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).

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.

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.

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.


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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).
Gabriel M. Paletz
Gabriel Paletz, Ph.D (screenwriting), with a BA from Yale University and PhD from the University of Southern California, is the first PhD graduate from the University of Southern California to study film theory and practice at the same time. Dr. Paletz has taught film history, criticism and production at College of William and Mary, Duke University and USC.