|Hall Building and McConnell Library Building, Concordia University, Montreal. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
Screening Truth to Power: a reader on Documentary Activism, edited by Svetla Turnin and Ezra Winton, published by Cinema Politica, Montreal, 2014. Pps 208.
What to write about this book? The question has been gnawing away at me for some months, and I still haven’t come to a decent conclusion. At first I thought I would content myself with a few mild criticisms of its title, which is actually the slogan of the remarkable documentary network created, organized and run by the two authors in Concordia University, Montreal. To me, the title has about it a whiff of smugness, even a touch of self-satisfaction, and maybe even of delusion. I have heard the title or variations of it for some years. I worked for some time in the Challenge for Change programme at the National Film Board, many of whose members gave themselves the inaccurate conceit that they were screening truth to power. As someone said to me years later, “The programme was based on the idea that if only the government knew what was going on out there, they would do something about it” --- a slight inaccuracy, to be kind. Not quite screening truth to power.
However, I decided not to pursue that line because of my great enthusiasm for the work done by Svetla and Ezra, the immense success Cinema Politica has achieved, and the great inspiration given by their weekly series of documentaries that have drawn consistently large crowds for ten years, meanwhile spreading their message to more than 90 affiliates in Canada and other countries around the world. I know this admiration isn’t an adequate reason not to offer criticism, but why knock them when they are doing such great work?
Then I thought well, I will read the introduction written by Ezra and Svetla under the title Encounters with Documentary Activism, a special branch of documentary-making that seems to be so established that they even dared to playfully invent a word for it: doctivism. But here again I ran up against another obsession of mine which, like my scepticism of their title, arises from my experience: I have a deep, deep scunner on academic language, and to my great surprise (for I know Ezra to be a down-to-earth kind of guy) their introduction was peppered with academic circumlocutions of the kind that I believe any text on any subject can well do without. Determined, in spite of all this, to be friendly, I thought over their enthusiasm for documentary activism which suggests that it is not really enough to make documentaries, and that only the film-maker determined to change the world should be classified as really serious. Since my view is rather that any film-maker who believes he can change the world is somewhat deluded, or has a messianic misunderstanding of his or her place in the universe, I have to feel that the emphasis on activism is a little overcooked, just like their slogan and title.
I looked through the book, came upon a closing essay that looked as if it might give me something to hang a piece on: but, whoa there boy! This author, Darrell Varga, described as the Canada Research Chair in Contemporary Film and Media Studies at some university or other known to the editors of this book as NSCAD, so evidently a place familiar to everyone that they didn’t feel the need to spell it out, this man has been severely bitten by the academic language bug. His opening explanatory paragraph was so convolute that I should have given up right there. But, gamely, I pressed on to para two where I read that, quoting the recently deceased British sociologist Stuart Hall, whom I remember from the 1960s as a brilliant speaker, but not one who ever made a joke (like almost all the intellectual leaders of the Left), that it was clear that “the usefulness of theory is not in providing us with a determinist script but with the tools to understand the forces of power, language and ideology under which struggle is written, and that this process takes place on what he (Hall) called a ‘determinacy without guaranteed closures.’ ”
Hold on a minute or two while I try to get hold of that. A page or two further on I read Varga’s description of a photographer whose “images are of the places where the limits of expression are calculated, aided by the privatization of information as data-commodity for the financialization of what, in another view, could be seen as the public commons of online media.” Wow, really? And this guy is a teacher? I’m not saying it means nothing: just that I am not on the wavelength, I guess.
Okay, I give up. I can report, however that not all contributors write as if they had a shovel up their arse. There is a very interesting piece by a Palestinian-Swedish filmmaker Lina Makboul about a film she made on the career of Leila Khaled, who will be remembered as the hi-jacker of a TWA plane in 1969, an action carried out for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and who remains a great hero to the Palestinian people.
I was pleased to see from Shannon Walsh, an internationally-known documentarist, a penetrating analysis of the assumptions of Participatory Video (PV, as it is called by the insiders), which, she says, really originated with the Challenge for Change programme at the NFB in the early days of the hand-held video. The video-makers believed that by putting the instrument into the hands of challenged people, allowing them to speaking for themselves, was a step towards a changed society. “There is an implicit naivety in much PV philosophy,” writes Walsh “…... It implicitly implies that once the decision-makers realize, for example that farmers are being forced off their land and into precarious conditions for the development of carbon credits, or for mineral extraction, these practises will stop. The liberal ideology that each one is entitled to a set of rights and must just go and take them is a dangerous, yet convenient lie.” This is good stuff. I remember cupboards full of videos at the NFB made by inexpert citizens that no one would ever want to watch again. But the video-makers of that time did produce a slick, persuasive quarterly journal they distributed around the world describing their new video revolution. This attracted many people from abroad to sit at their feet, and I recall many who were disappointed at a reality that fell short of the promise.
Thomas Waugh and Liz Miller, film teachers at Concordia, in their piece use more straightforward language to discuss ways of seeing films. They come out solidly for screening documentaries to actual people, gathered in actual halls. “Previous generations of makers and activists have sometimes been sidetracked by the fantasy of theatrical exhibition or broadcast or cable, but Cinema Politica is showing in the digital age that audiences in the flesh, filling targeted non-commercial spaces, that is, bottoms in seats (and hearts and brains) are still the bottom line.” (It is an odd expression: I would suppose bottoms in seats more or less have to be the bottom line, whatever that means.)
Winton and Turnin produce in their piece the idea of the four Ps: producers, publics, programming, and the politics of presence, none of which, they write in a slight touch of the obvious, Cinema Politica could do without. They also quote the late Peter Wintonick as saying that documentary makers should take “the poverty oath” in order to retain an uncompromised point of view, and independence from systems under critical scrutiny. This strikes me as a strange idea: how about the guy with four kids and a wife who wants to make honest documentaries, but needs something to keep his family alive? Is he disqualified because he makes enough to live on? I guess this comes as one of the tenets of doctivism, which could be the subject of a more complete analysis in another book, hopefully one shorn of academic language.
There are some interesting lists of films compiled by various film-makers and theorists at the request of the editors, but it remains that in addition to celebrating the ten years of Cinema Politica activity, this book tends rather to the sort of navel-gazing that is so common, and so tedious, among academics.
I thought perhaps in this piece, finally, I might join the various contributors by putting in my own five cents worth to the discussion. I have had the experience of working in the media in many of the forms that were extant in my years of activity --- I know nothing about all these new technologies, and doubt that I could handle them --- but I have some basis for judging the efficacy of the documentary film, compared with a TV programme, a book, or a newspaper or journal article. In twenty-five years as a daily journalist I could never deny that the newspapers had a lot of influence on society, but the individual journalists, no matter how prominent they might be, had little if any influence on anything or anybody.
When I finally got to making films (in my forties by this time) I tended to regard films as a weapon to be used in improving society. Of course, I soon found that to have a messianic attitude was wrong, misplaced, counter-productive even. At first I was contemptuous of those who strove for technical excellence, but pretty soon I realised technical excellence was part of your weapon in the struggle for ideas: you got your message over better if the film was good, than if it was amateurish or just flung together somehow.
I have always been mystified as to the results of anything that appears on TV. What impact is it having? There is hardly any way of knowing. You work over your programme for months, it comes on, and then overnight it disappears, more often than not it is not even noticed by any of the critics, and even if it is, not often usefully.
The first films I made were about the native people and their lives. Everything I had learned through my twenty-five years of journalism was confirmed: the establishment, anyone with money, anyone with power, couldn’t have cared less about the native people. No matter how often you told them in what terrible conditions they lived, these people would shrug and walk away. Nothing to do with them.
By taking my first, rather crude, amateurish film around church halls I began to realize that this was a more effective way than the TV screen to get a message across. I figured then, if four people out of a hundred came up to me afterwards and said how much they appreciated it, often saying how they never realised that native people were in such conditions, if that happened, you had a huge success. It is possible to get thorough to people, a few people, with a film, and I agree with Waugh and Miller that they need to be in an audience and to have shifted themselves to get there. You might even change the lives of people, occasionally I have heard from people who tossed up their jobs because of a film they had seen, and embarked on a different life-path.
But honestly, I have always felt that the medium of information that has the most influence is the book. I think the basic reason is the tremendous commitment a reader gives to the author, hours and hours of his or her time just as the author has given weeks and months and even years of his time to get the story to them. Books rest in libraries, sometimes in book shops, for many years, and can always been accessed by interested people. In other words, the medium with the smallest circulation paradoxically enough, has the biggest influence.
That’s my five cents worth: forget messianic ideas that you personally can change anything, you have to be content if you can reach a few people with whatever your message is. That some people should have made a life’s work out of analysing this simple thing, this question of a film, its audience, and its maker, is surely surprising enough (I guess they have not taken the vow of poverty, these academics !). And it is certainly testified to by this book.
On the whole I would say forget these analysts and theorists: just go ahead and do your thing. If what you produce is any good your piece will find an audience. Cinema Politica will be standing ready to help you do so. And you never know: you may change someone’s view of the world.