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.