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Introducing...the shortlist for the Best Research Film of the Year

Date: 10/10/2017

The hotly contested Best Research Film of the Year category at the AHRC’s annual Research in Film Awards requires filmmakers and researchers to produce work that demonstrates the value and importance of research in the arts and humanities while bringing new research to a wider audience.

The five films nominated in this category do exactly that: they showcase research debating many prevalent social and moral questions, from class stratification to child migration and psychological manipulation.

Giving a voice to people, objects and concepts that are normally unheard has been an underlying theme in this category.

We would like to introduce you to the five shortlisted films and why they are must-see productions. They all shine a light on important topics and inspire important questions from both sociological and psychological points of view.


Eithne Nightingale (Queen Mary University of London)


The film Ugwumpiti is a heart-rending personal account of Maurice Nwokeji, who survived the Biafra conflict in Nigeria by killing snakes and sheltering from the bombs in self-made holes. Maurice and thousands of other children were able to stave off hunger thanks to the one meal a day they received from the Red Cross, which consisted of cornmeal mixed with powdered milk and water; a concoction the children coined Ugwumpiti.

At the age of nine, Maurice and his brother, aged seven, were traced and sent to England to be reunited with their parents, who by now were essentially strangers to them. As two traumatised children, it took a while for them to adapt to a new place and culture.

Ugwumpiti was produced by Eithne Nightingale, who is researching child migration to East London as part of a collaborative part-time PhD between the School of Geography at Queen Mary University of London and the V&A Museum of Childhood. It is one of six films based on her research about child migration that she has directed since February 2016.

Eithne said: “It seems particularly apt that the film is gaining recognition in the 50th year since the beginning of the civil war in Nigeria.” And in Maurice’s words, “I would caution the forces driving us to war right now to take a look at what war does to the children. I am only now beginning to heal. No child should have to go through the cruelty and loss that war brings. The voices of the children are the ones that have not been heard but yet they are the actual victims of war.”

Pain In The Machine

Dr Beth Singler (University of Cambridge)


With so much in the news about artificial intelligence and robotics, and their potential impact on society, a research project by the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at the University of Cambridge has produced a very timely documentary that investigates whether robots could and should feel pain.

Featuring popular culture references to help illustrate the subject matter – along with interviews with experts in social anthropology, ethics, religious studies, and theology – the documentary helps probe the complex concept of whether robots should be programmed to experience pain, when pain is essentially a humanising experience and therefore has far wider social and moral implications.

Dr Ben Seymour is an expert in pain neuroscience and technology at the Center for Information and Neural Networks in Japan as well as the Computational and Biological Learning Lab at the University of Cambridge. As he puts forwards in the documentary: “Pain has fascinated philosophers for centuries and indeed some people consider pain to be the pinnacle of consciousness. Arguably it’s a time when we feel most human, because we are most in touch with ourselves as a mortal human being.”

Dr Beth Singler is the research associate on the “Human Identity in an Age of Nearly-Human Machines” project at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, where she is exploring the social and religious implications of advances in artificial intelligence and robotics, and she has long been interested in film production and screenwriting.

On being shortlisted, Beth said: ‘‘Pain in the Machine was a chance to ask a provocative question about the future of AI and robotics. We have world-class experts really considering whether robots could, or should, feel pain; and this film has also opened up the conversation to a wider audience.

“Being shortlisted for this award recognises the excellent research and effort put in by the whole production team and we are thrilled.”

The Acting Class

Michael Wayne and Dr Deirdre O'Neill (Brunel University)

It’s a timely film that uses personal testimony from those in the industry to explore how acting is largely dominated by one social group and how art is often wrongly viewed as an elitist pursuit. Maxine Peake is among the successful working-class actors in the industry who discuss their experiences and how those without money have numerous obstacles to overcome, particularly in a culture where class and wealth are all-encompassing.This documentary feature film showcases some of the issues faced by aspiring actors when they do not hail from a wealthy or privately educated background and how class can have a significant impact on success in the acting profession.

The documentary also features the experiences of struggling actors trying to break into the profession and the related discrimination, while revealing how class is not always considered from an equality and diversity point of view.

It also brings into question whether film, television and theatre are able to fully represent society when only the stories and voices of certain types of people are being shared.

The filmmakers said: “The film aims to highlight the debate, using the words of the people most directly affected by socio-economic exclusion in the acting profession. To hear their accents, to see their gestures and facial expressions, to listen to their insights into how socio-economic exclusion works and with what consequences, brings alive this recent scholarly work for academics, students and the wider public.”

David Hawkins: A Battle of the Mind

Nasheed Faruqi and the Hidden Persuaders Group (Birkbeck, University of London)

Created by the Hidden Persuaders Group, a research project investigating the history of brainwashing as it relates to psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis, this documentary traces the story of David Hawkins, one of 21 American prisoners of war who chose to stay in communist China rather than returning home after the Korean War.

According to the Hidden Persuaders Group: “The decision of the ‘21 who stayed’ led to widespread public scrutiny in the US; they were branded as communist agents, weak-willed turncoats and victims of a powerful new psychological warfare technique: 'brainwashing’.

“Hawkins encountered the power of these claims when he returned to the US in 1957. Yet he found them largely alien to his experiences in China. When the Hidden Persuaders Project first contacted Hawkins in the fall of 2014, he had only recently begun to find words and concepts that could convey what he had faced.”

Featuring a mixture of interview and some great archive material, this documentary explores how the concepts of hidden persuasion interacted with political ideologies across the cold war.

Believing what he was subjected to was more about ‘mass indoctrination’ than brainwashing, and how his decision to stay in China had been made almost on impulse, the film documents how Hawkins’ choices have been interpreted and re-interpreted by the media, politicians and many others including Hawkins himself.

Dark Matters - Interrogating Thresholds of (Im)Perceptibility through Theoretical Cosmology, Fine Art & Anthropology of Science

Daniel Morrell (Alliance Manchester Business School) and Robert Potts (Lancaster University)

This innovative film deals with a complex and abstract idea - whether what lies behind human knowledge and perception is actually unknowable – by looking at the subject through three distinct disciplines: theoretical cosmology, fine art and anthropology of science.

It explores how the three disciplines bring about new insights when considering the realm of the imperceptible, such as dark matter and dark energy.

Stemming from a one-year research project funded by an AHRC Science in Culture Innovation Award, the film was produced by Daniel Morrell and Robert Potts. Daniel is a filmmaker, designer, artist and photographer currently working in Manchester, while Robert is a researcher, designer and educator who, as a creative director, makes innovative films and interactive media.

They explained: “The film was shot within an intense four-day period. We experimented extensively to develop visual metaphors to communicate complex concepts to create a rich narrative world that aided understanding.”

This is yet another film in this category that draws attention to a topic that cannot simply be taken at face value, encouraging the viewer to delve deeper into the realms of the mind and our understanding of our surroundings and indeed society.

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