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Documentaries: Ready, Set ... Action

Documentaries could be just another form of entertainment. But some activists and filmmakers are teaming up to use film to change the world.
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Documentaries have been gaining steam over the last few years. Filmmakers are working with activists, advocates, and organizers to give new and exciting meaning to the term cinema verité.

A week before the 2006 mid-term elections, I found myself in a room full of strangers, packed like sardines in a neighbor's home a few blocks from my own. At the outset I knew nobody there except my roommate, but by the end of the night we were all exchanging information, ideas, and telephone numbers. The house party had been organized online; the only price of admission was a voluntary contribution of a snack or a handful of Halloween candy. At night's close our energy was high and our anger was focused, in part fueled by the documentary film we had come together to watch, American Blackout (2006).

Winner of a Special Jury Prize at Sundance, the film exhaustively explores the voter suppression techniques employed in Florida (2000) and Ohio (2004), almost exclusively to the detriment of African-Americans, and to the benefit of the Republican Party and the president. After the screening that night, some of us spent a few hours making phone calls to voters in Virginia, Ohio, and California, sharing our frustration with the follies of the Republican do-nothing Congress, and urging a change come Election Day. As subsequent events would bear out, we were hardly the only ones rallying for change. We also weren't the only ones moved by the power of documentary film to humanize complex issues, explore stories brushed aside or underreported in our sound-bite laden mass media, or compel people to action.

Many indicators suggest that the power of documentaries has been increasing over the last few years. The growing clout and commercial success of hard-hitting politically-charged documentaries (Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, Eugene Jarecki's Why We Fight, and Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth) and politicized feature films (Stephen Soderbergh's Traffic, George Clooney's Goodnight and Good Luck, and Hany Abu-Assad's Paradise Now) speaks to a growing audience for film that gives people real information and historical analysis about the world we live in. The exploding number of young filmmakers, videographers, and video activists speaks to this as well.

As the digital video revolution has exponentially expanded access to cameras and editing software, new forms of distribution have followed apace. As a result, films that don't break into the theaters or get airtime on TV are increasingly reaching audiences thanks to festivals, netflix.com, youtube.com, and independent distribution and screening networks. But what is perhaps most interesting about the moment are the mutually beneficial ways that filmmakers are working with activists, advocates, and organizers to give new and exciting meaning to the term cinema verité.

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image from American Blackout

“Docs are seen or not seen because of the grassroots,” says Ian Inaba, director of American Blackout, and co-founder of Guerilla News Network. “If you don't go to where people are already interested and engaged, you're fighting an uphill battle.”

When his film was released, Inaba approached all of the usual suspects—festivals, distributors, and television networks—but he also approached groups on the ground doing the most tangible civil rights work on these issues.

“We made the film available to ACORN, the Rainbow-Push Coalition, the Urban League. We also really tried to reach young people in the black community,” says Inaba. As a result, the film was widely discussed on black radio, and TV One, the black cable network, bought the film for a national television premiere.

Two months before the midterms, Inaba also launched Video the Vote (www.videothevote.org), which turned out over 1,400 video activists to polling places across the country on November 7th. Many signed up after seeing the film, spurred to put their cameras to use documenting evidence of irregularities or outright fraud. Although most progressives were happy with the outcome of the elections, Inaba points out that some of the volunteer footage documented serious flaws with electronic voting machines across the country, poorly trained poll workers, and confusing photo ID laws. Inaba and others are still working to distribute the footage to members of the media to keep the issue of the problems in the U.S. electoral system alive.

“It turns out that simply asking people to go out and spend a few hours filming an election is something that a lot of people are willing to do,” Inaba explained. “What I realized through this process is that to get people motivated to action, you need to be direct.”

This realization is one that many filmmakers and activists are starting to take more seriously. While some documentary filmmakers set out to tell a story for the story's sake, many are passionate about an issue and want to see their films spur direct action or social change. In the same spirit, many activists, NGOs, and social movement organizations are learning how to better harness the cachet of film, and doing so in increasingly sophisticated ways.

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image from Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price

A good example of this emerging strategic relationship between film and policy was the November 2005 release, simultaneously in theaters and on DVD, of Robert Greenwald's Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. It was timed to coincide with a national week of action organized by Wal-Mart Watch, a coalition of over 200 labor, community, and environmental organizations working to publicize the more heinous aspects of the company's track record, and to demand reforms in the way the company treats its employees in the US and around the world. The film was widely reviewed in the mainstream media, aided immensely by the fact that the Wal-Mart Corporation publicly attacked it sight unseen on the eve of its release.

But the real secret to its success lay in its ability to connect to campaigns already on the ground. During the national week of action, it was shown on over 4,000 screens big and small across the country. “The coalition grew as the film grew, so while doing research for the film I was able to use those union and community organization contacts to find the people who we actually ended up interviewing,” says Luisa Dantas, co-producer of Wal-Mart. I reached Dantas in New Orleans where she is working on a feature-length documentary on the reconstruction work being done by local chapters of ACORN and Common Cause, organizations she established relationships with during her work on Wal-Mart. “Getting it out to town halls, churches, and house parties is the key. With Wal-Mart this was also important for getting it out to an audience that doesn't necessarily already agree with you. An art house release in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco is not going to do that.”

Interestingly enough, this relationship to the grassroots also makes a lot of sense on economic grounds. Brave New Theaters (www.bravenewtheaters.com), a new offshoot of this movement, is a creative online platform that cuts out theater chains and turns the living rooms of activists into movie houses.

“The dirty little secret about moviemaking is that there is no way to make money showing films theatrically, especially documentaries,” says Jim Gilliam, who developed the platform. “DVD sales are where films make money.”

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image from Iraq for Sale
Robert Greenwald's Iraq for Sale is being distributed by Brave New Films largely through house parties and community screenings; since its release in October, there have been 5,000 worldwide.

Brave New Films offers the DVD for sale in bulk along with kits and guidance for holding screenings.
www.iraqforsale.org

The site hosts a searchable database of screenings all over the country in homes, community centers, coffee houses, and churches. Besides selling DVDs, it also provides downloadable fliers, posters, and other materials, making it easy to organize and advertise community screenings. This alternative to the large corporate distributors also allows filmmakers to build a constituency by identifying where their audience is. The platform gives them the option of communicating with the people who are watching their films, soliciting feedback, or spreading the word about a new film.

“Film is a new frontier. If you can tap into that emotional and narrative context, there is a lot of energy there,” says Laura Dawn, Cultural Director for MoveOn.org, the progressive organization of 3.3 million that grew out of an online petition in 1996. Dawn points to the many ways that MoveOn has publicized compelling issue-specific films (Outfoxed, Iraq for Sale), and popularized the experience of house parties and communal screenings. In that vein, MoveOn plans to use the summer 2007 release of Michael Moore's new film on the pharmaceutical industry, Sicko (which Moore describes on his blog as “a comedy about 45 million people with no health care in the richest country on earth”), to launch a campaign for health care reform legislation in the U.S. Asked why they would wait months for the release of the film to address such a pressing national issue, Dawn says, “We have a mandate to represent our members' voices to Congress, and we need to use that mandate in the smartest, most strategic way. Barring a reactionary legislative push in the meantime, it just makes good sense to piggyback any lobbying or media we do with the natural momentum of the film.”

In the meantime, MoveOn has organized more than 1,800 community screenings around the DVD release of An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Davis Guggenheim's documentary about Al Gore's climate change awareness crusade, and continues to organize more. The Climate Project has teamed with the National Wildlife Federation to train nearly 1,000 people to present Gore's slide show and lead discussions of it. The film grossed over $25 million in theaters and is nominated for an Oscar.

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image from The Inconvenient Truth

Beyond garnering a lot of buzz, the film may be one of the crucial “tipping points” working to break the issue of global warming out of the environmental movement ghetto in the U.S. The year of the film's release, a sizeable contingent of high-profile evangelical pastors signed on to an “Evangelical Climate Initiative,” which calls for legislation requiring reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. While there are no hard numbers on how many of these traditional allies of the Republican Party have seen the film, the theatrical presentation of Gore's climate change slide show does seem to be reaching people on a level that thousands of reports and hundreds of books have only been able to scratch. This may be due to the simple fact that the presentation of irrefutable scientific consensus about global warming is done in a medium with which most of us feel comfortable and at ease: sitting in front of a screen.

But what do people do with the information they digest after the credits roll and it's time to take a stand? MoveOn and other lobbying groups are encouraging viewers to write their representatives in Congress to support legislation that would limit emissions. “After our screenings, we encourage people to write letters to the local media and to make formal complaints, since by law these are tracked by the FCC,” says Susan Keith, an activist affiliated with Georgia for Democracy who monitors media fairness. “We try to get people to call out the local news channels when important stories are left out.” Keith organizes at least a screening a week in the Atlanta area, many of which regularly turn out over a hundred viewers.

Some reverberations are less immediate, but no less dramatic. Sometimes it just takes the right person to translate the compelling information and real life narratives of the best documentary films into far reaching action.

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image from The Take

I saw this inspiring phenomenon up close a few years ago when I worked on a documentary called The Take (2004). Directed by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein, The Take explored the burgeoning movement of occupied workplaces and democratic worker cooperatives in economically-devastated Argentina. After the premiere in Buenos Aires, the film was screened briefly in New York City, in the summer of 2004. Brendan Martin, a student of cooperative economics with a background in finance, attended the screening.

“The elections were coming up, and I guess you could say I had been searching out alternative news sources, watching a lot of documentaries that summer—The Corporation, Control Room,” Martin told me over coffee during a brief visit to the U.S. “I had also been studying cooperatives so it was interesting to me that more than one person called me up and told me to go see this film about Argentina, so I went. I really liked the fact that it taught huge concepts like neoliberalism and worker democracy, and brought it down to people's lives.”

After the screening, Martin spoke with director Avi Lewis and asked how he could help. “He turned the question around on me and said, ‘You tell me.' I told him I wanted to help build a financial institution that supported the co-ops—a solidarity fund to supply the credit that local banks were unwilling to provide.” Two years later, Martin is living in Argentina coordinating The Working World (www.theworkingworld.org), which provides low-interest credit to over 150 different worker cooperatives that are unable to secure loans from local banks. These cooperatives employ thousands of people and produce everything from balloons and car parts to ice cream and shoes. In an interesting twist on art meets life, worker organizer Lalo Paret, who had played a “starring role” in the documentary, is now an invaluable consultant to the project.

“The film didn't teach Brendan anything new about cooperatives,” says Avi Lewis. “What it did was focus the beam of his attention and give it direction.”

Lewis describes The Working World project as “the living sequel” to the film, an apt description. The potential of the documentary medium to inspire and energize these living sequels is perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of the zeitgeist, one that filmmakers and activists (often one and the same) are increasingly taking to heart.


Joseph
Huff Hannon

Joseph Huff-Hannon is a writer on culture and politics based in Brooklyn, NY. His favorite film is Jim Sheridan's In America, not a documentary.

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