documentary as critical engagement

I have the fortunate opportunity to be part of two high school classrooms that focus on the literacy craft and social purpose of documentary.

In class this week, we’ve been watching two documentaries, The Heart of the Game (2005) directed by Ward Serril, and War Photographer (2001) directed by Christian Frei. Also this week, a colleague of mine, Damiana Gibbons, made her own piece, Marching for Democracy, documenting the recent protests related to collective bargaining in Madison, WI. While on the surface these pieces may seem very different, they have much in common in terms of how they speak to the power of documentary as a medium to evoke emotion and move people to action.

In War Photographer, Frei documents the life of war photographer James Natchwey as he uses his camera to document war.  Some may see Natchwey as suffering from an intense case of adventure lust, yet through viewing the documentary we (or “I” at least) experience Natchwey’s use of photography as a critical stance, a form of civil disobedience in a way. While listening to one of his TED talks Natchwey described the purpose of his lens or stance as a photographer.

“One of the things I had to learn as a journalist is what to do with my anger.  I had to use it, channel its energy, turn it into something that would clarify my image instead of clouding it.”

What Natchwey is saying about war, through his images is so poignant, especially considering everything going on right now not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also  in Libya, as UN Security Council votes to go forward with air strikes.

Also intense, but in a different way, is the documentary, The Heart of the Game which seeks to move its viewers, if not toward social action in the case of Natchwey’s work, then in the form of interpersonal action in local contexts, making decisions that impact intimate relationships, between friends, mentors, and parents. Ward Serril is intentional with his focus on emotion. He describes in his director commentary the role of suffering in the film and his process of making the doc.

“The Buddha said that Life is suffering. Bill Resler says that ‘Life should be fun and if your life isn’t fun you should change it.’  This simple philosophy got me through a lot of dark days during The Heart of the Game. Though Darnellia Russell put it best when she described Resler as’ “loose in the head,” he changed my life for the better.’ I don’t know what the Buddha would say about that, but the Buddha never played basketball.”

The political is always personal, and thus I think this third documentary, March for Democracy, best exemplifies the merging of the political with the personal. In this short documentary (8 minutes) we see a select number of events occurring in Madison, WI, curated for the purposes of sorting through the events and sharing them with family members far off. This documentary brings together the blurring of the personal, the local, and the global. When watching this video I am almost brought to tears.  Hearing the protesters sing “This is what democracy looks like!” I am brought back to the afternoon I visited the protests, Feb. 18, and went into the capital full of upwards to 8,000 people chanting and singing the same line, “This is what democracy looks like!”  Here Gibbons, like Frei, documents the stance of others, in this case the protesters, in a way that allows her to also forge a stance, while not exactly the same as the protesters a critical engagement with the issue.

All three of these documentaries show how making documentary becomes a way to channel (for the composer) and evoke (in the audience) intense emotions. These intense emotions become vehicles for directors, photographers, and viewers to engage with realities and forge stances on issues. These stance may move some to political action, while for others the movement may be more interpersonal, small steps to reconsider one’s relationships and identity in new ways.

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One response to “documentary as critical engagement

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