Written by Andreas Fulda.

Social documentary is a unique approach which combines teaching, research and outreach work in Contemporary Chinese Studies. As the producer and director of the social documentary series “Stewards of the Social Environment” I was involved in the design of the conceptual framework, the selection of participating organisations as well as the filming and editing of the seven short documentaries.

The documentary series “Stewards of the Social Environment” is a one-year project implemented jointly by the University of Nottingham Ningbo China and University of Nottingham and received funding from the European Union. It was an outcome of an action planning process during the fifth EU-China Civil Society Dialogue on the Art of Social Entrepreneurship. The dialogue took place in Ningbo from 10-13 July 2012 and involved 110 participants from Chinese and European NGOs, universities, and supporting organisations.

In terms of teaching, the seven short documentaries can now be utilised not only in Chinese language learning but also shown in undergraduate and postgraduate content modules on Contemporary Chines culture and society. They illustrate how Chinese citizens self-organise and contribute to civil society building and the rule of law. The documentaries have also informed a co-authored research article on disability groups in China, to be published as a book chapter in an edited book in 2014.

The documentaries tell the stories of Chinese and European female social entrepreneurs. While female social entrepreneurs have been subject to academic research, their organisations are often relatively unknown to the wider Chinese and European public. The documentary series thus pursued three goals: to inform young women about the principles and practices of social entrepreneurship, gender, innovation and creativity; to inspire young women to participate socially and economically; and to promote experience sharing of Chinese and European social entrepreneurs with the wider public.

During project implementation a key challenge the team faced was gaining access to people and their organisations. In comparison to conventional field research, a social documentary is by nature more intrusive and requires not only consent but also the active participation of cooperation partners. Much time thus was spent on building personal relationships and trust with potential collaboration partners.

Participating social enterprises included Anti-Domestic Violence Network, Die Schlumper, Hunan Aimier and Chickenshed, Kanchi, Rabbit King, Shenzhen Cats, and New Skills Workshop. These organisations work in the fields of gender equality and human rights, art and disability, business and disability, inclusive performing arts, poverty alleviation, animal welfare and humane education, as well as creative industries.

For the documentary series thirty-five semi-structured video interviews were recorded in Beijing, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Chengdu, Dayi County, Changsha, Ningxiang County in China and London, Dublin, Hamburg, and Mansfield in Europe. Interviewees included artists, academics, school teachers, social entrepreneurs, volunteers, government officials, party secretaries, police men, and a presiding judge.

The interviews addressed the four themes purpose, people, profit and policy. The four themes had been identified during the dialogue forum in Ningbo as key areas of inquiry into social entrepreneurship in Europe and China.

In terms of first theme purpose interviewees were asked about trigger events and what prompted them to be become socially entrepreneurial. Another inquiry was about their values and guiding principles. Participants in the documentary series shared how in the face of adversity they had overcome challenges and frustrations.

The second theme people centered around questions related to supporters and who supported the female social entrepreneurs in the first initial stage. Other questions dealt with their attitude towards co-workers and how they involved the doers. They were also asked how young people were being involved as volunteers. Finally, interviewees shared their experiences about collaborators and what kind of partnerships they had established with local governments and local communities.

The third theme of profits touched upon the question how they had identified a social problem and the related market. Interviewees described the degree of innovation of their project model as a non-profit organisation or business model as a social enterprise. They recounted how customers, consumers or other beneficiaries responded to their services and products.

The fourth and final theme of policy enabled female social entrepreneurs to express their hopes and demands for existing and future policies in their activity field.

The four themes provided the documentary series with a conceptual framework which has provided thematic linkages between the seven documentary episodes. A Point of View (PoV) documentary style was employed akin to the works of American and German documentary filmmakers Errol Morris and Werner Herzog. Talking directly to the camera, interviewees could address their audience without the recourse of an interviewer. They could also speak in their mother tongue, be it English, German or Chinese. The short documentaries do not have an official narrator but rely solely on direct quotes from interviewees. The participating female social entrepreneurs had the written assurance by the producer that their documentary episode would not be made available to the general public without their explicit consent, thereby providing them with artistic control over the end result.

For the participating female social entrepreneurs, the video interviews have been a reflection-in-action, a brief pause that allowed them to critically and creatively reflect on their evolving practices. Furthermore, the finalised documentaries are a testimony of a very specific period in the development of their respective social enterprise. Given the issue-driven style of the documentaries, they are also highly useful to introduce the work of the eight social enterprises to prospective funders, cooperation partners and volunteers.

Finally, the social documentary has an important outreach function. It can be seen as a best practice example for knowledge transfer from academia to the general public. Since all documentaries will be subtitled either in English or in Chinese, viewers in Europe and China will be able to familiarise themselves with the principles and practices of social entrepreneurship in Europe and China in an easy and accessible way.

All seven episodes will be made available from 15 October 2013 until 15 January 2014. They will be uploaded sequentially every fortnight onto social media websites such as YouTube, Vimeo, Youku, and Tudou. They will also be posted on the website of the 5th EU-China Civil Society Dialogue on the Art of Social Entrepreneurship.

Dr Andreas Fulda is Senior Fellow at the China Policy Institute and Lecturer at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies. He convenes the School’s Centre for Contemporary Chinese Politics (CCCP) and manages the EU-China Civil Society Dialogue (2011-13), a dialogue and delivery initiative supported by the European Union. 

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