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Social Issue Documentaries

October 28, 2009

(Kathryn Pyle is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In her last post, she wrote about the annual Robert Flaherty Film Seminar.)

Docfilm_bwcamera The audience for documentary films is bigger than ever, as evidenced by the increasing number of documentary festivals and broadcast venues, both public TV and cable, as well as streaming and Video on Demand (VOD). And the opportunities to see documentaries are matched by the variety of documentaries available -- from expository to impressionistic, right wing to progressive, local to global, short to very long.

As the field has grown, more funders are considering whether and how they can connect their priorities to documentary films and, indeed, the broader field of media. At the same time, nongovernmental organizations are considering how to use documentaries beyond the traditional "public relations" or "lesson" formats. Confronted by an explosion of social media sites (Twitter, YouTube, Facebook) and the proliferation of "screens" (laptops, netbooks, smartphones), groups are experimenting with technology to see what makes sense for their message and their constituency.

Documentary filmmakers and distributors are challenged to keep up. The familiar venues of the past are not necessarily the best ones today. For example, theatrical release, even in "art houses," works only for films that can attract a broad audience -- An Inconvenient Truth and Fahrenheit 9/11 are anomalies in terms of number of tickets sold and box-office revenues. Which is not to say that a good documentary film without an Al Gore cannot find an audience; it just might be an audience that would rather watch the film on their preferred personal screen rather than in a movie theater.

In previous posts here at PhilanTopic, I’ve written about the work being done by Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media, and in particular about GFEM's Media Database, which links funders with documentary filmmakers. In a post about the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, I also highlighted the LEF Foundation's support for New England documentary filmmakers. Indeed, at several conferences and seminars over the past few months, I've heard foundation representatives and filmmakers discuss how they could work together to merge the art of visual storytelling with urgent social issues. Two different approaches emerged from these events: one involving direct engagement with the issues, and the other counseling a more oblique convergence. Both have something to offer.

At several of these events I've run into folks from Witness ("See it film it, change it"), an NGO that encourages people around the world to use cellphones and video cameras to record human rights abuses and then post them to the Hub, a Witness-supported platform for human rights videos and action. Founded by the musician and social activist Peter Gabriel, and with major funding from the Reebok Human Rights Foundation, Witness has created an important niche for itself in participatory media, providing training and support to other organizations interested in making and using video and also partnering with human rights organizations on a variety of issues. Videos on the Witness site run the gamut of social justice concerns, from a fifteen-minute report on the disappearance of women in Mexico to a two-minute interview with an abused elderly woman that has been featured in the Elder Justice Now Campaign, an effort to get Congress to pass the Elder Justice Act. On the site, you can find video projects dealing with immigration reform, women's economic development, even a panel discussion on the use of viral video to effect change.

Trouble the Water, a documentary about a couple who filmed the trauma of Hurricane Katrina from the porch and attic of their 9th Ward home, gives human voice to government's shameless neglect of the poor during the disaster -- most shockingly through recordings of futile calls to 911 for help. "We wanted to show how needed resources were being diverted to the Iraq war -- most directly in that situation by the fact that the local National Guard units were in Iraq," said producer/director Tia Lessing at a recent Sundance Institute seminar for producers I attended. The film's Web site offers updates on the film's protagonists, links to a variety of organizations providing social services and infrastructure support to Katrina victims, and ways that people can organize a response in their own communities.

Several filmmakers featured at this year's Flaherty Film Seminar presented a more nuanced approach to social issues, often because they work in political contexts in which a more confrontational approach is problematic.

For example, Syrian filmmaker Omar Amiralay showed his 1977 documentary The Chickens, the story of a large, ultimately unsuccessful, chicken farm promoted by the government. In the black-and-white film, the farmers comment about their state-imposed transition from artisanal trades to industrial production and the lack of effective government assistance, but the film mainly focuses on the hundreds of chickens as they go about their feathered lives in a huge open building, establishing their pecking order and seeming to strive for some measure of dignity in their overregulated, overcrowded environment. "It"s a metaphorical film about a place where it is forbidden to speak," said Amiralay. "In difficult times we let the animals speak."

In The Roof, another Flaherty Film Seminar documentary, Kamal Aljafari presents his extended Palestinian family, whose home towns of Ramla and Jaffa were taken over by Israel in 1948. Through the quiet details of their daily routines -- a seemingly timeless limbo -- we perceive a resignation and sorrow instilled by decades of marginalization and neglect.

Russian filmmaker Pavel Medvedev participated in Flaherty with several films about the lives of workers in Russia. Wedding of Silence follows a community of deaf families who produce church bells: Medvedev films them at joyful events -- dinners, a wedding, caring for their children -- and at hard labor in a bell foundry. In Vacation in November he presents a community of miners in northern Russia who live in a harsh, frozen landscape shared with herds of reindeer. On the Third Planet From the Sun is about descendents of people who settled on the rich Russian shores of the Arctic Ocean during the Middle Ages; today they risk their lives to gather up debris from the Russian space program in an area formerly used for nuclear weapons tests. Through a camera that lingers on the beaten-down architecture and humanity of these places, Medvedev draws the audience into the larger issues of community and work. "I present ordinary people in problematic situations," he said in an interview with me, "but I don"t try to elicit pity from the audience. I see these people as fully developed, living their lives as they find them. My task is to respect them and show how they are interesting. I dream that the lives of my characters might be better, but my only job is to film them. The more films like these are shown, the more public opinion would pressure for change. But this is difficult in Russia, because there’s no space on television for such films and there are not too many film festivals, though interest in them is growing."

In several films and a video installation at Flaherty, Indian filmmaker Amar Kanwar explored themes of environmental and social violence in the context of Indian history, particularly the 1947 partition of India that created Pakistan. His work directly addresses specific incidents, like the recent assaults on women in India thought to be perpetrated by Indian army soldiers. The challenge for Kanwar is not that he can't speak directly, but rather that speaking directly is not enough; poetry might be a more effective tool. A Season Outside is a video essay of images and scenes from the Wagah border crossing between India and Pakistan, with Kanwar's voice-over on the history of violence and non-violent movements in the region serving to remind us that even those who remember the past are sometimes condemned to repeat it.

These films and video projects have all stayed with me as wonderful examples of effective documentary approaches to social issues. But I've just scratched the surface of what's available. Indeed, we may well be living through the golden age of documentary film. So, the next time you're on a bus, plane, or subway, check out what's on the small screen in the hands of the person sitting next to you. It just might be the next great social issue documentary!

-- Kathryn Pyle

Comments

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Hi Kathryn,

Thanks for sharing these different approaches to making social issue documentaries.

Web sites like Working Films – a site that uses social media tools to engage people with the documentaries they are watching – are an alternative to traditional venues, like theatrical releases, which, as you mentioned, may not be the preferred choice for this type of audience. (We featured the site on PND a few months ago here.)

Social media sites not only offer filmmakers an opportunity to reach a larger audience, but also access to supporters of their specific cause (so that they, like their viewers, can navigate through the flood of information). And by placing a "take action" button right beneath a preview or full-length video of the film, the chances of viewers actually taking action are increased.

Thanks again for sharing.

-- Regina

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