledge. This cycle continues into the edit when the filmmaker continues to interrogate the footage and find ways in which to structure it into a shape that works effectively as a film.

The filmmaking process to non-filmmakers can be viewed as mysterious, easy and perplexing. It is not always understood by ethics committees, or fully valued by research offices.

Working in an interdisciplinary way is not without its own unique tensions. The filmmaking process to non-filmmakers can be viewed as mysterious, easy and perplexing. It is not always understood by ethics committees, or fully valued by research offices. As an academic, it is often easier to prioritise the completion of a traditional research publication output written in collaboration with other academic colleagues, than to complete the films. The book chapter for this project was published in May 2018 but the films are still being edited. Even though the filmed interviews may provide the primary data gathered in the field that the chapter is based on, there can be a lack of budget to complete them, are dependent on a time poor academic filmmaker, such as myself, to edit them and may have not been produced for a specific audience. Consequently, the research space I inhabit is a complex one that can be extremely fruitful as well as challenging.

The rich content within the interviews does however reveal the role creative practice research can play and contribute to more traditional research methodologies in the field of bullying and cyber bullying. The process raises many questions about the extent to which any researcher, who does not have a research background, for example, in Indian history, politics, culture, religion or gender, can evaluate or accurately interpret what is exchanged within a small number of brief interviews. It also made me extremely aware that gaining an understanding of the dynamics of bullying within a society requires a holistic view informed by interdisciplinary teams of researchers that may include cultural theorists, historians, law and gender scholars, theologians, creative artists, and other social scientists. I also know that at some point I have to find the time to make the beautiful films that are currently sitting in the form of rushes on hard drives in my office.

[1] Alison Wotherspoon, Barbara Spears et al, “Indian Perspectives on Bullying and Cyber Bullying: Documentary Interviews with Teachers and Educational Professionals from Punjabi and Tamil Nadu” in Bullying, Cyberbullying and Student Well-Being in Schools: Comparing European, Australian and Indian Perspectives, ed Peter Smith et al, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

[2] European Principal Investigators: Professor Dr. Peter K. Smith, Dr. Alice Jones, Unit for School and Family Studies, Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London, London, United Kingdom; Professor Dr. Catherine Blaya, International Observatory of Violence in Schools, University of Bordeaux, France; Dr. Mechtzhild Schaefer, Unit for counselling and Intervention, Department of Psychology, Ludwig Maximilians University (LMU), Muenchen, Germany; Dr. Frits A. Goossens, Department of Special Education, Department of Developmental Psychology, Vrije University, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Indian Principal Investigators: Dr. Suresh Sundaram, Department of Psychology, Annamalai University, Annamalai; Dr. Damanjit Sandhu, Department of Psychology, Punjabi University, Patiala.

Australia-India Research Collaboration: Professor Philip Slee and Dr Grace Skrzypiec, School of Education, Dr Alison Wotherspoon Department of Screen and Media, Flinders Univerisity, Associate Professor Barbara Spears, School of Education, UNISA, Professor Marilyn Campbell, School of Cultural and Professional Learning, QUT.


Associate Professor Alison Wotherspoon is the Teaching Program Director of Creative Arts in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences based at Flinders University, Australia. After graduating from UNSW Alison worked in film and television at the BBC, Film Australia, ABC, and SBS, studied Producing at AFTRS and was an independent producer before moving to Adelaide to teach Screen Production at Flinders University. Alison continues to produce, write and direct and is currently in production for a series of documentaries on bullying research in India. Alison was the recipient of a C.A.S.S fellowship and has taught internationally at Butler University, Indianapolis, CUHK (Chinese University of Hong Kong) and FAMU (Film and TV School of Academy of Performing Arts in Prague). She is on the Executive of the Media Resource Centre www.mrc.org.au and ASPERA.