Capturing Controversy: A Look at Activist Filmmaking

It’s been nearly 10 years since the streets of Seattle hosted the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference and the subsequent chaos of the police response to the massive public protest, which turned into the so-called “battle on free speech in the name of free trade.” The event marked a significant phase of the anti-globalization movement—and a milestone in the activist nature of documentary film.

“You can tune in to watch the nightly news and maybe find some mention of a story. But it is a very different experience on the streets,” says filmmaker Francine Cavanaugh, who along with co-director and producer Adams Wood, founded Mountain Eye Media in 2002. They “produce documentary media on social and environmental issues,” including Showdown in Seattle a series of five dramatic short films that tell the story of the WTO protests with an immediacy and intimacy that bridges the issue of global economics with human experience.

Now demonstrations against post-9-11 foreign policy, a surge in citizen participation in electoral politics, and continued activism around civil rights issues have galvanized the union of film and politics. Most recently the passage of California’s Proposition 8 initiative has inspired newly politicized members of the gay community to speak up, and instigated a response within the film community. This was evident when this last month’s Sundance Film Festival became the center of the debate as several LGBT filmmakers headed to Utah. Among the large crowds of peace-singing demonstrators wielding puppets and banners, and angry masked protesters armed with pamphlets and bullhorns, the activist filmmakers have found their place on the ground level of grassroots movements.

“Ideally, you are delivering a very deep story that complements all the two-minute—or 30-second—hits that are in the mainstream media, maybe even challenging it,” says Nettie Wild, a veteran among social documentary filmmakers.

Recent years have blurred the role between activist, journalist, and artist, and further thinned the line between news and film—most notably in the short film model. Online outlets are brimming with social and political messages propagated through explosive short films and video—a form of call-and-response activism employing advances in new technology has broadened citizen participation in, and exposure to, controversial issues. While the proliferation of Independent Media Centers and video activism organizations like Films For Action and The Video Activist Network have empowered film and media activists, many of the best short films of the past year have in some form addressed this distinction between news and film by presenting a politically or socially discordant challenge while embracing the transformative and aesthetic impact of filmmaking as an artistic medium.

Filmmaker Jenni Olson’s short film, 575 Castro St., which screened last month at Sundance, sets original audiocassette recordings of assassinated gay activist Harvey Milk to images of his Castro Street Camera Shop, may just be one of several Prop-8 activist films that are on their way.

Richard Knox Robinson’s, experimental short documentary, The Beekeepers, explores the Colony Collapse Disorder, the threatened extinction of bees throughout the world as a result of the changing environment. The film artfully utilizes the documentary form to chart the element of mystery in this environmental phenomenon.

As seasoned filmmakers in their field, both Cavanaugh and Wild take on significant human drama and socio-political environments and have mastered the medium of film. “We do things for a reason; we all hope to affect change,” says Cavanaugh of the challenge for video activists to learn how to move from straight documentation to more analytic and strategic storytelling. She further explains, “The most affective way we’ve found is to focus on the personal story and allow the larger issue to be in the background.” This requires a return to the longstanding tenants of storytelling—not always a confrontational approach, but often a subtle aesthetic to affect change.

Take for example this year’s recipient of the 2009 Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking. Destin Cretton, writer-director of Short Term 12, a film about “kids and the grown-ups who hit them,” tells the story of a supervisor for a residential facility, housing 15 kids, who are all affected by child abuse and neglect. Shot entirely on location at the MacLaren Children’s Center in Los Angeles, the film places viewers within the walls of a real facility. Cretton’s 22-minute effort is one of the best, most promising pieces of storytelling exploring a broad socio-political issue.

Working in short film clearly has stark contrasts against long feature-length work. Furthermore, incorporating an element of activism in documenting a socially relevant story or event adds further distinction. Short films are a unique medium that has an equally specific market.

While the bulk of Wild’s work to date has been feature-length documentary, including A Rustling of Leaves: Inside the Philippine Revolution (1988), and A Place Called Chiapas (1998), which explored issues of the Zapatista movement in Mexico, Wild’s most recent project, Bevel Up: Drugs, Users and Outreach Nursing, tackles the controversial issue of harm reduction service by following street nurses in Vancouver in a series of shorts.

Conversely, Cavanaugh has been creating short films for years and has most recently taken her work into a longer-form piece with her latest Mountain Eye Media project, On Coal River, a feature-length documentary that follows four activists in West Virginia fighting against Mountain Top Removal.

Cavanaugh and her partner Wood began the project with the creation of a 10-minute short that screened in a series of films hosted by FreeSpeech TV, reflecting on the policies and impact of the Bush administration. Though they are currently completing the project as a feature-length documentary, Cavanaugh explains that the any story can be told in short form, but the most important aspect is to “follow the emotional arc of a character.”

“When you are working with short films, the downside has always been a question of finding an audience,” says Wild, who cites the role of new media as a valuable tool to exposing a film to a larger audience. She is currently planning to work with people on how to create a handful of short pieces that will go out on the Internet. “These new methods can still be storytelling; it now further allows a story to reach an audience.”

There are plenty of opportunities for filmmakers to collaborate with organizations involved in any given field of activism. Wild’s latest effort, Bevel Up: Drugs, Users and Outreach Nursing, was one such collaboration as she worked closely with the Street Nurse Program of the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control to group a series of her short films into an interactive DVD and educational kit used to share the kind of knowledge “not found in nursing schools and teaching hospitals.” The kit provides access to the experience of an entire community of health care practitioners who work with drug-using populations. Similarly, Cavanaugh’s work has maintained an effective post-production role as a resource for organizations that host screening events and use films as organizing tools.

New filmmakers interested in becoming involved with a specific issue or story may find support in video activist collectives that have established affiliate networks that may provide support in gaining a film exposure. Organizations like Avaaz, which specifically utilizes the online platform in inspiring social action, and WITNESS, which seeks to turn “personal stories of abuse into powerful tools for justice, promoting public engagement and policy change” are just two examples.

Whether it’s a two-minute short or a feature length documentary cut and edited to screen in theaters or post online, Wild insists the elements remain the same. “There are characters and conflict. There is a beginning, a middle, an end. There is a dramatic arc,” she explains of the kind of films that allow an audience to dive into new and controversial topics and emerge having been challenged in some way.

“An issue does not make a film,” Wild explains. “As a human being, I’m politically engaged in lots of issues and I care about lots of things. But you have to find what makes a movie—and you can always tell,” she says. “When a story bites you, it doesn’t let you go.”

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