Archive for documentary

Documentary, Ethics, Service Learning

To follow up my post on my junior seminar, I’ll quickly add a copy of my course schedule for my Introduction to Film course. In the English department, we have adapted the Intro course so that it will fit into the “ethics and civic engagement” competency for the new core curriculum here at Fayetteville State. With that in mind, I’ve reinvented the course to address issues of documentary ethics and to include a required service learning project in which students make a 6-7 minute documentary about a local community organization (last semester it was Fayetteville Urban Ministry; this semester, it’s the local chapter of the American Red Cross). Last semester was very much a “beta test” for the class, in that I had never taught anything like this. It ended up working out pretty well, but I’ve learned a few things that I can write up later if anyone is interested. Students will also be required to write a paper addressing an ethical concern related to documentary. For now, below the fold, is our weekly schedule.

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Full Frame 2013 Part 1

In case you missed it elsewhere, I’ve been covering Full Frame this year for Filmmaker Magazine. My first report, focusing on Gideon’s Army, Citizen Koch, and American Promise went up yesterday. All three films come highly recommended, but I wanted to add here that American Promise, which follows the paths of two African-American males from age five through their senior year of high school, has continued to resonate for me. In addition to raising questions about the black male education achievement gap (an issue that has become especially pertinent for me given my work at an HBCU), the film powerfully conveys the challenges of parenting and growing up that many of us face. In particular, I appreciated the film’s honesty in depicting the college application process–and the potentially demoralizing effects of being rejected to the colleges you have identified as your top choices. It’s a film that has the potential to open up a powerful dialogue about any number of important questions.

Update: Here’s part two of my Full Frame dispatches, which focuses on Fight Like Soldiers, Die Like Children; Good ol’ Freda; and First Cousin Once Removed.

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Theater On-Demand Rising

I was fascinated to learn about the innovative distribution pattern for the indie film, Girl Rising, which tells the stories of nine young women from across the globe as they seek to improve their circumstances through obtaining an education. Each segment in the film is narrated by a famous actress, including Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, and Selena Gomez, and the website offers a powerful opportunity to explore how the subjects of the film are faring, providing a nice afterlife for the documentary.

But in addition to offering an intriguing story, Girl Rising is notable for its use of the website Gathr to generate interest in the film and to encourage people to “demand” screenings of the film in their community. Gathr–a tool I discuss very briefly in my forthcoming book, On-Demand Culture–allows people to request screenings in their city, and if enough people request the film, it will play at a theater in the area. In fact, enough people have requested tickets for the film that it will be playing in a suburb of Raleigh on Monday, April 8 (go to the website for more details). Supporters of the film have made (as of Deadline’s report) more than 17,000 screening requests and more than 65,000 people have reserved tickets for the film, and as a result of this demand, Regal Cinemas has decided to schedule a one-week theatrical run for the film on over 150 screens across the country, an impressive achievement for an independent film.

To be sure, Girl Rising has a number of advantages over other indie films such as an all-star cast, politically important subject matter, and a collection of non-profit partners who are all promoting the film, but the success of this use of an on-demand model may provide a template for other filmmakers in the future.

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Sunday Links, Hulu, Video Privacy, and 56 Up

Embracing the last quiet Sunday morning before classes start back to catch up on some of my online reads. This semester will involve a number of transitions for me in that I’ll be teaching an online class for the first time (Introduction to Business Writing, which is also a new prep for me) and I’ll be preparing to teach a completely revamped Introduction to Film course next spring. I’m also in the final stages of polishing up my second book (page proofs should arrive in my inbox in the next few days). But all of these changes point toward the possibility that 2013 could be an exciting year. Here are the links:

  • I’ve been writing bits and pieces about the Video Privacy Protection Act, the 1988 law that is now being revised to allow companies like Netflix greater freedom in sharing customers’ rental habits. The bill is designed to give Netflix more freedom to create an app on Facebook similar to Spotify that would allow users to post what they’re watching in their Facebook news feeds (I’d assume something similar would be in place for Twitter, too). Think Progress has a great article on the implications for the bill, but I also wanted to highlight an Ars Technica article that documents how much (over one million dollars) Netflix has spent over the last two years lobbying Congress to pass this bill. It’s also worth glancing at some of the other media companies have spent to pay for lobbying efforts.
  • David Poland attempts to forecast where the studios will go this year in terms of cultivating new delivery systems. Since this is a major aspect of my next book, I was intrigued by Poland’s analysis. The most striking prediction is the speculation that Disney may eventually “eat” Netflix and seek to split its independent and children’s content into separate systems. I’m hoping to write further about some of these issues elsewhere, but Poland’s hunches–from my experience–have been pretty solid.
  • Hulu CEO Jason Kilar has apparently left the company. Om Malik reviews his tenure at the company and where Hulu might go from here.
  • Michael Atkinson has a review of 56 Up, the latest in Michael Apted’s long-running documentary series. I think that my introduction to the series came at around 35 Up, so like many others, I now feel as if I have quite a bit invested in the series, and I’ve also been fascinated to watch as it has evolved from an effort to document class stratifications in Great Britain to something more profound about the changes associated with aging, and how that experience is altered by having your life documented periodically.
  • For my online course this semester, I decided to use audio podcasts to deliver the course lectures. After struggling mightily with a podcast function on our university’s course management system (CMS), I had the good luck of stumbling into a slideshow instructing people on how to embed podcasts on Blogger (which I can then link to in our CMS). The cool part is that you can upload your podcasts to the Internet Archive where they are stored for free and where they uploaded very quickly. My two 7-minute mini-lectures both went up in about five minutes or less.

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Knuckleball

Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s documentary Knuckleball introduces us to the tiny fraternity of major league baseball players who have made a career out of throwing the sport’s most confounding pitch. Unlike the guys who can throw blazing fastballs or curve balls that seem to drop off a table, knuckleball pitchers seem to defy all of the metrics–especially pitch speed–that we use to evaluate major legue talent. In fact, throwing a knuckleball, which involves releasing a pitch so that it has absolutely no spin, requires an astounding level of trust in factors that these pitchers cannot control, especially the wind currents that carry the slowly floating pitch in utterly unpredictable directions, leaving many of the pitchers to talk about their skills in terms that seem to have a Zen-like embrace of “letting go” of the pitch as it enters the world. This discussion of how the pitch works is fascinating by itself, but what fascinated me the most was how Stern and Sundberg were able to provide such a rich understanding of this tiny group of men, linked together across history and even across rivalries, because of a pitching talent that defies almost everything conventionally associated with major league pitching.

Knuckleball is structured around the 2011 seasons of two knuckleballers, Tim Wakefield, who was reaching the end of his long career, and R.A. Dickey, a former hard-throwing phenom who was reviving his career after discovering the knuckler during his 30s. Both men, along with Jim Bouton, Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough, and Wilber Wood, discuss the mechanics of throwing the pitch, but what comes across throughout the film is the uncertainty that both men face. Instead of the typical locker room jocularity, both Wakefield and Dickey are presented as contemplative family men, reflective about their unique status in baseball and the difficulty of playing a sport where their talents are often misunderstood and mistrusted. Wakefield acknowledges that even the most trusting managers and pitching coaches are quicker to give up on a knuckleballer after a few bad starts, but he is hanging on, hopefully just long enough to earn his 200th major league win.

Dickey’s story serves as a reminder that the knuckleball is often seen as a pitch of last resort–the pitch that minor leaguers will pick up when their talents have failed them and there seem to be no remaining options. In Dickey’s case, a deformity in his pitching arm scared off scouts who’d previously offered him a six-figure bonus after he led his University of Tennessee baseball team to the College World Series. Wakefield has a similar story. When he started his career, he’d been projected as a power-hitting first baseman but found that he couldn’t adjust to professional pitchers and, almost by chance, had a pitching coach notice his ability to throw a knuckler. Just a couple of years later, he was in the major leagues with the Pirates, nearly leading the team to the World Series. But like the floating, darting pitch, within two years, Wakefield was on a different path, released by the Pirates and picked up as a gamble by the Red Sox, where he would play for nearly to decades. Even Hall of Famer Phil Niekro suggests that he picked up the pitch only because he could never have thrown a big league fastball.

Because of this outsider status–a pitch based upon unpredictability and less dependent on traditional metrics–Dickey and Wakefield seem most comfortable with their small fraternity of knuckleballers, and Stern and Sundberg capture some fascinating and fun moments when most of the living knuckleballers get together and talk about their experiences. In other scenes, Dickey is shown seeking counsel from Wilbur Wood while visiting Los Angeles rather than discussing the pitch with his pitching coach. In addition, the film spends quite a bit of time looking at Dickey and Wakefield’s lives outside of baseball–their interactions with their wives and children, even on the road–reminding us that their successes depend in part on the families that supported and encouraged them–even when that meant living on $800 a month and moving dozens of times to minor league teams all over the U.S. If the knuckleballer is a solitary figure in the locker room, he is also a family man, older than most of his teammates.

The film culminates with Wakefield paying tribute to the others in his small fraternity, one that forever seems to be on the verge of extinction, given the small number of players that throw it. At the same time, Dickey’s success–he has blossomed into an ace pitcher since the film was produced–holds out promise that this small Zen-like fraternity will endure as yet another player seeks out another backdoor path into the major leagues.

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Documenting the Doctor

A good friend of mine, Chris Hansen, is making a documentary about Doctor Who fandom in the United States, and he is interested in hearing from (and interviewing) fans of the show in all of its incarnations and also the scholars who study it (not that those two categories are mutually exclusive, of course.

I’ve known Chris for a long time, and one of my first memories of meeting him was seeing his vast collection of Doctor Who novels, so I know he’ll approach this subject with an appreciation of the series and its fans, unlike some of the Star Trek docs that have treated their subjects condescendingly. Chris also works in an academic setting, so I think he is also well-positioned to understand and present how scholars approach fan studies and similar forms of scholarship.

If you’re interested in being involved in the documentary, you can get in contact with Chris at the link above. If you want to check out some of his past films, they are available online.

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What Else I’m Reading

Because I haven’t been posting in a while, here are some more things I’ve been following lately. In other news, I somehow completely forgot to mention my ninth anniversary of blogging last month (I started a Blogger blog way back in March 2003)  until I noticed how Atrios was commemorating his tenth (!) anniversary. This gives me about ten or eleven months to come up with a creative way of marking ten years of blogging by March of next year. Suggestions are always welcome. By the way, here’s another bulleted list for your weekend entertainment:

  • A longtime blog friend, Craig Lindsey, will be teaching a course on film criticism and column writing on May 5. The course is open to the public and will be held here in Raleigh.
  • One of the early inspirations for my blogging habit was Robert Greenwald, whose anti-iraq War documentaries showed me how social media could be used to promote political activism. Now he’s back (yet again), this time with a documentary, Koch Brothers Exposed, which is meant to document the poster boys of SuperPACs.
  • The cinetrix has posted another fantastic collection of links, but I’m highlighting this one because I’ll probably borrow at least half of these links when I teach Introduction to Film next fall (scroll down a bit for some terrific Welles and Kubrick links).
  • Hugh Atkin has posted what is, without doubt, the best political remix video of the 2012 election so far: Will the Real Mitt Romney Please Stand Up?
  • Michael Newman offers a compelling reading of advertisements for TVs, mobile devices, and 3D imagery.
  • For the 10th edition of Film Art, their introductory film textbook, Bordwell and Thompson are linking up with Criterion to create a series of videos for teaching many of the formal techniques of cinematic storytelling. Very cool.
  • Meanwhile Kristin Thompson warns against identifying trends based on a single year of box office numbers.

Hoping to have some more substantial blog posts soon, including reviews from this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, scheduled for next week (I believe this will be my fifth or sixth year of attending, another milestone that I find particularly unsettling).

 

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Rethinking “Stop Kony”

A few weeks ago, I expressed some fascination with the Stop Kony phenomenon. My reaction was oddly timed in that Jason Russell, the “star” of the first video was detained while I was composing my blog post, but it was impossible to deny that the original video had made what appeared to be a profound impact on an international youth culture using a combination of social media tools, celebrity “attention philanthropy (to use danah boyd’s phrase),” and a persuasive narrative structure. At the time, my post was torn between addressing the political simplifications within the video and the colonialist and evangelical ideologies. Unlike the Alternet article I cited, I didn’t see the video as a means of promoting evangelical Christianity. Instead, I saw it as multiplying the powers of social media with the (widely under-discussed) communication networks of Christianity.  But the power of the original video was, without doubt, short-circuited by the circumstances of Russell’s detention, which allowed media commentators to place both Russell and the Invisible Children organization under greater scrutiny.

Still, I think it is worth unpacking how and why the original “Stop Kony” video worked and to see how the organization has responded to these complaints while maintaining their appeal to an international youth culture that might be responsive to using participatory media in order to support some form of service or activism. Boyd offers one of the more compelling maps of how the Stop Kony phenomenon circulated, pointing out how existing religious networks played such a vital role in circulating the video. Henry Jenkins and Neta Kligler-Vilenchik also point out that the video should not be reduced to simplistic accusations of “Slakctivism,” in which youth are depicted as participating in “one-click” activism. Although many people no doubt simply “shared” or “liked” the video on Facebook, thousands of others have mobilized for the day of action on April 20, and one of the reasons is that Invisible Children provides a structured format through which youth feel as if they can make a difference. Jenkins and Kligler-Vilenchik (like boyd) are also quick to point out that Invisible Children has been active for a decade, building these networks and fostering a climate in which a single video can make a significant impact.

These questions re-emerged for me when, yesterday, one of my students alerted me to the fact that there is a new video from Invisible Children, Kony 2012: Beyond Famous. Unlike the previous Stop Kony video, this one has had a slightly slower roll-out, reaching just over 750,000 viewers in its first two days, but it is notable in at least three respects. First, Jason Russell is almost invisible here. As a result, although we see things through the narrative point of view of Ben Keesey, the video is careful to expand its POV to place emphasis on local Ugandan activists who are campaigning for Kony’s arrest. Finally, it also offers a much broader picture of Kony’s activity, pointing out that he is now currently involved in three other neighboring countries, while acknowledging that Kony is not currently active in Uganda. This approach offers a somewhat more effective image of the conflict, which shows Ugandans themselves to be involved in the process. It’s also worth noting that Invisible Children sought to emphasize the multi-ethnic and cross-class alliances of groups involved in the Stop Kony movement. As I’ve suggested, I think it’s way too easy to categorize this as a movement that merely plays on the naivete of celebrities and youth. We should follow the practices of Invisible Children closely in order to understand how social media is affecting the way we communicate and the ways in which activism is being defined.

Update: Here are some more comments by Henry Jenkins, linking the Stop Kony phenomenon to his concept of “spreadable media.”

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“Stop Kony” and the Viral Politics of Visibility

For a variety of reasons, I feel like the last person on the planet (or at least on Facebook) to have learned about the Stop Kony phenomenon. I had just landed in England on March 3, when the video launched, and by the time I was back in the United States ten days later, the video had been viewed an astounding 78 million times, making it one of the most viewed videos in YouTube’s history. But although the video has generated almost unprecedented attention, I’ve been watching the reception of it with a great deal of ambivalence, in part because it reveals some of the potential risks of the power of social media. But despite these risks, I think that critics who dismiss the video outright also miss out on what the Stop Kony phenomenon actually means about a nascent desire to be involved, active, and potentially, transformative.

Stop Kony, if you haven’t heard, is a 30-minute video that seeks to mobilize young social media users in an awareness campaign to get the United States government to take action to arrest Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Kony’s military group has brutalized villagers in Uganda, Congo, the Central African Republic, and southern Sudan, deploying child soldiers who have, in some cases, been instructed to kill their parents. Kony has been operating in this region for years and has, as the video asserts, benefitted from being “invisible” to the rest of the world due to a lack of interest in the (U.S.?) news media and due to the fact that Kony doesn’t really threaten American interests (the video seems to have no particular concern about whether or how non-U.S. activists should get involved).  The video, directed by Jason Russell, is up-front about its desire to affect and reach out to policy makers and to affect public opinion, gleefully acknowledging its efforts to leverage the stardom of people like Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, Oprah Winfrey, and Rhianna to promote intervention in Uganda.

But what makes “Stop Kony” so troubling is the video’s underlying narrative structure, which seems to have more to do with celebrating the possibilities of viral activism than it does with genuinely educating the social mediasphere about Kony’s criminal activity and what should be done to stop him. In fact, the video opens with the oft-quoted statistic that there are 750 million people on Facebook and then goes on to attribute the uprisings in Iran and Egypt to social media, a somewhat dubious claim (although media journalist Sharon Waxman accepts it uncritically), before suggesting that an “older generation” is “very concerned” about losing control to a younger social media collective. From there, Russell, who narrates the video, describes and depicts the birth and childhood of his son, using his own (white, middle class) child’s innocence as a stand-in for that of a Ugandan child’s. Only about 4-5 minutes into a 30-minute video are we introduced to Jacob, a survivor of Kony’s attacks, but Russell’s promise to help Jacob, we are told isn’t about the Ugandans, but it’s “about you,” about the ability of social media activists to change the world. Russell imposes some artificial forms of urgency here, telling viewers that “time is running out” and that the movie will “expire” (be taken down? it’s not clear) on December 31, 2012. Russell underscores this activist public by showing cheering, mostly middle class crowds of young adults and teens.

From here, the video offers only the most basic overview of Kony’s tactics and activities, noting only in passing that Kony is no longer active in Uganda, while also establishing the (somewhat tenuous) thesis that if we “all” knew about Kony, then the U.S. government (again, no mention is made of non-U.S. governments, although the International Criminal Court is briefly cited) would be forced to act. In response, Russell suggests, using an interview with Shepherd Fairey, that social media allows us to “redefine propaganda,” so that people who feel powerless can make an impact. The desired actions fall into this new form of social media activism: users can sign a pledge and post their support on social media platforms, which they, in turn, are able to track. They are encouraged to donate to Tri, a non-profit involved in the anti-Kony efforts, and donors receive the “action kit” that allows them to create posters that will be disseminated all over every major city on April 20, 2012, an action that now seems redundant given the attention the cause has already received.

It’s worth noting–as Waxman observes–that the video clearly targets younger users of social media. The messaging seems designed to reach college students and teenagers and appeals to and through social media expertise. Similarly, Nicholas Kristof argues that although the video has a number of distortions and inaccuracies, it serves an educational purpose, making viewers more aware of Kony’s crimes, while adding that we “shouldn’t let nuance get in the way of action.” That being said, these simplifications and distortions reinforce a patronizing view of international politics, one that is based in colonialist discourses of a “white man’s burden” (or what the LA Times aptly describes as the “White Industrial Savior Complex”) regarding Africa. A related complaint has been that Invisible Children has an underlying (and mostly unstated) goal of promoting evangelical Christianity, a claim related by Alternet’s Bruce Wilson. That being said, Wilson’s primary bit of evidence was a talk that Russell gave at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, encouraging the Baptist student body to get more involved in the fight against Kony, so rather than viewing the video as a deliberate attempt to proselytize, I would argue that the video appropriates the evangelical language of reaching out and converting others, language that fits rather neatly into some of the more utopian accounts of using social media to effect change.

The video’s inflated sense of self-importance becomes all the more evident when we consider the fact that Russell so prominently features himself and his son as the moral centers by which we view Kony and the conflict in Uganda (a position that has become even more compromised given that as I was writing this entry a report surfaced that Russell was arrested in San Diego for a variety of crimes including public indecency, drunkenness, and vandalizing cars). The focus on Russell and on a network of middle-class social media users proved especially puzzling to the Ugandan people who were supposed to benefit from Stop Kony’s campaign of networked visibility. In an Al Jazeera report linked by Xeni Jardin, we learn that Ugandans were puzzled by the video’s emphasis on Russell and by the calls to create t-shirts bearing Kony’s image, even while the video states that its intended purpose is to make Kony “famous” in order to see him captured. Ugandans complained that the video depicts events from nearly a decade ago, out of context, and some felt it was a cynical attempt to raise money. The outdoor screening was eventually stopped when viewers began throwing rocks, and future showings of the film in Uganda were postponed.

But the biggest concern I have about the video is one that was articulated by Engage Media, which observes that the Stop Kony rhetoric frames activism in ways that are cause for concern. The Twitter hashtag #stopatnothing is most significant here. This kind of viral social media activism can often lead to some of the same forms of uncritical acceptance that we have seen in other media, and in some cases, it potentially amplifies some potentially violent rhetoric. Engage is also attentive to the fact that the videomakers should have taken into account the local groups who were affected by Kony, providing them with the tools and the platform to share their message with the world (assuming that is what they want). Russell–and others, including Nicholas Kristof, who should know better–make a number of assumptions about the desires of a potentially disparate group of people, with Kristof concluding his op-ed with the phrase “If I were a Congolese villager…”  Which, of course, reduces a diverse grouping into a homogeneous whole.

So, yes, I am disturbed by the Stop Kony phenomenon, and in fact, as I wrote, I found myself becoming even less sympathetic with the tactics Russell is using, even if I recognize that Kony is a cruel individual. I don’t like that the video positions me as an impediment to justice when I ask for more nuance and subtlety and question the video’s uncritical embrace of the Ugandan military. And, yes, I am skeptical about Russell’s self-importance. But despite the video’s numerous flaws, I still find myself trying to make sense of how the video is using and mobilizing the good intentions of an international and socially-networked youth culture to try to make a difference in the wider world. To be sure, condemning a child-killing mass murderer in Africa is a relatively easy target, and the project’s militant rhetoric (#stopatnothing) is concerning, but the questions about empowerment, activism, and collectivity should not be easily or quickly dismissed.

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Blog Silence

I’ve been doing quite a bit of under-the-radar work for the last month or so, which means I haven’t had a lot of extra time for blogging. Add to that my recent trip to England and Ireland, which Andrea and I thoroughly enjoyed, and I’m somewhat shocked to see the semester (and the academic year) quickly slipping away. But I just wanted to drop in quickly to say that I’m hoping to write a couple of blog posts soon, including one on the Stop Kony phenomenon. As Nicholas Kristof explains, Stop Kony, a short YouTube documentary is one of the most watched videos in the history of that website. It has been viewed 79 million times in less than a month and has inspired widespread forms of activism. And yet, as a number of people have pointed out, the movement has been widely criticized. I’m still in the process of formulating a response to the video(and all of the framing materials that have accompanied it), but as a case study in viral distribution it is well worth investigating.

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MoveOn House Parties, Documentary, Political Activism

One day after hosting a half dozen neighbors for a screening of Charles Ferguson’s powerful documentary, Inside Job, I’m still reflecting on the experience and what it says about the role of documentary in contributing to forms of political activism. These questions matter to me for a number of reasons, most notably the fact that, like millions of others, I see an economic system marked by increasing instability and inequality and want to see a more just, balanced system. But I am also trying to make sense of the role of MoveOn and other online groups in using documentaries as organizing tools, both in some of my recent scholarship and in a course that I am teaching. After hosting the MoveOn screening and listening to (and participating in) the incredibly informed post-movie discussion, I continue to find myself evolving on the relationship between documentary and activism.

Upon watching Inside Job for a second time, I found myself reacting a little differently than I did when I first saw the movie about a year ago, before Occupy Wall Street began to, well, occupy public spaces and news media attention. If you care about your money, it’s almost impossible not to feel a sense of betrayal or outrage at the behavior of the large banking, loan, and insurance firms that created elaborate financial schemes to line the pockets of a small number of very wealthy people. This mirrors Ferguson’s own outrage, particularly when Frederic Mishkin bumbles through a half-hearted defense of the lack of financial regulation. But, much like last time, I found that the movie ended without offering any clear alternatives for political action. It’s clear, from the movie’s pointed critique of Obama’s economic appointments (which include Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers, among others), that Ferguson is skeptical about the power of voting alone to enact political change, a position that now seems even more deeply entrenched after the Citizens United decision. Inside Job still has an oddly sterile feel to me, given that it operates almost entirely within the sites of power. We hear from critics of deregulation, including Eliot Spitzer, but rarely do we see the actual effects of sub-prime mortgages (other than some stock footage of houses with for-sale signs out front). This may or may not increase our levels of outrage, but it makes it difficult to identify a single point of identification within the film. That being said, Ferguson’s film hammers home its arguments with tremendous authority, using visuals well to track changes in our economic system. Seeing bankers and regulatory officials squirming in their seats also offers a form of enjoyment.

But after Ferguson’s powerful Oscar acceptance speech, in which he reminded us that not a single financial executive had gone to jail for his or her responsibility in the financial meltdown, the film seemed to disappear. For that reason alone, I was glad that MoveOn picked it up as a part of its house party series. It’s worth noting that the current home video ecosystem likely contributes to that. The documentary was distributed by Sony Pictures Classics and through Sony’s Home Entertainment division, and (because of that?) it is currently unavailable for streaming on Netflix. None of the Blockbuster Video stores in the area had the movie available for rental. And when I called one local video store to ask for Inside Job, the clerk stepped briefly away from the phone, came back and gruffly asked, “do you want the adult version?” The movie was also unavailable through Redbox kiosks, which ultimately meant that we had to purchase a copy for our house party. I don’t think this is a specific “conspiracy,” just that our current distribution model provides much greater potential for independent and low-budget films to “disappear” from public consciousness and even easy (or at least inexpensive) access. As a result, even hosting a screening now seems like a valuable contribution to the wider political discussion.

But of course it’s worth asking about how to translate Inside Job’s outrage into meaningful political action (whatever that might look like). There is a degree to which everyone in the room was already not only predisposed to agree with Ferguson’s arguments but also prepared to anticipate many of them, with some of our guests calling out terms before the narrator (Matt Damon) could say them. Although this might seem like a version of “preaching to the choir,” I think it’s much more complex than that. The narrative behind the banking crisis is incredibly complicated, and even if we grant the fact that most MoveOn viewers already agree with many of Ferguson’s positions, putting them together into a coherent narrative is helpful. More crucially, it provides house party attendees with something tangible to structure our deliberations about both localized and national forms of political action. In fact, the credits were barely rolling when the first guest spoke up to create an argument for how to put an end to economic injustices depicted in the film.

And this is where I think some of our most crucial questions about documentary, online media, and activism come into play. Our reception of Inside Job was framed not only by our unique house party situation but also by the framing materials that accompanied the event. MoveOn sent out several emails and promoted the film on its website. For hosts, they provided us with a short script and fliers that would guide attendees into specific forms of action. There is a long history of this sort of political organizing, so it’s hardly new, but in some ways I found the responses to be relatively tepid, given the politics of most MoveOn members. Most notably, they encouraged attendees to “Move Your Money,” something most of us had already done. A more promising activity was the MoveOn Council idea, which would leverage the energy of localized teams to enact change on both the local and national levels. It’s difficult to judge what kind of impact a house party screening has in its immediate aftermath. There was no moment of crystallization when a light shined down from the progressive heavens and convinced me that we had (or that we would) make a difference, whatever that might mean. That being said, I think the critique of consumerism in this particular house party event runs much deeper than some of MoveOn’s most trenchant critics might suggest. Micah White, rather famously, attacked MoveOn for turning activist energy into a muted form he called “clicktivism.” These house party forums are not necessarily going to produce identical results across the board. On the one hand, it is certainly possible to walk away from a house party event and to feel some degree of cynicism and powerlessness about the possibility of effecting change, especially when MoveOn only offers relatively loose structures for directing forms of activist response. And yet, I would be reluctant to embrace a more top-down model. We need room for the critical thought of the thousands of people who attended screenings and know their local communities and the actions that are possible within them.

There are no easy answers when it comes to documentary activism. But I am energized by the fact that the house party model could help to revive the outrage, energy, and passion of Ferguson’s Inside Job, allowing it to gain new life in the era of Occupy Wall Street and the We are the 99% movements.

 

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Hosting the 99%

Andrea and I are hosting a screening of Charles Ferguson’s scathing, Oscar-wining documentary, Inside Job, on Sunday, February 12, at 6 PM, as part of their movie party series. I’ve never hosted a MoveOn screening before–although I have attended several house party screenings in the past–so I’ve been intrigued by how excited I am by getting involved in this way. I’ll be interested to see if my reaction to the film changes on a second viewing, given that I felt slightly overwhelmed by Ferguson’s arguments when I watched Inside Job the first time. But more than anything, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to contribute to the wider conversation about the relationship between corporate deregulation and the “We are the 99%” movement. If you live in or near southern Wake County, you can find out more information about our screening here, but if not, perhaps you can seek out a screening in your own neighborhood. There are several hundred planned for this weekend across the U.S.

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Reframing the Documentary

For the first time in several years, I will be teaching Fayetteville State University’s senior seminar in the spring. The course fell into my lap late in the semester, so I haven’t had the time to prep that I would normally want, but I’m excited to have the opportunity to explore a set of research questions in detail with my students. The last time I taught this course–way back in 2007 (!)–I focused on the theme of “Documenting Injustice,” a phrasing that I hoped would encompass a wide range of activist, narrative, non-fiction texts in a wide range of media. Because the course is taught in a fairly traditional English department, I wanted not only to include a focus on literary texts but also to respect approaches based in textual analysis. Thus, while I’d enjoy teaching a course on the political economy of digital cinema (say), I don’t think my students would receive the “capstone” experience this course is supposed to represent.

That being said, the students who have signed up for the course know that I am the “film guy” in our department and know a little about my interests. So, with that in mind, I have decided to do an updated version of that course, which I am tentatively calling “Reframing the Documentary,” in part to entertain some slightly different questions about various forms of non-fiction. For the previous course, I sought to discuss a wide range of media forms–written non-fiction, photography, and film–and I’ll maintain that cross-media focus this time. Once again, I will require my students to read Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives and Agee and Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, texts that explore different aspects of documentary and observation with the goal of some sort of social change. But unlike last time, I am going to add David Eggars’ category-defying narrative, Zeitoun, in which he tells the story of a Syrian-born Katrina survivor, writing from Zeitoun’s voice.

In addition, I want to introduce some significant case studies on photography, such as the Dorothea Lange “Migrant Mother” photographs, Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier,” and others. I’m planning to avoid directly studying most of the recent controversial photographs (especially the Abu Ghraib photos), although I may teach at Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure. Instead, I’d like to look at some of Morris’s essays on older photographs, possibly including this essay on whether photographs lie (new to me: Morris’s New York Times essays on photography have been anthologized in a book). Or, more likely, that I will be teaching The Thin Blue Line, Morris’s blog posts on documentary re-enactments. I’ll supplement this discussion of Morris with screenings of either Strange Culture or Road to Guantanamo (or both).

From there, I ams till trying to decide how to engage with some of the “limits” of documentary. By that, I mean definitional limits, rather than where documentary itself is limited. I will likely include the animated Israeli documentary, Waltz with Bashir, and I’m thinking about doing a couple of mock documentaries, most likely Confederate States of America, and, thanks to some recent research by a former student, the boundary-defying film, The Watermelon Woman. One other area of emphasis will likely be autobiography, and I’m leaning towards Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation, if only because I am familiar with it and because its production history is pretty catchy.

Finally, given some of my own recent work on “transmedia documentary,” I will likely finish with a couple of recent documentaries that used online media to expand the limits of what counts as a documentary, including The Age of Stupid. Following up on this idea of “transmedia documentary,” I’d very much appreciate any suggestions about online videos, photography series, or articles that depict aspects of the Occupy Wall Street movement. One “text” that I would certainly like to discuss would be the “We are the 99%” tumblr blog, but I may also set up a discussion of how iconic images of #OWS, such as the macing incident at UC Davis, have been remixed or repurposed.

I recognize that this post is all over the map–and mostly consists of a list of possible texts–but I am still brainstorming to some extent, trying to decide how, exactly, I want to frame this course. I am looking forward to doing an in-depth study of documentary, activism, and narrative, but I’d welcome any reminders about texts that I’ve neglected, including short essays, short stories, or other explorations of how we document our lives and how we use non-fiction images, sounds, and narratives to represent significant social and political events. Feedback (on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments) is welcome.

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Week in Review: No Time to Write Edition

Here are some of the topics and issues I’ve been thinking about over the last few days (weeks, in some cases) while I’ve been away:

  • Jeffrey P. Jones, a media studies scholar at Old Dominion University, has a good historical overview of political humor in today’s Washington Post. I think there is a tendency to ignore some of the historical precedents for Colbert, Stewart, and all of the web-based political satire, but Jeffrey makes some useful connections here. Also, if you’re in the DC area, I hear the print edition has some illustrations that go along with the text.
  • I’m hoping to write a longer blog post about this later, but I’ve just been assigned a senior seminar for spring semester, and I am thinking about reviving my “Documenting Injustice” theme from back in 2007, when I last taught that course. I’ll probably start with some of the same texts (Evans and Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, etc), but I’m hoping to build toward more contemporary practices, especially the distributed efforts to document Occupy Wall Street (including Twitter streams and other ephemera), as well as the use of animation and other platforms to create “documentary” narratives, such as Waltz with Bashir. The course is for English majors, so I’m trying to balance film and written media carefully (books, stories, etc), as well as my students’ limited book budgets.
  • I’m also teaching our graduate level course, Technology in the Language Arts Classroom, and may do a little crowdsourcing soon to get ideas for updating that course. I learned, for example, that some local teachers are using Glogster for student projects, but if there are other similar resources out there, I’d love to hear about them.
  • Some of the early reviews are out of UltraViolet, the new digital locker service supported by most of the major studios, and New Tee Vee is reporting that they are mostly negative. Given the company’s ultra-high-profile launch and the fact that it often takes users a while to figure out how to incorporate a new technology into their media routines, I think some complaints are inevitable. As Home Media Magazine asserts, consumers will likely have to be “educated” (or persuaded) to see the long-term benefits of the service. Of course, I’m not convinced that Ultraviolet is answering a specific consumer necessity, given that we no longer need to own copies of movies (physical or cloud-stored) anymore. Still very interested to see how this plays out.

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Documentary and Digital Distribution (in Spanish)

Taking a quick break from other projects to mention that my recent Jump Cut article, “Digital Distribution, Participatory Culture, and the Transmedia Documentary,” has been republished and translated into Spanish for the Barcelona-based magazine, Blogs and Docs.

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