In this blog entry, FERSA interviews Dr Mona Jebril about her experience in turning from MonaR (the researcher) to MonaF (the filmmaker), and what advice she would give for those who are interested in filming their research.
FERSA: Could you briefly describe what your PhD is about?
Mona: My PhD research is entitled: “Academic Life Under Occupation: The Impact on Educationalists at Gaza’s Universities”. It is a sociological study which explores the past and present higher education under occupation and how this experience may evolve in the shifting socio-political context in the Arab world. The research was conducted as an inductive study. Due to difficulties of access to the Gaza Strip, lecturers and students at Gaza’s universities were interviewed via Skype from Cambridge.
FERSA: What are the main findings of your doctoral study?
Mona: The main finding of my study is that there is a simultaneous process of construction and destruction that undermines academic work and suppresses intellectual activities at Gaza’s universities. I describe this process, referring to two interactive layers of oppression: ‘the visible’ and the ‘invisible’.
FERSA: Why did you decide to make research films about your doctoral study?
Mona: I chose to make research films for several different reasons:
In educational conferences, I constantly felt the need to explain to the international audience the political context of the Gaza Strip as an occupied place so as to make my presentation comprehensible. But some conferences give students only five to 10 minutes to present. Therefore, I thought maybe I could be smart enough to make a film about my whole research and just play the video in these conferences to enjoy a stress-free presentation, and maybe also have a cup of tea or coffee, while the audience was enjoying listening to my PhD study.
I attended three filming workshops and these had an impact on me; I started to take this issue of filming more seriously and to think about it as a way of making an important study on higher education in an under-researched context widely available. I hoped that it would generate impact and increase awareness of academic life in Gaza both inside and outside Palestine. In places like Gaza, it is difficult to gain access to journal articles or books and therefore to access quality research. However, everyone is on YouTube and it is easy to share a YouTube research film on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. That said, filming research is a win-win project. It gives researchers the opportunity to democratise access to their work, as well as to promote it in the academic market.
During the interviews, I listened to Gaza’s educationalists’ stories of struggling for higher education. These stories were very rich and powerful and I was involuntarily picturing them in my head with colours, sound and texture. I wished that I could go and do a proper filming on the ground in the Sinai desert, in Gaza and on the borders — films with actors and live scenes and background . Of course, this was difficult to do because of political and other practical considerations. Using pictures was all I could do. Sometimes I asked myself, “Why am I putting time and energy into this project rather than investing in writing journal articles?” The answer is that I do not know. I want to continue producing films because I am enjoying it as a creative and meaningful work! I also believe that academia should update their ways of disseminating research studies. It definitely should take advantage of the new technology. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) will be sweeping over the academic field sooner or later, and the University should exert serious efforts in harnessing the power of the digital age in support of higher education.
FERSA: What would your advice be for others interested in making research films?
Mona: My first advice is that you do not have to make a research film if you do not want to; but if you want to, why not do it! We’d love to watch your research. My second piece of advice is to make a series of short videos rather than a long documentary. Unless specialized in your area, or truly interested in it, few people will give your film two hours of their time. Giving a few minutes to get to know you and your topic is, however, more likely.
A playlist with Mona Jebril’s four research films
FERSA: Did you make the research films yourself or did you seek any professional assistance?
I joined three filming courses, one at Cambridge international Summer School and two with the Personal Histories workshops. These introduced me to filming concepts and software; they were helpful as a first push in this direction. Of course, there is also the option of paying someone to make a film for you. However, I do not prefer that, even though it may look more sophisticated and professional in terms of technical tricks and production. It is my research and I enjoy picturing it and using my voice to express its ideas. It is like working on my thesis, and this is in itself valuable. I have ownership on everything. I feel proud of my first research films, even though the skills that I used were basic. Through working on the films, I am actually learning and improving my filming skills. I wanted to record my own voice. Also, my choice of the pictures relates to my thinking and feeling about them. They tell a story by their own. I want this story that is told to be the story that I want to tell. I feel connected to my work, and so it was important for me to have a connected filming experience through personalized activity. Along the way, however, I sought feedback which helped a lot in improving my work and provided me with useful perspectives.
FERSA: Are there any potential challenges involved in making research films?
Mona: It takes time to make a film, but as you master the skills you become more efficient and can do things more quickly. Photographs of Gaza were not always available and this meant that I had to ask friends in the area to take some pictures for me. What I also found challenging is how to summarize a whole section or chapter of your thesis in 3 to 6 minutes. In limited time, you have to convey not only your argument but also your feeling about this argument. Another important point is that in order to make a good film, you need to have good research first. Having said that, since you presumably have good research, maybe it is high time to make your first research film!
Dr Mona Jebril (PhD, Cambridge 2017) is a Gates scholar and a member of Queens’ College, Cambridge. Her PhD thesis was entitled: “Academic Life Under Occupation: The Impact on Educationalists at Gaza’s Universities”, and was supervised by Emeritus Professor Diane Reay. Previously Mona studied for her MSc in higher education in Oxford where she won Said Foundation Prize for academic and personal achievement. Mona has a significant experience as a teacher and trainer at State Schools and as a lecturer at two of Gaza’s universities. She is also a co-founder of the ASJ scholarship in Gaza. If you want to find out more about Mona, you can visit her personal website and blog or contact her by email.