Digital humanities? We’ve been doing it for years.


Ahead of this year’s Research in Film Awards, Joanna Callaghan – Senior Lecturer in Filmmaking at the University of Sussex and former Research and Film Awards judge – discusses the importance of Filmmaking Research and her work to consolidate the field.

Some years ago, I attended a lecture by an esteemed historian on the fantastic new world that digital humanities had opened up for him. He had ‘discovered’ technology and the enormous potential it provided to reach new audiences and expand forms of inquiry. A light bulb had gone on for him and indeed a whole set of academic disciplines who became aware of the power of creative technology, not just as tools for their research, but as objects worthy of study that could expand our understanding of what knowledge comprises within the humanities and beyond.


The Arbor, Clio Barnard, University of Kent

For those of us who produce work in, about and through creative technologies, the rhetoric of the digital humanities means little. We have always been aware of the ways in which knowledge can be generated through the handling of materials and that theory can arise out of such handling, making unique connections between disciplines and subjects.

What has been helpful from the digital humanities cause, though ironic, is that through the engagement with technology by traditional, more established disciplines, our own disciplines – in my case filmmaking research – have become increasingly well recognised, often resulting in calls from random academics, asking for films to be made about their research. It speaks enormously of the entrenched divisions and hierarchies that exist in academia whenever arguments presented by scientists and historians are valued more highly than those presented by media, film and cultural studies colleagues.

Filmmaking research is research in, about and through film. We use the terms film and filmmaking to refer to screen-based media in all its forms, both as practice and as output.  We have similar interests to film and media studies colleagues but differ in our approach by practice. We find out about our subjects through making films which in turn means we find out what filmmaking and film does to the subjects we are researching. These are separate aspects but deeply entwined.


I am breathing, Emma Davie & Morag MacKinnon, University of Edinburgh

The work produced in this growing area is rich and diverse, with social, political and economic impacts. It can change the lives of individuals and communities, influence policy and legislation and challenge conventional modes of production and distribution. The AHRC Research in Film Awards – now in its fourth year – was established to recognise this growth and importance. Films such as the genre bending, award winning The Arbor (Clio Barnard, University of Kent); the legislation changing Zanzibar Soccer Queens (Florence Ayisi, University of South Wales); and I am breathing, which is increasing awareness of Motor Neurone Disease (Emma Davie & Morag MacKinnon, University of Edinburgh).

In 2016, Susan Kerrigan  (University of Newcastle, Australia) and I established the AHRC funded Filmmaking Research Network – an international project to develop understanding and consolidate the field of filmmaking research by sharing best practice and developing resources.

We have held workshops, conference panels, screenings, doctoral training, and produced resources such as a PHD examiner list and a register of films and case studies. The case studies are proving very popular: useful for researchers, heads of department, research managers and funders as they provide clear and concise examples of impact, research excellence, methodologies and funding information. Susan and I have also produced a number of articles and a special edition on ‘Filmmaking in the Academy’ in Media Practice and Education.

Filmmaking is a complex and powerful practice that requires a diverse skill set. Undertaking it inside universities requires a commitment to robust research processes that can demonstrate how filmmaking research contributes to new knowledge. To do this, we have a rich tradition of practice research which we can draw upon. Increasing the visibility and accessibility of practice research in the UK is a key aim of the recently established Practice Research Advisory Group.

Filmmaking research is an exciting and developing area of research that can bring academic research into the public domain. The Filmmaking Research Network aims to increase the capacity and confidence of the filmmaking research community, to stimulate new debates, foster a deeper understanding of filmmaking research and develop resources to sustain the future of the field.

For further information please visit

Joanna Callaghan is a Senior Lecturer in Filmmaking at the University of Sussex, Chair of Practice of the Media, Communications and Cultural Studies Association and Principal Investigator on the Filmmaking Research Network.

Banner Image: Zanzibar Soccer Queens (Florence Ayisi, University of South Wales)

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