Science - October 8, 2009

Film is a catalyst for change


Film images give insight into complex issues.
A first for Loes Witteveen: a doctorate partly on the basis of DVDs.

Loes Witteveen with her thesis.
The doctoral thesis committee lost Loes Witteveen's thesis. The committee members were looking for a book, not a large box containing 46 DVDs and a book in tissue paper. We've never seen that before in Wageningen, was the reaction among the scientific information officers. There has been very little scientific research into the use of audio-visual material and yet images are an increasingly important part of our lives.
Witteveen says that film can be used to analyse and solve complex issues. The VHL lecturer obtained her PhD on the design and use of films in change processes on 6 October through the Communication and Innovation Studies chair group. She set up three film projects between 1996 and 2007. One of them concerned sustainable coastal management in the densely populated Indian state of Kerala, where the ocean has suffered badly from over‑fishing and the natural resources have been depleted. Witteveen and her team filmed various parties such as fishermen, farmers, nature conservationists and policy-makers.
'You see a range of opposing interests and conflicts. That doesn't mean you've got a solution straight away but it's already a big step forward if people can see their own role in the problems and are more understanding of other people's viewpoints', says Witteveen. Then governments become more aware of the impact of their policies, for instance.
'Civil servants in the city may have a picture of lazy fishermen who spend all day sleeping in their huts. It really brings home to them what the problems are when they hear how these fishermen are out at sea all night and catch nothing because the huge trawlers from Taiwan have passed through a few days earlier and then how difficult it is for them to feed their families', Witteveen explains.
The best known example is probably Witteveen's series of films about AIDS and countryside development in Africa and Asia. In Zambia they even led to the development of a joint policy by the Ministry of Agriculture, the agricultural university and the agricultural organizations to tackle such consequences of AIDS as the loss of labour. 'We can do more with film than we ever thought possible. It is a unique way of starting up a social dialogue.'
Witteveen is receiving her doctorate in part from the Delft University of Technology. They have more experience with knowledge that is expressed not just in words but in a design or a building. Or in images, as in this case.  
Box: The minister offers his congratulations
Bert Koenders, the Minister for Development Cooperation, offered his congratulations to Loes Witteveen in a video message when she received her doctorate on 6 October. Koenders emphasized how exceptional and important it is that a researcher doesn't just collect information about the people involved but also communicates with the target group.  

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