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When things are not easily put into words

When things are not easily put into words

Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes

Filmmaker Paul Craddock on the added value of research videos

MAASTRICHT. Written articles may be the most common scholarly medium, but why are alternatives like film so undervalued? Filmmaker and cultural historian Paul Craddock gives talks at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and will be running a workshop at the Faculty of Health, Medicine & Life sciences on how to include film in academia.

Minutes before our interview, he sends me an email. “I’m at Paulus, in one of the booths, wearing a shirt with bees on it.” At the photo shoot afterwards, it transpires that his socks also have bees on them. “They are the symbol of Manchester,” he explains, “the part of the country where I’m from. In the 19th century, Manchester was known as the hive of industry and the bees symbolise its hard-working, industrious people.”

Like Craddock: he is a researcher at University College London and the Victoria and Albert Museum, he specialises in the history of surgery, works as a tutor at Imperial College London and runs Smart Docs, a film production company specifically for academics.

He himself discovered the advantages of the medium during his PhD research on the history of transplant surgery. He made a short video about skin to shed light on its two dimensions. “We associate skin with identity,” he explains while eating his pea and mint soup. “People recognise each other by their skin. But that’s only true from a distance. In my film, I shot the skin so close that it is hard to tell whether you’re seeing a neck or a cheek. It’s more like undulating flesh. At this magnitude, skin no longer has anything to do with identity, with being the same. It becomes depersonalized material which is changing constantly, developing spots, blemishes, wrinkling, tightening, and so on. You can describe it with words, the French philosopher Derrida tried that, but his text is unreadable. By seeing the problem literally framed by a camera, however, you get the point of it immediately.”


Craddock’s films have been published – sometimes as an integral part of a text – in scientific journals, including Nature. One of them was even exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMa). His main goal is to make film a legitimate medium for presenting and conducting research. “I like academics to know what film is capable of before they dismiss it as useless. It can be an educational tool, a learning tool, or even a research tool.”

It’s not for everyone, though. “For a lot of researchers, it would be nonsense to use it. Why would they when working on intellectual arguments? Film can be an important tool when studying things that are not easily put in words, like social behaviour or processes of making.”

To illustrate the latter, Craddock cites a video he made about Alexis Carrel (1873-1944), a French surgeon who won the Nobel Prize for inventing a method of sewing blood vessels together. “In that time, surgeons learnt the sewing from their mothers. But Carrel was trained by a professional embroiderer, the famous Marie-Anne Leroudier from Lyon. I wanted to know what was special about her teaching, so I contacted a professional embroiderer to show me some of the exercises. I filmed her doing what Carrel was capable of: putting five hundred stitches in a cigarette paper. By re-enacting these exercises, we could explore the kinds of contributions the embroiderer made to vascular surgery. We were looking at what only she could have taught Carrel. You can capture that through film.”


Researchers shouldn’t feel discouraged by the technical aspects of filmmaking. It’s quite easy, says Craddock, who learnt the ins and outs from a BBC director. “I can teach academics in two days how to use a professional camera at a professional level, and in the same time produce a short film. But often you could use a phone as well. As a researcher, you just need to identify the need for it. That’s what it’s all about.”

The underlying problem is the fact that film is still undervalued in academia. “Why? It’s purely a matter of tradition. A German colleague of mine explained it this way: near Salzburg, he noticed these traffic signs with parking restrictions on the side of the motorway. There was a whole paragraph of text, impossible to read while driving on a main road. Not very appropriate, but the sign is there because of the tradition: if it is written down, the authorities consider it to have been communicated.”

Craddock suspects his plea is more appealing than ever in this era of film. “Lots of academics recognize the importance of film as part of their method, especially in the social sciences and anthropology. The difficulty lies in its legitimacy as a mode of scholarly discourse. Researchers traditionally write. There is traditionally no scope to communicate in another way, but this is changing.”





2020-01-23: Jo Hammond
I understand what Mr. Craddock means from the point of view of certain of my dreams that arose after I'd been undergoing help from a psychiatrist. Three years after ending my sessions for depression, I found, and still find, some of the dreams (like a film) very visual and revealing.

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