Monday, January 11, 2010

Social Advocacy Documentaries, Part Two

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

One can also study Godmilow’s critique to see if it is applicable to “traditional” social advocacy documentary models such as those considered “journalistic,” “agit-prop,” or “problem-solution.” (While she cites in her essay “...the humiliated tenants in Grierson's 1932 film Housing Problems, who are asked to point to the rats and other vermin that inhabit their living spaces” as an example of the social documentary form’s ethical dilemma in depicting “the other,” she does not make it clear whether this is simply to the detriment of the film or makes it “fail” entirely. She cites no films she sees as successful, beyond her own and that of Harun Farocki, so we are left to guess whether her critique is of all social advocacy films or of the state of the field when she writes.)

For this purpose, let us consider as an example of “journalistic” social advocacy Peter Davis’ Selling of the Pentagon. How does it fare in Godmilow’s critique?

It does seem equitable to consider it constrained by the “matrix of obligations” Godmilow cites: it is, after all, an evening’s televison program, originally sandwiched between commercials for laundry detergent. It may be even more constrained in the sense that it was made to comply with the style of news programming of the time. There is a nod to entertainment thoughout (opening with a display of military firepower, for example) and certainly an attempt to “achieve closure.” Yet Godmilow’s other points may be said to fail here: there is no “other” implicated here: it is a story in which the expected audience is both implicated and “wronged” –– the funder of its own deception. As well, an implied political solution is obvious, as the film was made in relation to existing Senate debate and while CBS News would argue for the film’s objectivity, from the perspective of three decades later the film’s conclusion clearly argues for political action.

As an “agit-prop” film, consider 1982’s The Atomic Cafe. Clearly using the appeal of humor and the fascination of footage of atomic testing and “educational” films filled with misinformation, the film does fail against Godmilow’s critique of “obligations” (though one might ask what would not?). But can the film be said to use “distressed social actors” when, as in Davis’ film, those who are “victims” in the film may have been the audience itself or their parents? And if a political solution is not directly called for, with an active and growing anti-nuclear movement in 1982, action certainly is implied.

So-called “problem-solution” documentaries seem like the most exact target for the Godmilow critique, and other theorists have addressed this. Michael Renov, for example, picks up on a critique by Brian Winston (in which Winston includes the work of Leni Riefenstahl in relation to the “Griesonian realist documentary project”) and runs with it:

“It could certainly be argued that the Griersonians, working mostly for Tory governments, helped to put a friendly face on British imperialism in Song of Ceylon (1934) or sell a lukewarm reformism in response to pressing slum clearance questions (Housing Problems, 1935). In this sense, Grierson is to be faulted for espousing progressive views while delivering social integrationism and upbeat nation-building rhetoric for conservative British regimes between the wars. But my own concern is for tracking the development of documentary film as a potent and highly persuasive vehicle of social engineering, selling rhetorical arguments as truths, visions of the world as objective accounts of history. From this perspective, the problem of Vertov and Grierson (and, by extension, the documentary film tradition they helped to launch) was their aggressive––indeed, pulverizing––self-assurance in the pursuit of Truth, Soviet-style or Tory.
It is notable here that Renov’s critique is not one of ineffectiveness, as Godmilow’s is. Rather, he claims for some social advocacy documentary a misguided effectiveness: the ability to make a convincing and coherent argument even of an “incorrect” viewpoint.

Trinh T. Minh-ha goes further in the essay The Totalizing Quest for Meaning, using a quote from Roland Barthes: “The West moistens everything with meaning, like an authoritarian religion which imposes baptism on entire peoples.” She continues: “Yet such illusion is real; it has its own reality, one in which the subject of Knowledge, the subject of Vision, or the subject of Meaning continues to deploy established power relations, assuming Himself to be the basic reserve of reference in the totalistic quest for the referent, the true referent that lies out there in nature, in the dark, waiting patiently to be unveiled and deciphered correctly. To be redeemed.” Thus beyond Godmilow’s list of key failings of the social advocacy documentary (a need to entertain, exploitation of the other / nonimplication of the audience as part of the existing power structure, “soft” solutions or none at all)––which seem to apply to some documentaries but certainly not all––we may also consider the critique of presenting one interpretation as the only one possible, of a closed answer over an open question. It may be an issue inherent in the form, a problem to address in all attempts at social advocacy.

It is clear that Godmilow gives her critique because she does recognize the commonly accepted measure of success in advocacy films: “To change peoples’ minds or ways of seeing is always there at the basis of all non-fiction. But the notion of ‘exercising power’ sounds a bit heavy for most documentaries, unless we can agree that we mean that these films exercise power by changing consciousness, by their deliberate attempt to alter their viewers’ relationship to a subject by recontextualizing it in the proffered time, space, and intellectual field of the film.” In the eight years since her essay, through her efforts and those of many other theorists, the critical notions contained in that piece have become common self-critique for documentarians and often serve as background to the shaping of contemporary films. For example, a mainstream documentary like An Inconvenient Truth (2006) might be acceptable as social advocacy in Godmilow’s view in that it calls for specific political action (if mostly in text during the closing credits) and implicates specifically the audience watching the film (if quite gently, and only partially). Whether it is compromised by its “obligation” to entertain is more of a judgement call.

Next: Contemporary Social Advocacy Documentaries.

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