Monday, January 11, 2010

Social Advocacy Documentaries, Part Three

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

One expects it is easy enough to call the film “soft,” however, and to wonder if there are other contemporary films that “live up” to Godmilow’s critique (and possibly the more difficult critique of a “totalizing” position as brought up in Renov, Winston and Trinh T. Minh-ha’s writings) with a harder stance. To put films to such a test, however, requires a clearer picture of what Godmilow hopes for. What would such a documentary look like? Does Godmilow clearly define it? Godmilow’s piece claims “This essay will consider new forms of documentary which challenge non-fiction film practice and which link the documentary form more closely with political action.”

Oddly like Dick Cheney in 2000, leading George W. Bush’s Vice Presidential Search Committee only to discover the best vice presidential candidate would be ... Dick Cheney, Godmilow follows this statement with analysis of only two films: Harun Farocki’s Inextinguishable Fire (1969) and her own shot-for-shot recreation of that film, What Farocki Taught (1998). Her primary assertions: that by using low production values and avoiding traditional narrative form, these films avoid “entertaining;” that by using (nonprofessional) actors these films avoid observing “the other;” and that by clarifying specific ethical / political choices (in this case the ethical use of one’s labor), the film can lead to direct political / social change.

What then of contemporary social advocacy documentaries? How do they fare in effectiveness, and can one appraise them against those four points of critique?

Laura Poitras’ My Country, My Country (2006), nominated for the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary, is in the tradition of observational documentary. Taped in Iraq in the period leading up to the January, 2005 elections, the film’s main story arc follows political candidate Dr. Riyadh and his family in this period, culminating in their own decisions about voting. Other threads, however, intersect with this story as Poitras follows security contractors involved in transporting ballots, U.S. military briefings about the changing security situation, the Kurdish militia, and Riyadh’s connection to the prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Here we may address Godmilow’s first point of critique: does the film compromise to comply with the audience’s expectation of entertainment and clarity? If we avoid the oversimplification that anything “entertaining” is made so at the expense of edification, this is best decided if we ask: what is the key story of this film? Is it the process of the election, or the human experience of Iraqis during the U.S. occupation and the possibilities left after its end? The access to Dr. Rihadh’s family that the filmmaker has secured leads us to the second story as the central aim of the film. And if this is the case, it would seem that the film’s “obligations” are simply the normal ones: to make the story concise enough to tell in a watchable length, and in coherent form.

Godmilow’s second critique is the most interesting regarding this film. One may fairly consider an Iraqi family living in an occupied zone as “distressed social actors.” But since the film follows a medical professional (and certainly many members of Documentary’s “elitist audience” would be doctors) and one who reads as fairly Western in dress, the situation is more complicated. As well, when one looks at the “implications” of the film, it may be that the social issue it addresses––life during occupation, democracy enforced at gunpoint––may very well implicate the U.S. audience of this film. Dr. Riyadh’s “problem” may be defined as the bombs that fall on his street and the impending civil war in his city, rather than as his own “social issue.”

Still, Godmilow’s third critique does seem to hit accurately. An epilogue that suggested how one might vote or a letter writing campaign would be completely out of place at the end of this film. As well, the action that has led to the “problem” of the film occurred two years before the film starts. Still, if one defines the political issue the film addresses in “big picture” terms––what role should the United States play in the world?––it is not one where a specific political action can be called for. Rather, edification is an ideal strategy, preparing viewers for related political decisions that cannot yet be foreseen but will be better addressed with a deep understanding of past actions.

As well, My Country, My Country eludes the critique of a totalizing viewpoint in its complexity. There are mixed results, mixed signals and mixed ideas throughout, and this complicated understanding of the situation (not unlike that of Kopple’s American Dream) leaves one uncertain. It can certainly be considered as a series of questions, rather than as a totalizing answer.

Alan Berliner’s Wide Awake (2006) addresses directly the social issue of sleep disorders and sleep deprivation, though its larger indirect target––the relationship of individual to family––may be its more important topic. In one sense, the film is a contemporary update of the problem-solution model, albeit with a much more sophisticated structure. Its first half delineates Berliner’s personal struggle with sleep, and details the specifics of the issue (and its prevalence in society) through a series of conversations with doctors. In the second half, however, connections between Berliner’s personal life and his issues with sleep begin to be revealed: his late-night filmmaking practice, his childhood practice of staying awake to monitor his parents’ fights, and his need to find a schedule that will allow him to connect with his new baby’s life.

Godmilow’s three critiques are quite informative when used to interrogate this film. The film is endlessly entertaining, from overall story arc to music-like edited sequences exploring ideas that arise in Berliner’s exploration, ranging from his dreams to illustrations of his emotional state. There seems to be little need to compromise in individual elements, but one wonders if the resolution of the film isn’t constructed for an audience’s sake––a simplification of a complicated reality, presenting answers that can’t be known yet or that can’t yield simple results. (One thinks of the “Are you happy?” question that begins the exploration of Morin and Rouch’s Chronique d'un été and realizes that the presentation of simple answers, upon deeper cinematic interrogation, tends to lead to the revelation of complexity––and ambiguity.) Berliner is in fact a “distressed social actor” here, but also in complete control of the film, and certainly not of a lower social class than the filmmaker or audience (as Godmilow’s critique implies). As well, Berliner does present clear (if open) ideas for a “solution” to this problem, though he ultimately leaves open key parts of this solution to individual choice–– thus avoiding a totalizing approach. The film is clearly most effective as edification, but this is to be expected of any film that addresses problems that may be best solved with information and medical or therapeutic help. No call for sleep legislation would be sensible here, but a clear argument for the importance of the issue seems quite effective from the standpoint of “raising consciousness.”

Czech Dream (2004), made by Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda could be said to be the far end of a path started by Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch in Chronique d'un été (1961). While the “provocation” in that film––the prototype for French Cinéma Vérité––was simply a question, for Czech Dream most of the film is the development of an elaborate provocation. Studying social attitudes on the newly-introduced “hypermarts” (in a country previously known for food queues for plain items, and at best rare availability of “exotics” like tropical fruit) and the promotion techniques of advertising, marketing and public relations, the filmmakers conduct their experiment, allowing the existing mechanism to work its magic, and the desires of the public to become clearly visible in their film.

It is interesting that Czech Dream connects in its study of promotion techniques to issues similar to the “ethical use of labor” concern found in Inextinguishable Fire and restated in What Farocki Taught. In arguments with marketing researchers and advertising staff, the directors find a similar “building block” mentality as pointed out in those films: we can combine our abilities in any order you like, but we are not responsible. In one sense, it can be said that the film goes further, revealing the “demand” more clearly than is done in the Farocki / Godmilow studies of napalm production. After all, in the same way that consumers wish for well-packaged and inexpensive foods, and are manipulated by media to see this as a need rather than a want (one jingle stating: “if you don’t have cash, take out a loan...”), consensus for the Vietnam war was maintained for years, “sold” to the American public in a similar manner. One can ask, at this point, if the most politically “effective” possibility for documentary film wouldn't be the complete lie. That is, where Barbara Kopple's American Dream is ultimately sympathetic to the workers and their plight, it presents a complicated situation and one expects it will leave audiences more aware but not necessarily charged to vote a certain way or to take to the streets.

Next: Conclusion

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