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Patricia Aufderheide: Promoting the Understanding of Documentary as a Shared Experience

By Agnes Varnum

The first winner of the IDA's Preservation & Scholarship Award was Eric Barnouw in 1985 and it has since been given to outstanding individuals or groups who excel in preserving or teaching about our shared history through documentary film. Barnouw traveled around the world hunting down documentary filmmakers and listening to their stories about the events they recorded and how their work impacted the times in which they lived. That journey eventually took form as Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, published by Oxford University Press in 1974. His research remains a seminal work on the history of documentary film.

The 2006 honoree is Patricia Aufderheide, who, like Barnouw, has traveled around the world examining the conditions of media production and its relationship to culture, as well as analyzing the role of media in shaping our perceptions of shared experience. As a professor at American University in Washington, DC, and as a prolific writer and mentor to filmmakers and academics, Aufderheide has continually generated lasting resources for understanding documentary in the modern era.

Aufderheide was educated in history, and applied her observations of lives and events of the past toward understanding current social and political climates. With an emphasis on exploring the relationship between film and its social implications, her career in film criticism started at age 17 during the Vietnam era. "My film criticism was also social criticism," says Aufderheide. "And it was the first place that I explored the complexity of the relationship between culture and power."

After earning her PhD from the University of Minnesota in 1978, she left academia to establish a culture section at In These Times, a weekly progressive publication whose founding mission was to "identify and clarify the struggles against corporate power now multiplying in American society." Aufderheide saw the opportunity to examine, through reporting on the entertainment industry and institutions supporting it, how consumer culture formed and where there might be cracks in the facade for expanding democratic access to cultural production. Independent film and video become one of the primary lenses through which Aufderheide continues to examine democratic process and access.

Following In These Times, Aufderheide took a position with the American Film Institute's American Film magazine. "When I came to Washington, DC, it was clear that I had come to the place where they build the structures within which people make media," she reflects. "The structures enable and constrain, and yet to most people these structures were invisible." Spurred from reporting to a more active role as a telecommunications policy analyst for the United Church of Christ, Aufderheide got her feet wet influencing policy in the public interest, continuing to keenly observe while also utilizing research to craft persuasive arguments.

In the mid-1980s, Aufderheide returned to academia and began churning out longer critical essays, from "Environmental Reform and the Multilateral Banks," for which she won an award for environmental writing from World Hunger Media Project, to "Music Videos: The Look of the Sound" for the Journal of Communication to "Beyond Television: Grassroots Video in Latin America" for Public Culture. In addition to writing and research, including a turn as a visiting professor at the University of Brasilia in 1995-96 on a Fulbright scholarship, Aufderheide worked her way up the academic ranks, reaching full professor in 1998. But resting on her laurels was not in her plan.

In 2001, Aufderheide founded the Center for Social Media at American University. "I founded the Center because--with our new dean, Larry Kirkman, and the mandate to focus on ‘media that matters'--we had the critical mass to put a focus on the creative work done around social-issue documentary and strategies used to reach audiences with it," Aufderheide explains. The emphasis on the intersection of theory and practice is an unusual focus for an academic center, but Aufderheide quickly found a need for her niche projects.

On an early project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Aufderheide and her frequent collaborator, Peter Jaszi of the Washington College of Law, examined the contractual paper trail of a few critically successful, yet perhaps not widely seen, documentaries. Using contractual analysis along with conversations with the filmmakers, Aufderheide and Jaszi sought to discover why docs have long failed in widespread distribution. But as has become her mark in trade, she didn't stop with a data set and anecdotal commentary; she brought together a group of industry executives, distributors, librarians, broadcasters and filmmakers to have a real-world discussion about the issues the research brought to light.

The result of those conversations and convergence are chronicled in the report "What Keeps Documentaries Films from Audiences--and How to Fix It." The project spurred a continuing dialogue about the conditions of production that hinder distribution of documentary. One of most notable projects to date from the Center for Social Media--which is a child of that early work--brought together 50 nationally broadcast documentary filmmakers from five cities to elucidate what constitutes fair use of copyright-protected material in documentary production. This work was aimed at not only enabling current documentary production but at securing access to documentary films for future generations.

Released in November 2005, the "Documentary Filmmakers' Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use" not only resulted in the release of films employing fair use, such as Bryon Hurt's Beyond Beats and Rhymes, Kirby Dick's This Film Is Not Yet Rated and Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg's The Trials of Darryl Hunt, but also empowered filmmakers to challenge the restrictive "clearance culture" in which they are working. "When Pat first told me about her vision of bringing together documentary filmmakers to reassert our right to use fair use, I was excited by the prospect, but thought it would be a long battle," says Gordon Quinn (Hoop Dreams). "However, the success of the Statement is already changing how we make films." It was an auspicious beginning for a Center only five years old and gearing up for more.

Aufderheide, like her predecessor Barnouw, has an upcoming book to be published by the Oxford University Press--Documentary: A Very Short Introduction, in addition to forthcoming chapters in Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood, edited by Michael Atkinson as part of the "Visible Evidence" collection published by University of Minnesota Press. Her list of awards and associations is long, but her commitment to the potential of media to positively influence society is the continuous thread. At a ceremony honoring Aufderheide with the Scholar-Teacher of the Year Award in 2005, Kirkman said, "The Center acts as a magnet for students with a commitment to media for civil society, as a place where makers and scholars can exchange insights, and as an inspiration for the next generation of communication professionals."

Aufderheide says of her upcoming work, "A recent grant from the Ford Foundation has allowed us to look not only at documentary film practices but on the environment of public media that can nurture and sustain them. Our concerns have thus broadened to look at the ways in which public media are developing in the new open environment of the Internet." For articles and reports by Pat Aufderheide and resources on documentary film, audience engagement, copyright and fair use and public media, visit the Center's website,


Agnes Varnum is a freelance programmer and writer based in New York City.