Screening Truth to Power: A Reader on Documentary Activism

2 Posted by - March 7, 2015 - Features, Reviews, Screen, Word

Screening Truth to Power: A Reader on Documentary Activism is a collection of essays and interviews related to the films and filmmakers of Cinema Politica (CP), and as such provides an excellent source of Canadian documentary work that pursues effecting positive social change.

This non-profit doc-screening organization, which started in Montreal’s Concordia University, has established an international reputation for itself as a dedicated showcase of political and activist themed documentary films, most of which have been made by Canadian filmmakers. Its reputation in the documentary film world is quite highly respected and its achievements in bringing together films and filmmakers and the community (with often sold-out attendance) in a relatively short period of just over 10 years is quite remarkable.

In their introduction, co-founders Svetla Turnin and Ezra Winton point out that their book is a collection of reflections on “activist documentaries and documentary activism,” an important distinction as not all activist documentaries employ documentary activism and not all documentary activism incorporates activist documentaries.

They go on to say that “just as a social movement could inspire the making of a documentary, a documentary in turn could activate a social movement.” This is a profound statement that highlights the fundamental power of the documentary. The non-fiction essence of the genre combined with the journalistic disciplines of reporting the truth give credibility and often unique access to a story in need of illumination.

Often these stories foreground social issues that require attention, stolen from the glare of dominant and distracting media hegemonies, in order to improve each situation. The documentary frequently has the superior ability of realizing these changes more than the mere written or spoken word.

Montreal filmmaker Marielle Nitoslawaska sums it up best: “Documentary filmmaking can express our human existence in a better, more complete way than any other art form, any other genre of cinema.”

Another interesting aspect of CP’s mandate are the “four Ps” that are essential to their success: Producers, Publics, Programming and Presence. While Producers and Programming seem to be obvious elements crucial to the existence of any film society, the line blurs a bit between Publics and Presence.

What the editors (and CP founders) are suggesting is that while having the public in attendance at screenings is critical, the presence of certain disenfranchised individuals and community groups at screenings of films focused on such diverse groups, is equally important. As a result, they actively reach out to these groups as part of their mandate.

The book includes an essay by Liz Miller and Thomas Waugh – The Process of Place: Grassroots Documentary Screenings – that raises some interesting questions. In quoting Susan Sontag from her 2003 book on photography Regarding the Pain of Others, the question of the effectiveness of viewing the suffering of fellow humans is posed: “Do (photographs) actually propel to action or are they a perverse form of voyeurism?”

Screening Truth to Power

CP co-founders Svetla Turnin and Ezra Winton with Larissa from the Concordia Community Solidarity Co-op Bookstore.

In their attempt to steer the film-watching experience to the former, CP organizers place a high importance on having key figures in attendance. While always attempting to have the filmmaker present either in person or via Skype, organizers will also reach out to local activists currently pursuing the issue presented in the film. This “helps audiences transition from the drama that has unfolded on the screen to a network of individuals who are working on the issue.”

I find this approach very productive and helpful to an audience motivated to act but not knowing how to initiate action. In my own experiences hosting screenings of my films there is nothing more frustrating to an audience than to see an important issue convincingly reported on the screen, being motivated to do something about it, but then walking away feeling one does not know where to begin. Local activists in attendance provide a bridge, and therefore a solution to this problem.

In Shannon Walsh’s essay, Speak for Yourself: The Cultural Politics of Participatory Video, she addresses one of the aims of a sub-genre of the documentary film as it originated with the NFB’s Challenge for Change series: “(Participatory Video) places the onus on the individual or local community to make social change.”

She addresses an “implicit naivety” in the expectation that those depicted as victims have the knowledge, ability and confidence to run with their co-produced film to the powers-that-be in order to create the desired social change. If the Participatory Video filmmaker is not of the activist variety, surely the already-overworked subjects cannot be expected to use the medium in an effective lobbying effort to improve their situation. It would appear, Walsh suggests, that a third party is required to act as intermediary between the film’s subjects and those who interpret their stories.

Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters director Steve James offers a journalistic perspective on the responsibility of the documentary filmmaker and why it is so crucial to use the documentary as an instrument for social change in his essay We Aren’t Sorry for This Interruption. In it he states that the documentary film has two essential purposes: “to reveal the world and/or to change the world.”

He explains that documentary’s dual role of film presentation and public outreach means that it pursues both a creative and journalistic truth while used to affect positive social change. “…the ultimate effectiveness of the latter is due in large part to the integrity of the former.”

I experienced this first-hand with my own film when Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations, Achim Steiner, told me that had my films presented what seemed like an agenda on either side of the issue of climate change, they would not have been invited to participate in the policy-making process. The sought-for objectivity of journalistic reportage made the film a reliable source, thereby demonstrating the veracity of James’s assertion.

Screening Truth to Power: A Reader on Documentary Activism is not only a fascinating read for anyone curious about documentary’s role in socio-political activism, but its diverse perspectives from documentary professionals and scholars offer some unique insights on Canada’s leading role in effectively using the genre to speak, or screen, truth to power.

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