Art or Agenda? Documentary discussion at Codes & Modes

What is documentary culture?  Hunter College’s Integrated Media Arts MFA Program held the conference Codes and Modes: The Character of Documentary Culture the last weekend to unwrap that question.  On my mind a lot these days is the question of art vs. social impact – can they exist simultaneously?  Do they need to?  Why are they expected to?  So I was interested to see the panel Documentary Film: Art or Agenda?  Competing Paradigms in the World of Non-Fiction Film.  Panels have been tackling the same question at film festivals and industry conferences, but this academic approach enlisted filmmakers and producers instead of funders. The panel included Whitney Dow (filmmaker, Two Towns of Jasper, Unfinished Country, the Whiteness Project), Jennie Livingston (filmmaker, Paris is Burning, Earth Camp One), Joslyn Barnes (producer, Bamako, Trouble the Water, Black Power Mixtape) and Jonathan Oppenheim (editor, Paris is Burning, Children Underground, William and the Windmill) and was moderated by Julia Haslett (assistant professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, filmmaker, An Encounter with Simone Weil).

There’s never really enough time to deal deeply with this core question (or answer it…but is there even an answer?), but a lot of very interesting thoughts were posed.

So what is documentary?
Livingston agrees with Michael Moore that she doesn’t like the word “documentary,” and prefers “non-fiction.”  She sees it as taking reality and making a structure around it.  “We’re not dealing with real life; we’re dealing with fragments that are shaped by someone’s mind.”  When thinking about reality, she notes that when you watch a really good fiction film, it feels real but ironically, when we think of documentary, we think of documenting reality, when filmmakers are really just taking real life and creating a fake structure around it.
Oppenheim agreed and sees himself as taking fragments of real life to create a tableau of human experience.
Whitney Dow sees documentary as the process of understanding his place in the world that he’s observing.  “I don’t have answers when I start, I don’t have an agenda.  I start out with a set of questions.”

What’s wrong with the way non-filmmakers see documentaries?
thinks films are generally reviewed in the mainstream press for content.  It’s an exception if you see a review that actually talks about the experience of the film.  “A fiction film, no matter how crappy, is viewed in the context of its aesthetic success…Documentary is held to a utilitarian standard, a privileged view of extracting knowledge and information.” To him, this approach to reviewing means he rarely sees the film he made mirrored in the way it’s written about.
Livingston thought non-fiction filmmakers are more likely to get blowback on whether or not they are “allowed” to make a film about another group. “[With fiction,] it doesn’t matter who you are, people rarely question the experience of the filmmaker in relation to the subject.”
Dow agreed with Oppenheim in terms of content vs. form.  “Out of everything that’s been written [about the Whiteness Project], I’ve had 2 questions about form.  It’s all been about content…As my first interactive project, I gave so much thought about form – everything was considered.” (This also raises another interesting discussion about interactive work, which is often heavy on form with less-developed content.  To be discussed later…)

Is it film as art form vs. film as strategic plan?
The majority of funding for films (outside of crowdsourcing) comes from foundations and private donors.  Does that affect how filmmakers are making films?
wondered if filmmakers want to produce things artistically, where is the money for that?  Foundation mission statements have purposes, often relating to social change or social issues.
Livingston wanted to know “then what is social change?”  There’s a question about what people think social issues are – who decides what’s important? Who determine what stories are social issues that need to be addressed?  This leads to some issues with decisions on what voices are “worthy.”  Does it include filmmakers of color, of different classes?  It becomes less about “we think this person’s mind is interesting, let’s let them explore this.”
Barnes stressed that public arts funding is really needed in the United States.  “It’s can’t all be coming from foundations.  It can’t all be coming from wealthy donors.  How can you critique the 1% if you’re going to the 1%?” She also noted that, despite the availability of media tools and equipment, who gets to make films is even more of a class issue now than it was before.  And that it’s really important to educate yourself before you make a film.  “If you’re going to make a film about a social justice issue, I think it’s really important to educate yourself about that issue.  Not many people do.  Even if you don’t agree, you have to understand.”
Oppenheim noted that before 9/11 he never worked on self-funded films but since at least half have been.  He thinks the sense of what a documentary is worth changed after 9/11, that a culturally urgency was lost and it was replaced with things that have to prove their worth.
Dow evoked laughter when he asked, “Can you imagine Frederick Wiseman writing a proposal for High School now?!  The funders would be asking him ‘Do you believe in charter schools or not and how will you reflect that in your film?’”

How do we measure social impact?
Barnes raised the issue of the interpretation of data – who’s doing the interpreting?  She noted that with the social media sphere, people have learned to self-curate, so is the data that’s being drawn really an accurate portrayal of how people are thinking/feeling?  Is it valid?  She believes in the power of film on its own: “If the film is working, if it’s authentic, if you’ve made smart revelations, then the film will work.  You just have to find the way to put it at the service of the community.”
Oppenheim thought the cultural shift after 9/11 marked the beginning of a trend towards metrics.  But what does impact mean? “Where does it come from?  Is it about pushing a button or having a deep experience?  Something in our cultural zeitgeist has given an added pressure and has eroded the idea of documentary as art.”
Barnes talked about the digital trend of finding out “everything about you” so that companies can give you “what you want,” a concept that made her uncomfortable, as it limits the prospect of discovery and learning.  “Someday we’re going to be sitting in the theater in suits that measure our heart rates to see how we’re taking a film.  That’s where it’s going…‘How can we tailor reality so that it makes you happy?’”

An audience member asked a question about the difference between documentary filmmaking and journalism, to which Oppenheim had the best line: “I believe in fact-checking, but I don’t believe in putting any of those facts in a film.”
Oppenheim saw a difference between the two. “Documentary is a vision. You’re collecting fragments of real life and manipulating them.  There’s a spectrum from art to propaganda.  Journalism’s intention is to report…we’re not reporting.  That’s not our intention.”
Barnes agreed that people know things already.  “If we’re just going to do reporting, then why make a film?  We want to do something different.”  But she also acknowledged that our media industry has fallen apart, creating a trend of documentarians as investigative.
Livingston also noted that journalism itself keep shifting in our new media landscape.

While there had been an allusion at the opening of the panel to discussing possible solutions, it unfortunately never made it that far, aside from the agreement that different types of funding sources are needed to fuel creative work.  Filmmakers have been working hard to lift documentaries out of the “educational” box where they lived for so long in the US, so it was not surprising to hear that most people felt frustrated with the current trend back in that direction, even if in a different form.  (Look for more perspectives on this art/social impact issue coming soon.)  And while it was nice to different faces from the usual festival circuit, a conversation about documentary culture would of course be better served with a bit more diversity.

– Karen Cirillo