In the fall of 2017, I was approached by a colleague at the public liberal arts college where I teach film studies and production. My colleague, a political science professor, wanted to know if I would like to collaborate with him on a documentary film. He was interested in exploring a violent, racially motivated incident that took place in Lawrenceville, Georgia in the not-too-distant past. As a shameful part of the city’s history (but a part of its history regardless) this incident was not openly discussed and many citizens did not even know that it had happened at all. I was intrigued by the idea so I accepted his invitation to collaborate. Although his intention was to educate viewers and use the finished product as a teaching tool, he conscientiously informed our superiors and several of the college’s administrators about our plan. Not surprisingly, they were concerned. Racism and racially motivated acts of violence are an extremely sensitive topic, especially in the 21st century American South. Our superiors and administrators were not necessarily concerned with the inclusion of certain historical facts, but with how we would portray this subject. How would the film depict the city, its history and its people? How would it deal with race and racism? Would it inspire meaningful conversation or ignite harmful controversy? Needless to say, they were fully aware that viewers can, “resist, reinterpret, or misunderstand the hegemonic message of a film.” (p. 173) Once we assured them that we intended to produce a sensitive and informative documentary, they encouraged us to continue with the project. They believed that despite being likely to upset some viewers, it had the potential to be socially and politically beneficial to both the college and the surrounding region, regardless of its difficult material.

“The Act of Documenting: Documentary Film in the 21st Century” is itself a collaboration by scholars Brian Winston, Gail Vanstone and Wang Chi. While my colleague and I were beginning to plan our film, I was fortunate enough to be given the task of reading and reviewing this book. “The Act of Documenting” provides insightful ways of understanding documentary film in our current media landscape, but it also proves to be advantageous for filmmakers as well – especially those who are about to embark on a project that explores highly sensitive material. It explores a variety of documentary practices including Third Cinema’s La hora de los hornos (Hour of the Furnaces, Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas, 1968) and David Dufrense’s interactive “docmedia” project Fort McMoney, which was created in 2013.  The authors address the changing status of documentary film in terms of industry, artistry, and technologies such as digital video and online platforms. They challenge the concept of documentary truth, but do not merely reiterate arguments against scientific objectivity since “filming is inherently unscientific as it is not systematic; does not produce replicable results; and certainly cannot be used to predict future outcomes. In short, it is not science and it never has been.” (p. 148) Instead, “The Act of Documenting” champions subjective approaches since the “ability to deploy new experimental, emotional and even tactile aspects of argument and expression can open up fresh avenues of inquiry and research.” (p. 142) To illustrate this, the authors provide examples from films such as Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I, Agnès Varda, 2000) and Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012) which are both intriguing combinations of fact and fiction. Furthermore, The Act of Documenting explores the collusion of the filmmaker, the subject and the spectator in the creation of a documentary film, and the message that it presents to the world.

The Gleaners and I (Varda, 2000)

The Gleaners and I (Varda, 2000)

Giving everyone a smart phone or digital camera and an accessible computer editing program no more enables them to communicate effectively than giving everyone pen and paper makes them a Tolstoy. Letting them bury the needles that are their messages in the electronic haystack that is the World Wide Web is not much guarantee of communicative power either. Voices are as likely drowned out as amplified. (p. 7.)

Furthermore, “The Act of Documenting” takes into account the tremendous commercial appeal of professionally made images. Although many new cameras and other forms of equipment can “duplicate professional standards with amateur ease” (p. 43), the work that can be produced by professional grade and costly equipment is still preferred by distributors, exhibitors and viewers alike. Besides, it takes a skilled filmmaker to craft intelligent statements, compelling viewpoints and persuasive arguments. Winston, Vanstone and Chi discuss the innovative new styles made possible by digital video, but they do leave room to question whether these novel and often experimental forms can be commercially viable and accessible to spectators on a meaningful level. Despite the inventiveness of “docmedia” such as Fort McMoney, The Act of Documenting notes that “audience intolerance of departures from the norms of cinematic discourse remains a hindrance suppressing the full radical potential of the technology.” (p. 43) This is true of narrative film, and it is true of documentary as well. The idea that digital technology has somehow leveled the playing field for amateurs and professionals alike is definitely appealing, but is far from realisable.

Part II: Actual Effects “surveys indicative consequences of documentary’s new environment on the linear film and contemporary ‘docmedia’ variants of it.” (p. 9) The authors discuss the necessity of ethics and integrity in documentary filmmaking, whatever the subject of the film may be. What I found to be most compelling is the way that the authors investigate the assertion that documentary films can raise consciousness about certain issues and, in many cases, inspire actual social and political change. Although the authors warn that finding tangible evidence relating to a documentary’s effectiveness is “a fraught business” (p. 193) they provide examples of films that have, in some way or another, made a substantial difference in the world. For instance, Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite, 2013) which investigates Seaworld’s harmful treatment of its animals led to the resignation of its chief executive and the parks have seen a sharp decline in attendance. It has also inspired serious conversation regarding the treatment of marine animals at SeaWorld and other parks. While this is admirable, the authors note that achieving such an outcome should not be a documentary’s main objective, nor should it be the only factor that determines its success or failure. (I myself always taught my students that a documentary’s main objective is to educate, inform and/or persuade.) As stated by the authors, “Documentaries need have no change-making ambition, but if they do, it must be allowed that some evidence of consequent actions by the audience reasonably constitutes a measure of impact.” (p. 195) The authors also place much needed importance on the role of the spectator. The filmmaker can aim to raise social awareness or enact social change, but it is the spectator who assesses authenticity, deconstructs meaning and expects information. (p. 173) Also, depending on geographic location, cultural background, and a variety of other factors, individual reactions to films will inevitably differ. For instance, when discussing the reactions to Chi Bao De Cun Zi (The Satiated Village, Zou Xueping, 2011), which documented China’s Great Famine of 1958-1962, the authors note that “harmless consciousness raising in Finland might involve something more immediately life changing in China.” (p. 214)

Blackfish (Cowperthwaite, 2013)

Blackfish (Cowperthwaite, 2013)

As my colleague and I embark on our own project, I am sure that we will grapple with many of our own assumptions and expectations. However, “The Act of Documenting: Documentary Film in the 21st Century” provides many valuable insights into the construction and reception of documentary films, especially in recent times. Although the authors thoroughly explore the effects of changing technologies and the roles of documentary film in society, it is worth noting that the fundamental principle of documentary filmmaking has remained relatively unchanged. As filmmaker Kat Cizek states:

Really great documentary is about remaining open to what’s actually happening around you. It’s not about you deciding what happens and going and grabbing everything that’s going to prove your case… and this is just a continuation of that kind of approach, just in different media, and with different possibilities in terms of how to collaborate with people and open the process up. But in essence it’s the same practice – unscripted, and responsive to the world that we’re living in.1

Brian Winston, Gail Vanstone and Wang Chi, The Act of Documenting: Documentary Film in the 21st Century (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017).

Endnotes:

  1. Mandy Rose, “An Interview with Kim Cizek.”