Short-form networked documentaries aren’t an entirely new idea. Activist filmmakers have been using tools such as camcorders and other cheap video tools to document under-reported stories. Add to that the use of YouTube as a rapid distribution model and a vibrant political and documentary blogosphere, and we have seen a number of attempts at analyzing political activity on the fly. More often than not, this format has lent itself to forms of gotcha journalism that may be a temporary distraction along the lines of Max Blumenthal’s visit to the CPAC conference a couple of years ago when Ann Coulter made homophobic remarks about John Edwards. Such events often risk falling into the category of what Bill Wasik describes as nanostories, short lived news items that disappear quickly.
But in the best cases, I think these networked documentaries can provide thoughtful analysis of a political movement or set of practices, using observational techniques and careful editing to reveal some aspect of a political mindset. Thanks to A.J. Schnack, I came across New Left Media’s compelling documentary short about the 9/12 Tea Party event in Washington, D.C. Posted just two days after the Tea Party protest, the video short depicts an interviewer, Chase Whiteside, talking to several protestors about their views. Although the editing often emphasizes how uninformed the participants are–a long segment is devoted to their concern that Obama has appointed several “czars,” a practice that dates back to at least the Reagan era–a consistent subtext is the fear that many of the Tea Party protesters feel. One woman cries about (imagined?) grandchildren who would confront her in the future if she did nothing to stem the socialist tidal wave threatening her country. Others display a fear that is clearly rooted in racial difference.
In general, the 9/12 Tea Party video displays a maturity and thoughtfulness often lost in purely partisan videos, especially ones produced for viral distribution and consumption, and although the interview style may recall the work of Michael Moore (the observational style–reinforced by Eric Stoll and Chase Whiteside’s careful editing–offers a clear thesis about political literacy and knowledge), it doesn’t feel overly forced and it seems to capture some version of the tea party culture, however incomplete. Like A.J., I want to se more work by Whiteside and Stoll, perhaps something like what A.J. calls “the immediate feature film,” but this shorter, more immediate and linkable format seems to serve them well.
Update: Edited to correctly credit Chase Whiteside as the interviewer and to list both Whitside and Stoll as editors.