Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

Changing the world through documentary

MEDIA / Cultural anthropologist Sherry B. Ortner provides an easy-read introduction to the logic and visions behind Brave New Films, whose documentary production is non-profit and distributed through social and political networks with the articulated goal of mobilising resistance against capitalism, racism, and fascism.

Screening Social Justice. Brave New Films and Documentary Activism
Author: Sherry B. Ortner
Publisher: Duke University Press, USA

Brave New Films is a documentary film company that produces, distributes, and screens critical political documentaries for non-profit. Their self-declared mission is to encourage and support (leftist) activism through documentaries that investigate and reveal power relations, money flows, and social and economic injustice. The measure of success for a Brave New Films production is impact – that it mobilises its audience.

The measure of success for a Brave New Films production is impact – that it mobilises its audience.

Documentary and social activism

Cultural anthropologist Sherry B. Ortner is, in her new book Screening Social Justice, interested in how the documentary production company specifically works with this goal. To understand this, she analyses selected documentaries and follows the work behind the productions, distribution channels, and screenings. What happens when people get together to watch a Brave New Films production?

Ortner frames the narrative with a short history of the relationship between documentary and social activism. On one end, we find the idea of a neutral documentary that simply shows reality as it is. On the other end, we find a documentary that openly commits to the goal of intervening in reality.

Brave New Films is part of a hundred-year-long tradition of «committed filmmaking» that commenced with «early communist dreams of the future,» with the Soviet Union as one of the centres.

Brave New Films is part of a hundred-year-long tradition of «committed filmmaking»

The golden age

According to Ortner and other researchers, documentary film has had a golden age since the beginning of the 21st century. Eight of the ten most successful documentaries in history were launched in the first decade alone. And most of these were openly political in some sense. Ortner reminds us that documentary has always been the least popular form of cinema and that large parts of the audience have been not just uninterested but outright repelled by the genre, which makes its growing popularity in recent years all the more remarkable.

Ortner (and others) partly explain this with the credibility and popularity crises of other types of media during the same period. Printed media has entered a death spiral almost everywhere, and «the sheer absence of reliable information is part of the problem; another is the lack of critical perspective on what is going on,» Ortner writes.

Leading Brave New Films is Robert Greenwald, who was making a career in the commercial film- and entertainment business when the Iraq war began. The political situation made him take a «life-changing decision,» as Ortner frames it, namely to engage full-time with critical political documentaries. The first he directed was Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War from 2004, about the fabrication of evidence of weapons of mass destruction, and two years later, Iraq: The War Profiteers about the outsourcing of military functions to private contractors driven by profit.

Iraq for Sale

Radical vision

When Greenwald founded Brave New Films, it was, according to Ortner, with several radical visions regarding both production and distribution. One of them was speed: Brave New Films aims to produce documentaries that can mobilise intervention in events as they occur. Not just uncover what happened after the fact.

Another is reach: The documentaries should be watched by as many as possible. This requires a distribution- and screening concept that is broadly accessible economically and socially and, in turn, requires networks. Brave New Films productions are not primarily screened in documentary film festivals or cinemas but in community houses, churches, and private homes – and they are available for free online, full-length.

For this reason, the production company has no revenue and instead finances its activities through funds and donations. Around half of their economy is used to facilitate screenings, often in collaboration with organisations and groups.

A third vision is a particular understanding of truthful filmmaking. Brave New Films does not simply reveal factual truths but «the deeper truths of the systemic nature of capitalism, racism, and (proto)fascism.» In that sense, Ortner contends, «one of the most important forms of impact generated by Brave New Films and all the other work of the documentary movement may be the remobilisation and revalidation of the importance of truth-telling itself.»

Brave New Films productions are not primarily screened in documentary film festivals or cinemas but in community houses, churches, and private homes

Finding «truth»

Naturally, she is not uncritical about the concept of truth, and a chapter of the book is dedicated to discussing various understandings of truth, which also refers to other recent publications about the same topic, for example, Where Truth Lies, reviewed in Modern Times Review in 2021.

Brave New Films productions often follow the same formula, interchanging between personalised stories and facts and statistics, and where one or more elements in the narrative must incentivise action. A documentary must not leave the audience with a feeling of hopelessness in the face of oppression and power, no matter how grotesque and overwhelming the injustices.

Furthermore, the documentaries always move between the specific and the systemic. It’s not enough to show how Walmart exploits its employees – it must be clear how this exploitation is part and parcel of a larger unjust system that we call capitalism and, thus, how exploitation is built into the very DNA of the company.

«We tell the story so people can connect the dots, so they understand how systemic many of these things are,» Ortner quotes Greenwald.

The fieldwork that sustains Ortner’s analysis and description of how Brave New Films function and the impact its documentaries have is not exactly impressive, which in part is because it was cut short by the pandemic and Ortner chose to write her book based on what she had already collected. This makes Screening Social Justice occasionally rather weak, with too many banalities, and where some not very interesting facts and occurrences are given more attention than they rightly deserve.

Nevertheless, the book offers an easy-read introduction to a radical documentary film company, which Ortner characterises as part of «one of the primary lines of defense against the possibility of totalitarian governance in the United States and, indeed, most other parts of the world.»

Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen is a historian and freelance journalist. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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