Advocacy Documentary and Public Media

Pat Aufderheide has a thought-provoking blog post on the place of advocacy documentaries within the public sphere. Writing about a number of activist films that played at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, including Patrick Creadon’s I.O.U.S.A, Irena Salina’s Flow: For the Love of Water, Josh Tickell’s Fields of Fuel, and Susan Koch’s Kicking It, Aufderheide points out that many of these films raise more questions than they answer. While I haven’t seen these specific films, I’ve been thinking about the role of activist documentary in a 2.0 culture for some time (although not in a terribly systematic way), and like her, I’d like to see how social networking technologies can be deployed to provide the “context” and “vetting” that is normally associated with what Aufderheide calls “public media.”

Some of my initial reservations about activist documentary were somewhat clumsily articulated in a blog post on Ted Leonsis’s concept of “filmanthropy,” which I wrote in response to a Washington Post article on the topic. While I expressed enthusiasm for Leonsis’s commitment to supporting politically relevant films, the philanthropy model left me feeling a little skeptical because of what seemed at the time like a top-down approach (you raise the money…you help people to understand an important issue), but I don’t believe at all that the filmanthropy model necessarily excludes the kinds of informed, public debate that Aufderheide is calling for. At the time, I compared Leonsis’s concept of filmanthropy to Jeffrey Skoll’s more explicitly “2.0” approach, Participant Productions, which emphasized the use of social networking technologies in order to create more engaged and politically active audiences (and which was also profiled in the Post). A third model of what might be called a “networked documentary public” (after my own concept of networked film publics) might also be Robert Greenwald’s expansive Brave New Films, which has increasingly migrated online through the use of short web videos. And, of course, the increasing number of documentary bloggers, including PBS’s POV blog is a testament to the desire for more public debate not only about documentary but also about the social and political issues addressed in documentary films.

The combination of social networking and activist documentaries certainly opens up a number of possibilities for producing an informed discussion of important social and political issues, although I think it is important to take note of the ways in which websites structure those debates. Sites such as Brave New Films, for example, provide valuable opportunities for partisan and monitorial citizenship but may not fulfill the need for the kinds of “vetting and legitimation” associated with public media. Of the films she discusses, Aufderheide singles out Flow: For the Love of Water as making some effort towards building an activist community around the issue of water policy through social networking technologies. There are a number of intriguing possibilities here for a networked documentary public to provide an important hub for these kinds of discussions, and like Aufderheide, I hope that these documentaries take advantage of that.

Update: I should also mention that I discussed these issues at some length in my review of Aufderheide’s book a few weeks ago.


  1. Rick Allen Said,

    February 2, 2008 @ 1:13 pm

    You raise a number of very important questions on an evolving intersection of filmmaking, activism and social policy. A few observations: First, you misunderstand Ted Leonsis’ concept of filmanthropy, because you focus on its role in film financing, rather than its broader desire to assist films that will encourage public debate. It is true that films like Nanking and Kicking It could not have been made without the generosity of individual funders who understood that under the current economics of documentaries, they would be unlikely to see their capital returned. While this is “top down”, it is a time-honored and pretty efficient way to get films made.

    The broader objective and value of filmanthropy occur after the film is made. Here are Ted’s metrics:
    · Did we help films make a difference?
    · Did those films start a debate?
    · Did they right wrongs?
    · Did they activate charitable giving?
    · Did a lot of people see them?

    Those metrics are not traditional for filmmaking; they are challenging and in line with what I believe are also your objectives.

    Second, you appear not to have visited Kicking It’s websites: and it. Keeping in mind that the film is months away from public release, these early versions of our sites are specifically designed to further public involvement in the discussion and to engender community activism and involvement. Please note the online opportunities for specific support of charities related to the programs featured in the film, an exceptionally innovative web 2.0 resource developed by Global Giving; note as well the various community elements already organically developing in and around these sites (particularly on facebook).

    Third, speaking personally, I think you may be setting unrealistic expectations for films and filmmakers. Most of those I know, including through my years at Discovery and National Geographic, are at their creative best when they have a distinctive point of view. They are not responsible, in my mind, for “context” and “vetting” – the critical public service provided by journalism and in the political process when it is operating at its best. What filmanthropy intends to do is to give these strong voices a chance to be heard – and then to encourage the sharing and debate that follows from compelling storytelling.

    And with all due respect, nobody should share Ms. Audferdeide’s surprise that films like Kicking It “raise (sometimes inadvertently) as many questions as they answer”. Of course they do, and they should. These films are the individual expression of an artist on a specific aspect of a public policy debate – certainly in the case of Kicking It, there is no assertion that involvement in team sports is the panacea for global homelessness. If the film moves audiences to see homeless people in their own communities as individuals whose status may come from nearly infinite sources, who deserve our empathy and an array of resources – one of which is the chance to experience the redemptive potential of team sports – then it is a film with impact. And if those audiences choose to become more informed and engaged, including from resources we hope the broader community will help us provide online, then the film is elevated from art to filmanthropy. That is our intention. And my challenge to you and Ms.Audferdeide is to move from spectators to participants – not just in a blogging exchange, but in expanding the richness of the resources we (and other films) can provide on the issues that you and we rightfully find compelling.

    Rick Allen
    Executive Producer, Kicking It

  2. Chuck Said,

    February 2, 2008 @ 1:33 pm

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I’ll respond in more detail after I’ve had time to read thoroughly, but for now, two notes.

    First, I did try to point out that the filmanthropy model does not exclude the possibility of promoting reasoned debate, just that my initial response was to be skeptical, a response that I’m willing to admit may be wrong. I should have made that point clearer.

    Second, because the link is broken above, here is the link to Kicking It’s Facebook page. And while I’m linking, here is a Kicking It Blog

  3. Chuck Said,

    February 2, 2008 @ 2:45 pm

    I’ll restate that you have presented a thoughtful response here and just want to add one or two (or maybe three) things. I think you’re right that people invested in documentary (such as myself) should, as you suggest, “move from spectators to participants.” A networked documentary public requires active viewers as well as documentary filmmakers who take on deeply personal projects, sometimes in the case of war documentaries (for example) at personal risk. The responsibility, as I see it, in a 2.0 culture lies with both the filmmakers and the audience members. And, to be clear, Pat has been incredibly active in supporting documentary filmmakers through her work on fair use..

    Your point about preserving the distinct point-of-view of the filmmakers is also one that I share. When I suggested that films needed to “vetted,” I meant to promote the role of an active, vibrant documentary public in asking challenging, critical questions about the films they watch, but also one that is willing to become engaged with the issues raised by a given documentary film. As you suggest, if the film can lead viewers to become more active or involved in calling for policies that help to address the problem of homelessness, that would be significant.

    I should have also been clearer about the role of organizations such as Leonsis’s in supporting the work of documentary filmmakers. You are, of course, right to point out that the documentary industry strongly benefits from donations from non-profits and other income sources.

  4. Rick Allen Said,

    February 2, 2008 @ 2:47 pm

    Chuck: Thanks – very much appreciate your interest and respect your perspective. The Kicking It blog is actually from the Charlotte organization that runs the street soccer team down there, led by an extraordinary young man, Lawrence Cann, who coaches the US team in the Homeless World Cup in the 2006 competition featured in our film, and who is organizing the 2008 national trials, to be held in DC. (Sorry if the links were bad. Our film site is (and the facebook page you’ve kindly provided).


  5. Chuck Said,

    February 2, 2008 @ 3:10 pm

    I live about three hours from Charlotte, so I’ll try to make a connection with them in the near future about a screening of the film here on campus (or something similar).

  6. The Chutry Experiment » This is What Voting Looks Like Said,

    February 3, 2008 @ 3:07 pm

    […] reasons, I’ve had the issue of how documentary can benefit from social networking on my mind quite a bit lately and have in the past expressed interest in demystifying the voting process, but more than anything, […]

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