Documentary for social change

    SOCIAL CHANGE: Essential reading for all who want to better understand what makes our time the documentary golden age

    Story Movements: How Documentaries Empower People and Inspire Social Change
    Author: Caty Borum Chattoo
    Publisher: Oxford University Press,

    Story Movements: How Documentaries Empower People and Inspire Social Change is a pivotal study of the novel understanding of documentary and non-fiction genres in the new millennium. In it, documentary scholar and producer Caty Borum Chattoo performed a thorough practical and theoretical exploration. Her book brings new knowledge on the importance of the non-fiction film for democracy and the power of documentary to promote social change.

    Activist films

    New scientific articles and monographs are published every day, but only rarely does a book appear that challenges all that was known before. Story Movements is such a book. Through decades, critics and scholars praised the arts for enabling a «critical discourse» while inspiring «social change» was considered much too partisan and ideologically motivated. It was reserved for explicitly politically engaged forms of discourse, for example, manifestos such as Toward a Third Cinema, written in the late 1960s by Argentine filmmakers Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas. The manifesto defined films produced in former colonies as The Third Cinema, different from the First, that is, films produced in Hollywood, and from the Second Cinema or European art films. They aimed not only to stimulate spectators to reflect on their socially unjust realities but to also take action to transform these realities. Films of the Third Cinema inspired social change and this was perceived as revolutionary activism.

    Documentary films, aiming to improve the lives of the people, were produced in the First and Second Cinema world too, such as Cathy Come Home (BBC, 1966) directed by Ken Loach about homelessness. But it took many years, a lot of various film making practices, and countless films before the ambition to inspire social change lost its subversive mark. Important contributions to this were the affordances of the digital age, from accessible filmmaking technology to access to audiences, and the evolvement of what Borum Chatoo defines as a «participatory networked era». Decisive, from the audience part, was not a social but ecological emergency. Borum Chatto presents Blackfish (2013, Gabriela Cowperthwaite), an independent documentary that indicted the treatment of captive orcas in SeaWorld theme parks, as a particularly telling demonstration of the power of social justice activism in the participatory media age. After the 2013 Sundance Film Festival premiere of the film, visits to SeaWorld declined, major corporate sponsors pulled support, and performing acts canceled appearances. Eventually, facing a steady storm of public criticism, in 2016 the company announced an end to its profitable captive orca shows.

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    13th, a film by Ava DuVernay

    The social-issue documentary

    Story Movements is an inspiring book that focuses on one particular type of contemporary documentary practice: social-issue documentaries, addressing various topics from racial injustice in the USA prison system (13th, 2016, Ava DuVernay) to government surveillance (Citizenfour, 2014, Laura Poitras). They are produced with civic motivations and also with a commitment to artistry and truth. Thus, a distinction needs to be made between these films and a sub-genre of non-fiction, described by the author as «partisan essays that aim for ideological engagement or outcomes through seeming manipulation of both facts and audiences» such as Death of a Nation (2018, Dinesh D’Souza), a revisionist version of history claiming that the Democrats have similarities to fascist regimes. Unfortunately for many, writes Borum Chatto, these films «may have come to connote contemporary documentary practice».

    Fortunately, however, the theoretical approach developed by Borum Chatto might serve as an efficient analytical tool needed to differentiate between fact-based social-issue documentary storytelling and manipulation of facts and audiences along partisan, ideological political lines. This is particularly important because as documentary evolved into creative non-fiction storytelling, the genre embraced emotions and entertainment. By this, it succeeded in engaging audiences, but it lost the objectivity as the traditional criteria of its credibility. Positivism, the belief that we know the world through what we can observe and measure, that is, objective facts, was the model of the modernist epistêmê and was built into the understanding of documentary cinema from the start. While fiction films were «the movies», able to «move» their audiences in terms of stimulating emotional engagement, documentary films were supposed to be objective, addressing the reason, not emotion. Story Movements very well embraces the scope of the changes in the post-millennial age, as the word «move» indicates that contemporary social-issue documentary storytelling extends the movement of moving images into both directions, towards the audiences by the moving stories, and towards the social movements demanding change.

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    Cathy Come Home, a film by Ken Loach

    Historical context

    Borum Chatto is a film scholar with extensive practical experience, from producer to senior communication and philanthropy executive to a strategist specialising in social change. The epistemological approach and methodology she applied in her research for the book are equally comprehensive. She situated her argument within the context of history, linking creative and artistic traits of contemporary non-fiction film to the theories of John Grierson and his definition of documentary as a «creative treatment of actuality». She applied conceptual approaches of contemporary documentary scholars such as Michael Chanan’s distinction between film fiction that addresses the viewer primarily as a private individual and documentary film that addresses the viewer as a citizen. Notwithstanding her «admittedly US-centric view», her stress on the need that social-issue documentaries be produced outside media institutions and that the independent decision-maker, usually the director, should have a subjective control of many aspects of collaborative creative work is very close to the European idea of «authorial cinema».

    The ideas presented in the book are also shaped by listening to filmmakers and studying their practices. The author interviewed contemporary documentary directors, producers, and field leaders. Their voices define and re-define the art and practice from their own experience, alongside the work of dedicated scholars who have shaped the understanding of documentary and its societal role. Carefully designed methodology, with a particular combination of theory and practice, is an additional reason why this book is essential reading not only for documentary practitioners and audiences but for everybody who wants to know more about the present time fascination with creative non-fiction storytelling and better understand what makes our time the documentary golden age.

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    Melita Zajc
    Our regular contributor. Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher.

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