Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Social Advocacy Documentaries, Part Four

This is Part Four of the series Do Social Advocacy Documentaries "Work"? You may want to start with Part One.

In comparison a “documentary” story also presented in 1990 meets some of Godmilow's criteria, and certainly led to action:

...the most emotionally moving testimony on October 10 came from a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, known only by her first name of Nayirah. According to the Caucus, Nayirah's full name was being kept confidential to prevent Iraqi reprisals against her family in occupied Kuwait. Sobbing, she described what she had seen with her own eyes in a hospital in Kuwait City. Her written testimony was passed out in a media kit prepared by Citizens for a Free Kuwait. “I volunteered at the al-Addan hospital,” Nayirah said. “While I was there, I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns, and go into the room where . . . babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die.” Three months passed between Nayirah's testimony and the start of the war. During those months, the story of babies torn from their incubators was repeated over and over again. President Bush told the story. It was recited as fact in Congressional testimony, on TV and radio talk shows, and at the UN Security Council. “Of all the accusations made against the dictator,” MacArthur observed, “none had more impact on American public opinion than the one about Iraqi soldiers removing 312 babies from their incubators and leaving them to die on the cold hospital floors of Kuwait City.”

Of course, in fact Nayirah was a member of the Kuwaiti Royal Family, daughter of Saud Nasir al-Sabah, Kuwait's Ambassador to the US, and had been coached by public relations firm H&K’s vice-president Lauri Fitz-Pegado to deliver false testimony.
 It is likely that the false story quite effectively shifted public opinion enough to have a decisive effect on the January 12, the U.S. Senate vote–– decided by a five-vote margin––to support the Bush administration in a declaration of war.

It is precisely the absolutism with which a lie is presented that makes it effective––something nuanced presentation lacks. Godmilow’s critiques arise from a postmodern viewpoint fueled by the knowledge that what seems like a search for “the truth” may often be deception in the service of a dominant discourse. This idea is explained well by Robert A. Rosenstone in his book Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History:
The heart of postmodernism, all theorists agree, is a struggle against History. With a capital H. A denial of its narratives, findings, and truth claims. A view of it as the great enemy, the oedipal father, the metanarrative of metanarratives, the last and greatest of the white mythologies used to legitimate Western hegemony, a false and outworn discourse that fosters nationalism, racism, ethnocentricism, colonialism, sexims––and all the other evils of contemporary society.
One (unusually) clear statement of the case against history has postmodernism questioning (1) the idea that there is a real, knowable past, a record of evolutionary progress of human ideas, institutions, or action, (2) the view that historians should be objective, (3) that reason enables historians to explain the past, and (4) that the role of history is to interpret and transmit human cultural and intellectual tradition from generation to generation.

Rosenstone details how Godmilow’s film Far From Poland (1984) works in light of this distrust of documentary / history and its traditional claims: the film makes clear her specific inability to access the events of the story, and makes just as clear that the documentary form itself shares this inability––quite possibly with any story. Why then would Godmilow choose to participate in documentary production?
What’s essential to me, also, is to produce an audience of individuals (not a ‘community’) who become active intellectual participants in a discussion of the social conditions and relationships represented. I want to produce an audience of individuals who can learn some conceptual tools with which to articulate a critique––a critique applicable to all kinds of social and historical situations, not just to the materials at hand. That involves breaking up comfortable and class contract arrangements that the documentary film usually proffers its audience. Structured into most traditional documentaries is an unspoken promise to audiences that they can have a particular feeling about themselves. The audience is invited to believe: ‘I learn from this film because I care about the issues and people involved and want to understand them better; therefore, I am a compassionate member of society, not part of the problem described, but part of the solution.
It is ironic then that the filmmakers behind Czech Dream––in some ways inheritors to Farocki and Godmilow’s issue of ethical use of labor––manage to form a community in their film: those who are fooled by the film’s “prank” and later those who react for or against what it reveals. And certainly they “break up” the “contract arrangements” with their audience––acting as instigators “for” us, but doing something we might not choose to do or think “fair.” As well, when the film is seen against the context of the Czech debate on entry into the European Union––and its promise of even more commercialism, marketing and advertising––it does open the question of whether the social documentary may have its greatest value as a “conceptual tool” rather than as a script for specific action which will “solve” the problem addressed. One realizes Czech Dream is unlikely to somehow stop the “hard sell” of existing public relations / marketing / advertising forces or even the specific rise of hypermarkets––but those seeing the film are probably better prepared to understand the same techniques applied when the government campaigns for a political change, or marches out “witnesses” with no last name. (In the words of George W. Bush: “There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again.”)

Walker Evans, the documentary photographer, was happy to proclaim what he called “documentary-style” photography as “useless.” Separating photography from items or actions of “use” left it free to serve an aesthetic purpose, which Evans claimed to be a more important and valuable one.

John Cage, as well, was happy to call his music “purposeless play,” but considered it a sort of “training” for life, where one’s perception might be sharpened, then turned to life itself. While any social advocacy documentary may have specific value as either a campaign related to an issue or as a text to raise consciousness about an issue, it may also be that it has a significant value as a model for understanding or confronting future issues. Picasso’s Guernica no longer endangers Franco, and never did to begin with. Still, it seems to trouble those who would stand in front of it to announce other aerial bombing. Is it fair to claim Wide Awake as valuable for anyone who confronts a personal issue, or My Country, My Country for those who wonder about family and community in the midst of chaos, or Czech Dream as important for anyone who expects to be sold their own reified desire? The effectiveness of these films is as debateable as that of the best novels. Interestingly, the rise in the number of significant social advocacy documentaries produced in the last five years may indicate that the social role once held by novels and nonfiction books has shifted to documentary work. Today, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring would surely be a documentary film, with a corresponding Web site detailing how one could get involved after the film.

When I saw Jason Kohn’s Manda Bala (2007) at a film festival, I could not help but take its study of the strange interconnections radiating out from a single act of political corruption as working in a way similar to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22: the specifics of corruption and social policy may have happened somewhere else, to someone else––and Godmilow would see this film as about “the other”––but the form and character of corruption and social madness could be carried away home, and an understanding taken from the film could be used as a tool, ready for use on specifics arising anywhere, anytime.

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