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Docs That Make a Difference: The Politics of Political Documentaries

By Belinda Baldwin

From Barbara Kopple's 'Harlan County, U.S.A.' (1976). Courtesy of Cabin Creek Films,

By Belinda Baldwin and Robert Bahar

It was during the height of America's post-war optimism when Richard Griffith, the American film historian who would later write the definitive book on Robert Flaherty, wrote these discouraging words about American documentary, in his review of Paul Rotha's Documentary: "Since few people now have real faith in the causes which documentary customarily promoted, it is hardly strange that they are indifferent to the documentaries themselves," he argued. "This is the background against which American documentary makers have had to work. It is a story of sporadic endeavor, with nearly as many styles and purposes as individuals."

When compared to, say, the documentary cinemas from England or the Soviet Union, countries that had invented distinct, national schools of revolutionary cinema, American documentary at the time seemed to Griffith unorganized and downright unimpressive.

The Beginnings-The New Deal Era

To be sure, American filmmakers during the New Deal era had made some of the world's most powerful political docs. New York's Workers Film and Photo League brilliantly used newsreels to push political causes about people's rights. League films like Hunger, about the Detroit National Hunger March of 1932, where police opened fire and killed four demonstrators, empowered the people's movement at the nation's capital and at political gatherings across the country. Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke's Hands (1934 displayed in close-up montage the benefits of hands working together for a better world. Pare Larentz's The Plow that Broke the Plains (1937), which he made for the US Resettlement Administration, was a moving-image counterpart to Dorothea Lange's Dust Bowl photography, another USRA project. With its poetic imagery and regionally specific folk music, The Plow that Broke the Plains planted the seeds that would later bear fruit like Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976).

The tide changed for political docs during the following decades. The government's financial support of social art in general, strong during the Depression years, dissolved with the onset of World War II. Later, when Cold War paranoia set in, any person or organization critical of the American way of life was vulnerable to blacklisting. Leftist movements that used art to reveal injustice moved underground and hibernated until the youth of the '60s used public art and protest to demand democracy for all.

The nonfiction cinema that did emerge during the post-war years was less concerned with documenting social injustice than experimenting with the formal language of cinema, à la Abstract Expressionism. This filmmaking was political to the extent that it expressed the emotional price one pays for living in an unfair world. Yet it lacked the kind of broad-based social critique that had enabled films like Hands or Hunger to mobilize social movements composed of as many everyday people as avant-garde artists.

Post-Post-World War II: Political Docs Take Shape

Looking back 50 years later, one sees a very different picture. Documentary cinema about social, political and environmental justice (what we're defining as "political documentary") has persisted in this country, regardless of the dearth of sufficient governmental funding, and in spite of a multi-billion-dollar entertainment industry that sees documentary as unprofitable. Political documentary has shifted in focus and style over the years, from socialist realism to direct cinema and back again, and so has the medium for execution and exhibition, be it film, television, high definition video or the Internet.

For Julia Reichert, a filmmaker who has made a career out of films like Growing Up Female (1974) and Union Maids (1976)—docs about Women's Liberation—and Seeing Red (1983)—a portrait of the American Communist Party-political docs "are not about the ego of the filmmakers or aesthetic ideals." Political docs are instead about raising the consciousness of audiences. Whereas most mainstream programming supports the status quo, political docs "ask us to question the system." As for style, Reichert concludes, since the goal is to initiate social change, the films should speak in a style the intended audience "can relate to."

Regardless of style, political documentary filmmakers share a common purpose in America. When the Socialist film collective Frontier Films opened its doors in March 1937, organizers explained, "There are many aspects of American life ignored by the film industry.... This is the subject matter that needs to be dramatized in America's most popular medium of entertainment." Some 40 years later, Film Fund, the organization that helped fund films like Union Maids and Harlan County, echoed this sentiment, maintaining that "Visual media can support social change by providing the public with viewpoints and visions often ignored by commercial media." St. Clair Bourne, producer/director of numerous documentaries including Paul Robeson: Here I Stand! (1999), and the founder of the Black Documentary Collective, says, "Despite what the corporate media tells you, there really isn't one objective truth."

As Bourne suggests, political docs reveal the multiple realities that corporate media ignore. In the process, political docs uncover the biases of mainstream media, challenging its version of truth, history and what counts as pertinent news. With Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley's Horns and Halos (2003), which explores why a book that addresses George W. Bush's alleged problems with drug addiction was pulled from the shelves and ignored by the press, Hawley maintains, "It was important to put a spin on it that wasn't being covered on the news." The same impetus explains films like Robert Richter's A Plague on Our Children (1979), which uncovers how industrial waste hurts our children, or Fredrick Wiseman's canonical Titicut Follies (1967), which initiated public outcry against the Massachusetts State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Emile de Antonio's Point of Order (1964) and Millhouse: A White Comedy (1971) reframe actual news footage to expose governmental corruption from McCarthy to Nixon.

The Real Democracy: Where the Personal is Political

Political documentaries also bring marginal or invisible social identities to the forefront. In the corporate-dominated American media, democracy is more of an ideal than a reality, with many American communities either not seen or represented in a negative, monolithic fashion. Thus the struggle for fair and positive representation in today's media is tantamount to a struggle for democracy.

For Spencer Nakasako, head of the youth media program in San Francisco's Tenderloin district, "To see yourself [in media] is to exist in today's world." Best known for A.K.A. Don Bonus, the video diary of a Tenderloin teen residence, Nakasako helps first- and second-generation Asian-American teens express themselves through the very mechanisms that deny their reality. He empowers the kids who do not see themselves in the mainstream to create new, positive images of their lives. With cameras, these kids learn that their stories matter.

In this way, political docs strengthen communities from the inside out and show us that the personal is political. Newsreel's The Women's Film (1971), for example, honors working class women's contribution to the labor struggle, bringing the two movements together. The key, as Bourne has argued for African-Americans, is for minorities to gain control over their own representations.

Political docs also sometimes make us face the parts of our reality that we'd rather ignore. Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman's Silverlake Life: The View From Here (1993) brings us behind closed doors, into the homes, doctor's offices, and deepest fears of men struggling with the AIDS virus. The advent of less intrusive, lighter-weight video and sound technology has taken us deeper and deeper into our hidden worlds. The personal can still be as revolutionary as it was during the 1970s, when the eldest son on Alan and Susan Raymond and Craig Gilbert's An American Family (1973) came out of the closet; just watch Sandi DuBowski's Trembling Before G-d (2001), about gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews.

The '70s: Harlan County, U.S.A. and Beyond

For many, Barbara Kopple's Harlan County, U.S.A. is the quintessential American political documentary. The film reveals the legitimacy of the Kentucky coal miners' strike even as it implicates the mining company in criminal activity against the strikers. And like so much of the New Deal public art, the film paints a regionally specific, heroic portrait of America's working class.

Harlan County is "political" because of its content, but also because of its function in American society. Bigger than the coal miners' story, Harlan County uncovers how corporate capitalism, if left to self-regulate, exploits working people. In doing so, the film demonstrates why it and other films like it are vital to the democratic process. These films express dissent and challenge the status quo.

Harlan County also tells us something about the time in which it was made. The 1970s were an amazing decade for American documentary and independent cinema. While the government's Bicentennial celebration meant increased budgets for the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts and PBS, President Nixon's tax shelters and income tax credits for domestic film production (meant to help studio films) fueled independent cinema and the creation of nonprofit film organizations. Film Fund was started during this time with generous donations from some of America's wealthiest families. Simultaneously, organizations like Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF) and Independent Feature Project (IFP) transformed the country's independent cinema into a community of people with shared resources, film markets and magazines. The Sundance Film Festival's origins trace back to the Utah/US Film Festival, which started in 1978, a time when growing demand from overseas film and television markets for American content attracted international investors.

The '80s: PBS Strengthens its Infrastructure

The 1980s brought huge budget cuts for the arts under the Reagan Administration; political filmmakers nonetheless persisted. Many used the decade to create a stronger public broadcasting infrastructure. PBS alone created several new programs, beginning in 1983 with Frontline, the venerable series that covers current affairs topics ranging from politics to criminal justice to healthcare and occupational safety and health. One of public television's first venues to profile social issue films, P.O.V., also got its start in the 1980s. Since then, P.O.V. has enriched lives with such works as Silverlake Life: The View From Here; Marlon Riggs' Tongues Untied (1992); The Smith Family (2002), Tasha Oldham's portrait of a Mormon family in crisis; and Señorita Extraviada (2002), Lourdes Portillo's stirring investigation into the disappearances and murder of young women in Juarez, Mexico.

Cable networks like HBO, with its groundbreaking documentary series America Undercover and Cinemax's series Reel Life now also play an important role in presenting provocative, political films. America Undercover recently presented Rory Kennedy's five-part series Pandemic, which puts a human face on the global AIDS crisis; Cinemax Reel Life is presenting the aforementioned Horns and Halos (2003) and the Academy Award-nominated Balseros (2003), which examines the lives of seven Cubans who tried to make their way to the U.S. using homemade rafts in 1994. Like Frontline and P.O.V., HBO's America Undercover, Cinemax's Reel Life, and PBS' Independent Lens bring independent filmmaking and alternative perspectives into America's living rooms.

Thankfully too, because the 1980s and 1990s saw unprecedented media conglomeration. In 1986 General Electric purchased NBC. Disney bought Capitol Cities Communications and ABC in 1995. The same year, Westinghouse Corporation bought CBS and later sold it to Viacom. As a result of such media mergers, the American media has become increasingly centralized in ownership and focus. As Shanto Iyengar and Donald R. Kinder conclude in their book News That Matters, "The verdict is clear and unequivocal. By attending to some problems and ignoring others, television news shapes the American public's political priorities...When television news focuses on a problem the public's priorities are altered, and altered again as television news moves on to something new."

Many nonprofit media organizations have started in recent years to combat the centralization of the American media. One organization that addresses the needs of "un-served or under-served audiences" is the San Francisco-based Independent Television Service (ITVS), which began because of a 1988 congressional mandate. ITVS provides funds for social issue docs (among others), then works with public television to get these programs on the air. Recent ITVS docs include Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco's Academy Award-nominated Daughter from Danang (2002) and Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer's Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin (2003), both of which explore what it means to be an American minority.

Even with these films, though, minority issues are under-represented in public broadcasting. Five organizations collectively known as the Minority Consortia are focused on addressing this issue. Latino Public Broadcasting (LPB), National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC), National Asian American Telecommunications Association (NAATA), Native American Public Telecommunications (NAPT), and Pacific Islanders in Telecommunications (PIC) all support political documentaries from minority perspectives. These organizations exist not only to help support diverse content, but to support diverse producers. As Nakasako explains, there is a big difference between a film about "the other" and one by and about the filmmaker's community. While minority communities can be exciting to filmmakers who are experiencing them for the first time, the filmmaker's outsider status subtly alters the film in ways that can offend community members or misinterpret their stories. Media activists who want to help a community to which they do not belong, St.Clair Bourne argues, "should make the film themselves only as a last resort." Diversity should speak for itself.

Alt, Indie and Active

Today's documentary filmmakers have also created alternative means of distribution and exhibition to counter the narrowing effects of increasingly centralized media. While co-ops like New Day Films, which started in the 1970s, keep distribution and royalties in filmmakers' hands, grassroots groups like FreeSpeech TV, the self-proclaimed "nation's first progressive television channel" available on The DISH satellite network and on some public access stations, broadcast mostly political content. FreeSpeech TV now reaches millions of homes, giving voice to documentary and media makers who couldn't otherwise compete with the likes of Fox and CNN.

FreeSpeech TV is part of a broader movement for alternative media. One of the most innovative and exciting developments in this movement has been the birth of the independent media centers, collectively called Indymedia. According to media activist Joan Sekler, whose recent work includes Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election (2002) with Richard Perez, Indymedia informally began in 1996 as she and other media activists converged during the Democratic and Republican National Conventions to create alternative radio, print and video coverage, some of which aired on FreeSpeech TV.

The movement officially began during the 1999 Seattle protests of the meeting of the Word Trade Organization. Anticipating that corporate media might demonize or ignore protesters, media activists rented a space in Seattle to create alternative press of the event. This space became the first of more than 50 Independent Media Centers that now operate in the US, Europe, Canada, Latin America, Africa and Asia. Each IMC creates a unique mission statement based on the pressing socio-political issues and preferred processes of its location and community. However, the broad goal of each IMC is the same: to offer "grassroots, non-corporate coverage," and ultimately, "to be an outlet for the creation of radical, accurate, and passionate tellings of truth."

Once these alternative truths are created, the next step is to get them to their specific target audiences. Whereas filmmakers of earlier generations had to bear this burden on their own, today there are organizations like Working Films and These nonprofits bridge the gap between media makers, educators, activists and the public. Media does this primarily through its website, which serves as a database for people looking for films on particular topics. For filmmakers, the website is part of an "outreach campaign" that extends beyond the normal bounds of theatrical release, television broadcast and home video.

As executive director Nicole Bettancourt stresses, outreach campaigns are as important as the films themselves. An outreach campaign is the filmmaker's plan of action, ideally constructed as part of the pre-production phase, for film screenings within local communities, film festivals, congressional hearings or any other social or civic event appropriate to the context of the film. Whether that outreach is built around one broadcast, multiple screenings or years of strategic consciousness raising, outreach campaigns are vital to a film creating social change.

Since a film screening can be appropriate at any time, regardless of when the film was made, outreach campaigns also mean that good political docs can live for decades—well beyond the short period of festival, theatrical or television release. Equally importantly, outreach campaigns are vital to a filmmaker looking to attract funding. As Bettancourt explains, today's financial sponsors want to know ahead of time that the films they fund will make a difference. (An outreach tool kit is available on's website.)

Making a Difference

Which is what it's all about—making a difference. For decades now, media activists have been making the difference. Much has changed since Richard Griffith described his loss of faith in political documentary. Media activists have taken their cameras to the streets, broadcast footage on television and over the Internet and established global alliances, keeping the American tradition of dissent alive and kicking. Their media varies in style and focus but shares a common faith in its power to create positive social change. Moreover, political documentarians and media activists play an important role in our society by challenging the commercial media's stronghold over the American political agenda. They push us to create a more democratic society and to question our assumptions about governments, issues, people and the media itself.

In the wake of 9/11, the US' involvement in Iraq and the forthcoming Presidential elections, maybe American audiences—now more than ever—to quote Griffith again, " have real faith in the causes" of political documentary. Maybe the time is now.


Belinda Baldwin is a Los Angeles-based writer and producer.

Robert Bahar serves on  IDA's Board of Directors. He is the director and co-founder of Doculink (, a grassroots organization for documentary filmmakers, and he works as a producer and line producer of documentaries. He can be reached at