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February 1993


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 25 Feb 1993 10:52:01 PST
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I'm afraid that the following is a bit long, but I've been pretty quiet
The recent discussions about documentary film and social change seem to
have three themes which seem to elide each other. The Roger and Me
thread seems a curious mix of arguing that ends justify means (or
"history will absolve me", as Joe Stalin once put it, and the notion of
"art as a weapon." Alas, art has never been particularly successful as a
weapon. I believe that it was Walter Benjamin who described Fascism as the
aestheticization of politics and Communism as the politicization of art.
Another thread seems to resurrect the hypodermic theory of attitude
change and clothe it in social change raiments. Crudely stated, it
assumes that one shot of enlightenment, one HARVEST OF SHAME, changes
things. Those of us who have labored in the vineyard of information
campaigns know that it is a very slow process, and that the attitude
change-information change-behavior change paradigm is not magically
useful in creating change. Curiously, behavior change (such as smoking
bans) is frequently followed by attitude and information change.
Where documentaries can have effect is in raising the public visibility of
issues, or "agenda setting." But this is an early step, and unless it is
followed by continual repetition and reinforcement of theme, it too can
Finally, there is the thread that started all of this, which was the
film maker identifying with the subject and deceiving himself/herself
that she and the subject are the same. Cal Pryluck pointed out the
essential differences in a seminal essay some years ago, and repeated
the gist of it in his comments. I once heard a British television
executive of Indian origin describe these sorts of folks as "behalfers",
people who make films on behalf of others.
When the National Film Board of Canada began its CHALLENGE FOR CHANGE
program, which was about film and social change, first-class film makers
like Colin Low worked with local fisherman  in Fogo Island to make
films about local conditions, so as to enlighten the Ottawa bureaucracy
in ways that the locals could not put in writing. By the time the
program got to Montreal, the local people realized that they should be
making the films themselves, and took control of the project. Bonnie
Klein's NFB film VTR ST.JACQUES documents the process.
Finally, there is an interesting discussion of early network documentary
values and methods in the current JOURNALISM MONOGRAPHS (137/February 1993)by
 MichaelCurtin, entitled Packaging Reality, The Influence of Fictional Forms on
the Early Development of Television Documentary.
As for the "objectivity -subjectivity" argument, I've found that the
insertion of the word "honest" somewhere in the discussion tends to be helpful.
-Henry Breitrose