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What is positionality?

By Winnie Roseval

Positionality has its roots in social and cultural anthropology and is the understanding that shows that who you are determines what you know about the world. The social and political context in which you were born determines the perspective you have on the world and how you deal with the people and the world around you. As a researcher in anthropology, writing a position statement is a requirement, recognizing and analyzing identity and experiences that shape our perspective on the world. In this way, researchers become aware of their (unconscious) (pre)judgments and privileges that can influence a research group and the way in which they assess that research group. This is important because the presence of a researcher can influence the dynamics of a group. In any case, their positionality influences the way findings are interpreted and how a publication is ultimately written; the story.

The filmmaker’s personal lens
Filmmakers are storytellers. They create stories because something drives them to tell that specific story, but which stories are actually told and valued the most? Looking beyond the boundaries of our own perspective is something we find very difficult. This calls for identifying assumptions that you view as universal truths, but which are instead made by your own unique identity and experiences in the world. And, if you’re in a context that just confirms the assumptions you have, blind spots arise. Quite simply, because our views are limited by our own experiences, socialization, conditioning, etcetera. If we dare to acknowledge this and realize that we make assumptions based on our positionality, which in short is a limiting view of the world, recognizing and analyzing positionality becomes an interesting skill to understand how and why we know what we know.

This personal lens, including filter, determines how we interact with others, make choices and interpret the actions of others. In that light, learning about our own positionality in relation to others is; filmmakers, experts and inspirational speakers a method that can help to see things that may have been missed or omitted about someone’s position, for example in one of the characters in your film. By assessing the different positions equally, individual knowledge, in this case all personal lenses, thus contributes to a more collective understanding.

The sky is the limit
I want to provide insight into my own positionality based on my reflection. Like many others, I was raised to believe that the sky is the limit. But what I find really interesting is that this means something different to both my parents. And I realize this has something to do with their perspectives from their conditioning. For my father, who is a white, Dutch man, the sky is the limit means that anything is possible without restrictions. His image in this regard can be traced back to the fact that he is not limited by (power) structures in society. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have his own struggles, but the struggles he had didn’t have much to do with his positionality. For my mother, on the other hand, a black woman, born in Suriname, ‘the sky’ has its own specific meaning; make sure you are successful. And success is specifically about being well educated, because in her opinion that is the best tool you can have as a woman of color. Part of my view of the world is based on their positions and helps me understand why I know what I know. By giving their perspective an equal place, their judgments can be seen as a resource that has helped me understand positions in society.

In short, if film professionals learn more about their own positionality, especially about how some parts of their identity are valued, it can make them think about the relationship between themselves and the people they work with. It will also help articulate the personal motivation, why of their projects and inspire to think about the relationship between themselves and their character.


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