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Fast Foreword: The Editor's Column, April 2004

By Tom White

Dear Readers,

Every four years, the American political system is put on bombastic display, in the sprawling epic known as the presidential election race. In the denouement of this year-long, image-morphing, issue-spewing pageant, the final two or three candidates rise above the fray and vie furiously from coast to coast for votes. One winner emerges, intoning giddy election-night promises of new beginnings, new hope and new horizons, and misty-eyed pledges of unity and harmony.

What courses through this grand American tradition—and, some would argue, runs counterpoint to it—is an even grander tradition: the quest for true democracy, the struggle for voices to be heard and injustices to be addressed, the unveiling of the darker undercurrents and sharper realities of this American life. This is where the mediamakers take action—indeed, have always taken action, in an election year, and every year.

The documentary tradition in America is at its boldest and brightest—and most democratic—when making a difference, when manifesting a conscience, when bringing to light the unseen. This is a tradition that dates back to the 1930s, when such federally funded endeavors as the Workers Progress Administration and the Farm Security Administration helped to forge the union of art and activism.

In that spirit, we look at the past, present and future of social issue documentary. We are fortunate to present to you three essays that look in different ways at the evolution of the genre. Robert Bahar and Belinda Baldwin take the reader through the various contexts in recent American history under which politically oriented documentaries were created. Pat Aufderheide, the director of the Center for Social Media at American University, has adapted a section from a major report she wrote on social documentary in the US. Richard Wormser addresses the 1930s and 1960s as the vital twin crucibles in which free expression was put to the test.

And there are the independent endeavors, both past and present, that have enriched the art form. Nat Segaloff talks to Liane Brandon, one of the founders of New Day Films and a major chronicler of the Women's Movement of the '60s and '70s, about some of the battles she waged to get her work seen. Closer to the present day, Steve Rosen profiles The New Americans, a long-in-the-making project for PBS from Kartemquin Films; Jana Germano talks to filmmaker Robert Greenwald about the grassroots distribution strategy behind his film Uncovered: The Whole Truth about the Iraq War. We also have articles about three organizations that are reaching out across the country and around the world: Working Films, and Witness. Many thanks, respectively, to Belinda Baldwin, Susan Morris and Adrian Belic for their contributions.


Yours in actuality,

Thomas White