How can social and political change become reality through documentary films? Özge Calafato reports from HOTDOCS in Toronto.

Ôzge Calafato
Author/Curator.

North America’s biggest documentary film festival Hot Docs opened with Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, about world renowned Chinese artist provocateur Ai Weiwei. The festival’s new director of programming, Charlotte Cook, said that the moment she saw the film, she knew that it would be perfect for Opening Night. For Cook, the film was an appropriate choice for inviting the documentary community to discuss not only the ways in which documentaries can bespeak activism but also exist as a form of resistance.
This year’s Hot Docs lineup, with a compelling selection of 189 titles from 51 countries, has only reinforced this theme, giving added relevance to the argument that documentaries have a greater role to play as a social force.

Ai Weiwei

What can documentaries do to make a difference? How can social and political change become reality through documentary films? How effective are documentaries in raising awareness and rousing the masses? A starting point here could be to change the definition of the term documentary itself, to which Cook refers in her first person interview on Indiewire: “Whether I’m down the rabbit hole with my unabated love for this art form, I cannot comprehend the notion that documentary could ever be thought of as niche or a genre. Documentary is everything.”
At a time when the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction continue to blur and documentary filmmakers are constantly searching for new and innovative ways to tell their stories, the assertion that the documentary film is more than just a genre elevates non-fiction films to a level in which they become effective generators of real impact in society.
A manifestation of this vision at the festival was the “Rise Against” section, which was dedicated to films on social change and the people behind various movements that impact society. The Rise Against stories featured a range of subjects from daily life in Egypt after President Hosni Mubarak’s fall, as showcased in Petr Lom’s Back to the Square, to AIDS activism, as in Jim Hubbard’s United in Anger: A History of ACT UP. Also included in the section were Brian Knappenberger’s We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, which delves into the world of Anonymous, an internet-based civil disobedience collective, and Stephen Maing’s High Tech, Low Life, which follows two fearless citizen journalists from China, underscoring the pivotal role played by online activism in promoting and sustaining the right to freedom of expression.

Awareness is a catalyst for rebellion and resistance

Dissident voices were well represented throughout the festival program, with the Israel-Palestine conflict garnering a major focus. The manifold layers of this complicated reality were deftly depicted in an eye-opening collection of Palestinian and Israeli documentaries by courageous filmmakers who defy the political divisiveness and discursive clichés that have become endemic characteristics of the conflict:
The Law in These Parts by Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, a Special Jury Prize winner at Hot Docs, offers a revealing look at the double standards that Israel imposes on the Occupied Territories, and an examination of the thought processes of the country’s military legal corps, the architects of the system. Silvina Landsmann’s Soldier/Citizen, meanwhile, follows a group of conflicted young Israeli soldiers, whose beliefs are repeatedly challenged by a civic studies teacher in a military-sponsored high school classroom. The film offers viewers a rare chance to observe the fascinating process of the de-familiarization of memorized discourses upon which a political reality is built. In One Day After Peace by Miri & Erez Laufer, one bears witness to the story of Robi Damelin, an Israeli mother who lost her son to a Palestinian sniper; the film delves into the themes of forgiveness, reconciliation and closure. 5 Broken Cameras, co-directed by Palestinian Emad Burnat and Israeli Guy Davidi, sheds light on the suffering on the other side of the border, offering a close-up of non-violent resistance in the West Bank.

This year’s Hot Docs featured a remarkable presence of women filmmakers, focusing on people striving to bring change to the traditional values of their respective societies. Canadian Feature award-winner Nisha Pahuja, in The World Before Her, explores the role of women in contemporary India through complex characters who, while seemingly positioning themselves at different social extremes, are challenged to confront the paradoxes in their own thinking, caught between modernity and tradition. Another Canadian documentary, and winner of the Inspirit Foundation Pluralism Award, The Boxing Girls of Kabul, by Ariel J. Nasr, is also about the empowerment of women. The film tells the story of a group of young female Afghan boxers fighting against and despite the obstacles they face in a country where women are often deprived of basic human rights and where violence against women remains endemic and pervasive. Similarly, the winner of Best International Feature, Call Me Kuchu by Malika Zouhali-Worrall and Katherine Fairfax Wright, looks at the human rights situation in Uganda. Call Me Kuchu tells the inspiring story of Ugandan activist David Kato’s fearless fight against his country’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which condemns HIV-positive men to death.
The US’ often checkered record on human rights and freedom of expression is also given a good airing. Indeed, in an era where a monopoly of 4 to 5 highly conservative and profit-seeking media conglomerates sets the rules of the game, the job of independent documentary filmmakers becomes critical. Quebecois Jean-Philippe Tremblay’s unsettling Shadows of Liberty reveals the inconvenient truth behind the continual erosion of media freedom in the US through investigations into some of the most scandalous headlines in recent years. The Invisible War by veteran filmmaker Kirby Dick on rape in the US army reveals another shocking breach of human rights and the unjust treatment of women in an organization that intervenes on the pretext that it is protecting of human rights in other parts of the world. These films reiterate that awareness is a catalyst for rebellion and resistance.

Web documentaries are becoming increasingly attractive for filmmakers

Indeed, the legitimacy and power of documentaries primarily derives from the curiosity, interest and support of an audience that is open to challenges and ready to take action. Hot Docs is proof of this, with an ever-growing audience that reached an unprecedented 165,000 attendees this year. The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, dedicated to year-round documentary programming, opened its doors just before the start of the festival, and is an inspiring example of a city appreciating and embracing documentaries as a way of life.
Nevertheless, in these exciting times when documentaries are starting to receive the attention that they deserve, POV editor Marc Glassman, in his review on documentary.org, makes an important observation. Discussing the current situation of Canadian point-of-view documentaries, he says: “they’ve never been more popular, and yet they’re increasingly difficult to finance and produce.” Indeed, due to the global economic crisis and the irreversible commercialization of television, documentaries still have a long, bumpy road ahead.
In this context, Internet remains a promising outlet for documentary filmmakers – from crowdfunding to social media, the web has a lot to offer in terms of financing, distribution and publicity. More importantly, the web fundamentally transforms the way in which documentaries are made through its interactive tools and open-source technology, which help the audience take an active part in the experience. Web documentaries are becoming increasingly attractive for filmmakers who are keen to personalize the stories they tell and reach out to a much wider community in the fastest way possible. Through the web, stories surrounding the films continue to grow thanks to millions of Internet users who now have the freedom to choose and connect to a larger pool of information than a one-off documentary can offer.

 


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