Interview: Manuela Maiguashca, documentary filmmaker & activist

05 June 2020

We recently spoke with Manuela Maiguashca, media activist, director and producer of documentary media projects that deal with taboo experiences, stigmatised communities and human rights issues. Her film work has been broadcast and screened internationally and used in a wide range of educational and advocacy outreach campaigns such as: UN Development Programmes and The Global Coalition on Women and AIDS, EU programmes for refugees, International Museum of Women, EU foster organisations, Global Kids Online as well as many other international initiatives dealing with human and child rights.

Manuela will be teaching on our new online Intro to Documentary Certificate starting on 15 June. In the lead-up to the course we discussed Manuela's roots into the industry, the importance of addressing taboo subjects head on and the future of documentary filmmaking.

What inspired you to work in documentary filmmaking?

I came to documentary in a rather circuitous way. I was originally trained as a painter but gravitated to experimental media after I graduated. From there, I began experimenting with a wide range of filmmaking, including documentary. In 2005, I met Katerina Cizek who, at the time, was pioneering digital documentary formats at the National Film Board of Canada. I became very interested in her work which explores new formats of story-telling and asks questions about the role documentary media can play in social activism. Her work has and continues to inspire me. Another huge inspiration is Florian Thalhofer (documentary media artist and inventor of Korsakow storytelling software) who introduced me to the concept of the SNU (smallest narrative unit) and challenged my understanding of storytelling.

I would also say that questions of identity brought me to documentary. Throughout my life, I have experienced first-hand how different communities can connect or clash by appreciating or misunderstanding each other’s culture and value systems. I was born in the UK, grew up in Canada, and had an Italian mother and Ecuadorian (First Nations-Indigenous) father. Reconciling cultural differences has been baked into my life process from early on and affects me deeply as a media maker. Documentary has become, for me, a way to create conversations to bridge communication gaps and open up dialogue between communities.

Your films mainly focus on taboo subjects, what led you to tell these stories through film?

Early on, I developed an interest in human rights and child rights. I was particularly interested in the domestic realm and in working with vulnerable groups such as mothers and children. The situations I witnessed in my early years in the field as an activist documentary filmmaker, exposed me to many of the themes I have gone on to explore in my subsequent work… (ex: childbirth & maternal morbidity, mothers and children living with hiv, traumatised children in foster care, refugee families living through asylum procedures, etc.). These experiences taught me how important it is to address taboo subjects head on, and that media, when made with kindness and respect, can play a vital role in fostering dialogue and healing.

You continue to work on a diverse range of documentary projects, what have you learned from the different roles you’ve taken on throughout your career?

Humility. Each project has taken me on a journey that forced me out of my comfort zone and offered me a chance to grow. I’ve learned that failure is part of the process – sometimes the most interesting part – and that if one approach doesn’t work, you can try another. Sometimes we get trapped by the idea that a project can only have value at scale but I have learned that local projects can play a meaningful and impactful role in communities and can model innovative approaches for others when done with integrity and care.

You’ve collaborated with us since 2002 and will be teaching our Intro to Documentary Certificate on 15 June 2020, what first drew you to London Film Academy?

I was very inspired by the LFA’s value of “learning by doing”. I learned to create and shape media through trial and error and found it incredibly liberating teaching at a school that valued that process. Not only did I see that it brought filmmaking into the realm of possibility for students who had no prior experience but it also nourished my own process as a media educator and mentor.

What excites you about working with students and giving them the fundamental tools to create their own documentaries?

I’m passionate about sharing lessons I’ve learned over the years. I also love meeting students with different approaches to documentary and with ideas for different kinds of projects. The more diverse the projects, the better! I enjoy brainstorming with students and showing them that there are many exciting and creative ways to document the world.

For those interested in June’s live online course what can they do to prepare so they get the most out of attending?

It would be ideal if students came to the course with some kind of project in mind. Bring text descriptions, images, footage, audio, sketches, links to other projects that inspire them, etc… the more the better!

During the week we will brainstorm and take some time to develop a plan so that each student leaves the course with a clear and more confident sense of how to develop their own project.

What projects are you working on next?

I’m currently working on a project that has been slowly growing for the last 7 years. Friends Like Me: tales from a digital childhood is a documentary project that features children and teens who openly share their private thoughts and personal experiences of growing up online. In 2013, I began filming children of different ages (to compare experiences) as well as filming a group of children, periodically, at different stages of their lives to see how their views and experiences would change over time. These young voices often challenge the stereotypes of illiterate, naive, screen addicts and, instead, offer us a glimpse into the lives of a generation who are growing up deeply, emotionally invested in media as a form of self-expression and engagement.

What is the future of documentary filmmaking?

There has been a huge amount of innovation in documentary formats over the last decade. This experimentation reflects and responds to the ways in which people are creating and consuming media today. We all have mobile phones or handheld devices in our pockets. Production tools are cheaper and allow an expanding number of voices to create content and contribute to our cultural dialogue. This, in turn, is redefining how we can ask questions about the world we live in and creating new audiences eager to engage directly with cultural contributors. Television legacy formats no longer dominate. Instead, a huge array of new formats are being experimented with from web-based interactive work to immersive VR experiences of augmented reality.

While we can make many predictions about the new, fascinating directions documentary experiments will take us in, I believe we will also need to consider the role that self-documentation plays in our culture.

We self-document continually. Our culture demands it as a price of participation. It’s now an act of resistance not to self-document. I believe we need a more rigorous conversation about how documentary can have a meaningful and ethical impact in today’s media saturated world.

Learn more from Manuela on our next Intro to Documentary Certificate starting 15 June 2020.