Exile, Return, Record Exploring Historical Narratives and Community Resistance through Participatory Filmmaking in ‘Post-conflict’ Guatemala

  • Tessa Boeykens Ghent University, History Department
Keywords: participatory filmmaking, co-creation, shared history, displacement, collective narratives, community resistance, media activism, performative ethnography


Following previous experiences of violence and forced displacement, ‘the returnees’ from the Guatemalan campesino community ‘Copal AA la Esperanza’ are now defending their territory against the construction of a hydroelectric dam. The returnees unexpectedly mobilized me as a Belgian historian to ‘make’ their ‘shared history’ and produce a documentary about their past and present struggle. The aim of this article is to reflect on how and why I developed a participatory, filmmaking-based methodology to tackle this challenge. I focus on filmmaking, participation and knowledge production to demonstrate the epistemological and ethical benefits of a dialogue between disciplines and methodologies as much as between academic and community practices and concepts. As such, I exemplify my visual participatory approach through its engagement with post-colonial histories and the co-creation of shared knowledge at the intersection of community and research interests. Moreover, I demonstrate how filmmaking can be developed as a grounded, visual, and narrative approach connecting media activism with ‘performative ethnography’. Combining insights from participatory action research (PAR) with Johannes Fabian’s notion of ‘performance’, I argue for ‘nonextractivist methodologies’; ‘knowing with’ instead of ‘knowing-about’. From being a side project and a matter of research ethics, participatory filmmaking turned for me into an investigative tool to explore the collective production and mobilization of historical narratives. I argue that participatory research should not be limited to communities participating in research projects; researchers can equally participate in community projects without this obstructing scientific research. In sum, participatory visual methods challenge us to reconsider the role of academics in (post-conflict) settings.

Author Biography

Tessa Boeykens, Ghent University, History Department
Tessa Boeykens is an historian (Ghent University, Belgium) engaging with visual and participatory research methods in ‘post-conflict’ settings. She explores the production and mobilization of historical narratives in indigenous victim-survivor communities in Guatemala. Tessa is one of the founders of the international Participatory Video Festival (PVF#) and ENCUENTRO, the Belgian Latin America Network.