Sociological Films in Youth Studies
Dmitry Omelchenko, Higher School of Economics, Saint Petersburg, Russia
In 2019, the Center for Youth Studies HSE in St. Petersburg, Russia, celebrated its tenth anniversary. It has been a time of discoveries and interesting results. We have been studying global and local dimensions of youth cultures, life styles, labour markets, gender regimes, and ethnic and regional identities of young people in Russia, using qualitative and mixed-method research. In our research, we try to do our best to understand youth lifestyles and values, ideas and aspirations. All these years we have been proud to work with colleagues from European Universities and beyond. For example, the project called MYPLACE – Memory, Youth, Political Legacy and Civic Engagement (2011-2015) – united research teams from fourteen European countries to understand historical memory, forms of political and civic participation of youth and values of radical, politicised and activist youth groups in those countries. The project was conducted under the guidance of Professor Hilary Pilkington (University of Manchester). One of the results of the work was the film “Loud and Proud” (2014) telling about the everyday life and values of the English Defence League (EDL).
We actively take full advantage of instruments of visual representation in sociological studies. So far, we have released more than 10 documentaries about youth cultures and communities in Russia, the UK and Portugal. By making documentaries, not only do we strengthen a toolkit for scientific analysis, we also invest in the popularisation of sociology: we provide valuable findings in a language appropriate for wider audiences, basically through the unmediated voices of our respondents, their notions, emotions and expressions. There are plenty of benefits; and the expenses are acceptable given the growing market of semi-professional equipment that allows to create a fantastic visual product for a reasonable amount of money and without a whole filmmaking crew. Wherever we speak about the mentioned benefits, we try to explain why we think that this way of presenting our research results is important. For instance, we see sociological documentaries as an additional tool for scientific analysis. Comparing the material gained through film with material obtained through voice recording only, with the visual data we can also recognise and work with articulation, mimics, gestures, interjections. In the end, the whole film is also an effective way to widen the worldview and overcome stereotypes. We would also argue that by creating such documentaries, we create unique historical documents, as we edit the material in close relationship with the messages given to us by the respondents. Our main area of interest is no form of propaganda whatsoever, but youth and its activities and links to wide geography, ethnos, religion, and cultural specifics. This makes our material a valuable source in a historical perspective. And certainly, documentary films would not be a powerful tool if they weren’t combining the presentation of research results with a creative approach and with artistic solutions. This allows science and culture to interact, hence producing a unique format that helps to hold the attention of a wider audience and to enlighten it simultaneously.
We have been in this area for a very long time and there are plenty of stories of successful content creation or interesting ideas that were raised during discussions after screenings. But, instead of bragging, we think it would be more appropriate to raise another point here, and to tell the story of an experience that was unusual for us.
The mentioned situation is linked with an ambitious project of ours. We were providing a longitudinal, mixed methods study throughout Russia, the biggest, multi-ethnic, multi-confessional country in the world (currently, we have 160 nationalities each speaking their own language). In 2014, the Russian Scientific Foundation granted us a support to research the diversity of youth scenes in four regions at first, expanding it to two more in 2018. Our idea was timely. An old understanding of youth groups was diminished to notions of emo, goth, gangs, punk atavisms covered in stereotypes, and these were basic for authorities on all levels. Various youth centers and personalities empowered to work with youth were operating based on the belief that young people are a danger, a problem to be solved. All created programmes were solely concentrated on diverting young minds from cursing, vices of drugs, and prostitution. It is needless to say that imposed festivals of ‘masterpieces of soviet poetry’, ‘knitting masterclasses’ for teenagers and new ‘car wash business solutions’ (in places where they have plenty of them) haven’t reflected the real needs of contemporary youth. Our study, though, has shifted the interpretation of subcultures in our country, for we have instead described the meaning of contemporary youth scenes and more crucially – we made a list of youth groups, real ones, as we were informed about them by our respondents from Makhachkala, Kazan, Ulan-Ude, Saint-Petersburg, Ulyanovsk and Elista. They told us the names of youth scenes, of their ideology, about why they wanted to associate themselves with some of them and to be as distant as possible from others. To make these explanations directly accessible we made documentary films focusing on, for example: Tatar youth creating rap music embedding new worldwide trends into local ethnic culture; the unusual popularity of Latin-American dances at the far East of Russia in Ulan-Ude (republic of Buryatia); and youth groups involved in the searching, identification and proper burial of the remains of soldiers of World War Two battles at Luban village near Saint-Petersburg. The last one has won several prizes at international documentary film festivals.  But the film with the biggest amount of views on different platforms was “Youth of Makhachkala” made in the capital of Dagestan, Makhachkala.
This region is situated on the borders with Chechnya, Kalmykia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, and currently offers a historical, creative and cuisine mixture. We told a story about three different groups, or scenes, of young people. In our opinion, these were examples of the local transforming into global Russian and international trends. These were the scenes of young people practicing street workout, Low-riders (a community of enthusiasts of car modifications) and Anime enthusiasts. The street sportsmen had appropriated a quite simple, available infrastructure at a local middle school facility and had begun to give free lessons to anyone who wanted to join; it was a homogenous group in terms of gender and religion, however claiming to be open for everyone. Another group, Low-riders, was much more closed and in no way inclusive because activity was not really legal (cutting submissions in cars, making them really close to the surface of the road) and they were judged negatively by the society. Low-riders seemed to be a group of local resistance, with a solidarity that demonstrated a protest towards authorities with a different ideology, their own personal view on traffic regulation, their own rituals and traditions. It also was a group consisting of only young Muslim men. In addition, opposing these two groups, a festival of Anime culture was shown in the film. The opposition wasn’t intended, yet it obviously appeared. Anime participants were primarily consisting of young women experimenting with their personal look and young men who were not following the common view on how Caucasian men should appear. When we were filming, it was the fifth festival of Anime in Makhachkala. Participants spoke openly, with respect, about the opposition to traditional Dagestani culture although still with definite notions of opposition – not to authorities, but to traditions and the mainstream.
This study in Dagestan, Makhachkala included 25 in-depth interviews, 20 in-depth interviews with different youth groups’ representatives and 5 expert interviews, as well as 15 observations during the groups’ activities. So before we started filming we already knew what the film was going to be about. This preliminary analysis was therefore based on material made with classical sociological tools and resulted in several publications that cover gender, identity, economic, style, scene issues. 
The rules of documentary filmmaking, and also sociologists’ ethics, include an obligation to undertake several procedures to ensure that a respondent is satisfied with his/her appearance in the film. This requires verbal or written consent at the film set, and when the whole documentary is ready to have consent to publish it. We always follow the basic rules and ethics but it still backfires sometimes. Even having all the consent forms and having gone through all the procedures to make sure that everybody is fine with the depiction and narration, the film caused a great dispute on both sides.
Anime fans were furious to follow after “gopniks”, “bullies”, in the story-line of Dagestani youth. For them it was odd because it meant that if they are in one film with “them” they are evaluated the same rather than better. For the low-riders and sportsmen it was odd because they just didn’t understand or accept people having such unusual interests like the Anime followers had. Coloured hair, feminine boys, Japanese and Korean culture, all of that was absolutely unacceptable and shameful for them. The film also raised discussion in the Internet, with condemnation and support from both sides.
However, for us it was pretty revealing. In particular, we could see right in front of our eyes how the way of interaction was leading towards, if not yet understanding at least acceptance. It is still too early to be open minded in these Russian Muslim regions but our study and our depiction has shown that some movements towards it exist. Acceptance is just a matter of time.
The major dispute between a documentary approach and post-modern ethics in sociology, paralleled by the dispute between filmmaker and field researcher, is about the depiction of reality. Which means the opposition of two differing understandings of using film: on the one hand, the understanding that the camera and those operating it can capture the reality, which later might be analysed as a primary source of knowledge. On the other hand that reality captured in this way is constructed by the actors of any interaction, including the decision to point the camera in a particular direction and ask a particular set of questions. This dispute is still to be elaborated, but there is a chance to handle it in everyday research by accepting that any academic perspective may theorise ‘the way it wants’ and that this doesn’t affect the public interest in the raised issues.
This situation in the Makhachkala filming has affected our ethical policy and strengthened its rules. We must consider that there might not be unique rules for all the situations in which we may find ourselves. Having developed a method of sociological documentary we came up with particular rules that are still fluid and have to be set up for each and every field. First, it involves in-depth work by the researcher in the field to set vectors for further visual narration. Second, apart from the obvious consent forms, we must take into consideration the specifics of the field in which we are about to make a film. External and internal nuances might just easily slide away from consideration. In Makhachkala our filming raised several concerns, and the same happened during the filming of the documentary about the English Defence League in UK. Local people felt weird and openly wondered why the film was being done by a foreigner (literally in Britain and conditionally in Dagestan – for reasons of other ethnic and religious belonging). Third, it is still to be discussed how to promote such films, as they definitely violate anonymity, but with unrecognisable images, voices, faces, locations, there will be no content for making a film which can tell the real story of real people, the story that we are proud of.
 For example “Best Documentary Film” at the International Film Festival Pereriv na Kino 2019.
 See the following articles:
“Peers/strangers/others? The youth of Dagestan in search of group identities”. In: Cultural Studies. 2019. Vol. 33. No. 5. P. 841-865.
“Multiple cultural encounters of urban youth in Russia's Muslim regions”. In: Journal of Intercultural Studies. 2018. Vol. 39. No. 5. P. 557-569.
And another article from 2017 in Russian here.
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