Book Review: Seeing Politics by Sophie Harman

Review by Dominic Hinde

Seeing Politics: film, visual method and international relations by Sophie Harman was published by McGill-Queens University Press in 2019.

Sophie Harman is Professor of International Politics at Queen Mary University of London where she teaches and conducts research into Global Health Politics, African agency in International Relations, and Visual Politics. She has published seven books and numerous articles on these topics, most recently, Seeing Politics: film, visual method and international relations (2019). In 2016 she co-wrote and produced her first narrative feature film Pili, which was nominated for a BAFTA for outstanding debut for a British writer, producer, or director in 2019. She tweets @DrSophieHarman

What makes Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics: Film, Visual Method and International Relations noteworthy is that she approaches practice-as-research not from a journalism, film or media studies background but as an established scholar of international relations and global health. As Harman recalls in her explanation of how the book came to be, it was debatable whether what she was doing was IR at all. Conversely, it was this departure from the traditional arena and methods of IR that was so enticing, offering the potential to bring women who are often marginalised or rendered invisible within IR research to the fore.  

“Pili and the process of making the film reveal new insights into old questions of structure and agency, the state, transnationalism, and global governance – all core questions in IR.”

(p 218)

The result is a sprawling account of filmmaking as counter hegemonic research as Harman describes the difficulties of producing a feature length drama about HIV in Tanzania, Pili (2017). The film is a social realist account of an HIV-positive woman’s struggle for agency and medical support where the odds are stacked against her, using an amateur cast of local people on location under the direction of Harman and the filmmaker Leanne Welham. As such Seeing Politics is best understood as a companion piece to the film it describes, and though it tries to work as a form of grounded theory to provide more general insights, it ultimately returns to and is dominated by Harman’s personal experience of making Pili and experimenting with applied media practice.

HIV has become a common theme for journalists and documentary filmmakers operating in Sub-Saharan Africa, with the HIV documentary developing into a genre of itself in South Africa alongside a steady flow of North American and European films on HIV, some of which Harman references in her discussion of HIV as a subject.  A significant portion of these African-produced films have been aimed at HIV education, but for international filmmakers HIV has also functioned as a regional marker with which to approach sub-Saharan countries, whether it be to illustrate the failure of governance, the lack of educational opportunity or the position of women as Harman does.

Media work as research often yields unexpected results, and Harman herself admits she knew little about filmmaking when she embarked on the project. The film itself was received with uncertainty about what it was, right down to the confusion in reviews of whether the film ‘belonged’ to Harman or director and producer Welham. Seeing Politics establishes it firmly as Harman’s project, whereas press reviews of Pili downgrade or leave her out altogether, illustrating the friction between academia and the public media which Harman inadvertently explores. 

Harman admits in a reflective chapter that the making of a feature film is something she has little enthusiasm for repeating. Negotiating the gatekeepers of the international media landscape and the complexities of filming and producing a feature-length work on the ground, and conflicts between market demands and ideal forms come to the fore. Harman’s project finds its public on the film festival circuit, following Thomas Elsasser’s pattern of the film festival as “able to attract public attention to issues that even NGOs find it hard to concentrate minds on.”

Elsaesser’s core observation that films are not born equal plays out in Seeing Politics and in Pili as a product. The festival film is the opposite of the mass market picture, and making such films as an academic is to escape from one ivory tower to another. Within the specialist circuits of film festival (and nowadays the long tail of online film repositories curating such film) they reach similar numbers to conference keynotes or first year lecture halls.  The fundamental question, of how to make visible international relations and the impacts of current power relations across the planet, remains more complex than the elevation of experience and its placing in a marketplace of competing vignettes from the global present.

“It is not enough to just see women such as Pili; methods of seeing need to allow such women to see and represent themselves.”

(p 11)

A central theme of the practice Harman embarks upon is the materiality of media processes, in which representation is compromised in its production, but also in its distribution as the quest for transformative media comes up against the gatekeepers of media capitalism. It is of more interest as an exploration of method and of the validity of media-as-research beyond the confines of art schools and media programmes. Much of what Harman recounts in Seeing Politics will be highly familiar to those working in media-as-practice of sociological filmmaking, but whereas reflexive media ethnography working backwards from method to page can yield interesting results, Harman’s autoethnography stops short of making connections to wider media contexts, striving back towards IR rather than relating to more obvious scholarship in film and journalism studies. 

As an introduction to academic media work, Seeing Politics functions as an interesting account of the experience of a first time filmmaker, and many of the challenges negotiated in production will be familiar to those with experience of both media production and sociological or anthropological fieldwork, in which the demands to complete and produce the promised product clash with the realities of participants and interview subjects, local authorities, funding bodies and the weather. Ultimately, one of the questions emerging from the project is that whilst it is easier than ever to make media, perhaps not everyone should. In an age of coercive impact studies and the desire for public as well as academic recognition, this is a sobering reflection on the limits of practice-based research and agency for both filmmakers and subjects in the complex web of power and finance that defines global media work.

Dominic Hinde is Lecturer in Media and Communication at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh and a former foreign journalist. His research interests are based on journalistic responses to global issues and environmental change.

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