Book Reviews

New Documentary Ecologies: Emerging Platforms, Practices and Discourses

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POSTED BY MARK TERRY – FEBRUARY 9, 2018

New Documentary Ecologies: Emerging Platforms, Practices and Discourses, edited by K. Nash, C. Hight, C. Summerhayes. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2014.

The opening quote from Katerina Cizek, a director with the National Film Board of Canada, provided in the Introduction of New Digital Ecologies: Emerging Platforms, Practices and Discourses, makes the claim that “[R]eally great documentary is about remaining open to what’s actually happening around you…” (1).

The explicit meaning of this is obvious, but the implicit meaning is the focus of this anthology of essays exploring how the technology and affordances in the digital domain are creating new opportunities in theory and praxis for the documentary. Both filmmaker and film-viewer – more accurately and frequently identified as “user” – need to be open to new advances in the genre in order to enhance their respective experiences.

The book features many of the leading scholars in the field of the digital documentary. And since there is such a variety of discourse, the book smartly divides the discussions into three sections: Expanding Documentary, investigating new ways of producing, engaging audiences and politicizing documentary content; Production Practices, showcasing how effective documentary approaches such as participatory and collaborative filmmaking are now growing in practice and impact through the global reach afforded by the digital domain; and Inter/Action: Rethinking Documentary Engagement, a section that explores how the audience is joining the filmmaker as a producer and distributor and no longer just as a mere viewer and what ethical challenges arise from this collaboration.

One of the more fascinating documentary ecologies emerging and examined in this book is the multilinear documentary. Matt Soar, one of the developers of the Korsakow system, a popular database documentary production software, contributes an in-depth chapter titled Making (with) the Korsakow System. Referring to his creation as “second-wave software” (156), Soar explains that Korsakow – and other multilinear documentary film projects – have three different kinds of editing: the first is the regular kind of editing we see in traditional filmmaking; the second, Soar refers to as “algorithmic editing” in which individual film units (“smallest narrative units” or SNUs) are assembled in a unique symbiotic manner that allows the viewer to choose which fragment to view at any given time; the third involves the viewer in this editing process as they are provided with the responsibility of selecting which SNU to view.

Another contributor to this book and on this topic is Kursakow filmmaker and teacher, Adrian Miles. He provides an interesting perspective on the SNUs, treating all film units as equal in digital documentary content – even those that are traditionally left “on the cutting room floor” (or the digital equivalent term, the “trim bin”). These elements are considered fragments of the database and as such, Miles argues that an editor “no longer decides on a specific, and a single connection between one shot and the next” (71). The viewer now assumes the task of assemblage and does so with all available SNUs, including those in the “trim bin”, now defined as a database.

The implicit narrative of this book is that these new and emerging theories, technologies and ecologies would not be possible without the digital domain. There are unique affordances online that have provided enhanced advancements in production, engagement and dissemination of the documentary film.

Kate Nash explores this phenomenon in her essay, Clicking on the World: Documentary Representation and Interactivity. She argues that documentary viewers in the digital domain are no longer mere “spectators” (50). The range of practices expected of the digital documentary film viewer are now described as “forms of interaction” (50) – a definition which makes no sense in the traditional cinema experience of passive film screening.

The theory and praxis in this new world of documentary production has shortened the distance between filmmaker and audience. In some cases, production and engagement are simultaneous and may even provide the opportunity for maker and user to communicate directly with each other in streaming chat rooms or comments pages. This kind of interactivity is defined by Nash as a “multidimensional phenomenon in which the action of users, documentary makers, subjects and technical systems together constitute a dynamic ecosystem” (51). Indeed, a documentary story in this environment experiences unprecedented levels of mutual engagement, but does this result in enhanced audience influence for activist and social issue projects?

Alexandra Juhasz, in her essay, Ceding the Activist Documentary, believes the possibility exists: “A growing body of digital media studies … attests to the empowering potentials for the Internet-based documentary” (39). She posits that the “greatest challenge for the activist digital documentary will prove to be how to generate political practices from [the documentary filmmaker’s] artfully placed and digitally linked evidence” (44). In my own research, I have placed the multilinear documentary within the digital space of a Geographic Information System map specifically for the political practices of the United Nations. Its goal is to bridge the gap between science and policy by presenting climate data through visualizations (cartographic and filmic) to enhance the written word of the texts currently used by policymakers. Delegates attending the COP22 climate summit in Marrakech, Morocco responded with great enthusiasm for the experimental project and, as a result, the Youth Climate Report was adopted in November, 2016 as an official partner program of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change under its Article 6 mandate for education and outreach.

The book also examines this new documentary ecology in Sandra Gaudenzi’s essay, Strategies of Participation: The Who, What and When of Collaborative Documentaries. Referring to the online documentary audience as prosumers, she argues that the new documentary film viewer is not merely content to watch a documentary, but to assist in the making of it. This raises certain ethical questions surrounding intellectual property ownership and the journalistic integrity of content.

When it comes to such collaborations as seen in “mosaic” projects such as the Youth Climate Report, Gaudenzi argues that while they are successful at visualizing “the multiple through a single uniform interface, they end up standardizing it…” (138). This may well apply to projects like One Day on Earth which she uses as an example, showcasing random fragments of a day in the life of people around the world, however, projects with consistent themes – like climate research – provide a database of factual information specifically required by a policymaking body.

It is therefore evidently possible to affect social change on a political level using the accessible digital tools now available to the documentary filmmaker within the “New Documentary Ecologies” examined in this book. Together with this, new and emerging digital environments for documentary production promise to enrich the genre’s implicit goal of impacting on progressive social change.

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Screening Truth to Power: A Reader on Documentary Activism

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POSTED BY MARK TERRY – SEPTEMBER 7, 2015

Screening Truth to Power: A Reader on Documentary Activism, edited by Ezra Winton and Svetla Turnin. Montreal: Cinema Politica, 2014.

Screening Truth to Power: A Reader on Documentary Activism is a collection of essays and interviews related to the films and filmmakers of Cinema Politica (CP), and as such provides an excellent source of Canadian documentary work that pursues effecting positive social change.

This non-profit doc-screening organization, which started in Montreal’s Concordia University, has established an international reputation for itself as a dedicated showcase of political and activist themed documentary films, most of which have been made by Canadian filmmakers. Its reputation in the documentary film world is quite highly respected and its achievements in bringing together films and filmmakers and the community (with often sold-out attendance) in a relatively short period of just over ten years is quite remarkable.

In their introduction, co-founders Svetla Turnin and Ezra Winton point out that their book is a collection of reflections on “activist documentaries and documentary activism,” an important distinction as not all activist documentaries employ documentary activism and not all documentary activism incorporates activist documentaries.

They go on to say that “just as a social movement could inspire the making of a documentary, a documentary in turn could activate a social movement.” This is a profound statement that highlights the fundamental power of the documentary. The non-fiction essence of the genre combined with the journalistic disciplines of reporting the truth give credibility and often unique access to a story in need of illumination.

Often these stories foreground social issues that require attention, stolen from the glare of dominant and distracting media hegemonies, in order to improve each situation. The documentary frequently has the superior ability of realizing these changes more than the mere written or spoken word.

Montreal filmmaker Marielle Nitoslawaska sums it up best: “Documentary filmmaking can express our human existence in a better, more complete way than any other art form, any other genre of cinema.”

Another interesting aspect of CP’s mandate are the “four Ps” that are essential to their success: Producers, Publics, Programming and Presence. While Producers and Programming seem to be obvious elements crucial to the existence of any film society, the line blurs a bit between Publics and Presence.

What the editors (and CP founders) are suggesting is that while having the public in attendance at screenings is critical, the presence of certain disenfranchised individuals and community groups at screenings of films focused on such diverse groups, is equally important. As a result, they actively reach out to these groups as part of their mandate.

The book includes an essay by Liz Miller and Thomas Waugh – The Process of Place: Grassroots Documentary Screenings – that raises some interesting questions. In quoting Susan Sontag from her 2003 book on photography Regarding the Pain of Others, the question of the effectiveness of viewing the suffering of fellow humans is posed: “Do (photographs) actually propel to action or are they a perverse form of voyeurism?”

In their attempt to steer the film-watching experience to the former, CP organizers place a high importance on having key figures in attendance. While always attempting to have the filmmaker present either in person or via Skype, organizers will also reach out to local activists currently pursuing the issue presented in the film. This “helps audiences transition from the drama that has unfolded on the screen to a network of individuals who are working on the issue.”

I find this approach very productive and helpful to an audience motivated to act but not knowing how to initiate action. In my own experiences hosting screenings of my films there is nothing more frustrating to an audience than to see an important issue convincingly reported on the screen, being motivated to do something about it, but then walking away feeling one does not know where to begin. Local activists in attendance provide a bridge, and therefore a solution to this problem.

In Shannon Walsh’s essay, Speak for Yourself: The Cultural Politics of Participatory Video, she addresses one of the aims of a sub-genre of the documentary film as it originated with the NFB’s Challenge for Change series: “(Participatory Video) places the onus on the individual or local community to make social change.”

She addresses an “implicit naivety” in the expectation that those depicted as victims have the knowledge, ability and confidence to run with their co-produced film to the powers-that-be in order to create the desired social change. If the Participatory Video filmmaker is not of the activist variety, surely the already-overworked subjects cannot be expected to use the medium in an effective lobbying effort to improve their situation. It would appear, Walsh suggests, that a third party is required to act as intermediary between the film’s subjects and those who interpret their stories.

Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters director Steve James offers a journalistic perspective on the responsibility of the documentary filmmaker and why it is so crucial to use the documentary as an instrument for social change in his essay We Aren’t Sorry for This Interruption. In it he states that the documentary film has two essential purposes: “to reveal the world and/or to change the world.”

He explains that documentary’s dual role of film presentation and public outreach means that it pursues both a creative and journalistic truth while used to affect positive social change. “…the ultimate effectiveness of the latter is due in large part to the integrity of the former.”

I experienced this first-hand with my own film when Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations, Achim Steiner, told me that had my films presented what seemed like an agenda on either side of the issue of climate change, they would not have been invited to participate in the policy-making process. The sought-for objectivity of journalistic reportage made the film a reliable source, thereby demonstrating the veracity of James’s assertion.

Screening Truth to Power: A Reader on Documentary Activism is not only a fascinating read for anyone curious about documentary’s role in socio-political activism, but its diverse perspectives from documentary professionals and scholars offer some unique insights on Canada’s leading role in effectively using the genre to speak, or screen, truth to power.

Published by Art Threat, a guide to political art and cultural policy, March 7, 2015.

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