Translating the experience of drowning to film form

  • Deirdre O'Toole

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This research is concerned with translating the experience of drowning to film form. A hybrid of Practice as Research (PaR) and narrative methodologies under a constructionist conceptual framework was used to examine small stories from thirteen survivors and visualise their experiences of drowning. This was a journey of praxis, creative work and research taking place simultaneously, so each influenced the other and concluded in the creation of four pieces of work: two documentary films, Far Away Land and Immersion; a documentary installation, Drowning Is Easy; and this thesis. The films push the boundaries of conventional nonfiction narratives and reflect three distinct styles and approaches to documentary making (expository; poetic and reflexive; and interactive). Perceptions of drowning are diverse. In film and mass media, it is often portrayed as a noisy and spectacular event, characterised by shouting and waving, but the participants of this study narrated stories of quiet, unspectacular events, concurrent with current bioscientific explanations of the physiological process of drowning. Therefore, the documentaries produced contest the typical representation of drowning. The research is placed within the lineage of the constructionist and constructivist filmmaking traditions and can be considered as an expansion of the theories and practices of documentary practitioners such as Vertov, Eisenstein, Morris and Green. This thesis problematised the dichotomised conception of authenticity and aesthetics as opposing forces. Rather than focusing on the tensions between them, their symbiotic relationship is explored through the prism of plot and emplotment. Authenticity is reflected in the plot (which is conceptualised as the story of the experience of drowning), the original interview and the edited audio track, which is used as the documentary narrative. Aesthetics is captured as emplotment, considered to reflect the choices made in visualising these stories and translating them to film form. Emplotment reflects the style, aesthetics and directorial choices made during the production of each documentary. The theory that supported this research was derived from several sources and this study offers original contributions to knowledge by drawing from a variety of disciplines and applying theoretical constructs to the documentaries and this thesis in an original manner. As a worked-through and developed example of employing Nelson’s (2013) Page 2 model of PaR, this critical reflection on the process, when added to the creative output, is knowledge generating. The translation of the experience of drowning to film form has contributed to knowledge by bringing to the public (through audiences in film festivals, galleries and conferences) a more accessible, multi-faceted and rich account of the experience of drowning than had previously existed. This research is an informed act of creativity that interprets and promotes the narratives of survivors whose trauma would otherwise have been rendered invisible.

Date of AwardDec 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsNorthern Ireland Department for the Economy
SupervisorCahal McLaughlin (Supervisor) & Richard O'Sullivan (Supervisor)

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