The social impact of documentary is both broad and subtle enough to be beyond analysis. DOX editor Truls Lie points out the exceptional case of Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1988), a single film that reversed the sentence of a man jailed for murder. 1) All films are from 2009 unless otherwise noted. All DOX interviews were held at IDFA. But most often, non-fiction films affect social developments “like drops in the ocean,” in the words of Adriek van Nieuwenhuyzen, Head of Industry for the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA).
Documentary’s effects range from changing our long-term view of history to our understanding of intimate life. A film may herald upheavals, such as Risk (1987, Dmitri Barshevsky) which presaged the end of the Cold War in 1988 – the year when it screened at the very first IDFA, before reappearing in this year’s Perestroika retrospective. A movie may rewrite the past through looking at the present, such as in the parallels made in 1929 (William Karel) between the Great Depression and the current economic crisis. A work of mass culture, a documentary may also modify perceptions of the mass media. Videocracy (Erik Gandini) tries to turn Italians away from the veline of Berlusconi’s sunny, vulgar television. 2)Veline are the female eye-candy of Italian television, whose dance breaks during a program are called stachetti. Films about new media may present it as either a future dystopia (We Live in Public, Ondi Timoner) or a means of redemption (Winnebago Man, Ben Steinbauer).
Documentaries reach into professional routines. After a screening at IDFA of Food Inc. (2008, Robert Kenner), the audience were asked who would change their eating habits. How might a corporate lawyer, beholden to big agriculture, respond? And how did an experimental short such as Time within Time (Menno Otten), or an art piece like the T-Visionarium, affect a documentary sales agent?
The answers (see below) show that documentaries can also deeply touch our intimate conditions. Non-fiction films can pull back to society those prone to escape it through fantasy, (Garbo the Spy, Edmon Roch), or those in a state of personal despair – the subject of Jay Rosenblatt’s The Darkness of Day.
Finally, documentaries renew us as human beings as they reflect our engagement with the world, as expressed by the verve of Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov (1896-1954), director of Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and author of manifestos on the powers of documentary as the “Kino Eye.”
The overlapping ways in which documentaries alter social reality are as myriad as the reactions to documentary works. Some spectators promote the change a film advocates; some welcome it, or are wary of it, some defer to and deal with it, others resent, resist and reject it.
The following soliloquies and monologues illustrate the summary of documentary’s capacity, or inability, to enable change. The voices are fictional, except for Vertov and the cases of Jack Rebney and Josh Harris, the protagonists of Winnebago Man and We Live in Public, whose attitudes reflect the ones expressed in their films. All speeches derive from films, sessions, interviews and encounters at the latest edition of IDFA, which ran from 19-29 November, 2009 in Amsterdam (see foot notes for specific sources).
A FORMER HARDLINE SOVIET LEADER
For forty-five years our politics were based on an arsenal and a defined enemy. And it should have lasted at least my lifetime. People may have laughed at the propaganda, but were used to living in fear. If a member of the Politburo had said that the US should be approached diplomatically, the public would not have believed it, and the speech would have been cut, in the same way as enemies of the people are cut from photographs.
The film and its maker should have had a short life. But the President saw a copy of Risk privately in his dacha. The end shows Gorbachev and Reagan together, with the voice-over “There is only one way – to meet each other half-way.” You cannot imagine the sacrilege of that line. The film became the first instrument of a misguided policy. Gorbachev had it broadcast on state television. Its first viewers, at home and in television shops, were weeping, their mouths open in shock. 3) DOX interview with Dmitri Barshevsky, director of Risk.
We saw what would happen. This movie nudged the first rock of the avalanche that swept us all, and the Berlin Wall, away.
CHASTENED VENTURE CAPITALISTS
If we were supposed to see the documentary 1929 as a rebuke, instead we took heart: in the late 1920s, everyone was afraid to tell or hear the truth, and burst the market’s bubble. Change happens only in the wake of a disaster. 4)“Change will happen, because people will be desperate,” says Mike Bonanno, one of the activists The Yes Men (DOX interview). Greed will prevail, and We’ll be back.
A TEENAGED ITALIAN GIRL
My parents took me to see Videocracy, and I was bored. Back home, I turned up the music to practice my routine as a velina.
There is not one nice man in the film. The boy who does a kung-fu Ricky Martin has no talent, but I agree with what he said: “When you’re on TV, you’re remembered forever.” My parents don’t understand that I don’t care about Berlusconi as a president – I just love his TV. My parents asked, “Did you see all those girls wanting to be veline?” But I don’t believe in disappointment.
JOSH HARRIS and JACK REBNEY
HARRIS: – Old man, you’re a YouTube star.
REBNEY: – Relative youngster, you’re a hasbeen of the internet.
HARRIS: – You can be glib. But soon you’ll revert to the laughingstock of out-takes for a motor home.
REBNEY: – I’m more optimistic since both the film and Dick Cheney are out. Winnebago Man and your film raise our consciousness, despite recent concerted attempts to kill it. 5)In the question and answer session following the screening of We Live in Public, director Ondi Timoner described her movie as a “consciousness-raising film” about the darker
side of the internet.
HARRIS: – No. Your movie, my experiments with web surveillance, and the net’s addictive
deceptions, like the ones in the movie Talhotblond, only show how avant-garde I was. Our identities have fused with technologies…
REBNEY: – With the uses we make of them, you self-deluded pissoir! 6)In Winnebago Man, Rebney curses profusely and uses expressions such as “Do me a kindness,” so “self-deluded pissoir” may not be out of his range. Your work is a 1984 of the internet, a warning for the future, but no Delphic guarantee.
A SUCCESSFUL LAWYER
I enjoy chewing on steaks, and already read the Schlosser and Pollan books, so won’t pretend seeing Food Inc. snapped me into becoming a vegetarian. But it made me see, repeatedly, what the food industry entails.
The movie ends with steps for change. As a lawyer, I know it’s not that simple. Working at a corporate law firm, even if not for Smithfield Beef or Monsanto Beans, you understand how big agro – inefficient and inflexible – has still become ingrained in our culture.
Eating organic won’t set you free. But the curtains of ignorance closed around us are velvety and thick. As a man paid to reason and argue, even on behalf of corporations, I may lower my silver spoon to object.
AN ASSISTANT SALES AGENT OF DOCUMENTARIES
‘Our company works with filmmakers to find their “three W’s” – Why this project? Why it matters now, and Why you need to make it – and to design each film’s Unique Selling Point (USP), to put in a catalogue summary, on a poster, and in the movie’s first ten minutes. 7)The terms “unique selling point” and “three Ws” were explained to DOX by Jan Rofekamp, President, Films Transit (Personal Interview).
Documentary buyers are swamped – by emails, filmmakers, and films. If they watch a movie on DVD and can’t find its USP in the first ten minutes, they fast forward, even at IDFA’s Docs for Sale, where subscribers can watch films online all year. Professional habits reinforce creative formulas.
Walking from the market to the T-Visionarium felt like a path across worlds. The interactive, 3-D installation deconstructs seconds of TV clips through tags like “emotion.” When you highlight that tag, and click on a segment, other excerpts conveying similar emotions swoop over to you, like pigeons after crumbs. Reality appears in flashes of feeling without knowing the context. I felt the same watching the student short Time within Time. The plot is just shots of people waiting at tram stops, with each new face growing more and more abstracted, until at the end an Asian woman shuts her eyes.
It sounds dull, but at least documentaries are no longer pedantic. My boss calls them “informational art films.” 8)IDFA Director Ally Derks described documentary as an “informational art film” at the festival premiere. I understand we need clear stories where heroes return and justice is done, to pull in viewers, and clear positive paths in our imagination. I’ll keep my job. I’ll also keep in mind other ways of accessing reality, for the market where serendipity is a tough sell.
A DUTCH HASH SMOKER
I look forward to the documentaries with the Cannabis Cup. The Cup and IDFA started the same year; I remember, man, I was here, taking in reality and flying away.
Synapses-synopses may get scrambled, but I remember the docs this year: Iranian women’s experiences with stoning (not quite the same as mine), newlyweds with Down’s syndrome in UN scandals, a ten-year old with ADHD born from AI, and Afghan addicts exposing corporate profits from bottled water and infertility-bearing pesticides. 9)The dates of IDFA and the Cannabis Cup among Amsterdam’s coffee houses correspond. The smoker’s jumbled plot summaries come from the program descriptions of the films Women in Shroud, Monica and David, U.N. Me, Astronaut, Offspring, Addicted in Afghanistan, Tapped, and BANANAS!*. It’s heavy stuff – probably safest to be just a recreational user of documentary.
Still, a film like Garbo: the Spy keeps me connected, as you can see it’s possible to do good, like for the Allies in World War Two, while confounding the planes of reality. The Spanish spy Garbo created twenty-two imaginary sub agents; what powers of hallucination, along with the film’s spin of war footage, classic and home movies. Dude, I induct documentaries into the Counterculture Hall of Fame.
A POTENTIAL SUICIDE
I do anything not to be alone with myself, and went to see a short film, The Darkness of Day.
In it, a man’s voice reads journal entries that speak my despair, and a woman’s voice recites case histories of suicide, from Hemingway, to a couple in their sixties who chose “one solution to the problem of growing old,” and the dolphin on the TV shows Flipper which, when caged, stopped breathing.10)See The Cove’s Richard O’Barry on Secret Dolphin Slaughter.
In one terrible shot, a woman has a tube forced up her nose, while another struggles in a nurse’s grasp until she loses the energy to fight. Seen from behind, a man slowly exits onto the path from his house, holding his briefcase, as if off to work. Another fellow shakes his head and cries, his left fingers covering the other side of his face. They are all me.
The film may not change much. But it brought me through one more day.
THE GHOST OF DZIGA VERTOV
– Newborns of the Kino-Eye! –
My hopes were not in vain.
Within two generations after I dreamt it, the possibility of communication between all peoples has become material fact.
As I built up Man with a Movie Camera from a career of making newsreels, its shots are now
online as a template for others. Now we can reproduce reality with a camera-eye that sees 360 degrees; share someone’s struggles and aspirations with a click on their face, chart our own death, and supine in bed, look out of a high-rise continents away. 11)The internet projects are Man with a Movie Camera: The Global Remake, 6 Billion Others, Thanatorama, and HighRise. Yellow Bird, the 360 degree camera technology, was presented at IDFA’s Doc Lab Showcase. A DOX interview with Casper Sonnen, the head of New Media at IDFA, inspired Vertov’s posthumous reflections
We no longer have to go out to steep ourselves in reality.
But do not believe reality happens; it is made. The production and documentation of the world began its transformations. Spring out into life,
– Newborns of the Kino-Eye! –
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||All films are from 2009 unless otherwise noted. All DOX interviews were held at IDFA.|
|2.||↑||Veline are the female eye-candy of Italian television, whose dance breaks during a program are called stachetti.|
|3.||↑||DOX interview with Dmitri Barshevsky, director of Risk.|
|4.||↑||“Change will happen, because people will be desperate,” says Mike Bonanno, one of the activists The Yes Men (DOX interview).|
|5.||↑||In the question and answer session following the screening of We Live in Public, director Ondi Timoner described her movie as a “consciousness-raising film” about the darker|
side of the internet.
|6.||↑||In Winnebago Man, Rebney curses profusely and uses expressions such as “Do me a kindness,” so “self-deluded pissoir” may not be out of his range.|
|7.||↑||The terms “unique selling point” and “three Ws” were explained to DOX by Jan Rofekamp, President, Films Transit (Personal Interview).|
|8.||↑||IDFA Director Ally Derks described documentary as an “informational art film” at the festival premiere.|
|9.||↑||The dates of IDFA and the Cannabis Cup among Amsterdam’s coffee houses correspond. The smoker’s jumbled plot summaries come from the program descriptions of the films Women in Shroud, Monica and David, U.N. Me, Astronaut, Offspring, Addicted in Afghanistan, Tapped, and BANANAS!*.|
|10.||↑||See The Cove’s Richard O’Barry on Secret Dolphin Slaughter.|
|11.||↑||The internet projects are Man with a Movie Camera: The Global Remake, 6 Billion Others, Thanatorama, and HighRise. Yellow Bird, the 360 degree camera technology, was presented at IDFA’s Doc Lab Showcase. A DOX interview with Casper Sonnen, the head of New Media at IDFA, inspired Vertov’s posthumous reflections|