Peer Review in Filmmaking: A Contested Process

By Dr Leo Berkeley

The creative practice of filmmaking, understood as a form of academic research, has been growing in scale and significance within Australian universities for several years.  While doctorates involving the making of a film have been occurring for decades, it is only relatively recently that the academic screen production community has been seeking to more systematically establish how the production of a film can lead to the discovery of new knowledge.  

As part of this process, there has been interest in developing an approach to the peer review of screen works that evaluates the research in the creative work, leading then to some form of audiovisual publication.  In Australia, the Sightlines Journal is a recent example of this, following international precedents like The Journal of Artistic Research, Screenworks and Audiovisual Thinking.

Within many established academic research disciplines, the concept of peer review has been seen as central to the process by which new research is recognised and validated.  While it has its critics, peer review is widely supported as a means by which appropriate standards are reached prior to the publication of research, in relation to criteria of originality, rigour and significance to the field.  However, there are both conceptual and practical challenges in applying this approach when the research artefact is something like a fiction film.  

The process of peer review is one that cannot simply be transferred without modification from text-based publishing to screen production practice.  Requirements that the ‘author’ is anonymous, that the creative work is modified in response to peer review feedback and even the criteria under which the research should be evaluated, are all contested issues. For example, there are often financial and logistical obstacles to removing a filmmaker’s name from the credits, as there are to reworking a film after it has been completed, in response to peer feedback. 

As with other forms of creative arts practice, an original contribution to knowledge in a film is often implicit, or related to the production process, and so not clearly evident through a viewing of the finished work.  It is rarely communicated through an explicit rational, logical argument. . .

Furthermore, as with other forms of creative arts practice, an original contribution to knowledge in a film is often implicit, or related to the production process, and so not clearly evident through a viewing of the finished work.  It is rarely communicated through an explicit rational, logical argument but through other means: through the use of framing, movement, light and colour; through the fleeting expression on a person’s face; through the selection and ordering of moving images and sounds in complex patterns of relation; and in many other ways that provoke a response in viewers.  Understanding this as a process involving the communication of knowledge requires a broadening of the concept to include sensory and affective knowing, and there is a substantial body of scholarship in philosophy, social sciences, cultural studies and the creative arts that supports this position.  However, conceiving of knowledge in this way does not overcome the ambiguity seemingly inherent in audiovisual communication and so does not address the difficulties for peer reviewers when evaluating creative screen works as research.

The most common way to address these difficulties is through the use of written text, in the form of a statement that points to the research contribution and significance.  There is some resistance to this approach, a feeling that the meaning conveyed through moving images and sounds cannot adequately be translated into text-based language.  Some creative practitioners also argue that, in an increasingly audiovisual world, the broader academic research community and the formal institutional structures that evaluate research should be more open to diverse modes of expression.  However, a sizeable group of screen practice academics recognise that written text has a role to play in the external recognition of screen production research and that, within the discipline, there is a need to develop better ways to articulate on what basis a creative screen work can be regarded as research.

The first Sightlines event, a hybrid conference/film festival focused on filmmaking in the academy, debated this issue in late 2014.  The decision was made to establish a refereed audiovisual journal to explore and trial approaches to evaluating filmmaking as research.

The Sightlines Journal was established in 2015, with submitted films being peer reviewed with an optional research statement.  An approach was taken to use peer review in a deliberately open manner, to encourage a wide exchange of views and ideas with the objective of developing shared understandings of screen production research within the academic discipline.  Sightlines is running again later this year, with an impressive line-up of films but with questions still remaining around the issue of peer review.

Creative work is submitted for peer review after it is finished and the process is robbed of much of its potential as a form of discussion within the discipline around research. Changing this situation requires a culture change within the academic community. . .

Some of these questions result from the fact that, even among filmmaker-academics, making a film as a film comes before making the film as research.  So the creative work is submitted for peer review after it is finished and the process is robbed of much of its potential as a form of discussion within the discipline around research.  Changing this situation requires a culture change within the academic community, where peer review is seen as a more prominent part of the process when films are made in an academic context, with films being submitted for review before they are finished.  Encouraging this change is one objective of the 2016 Sightlines event and can be seen elsewhere, such as in the Journal of Media Practice’s current ‘Disrupted’ issue.

If peer review is to suit the needs of non-traditional, non-text-based forms of research inquiry, new academic publication platforms need to be explored and developed.

 

Leo Berkeley is a senior lecturer within the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.  He also has considerable experience as an independent filmmaker, having written and directed the feature film, Holidays on the River Yarra, which was an official selection for the Cannes Film Festival in 1991.  His current research and production interests are in the practice of screen production, low and micro-budget filmmaking, improvisation, essay films, community media, mobile media and machinima. See leoberkeley.com for more details.