Book Project: Documentary and Social Change

Book Project Synopsis

Documentary and Social Change: An Investigation of Participatory Media Culture(s)

 The study of social change documentary is a timely project at the turn of the century given the visible intensification of this work as a political tool in public life. The project that I am calling Documentary and Social Change: An Investigation of Participatory Media Culture(s) is focused on the relationship between documentary and social change in the US historical context. Specifically, how opportunities for social change emerge from the documentary impulse as it moves through the introduction of portable analogue video recording equipment of the late 1960s and into a digital culture of new media. The proposed book project will draw a line of connection between the activist video movements of the 70s, the nuclear disarmament video in the 80s with AIDS activist video in the 90s and more recent popular approaches to social change documentary such as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, the viral video of Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Films and the localized grassroots work of contemporary collectives like Beyond Media, Collision Course Video and many more.

Since its inception at the turn of the 20th century, practioners and scholars continue to discuss the potential of documentary to invigorate a troubled democracy. Yet, there is an imprecision in which documentary studies addresses the transformative potential of the genre. The discussion of documentary and social change happens under a variety of conceptual labels such as participatory media, solidarity documentary, advocacy documentary, committed documentary, agit-prop documentary, social justice documentary and activist documentary. The media work identified in these terms often share a common concern and intention to participate in the struggle for social justice but do not equally engage in the process of social change. As film critics like A.O. Scott routinely note, “There may be more well-intentioned bad non-fiction movies than any other kind, films that satisfy the moral aspirations of their makers, but not much else.” There is a need for a deliberate and distinct study of moving image documentary that locates the process of social change as a central question in the evaluation, assessment and consideration of the media experience.

The proposed project situates communication at the center of media studies by understanding the screen as an essential but insufficient site of investigation. The constellation of documentary discourse is much more tangled and expansive, especially in the new media environment. It is more often the case—in my own production experience and in the stories of practioners—that the thrust and residue of social change is found in the production process, circulation and in the movement of publics around such media work and therefore largely ignored by cinema and media studies.

The question of documentary and social change is essentially concerned with how material and cultural justice is facilitated for the marginalized communities and issues on the public screen(s). The approach to this book is distinctive as it attempts to understand how the struggles for social justice are located, reflected and represented on the screen but also beyond it. To that end, this project includes well over 60 completed field interviews with media workers including filmmakers, critics, funders, activist and distributors. These interviews include innovators and thinkers of documentary such as George Stoney, DA Pennybaker, The Yes Men, Kirby Dick, and Judith Helfand. Working collaborative organizations such as Beyond Media, Bay Area Video Collective (BVAC), DCTV, Third World Newsreel, Women Make Movie, Paper Tiger, Deep Dish TV and California Newsreel contributed to the discussion. Interviews also include important players in video history such as Tom Weinberg, Skip Blumburg, Judy Hoffman, Gorden Quinn, and Tami Gold. Finally, traditional documentary institutions such as ITVS and The Flaherty Seminar also contributed to the discussion. This proposed project will be a significant contribution to the existing information and knowledge about social change documentary by synthesizing the experience of multiple types of practitioners (video collectives, funders, community media practitioners, activist, distributors, filmmakers) with scholarly work on the topic through a critical cultural studies perspective.

Some preliminary contributions of this book include taking into account the discourse of practioners as a means to inform documentary theory, to suggest documentary studies more closely revisit and invest in the conceptual understanding of social change and the methodology in which to approach such a question, to offer historical accounts of little known film communities and screenings as well as address how the shifts in new media contribute to the potentiality of documentary and social change.

Grants Awarded:

Faculty Seed Grant, Southern Illinois University, to conduct field research for proposed book project: “Documentary and Social Change: An Investigation of Participatory Media Cultures,”

Faculty Development Support Grant, for archiving workshop, Eastern Illinois University.

Council on Faculty Research, Eastern Illinois University, competitive research award to begin proposed book project: “Documentary and Social Change: An Investigation of Participatory Media Cultures,” Fall 2006

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