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Participatory Democracy through Film: Social Documentaries Thrive in Multiple Media Environments

By Patricia Aufderheide

From Portia Rankoane's 'A Red Ribbon Around My House' (20011 part of the 'Steps to The Future' project that addressed AIDS in Southern Africa. OneWorldTV aired excerpts from the film in 2003. Courtesy of Moya Productions and STEPS

This is the best and worst of times for social documentarians. Never has it been easier or cheaper to make a social documentary than today. Many a film professional will grumble, though, that it's still pretty hard to make a watchable one. No matter how cheap it gets to capture images and edit them on your own computer, a social documentary is an artform, and it requires the powerful storytelling skills that are at the base of that artform. It also requires the expert skills of craftspeople ranging from cinematography to lighting to digital effects to editing.

It is also hard—and, some say, getting harder—to match viewers with the documentary. So far new technologies have not solved that problem either. You can easily load a film onto an Internet site; the wit comes in figuring out how to make people want to download it.

When you see a documentary that addresses power relations, as most social documentaries do, you are usually looking at work that has not only won resources, against some odds, to make a well-crafted work. It has also benefited from a successful marketing and promotion strategy, and distributors or programmers have usually greenlighted it to the screen on which you watch it. The work you see was probably enabled—directly or indirectly-by government policies, whether those that established public TV or arts and humanities agencies or the Internet itself. Finally, you are looking at work usually fuelled by the belief that participatory democracy needs diverse expression.

A Mini-History

Today's documentary practices emerge both from technological developments and from powerful social trends. Civil rights movements, starting with the battle for civil rights for African-Americans and growing with feminist, ethnic rights and gender rights movements, spurred many people to express their views, create new institutions and seek out support for expanded notions of citizenship and rights. The expansion of nonprofits, including those that represent rights movements, created institutional vehicles to channel that energy. Public and foundation investment in culture and in mass media created new resources for aspiring makers and institutions that supported them. 

In the 1960s, dissident filmmakers working in the social documentary tradition began using film and video to challenge authorities ranging from the Pentagon (as the collectively made, anti-Vietnam War film Winter Soldier did) to union-busting corporations (as Barbara Kopple did with Harlan County, USA [1976]). Filmmakers formed groups such as Kartemquin Films (which later produced Hoop Dreams [1994] and Stevie [2002]) to create works by and with citizens and community members.

These filmmakers established the image of the independent filmmaker as society's conscience, perhaps unconsciously echoing the British documentary producer John Grierson's goal of creating a "documentary conscience." They founded organizations such as Association for Independent Video and Filmmakers and what became the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture to defend their interests, and they formed distributors such as the cooperative New Day Films. They organized for and won greater access to public television, and created, in tandem with civil rights organizations, groups defending interests of minority filmmakers. The Independent Television Service (ITVS) and public TV's Minority Consortia are their victories. Entrepreneurial, investigative journalists such as Jon Alpert, Bill Moyers and Peter Davis emerged. Major private funders such as the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations supported this work too, and humanities and arts councils provided critical leverage.

Some makers saw themselves liberated from a professional tradition, and used media as part of an oppositional or alternative cultural stance in an aggressively commercial culture. Political newsreels such as those produced by Newsreel, "guerrilla" video, pirate radio, TV programming initiatives such as Paper Tiger and Deep Dish, and some young people's media—self-styled "alternative" or "radical" media—created vehicles and venues outside commercial media. Some began making and using video as part of strategic campaigns. Environmental organizations such as Greenpeace and Earth First documented their own actions both to give to mainstream media for coverage, and to use in organizing and recruiting.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, social activists began to see media as enabling and enabled by community development. Media arts centers, some sponsored by President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society initiatives, offered new voices the chance to express themselves, and to explain their cultures to others. The now-widespread phenomenon of cable access channels—cable TV channels dedicated to governmental, educational and public programming-resulted from grassroots community organizing to demand such channels in the franchise negotiating process. As computing became accessible to consumers in the 1980s, the same logic drove activists to form community technology centers related to social service agencies, nonprofit organizations and as stand-alone projects. There, people could learn computing skills, connect to the Internet, and, increasingly, compose media. Foundation support for community media-notably, from the 1980s to the early 21st century at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation—helped to sustain the work. So did public resources, such as cable franchise fees given under municipal contracts and state and federal economic development funds.

These different strands in social documentary tradition in the US have led to different environments for the creation of such work.

Gatekept TV

First, some social documentarians, recognizing the enormous reach and impact of mass media, create work destined for television and theaters. They challenge entertainment-driven, commercial construction of reality in the heart of mass media—television. Filmmakers aiming for this screen see themselves as professional storytellers, sometimes as journalists, intervening in the daily media diet of Americans, and offering both more information and another way to see the universe of possibilities.

Stanley Nelson's 2003 The Murder of Emmett Till was carried nationally on public TV via the popular strand American Experience. After its January airing, some 10,000 postcards and letters to Mississippi Attorney General have added to the campaign to re-open the case. Judith Helfand and Dan Gold's 2002 "toxic comedy" Blue Vinyl, which has shown repeatedly on HBO, explores the deadly pollution created by polyvinyl chloride. As a result of an audience campaign at its debut at the Sundance Film Festival, the bath supplies company Bath and Bodyworks has agreed to stop packaging its mail-order goods in vinyl. Jonathan Stack's 1998 The Farm, about life prisoners in a Louisiana prison, was shown on A&E and to prisoners' families and in prisons throughout Louisiana, engaging viewers in discussion of the death penalty and sentencing practices.

Ungated, Alternative Media

Second, there is social documentary production in so-called "alternative media," where the current openness of the Internet is exploited to market new media, transmit it, and to engage viewers. Alternative media producers who carve out new media often  serve sub-communities of discourse and action, rather than the broad public that gatekept TV reaches. That can mean very different aesthetic expectations and different ways to measure success.

The chaotic environment of Indymedia, which sprang up after the aborted 1999 meeting in Seattle of the World Trade Organization, is perhaps the most well-discussed territory in today's alternative media. Much alternative media can be near-invisible to a broader public, because it is oriented explicitly toward its own constituencies. For instance, James Ficklin, a producer working with anti-globalization activists and tree-sitters in the Northwest, describes his own activist videos as "educating the converted," providing arguments and information that bring enthusiasts into the movement. His Tree-Sit: The Art of Resistance, which features interviews with tree-sitters, loggers, scientists and others, as well as action footage from Earth First! activists in the Pacific Northwest forests of the US, was shown on cable access and used in organizing.

Alternative media does not need to orient itself to the converted, however. The creative Internet platform OneWorld is forging a community of human rights and social justice NGOs worldwide, while also creating a highly regarded news service and a new venue for social documentaries. Its new television service, OneWorldTV, initiates an experiment in "open documentary," or short-segment, interactive, flow-charted documentaries that develop in complexity with commentary. Since viewers select pathways, they also tailor the documentary to their own informational desires. For instance, in November 2003, OneWorld excerpted Portia Rankoane's A Red Ribbon around My House, a film on AIDS activism in South Africa made as part of the celebrated Steps to the Future series. It links the video with news about South African AIDS activism., which uses the Internet to build "electronic advocacy groups" for liberal and left perspectives on public issues, also uses social documentaries to stir public debate. It claims to have distributed 100,000 DVDs of professional filmmaker Robert Greenwald's Uncovered: The Whole Truth about the Iraq War in a few weeks in October-November 2003. The goal was to expand informed discussion of the war at election time.

Community Media

Third, there is production within a community media environment, where local organizations provide resources for citizens to make their own work. Media arts centers, cable access and community technology centers are all sites where new speakers are enabled to use film and video. These organizations share a common interest in local community development, both economic and cultural. Projects that build public electronic spaces are usually marked by their non-ideological, nonpartisan nature and their localism, welcoming and recruiting a wide variety of nonprofessionals to participate in their programs. They are usually run by people who see themselves as providing electronic commons or vehicles to expand diversity of expression within American media.

For instance, at regional media arts centers like Appalshop in Kentucky, Mimi Pickering's Hazel Dickens: It's Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song both celebrates a regional musical artist and recalls working-class life and union struggles. At Chicago's cable-access CAN-TV, an African-American couple makes a series of African-American history programs. At a community computing center in Saint Julie Asian Center in Lowell, Massachusetts, Asian immigrants use computing resources to assemble Powerpoint slide shows for overseas members of their families, and the center makes videos to add to English language classes.

Sponsored Work with Nonprofits

Fourth, there is production within a sponsored environment, specifically working with nonprofits with a social action agenda. Nonprofits are major commissioners of social documentaries. The independent sector in the US is an outstanding feature of the social landscape, accounting for about six percent of US organizations and of the national income. When nonprofits make or commission media, they act in their parochial interest, recognizing a tool to advance their own agendas. At the same time, sponsored social documentaries often contribute voices and perspectives to public life.

The short film Silence and Complicity, which The Center for Reproductive Law and Policy (CRLP) and the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of Women's Rights (CLADEM) produced, documents gross violations of women's rights in Peruvian public health clinics, and it changed Peruvian public health policy. Every year the Alliance for Justice spends about $100,000 to make a short video to launch its annual First Monday events, in which law students are encouraged to take on pro bono work. In 1997, it focused on immigration law, and commissioned With Liberty and Justice for All from Barbara Kopple. The short film got national publicity and attention on primetime on ABC TV, and resulted in freeing a man from deportation charges. At nonprofit organization Scenarios USA, high schoolers make videos about the terms of their lives and simultaneously get reproductive and life skills information that is otherwise either hard to get or even banned. In Lipstick, a script eventually directed by Michael Apted, a young woman announces she is a lesbian with a controversial public kiss.   

Social documentaries are at once works of art, expressions of subcultures and communities and strategic tools of persuasion. Whether seen on television, shown in community organizations, or scheduled at international conferences, they intervene in the battle for reality conducted every day on the screens of our lives.


Pat Aufderheide is professor and director of the Center for Social Media at Americvan University in Washington, DC. This article is part of a report produced by the center, on environments for the production and use of social documentaries, funded primarily by the Ford Foundation and available free at