Documentary activism across multiple media platforms

review by Inez Hedges

Angela Aguayo, Documentary Resistance: Social Change and Participatory Media. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. 296 pp. $99 hardcover, $29.95 paperback, $19.99 e-book;

Patricia R. Zimmermannn, Documentary across Platforms: Reverse Engineering Media, Place, and Politics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2020. 268 pp. $85 hardcover, $32 paperback and e-book.

The metaphors by which critics and filmmakers have attempted to capture the moving image’s unique ability to bear witness have been many, from Dziga Vertov’s “kinoeye” to Peter Wollen’s exploration of the indexical in cinema. Any such witnessing is motivated, a notion captured by Alexandre Astruc’s “caméra stylo” (“camera as writing instrument”). The very term “cinematography,” which comes to us from the pioneering Lumière brothers, implies a kind of writing in the medium of moving images. As with any kind of writing, it is useful to consider the intentions of the makers, the audiences, and modes of circulation. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, all of these elements have been affected in important ways by the rise of new technologies of production and circulation. Both Angela Aguayo and Patricia Zimmermannn are acutely focused on these changes and offer conceptual maps for understanding the ways in which documentary has morphed into new forms.

Aguayo is herself the director of three documentary films whose subjects have ranged from “disappeared” women in Mexico to a male chauvinist barbershop in Austin, Texas. Her research on activist documentaries of the past 50 years in the United States is supplemented by dozens of interviews with fellow filmmakers around the country, in the course of which she has uncovered many forgotten films buried in attics and closets. Activist documentary, she argues, can be a mirror, helping to create collective identification, and a hammer, or tool for social change. It can use affect to marshal the emotional response of its audience and encourage agency, or active involvement in the struggle to make things right. She also proposes an ethics of documentary filmmaking. She advocates participatory media in which the subjects of the documentary are involved in the filmmaking process as against the political tourism of film crews from outside the community who show up to document injustice and suffering and leave the situation unchanged as they depart.

In her second and third chapters, she maps out an example of a successful documentary practice exemplified by the vitality, agency, and virality surrounding the making and reception of the HBO films Paradise Lost, the Child Murders and Robin Hood Hills (1996) and Paradise Lost Revisited (2000). The first film suggested that the three teenage boys accused of the murder of three younger boys in Memphis were falsely convicted. Audiences reacted to the first film with vitality, creating message boards and forming the “Free the Memphis Three” movement whose agency enlisted media publicity and expert legal advice as well as holding demonstrations. Finally, the diffusion of these efforts via television (Larry King Live), celebrity interviews and the internet website created a virality that made the issue impossible to ignore. The three boys were eventually released from prison, one of them from death row. Aguayo comments,

“The Paradise Lost phenomenon marks the beginning of a much-theorized and new form of democratic practice facilitated by popular documentary distribution, true crime sleuthing, and the internet. Paradise Lost highlights the potential of high-profile, popular, and mass-distributed documentary discourse to create a collective audience identification invested in instrumental political action” (80).

In other chapters she demonstrates how activist videos documenting the rape culture in the military (Invisible War, 2012) and on campuses (Hunting Ground, 2015) have led to the drafting and even enacting of new legislation (Military Justice Improvement Act, enacted 2013; Campus Accountability and Safety Act, died in committee in 2015). On the other hand, Aguayo warns against counter-reactions, arguing that the right-wing group Citizens United’s organizing against Michael Moore’s exposé of the G. W. Bush administration in Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) eventually led to the Supreme court case Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission (2010). That decision opened the floodgates to unlimited election contributions from super-PACS (74-75).

In her research Aguayo traveled the country, uncovering private archives of films and videos documenting the history of black America, of labor conditions and struggles, of the experiences of migrant farm workers, of women’s issues in the workplace. She argues for the vernacular cinematic language of films and videos made by participants in these cultures which are stored in private archives, forgotten films that should be remembered and restored so that they can become part of the public record, commenting that “labor documentary helps the audience recognize itself as an object, a capitalist commodity” (105). One of the earliest influential films she cites is A Day at Tuskegee (1909), which depicted the vocational training of black men and women at the Tuskegee Institute. The film was shown in Carnegie Hall. In the early 20th Century, the Frederick Douglass Film Company sponsored films about black soldiers in WWI to counter the effect of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915). In the 1930s, films made by the Workers’ Film and Photo League served as organizing tools for workers. Many of these early films were later picked up as sources for footage in the 1960s and 70s. Aguayo notes that clips from the works of union organizer and filmmaker Harvey Richards, who documented labor struggles and the lives of migrant workers between 1958 and 1978, have been used in over 70 other subsequent productions.

Aguayo provides a useful guide through the last five decades of documentary history, a history she has been instrumental in discovering. She comments “The nonfiction image fixes people in history, like a stamp of authentication or a photographic trail of existence”(129). In addition, she calls attention to women filmmakers that are not as well-known as Barbara Kopple, such as Heather Courtney (Los Trabajadores, 2003) Anne Lewis (Morristown, 2007) and Amie Williams (We Are Wisconsin, 2011). She describes how Tami Gold at New York Newsreel and Judi Hoffman at Chicago’s Kartemquin Film Collective have used video for social change “by inscribing activist elements into the production process” (142). In her discussion of labor documentary Aguayo offers her understanding of the way collective identification works:

“Collective identification can take place long before a film is screened. It is a function of how the director understands the relationship between him or herself and the community being recorded; it is in the way vernacular communities are integrated into the creative process; and it is endemic to the circulation of documentary discourse and its connection to movements of people organizing for change” (147).

The relationship between filmmaker and community is starkly foregrounded in citizens’ filming of police brutality. A complicating factor is the morphing of such “street tapes” through a multiplicity of platforms and media ecologies that are now available: live-streaming broadcasts, memes, podcasts, Tumblr, and Reddit. Aguayo suggests that such mobile cinema footage, which has gone viral in several recent instances (the police murders of Eric Garner and Philando Castile), should preferably come from insiders to the community (as in the case of Philando Castile’s murder, filmed and livestreamed by his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds who was in the car with him). Otherwise, she argues, it reinforces the stereotype of black bodies as victims rather than active subjects with agency (184). “Who is going to build community around this work?” she asks, commenting that “digital culture brings with it abundance, but in the absence of a concerted effort to collect and preserve vernacular history, it can quickly slip from the official record” (224). More promising for activist organization, she argues, are documentaries like Whose Streets? (2017)—on the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting of Michael Brown—which recycled street tapes, tweets and social media posts into a finished product that can be widely circulated.

In her chapter on films about abortion, Aguayo focuses on “how documentary practices engage affects, feelings, and emotions as strategies of activism and resistance“(152). The problem of dealing with, and releasing women from, feelings of guilt and shame resides in large part with the female heritage tale that presents motherhood as woman’s purpose and destiny. But here Aguayo finds an additional complication as she contrasts mobility feminism with intersectional feminism. Mobility feminism seeks to release women from the heritage tale by stressing career and professional self-fulfillment. Aguayo dismisses this as a predominantly white neoliberal, middle-class mindset. Intersectional feminism, which characterizes abortion films since 2010, offers “a greater reflexivity about class and race, an awareness of the social and political structures that funnel women into choiceless circumstances”(155). Aguayo contrasts the intersectional film Abortion Diaries (2005) by independent filmmaker Penny Lane with the neoliberal attitudes in I Had an Abortion (2005) by Jillian Aldrich and Jennifer Baumgardner, which was financed by commercial feminist establishments. Aguayo argues that while the second film leaves women open to the critique of narcissism in their rejection of the female heritage myth, Abortion Diaries allows women to speak their own truth. She comments,

“Women publicly declaring their experience with abortion contributes to the ongoing project of normalizing the medical procedure” (171).

Finally, Aguayo addresses films such as Trapped (2016), 12th and Delaware (2010), and Abortion: Stories Women Tell (2016) that portray the violence directed against abortion clinics, and the desperation of women who live in states that have restricted women’s access to abortion. She comments,

“This wave of abortion documentary is distinct in the way it directly confronts the heritage myth and the hypocrisy of the anti- abortion protestors” (179).

Aguayo has developed many useful terms for naming the strategies of activist documentaries. In her conclusion she proposes that these can be applied elsewhere, in Native American struggles and ecological media activism. I wish she had also dealt with censorship and repression by the State; a prominent example is the attack on Wikileaks after the release of the “Collateral Damage” video by Chelsea Manning. Finally, a list of distributors for some of the lesser-known titles would also have been useful to educators and programmers.

Patricia Zimmermannn’s Documentary across Platforms: Reverse Engineering Media, Place and Politics casts a wide net, capturing media ecologies as varied as museum installations, film festival showings, photography, and multiple varieties of internet sharing. A Professor of Screen Studies at Ithaca College and a widely published doyenne of documentary studies, Zimmermannn is frequently in demand nationally and internationally as a speaker at film festivals, museum and gallery openings, national and international conferences. The present book is a collection of such talks, eclectic, wide-ranging and groundbreaking. The metaphor reverse engineering that she has chosen as a way of organizing these various media ecologies aims to gather them under the shared purpose of “dismantling and rebuilding of the world through conceptual redesign” (2). She defines their political engagement as “active renegotiations to create new imaginaries of possible futures” (3).

Several of the interventions she discusses take apart existing media and recombine them in ways that undermine their original messages. Les Levesque remediates Hollywood films, as in the 8’56”remix 4 Vertigo (2000), extracting individual frames from Hitchcock’s Vertigo and editing them according to complex algorithms. The British group Negativland playfully thumbs its nose at copyright laws, celebrating the downloading of “protected” content in No Business (2005). Many of these subversive strategies recall the détournement advocated by Situationist Guy Debord in the 1960s and 70s.

In the section titled “Reversals,” grouping essays on war, Zimmermannn discusses the way new technologies of Internet distribution (digital media and Flash) amplify the voices of resistance to the dominant narratives. She describes the way that the International Action Center, a political action group in the U.S., produced NATO targets (1999) as a counter-narrative to the official media’s portrayal of the bombings in Serbia, showing the effects on the ground and inventing “a new matrix that restored context and consequences to historical action”(p. 98). The Shocking and Awful Series (2004) by Deep Dish TV moved outside the official media portrayals of the war in Iraq to bring forward the voices of Iraqis, anti-war activists, and military personnel speaking off the record to nonembedded journalists. Fallujah (2005) by the activist group Code Pink documented the destruction of that city and compared it to the bombing of Guernica. Zimmermannn acknowledges that similar counternarratives are sponsored by the far right.

The opening chapter provides a cogent map of interrelations between the gaming industry and the U. S. military industrial complex. Zimmermannn shows how these same tools are “reverse engineered” to undermine power, with the emergence in the first decade of the 21st century of antiwar games on sites such as newsgaming.com, watercoolergames.com, seriousgames.org and opensorcery.net (18). She notes how in Malaysia, the pirating of Disney films and other Hollywood products functions as a way to resist globalization and the control of multinational corporations (21).

Worldwide there has been an explosion of media across different platforms, and many of the essays offer useful ways of talking about these new ecologies. In one essay, Zimmermannn discusses the work of Daniel Reeves, a Vietnam vet and video artist. In his video Obsessive Becoming (1995), he links images from the Vietnam war and WWII to his memories of family violence. Zimmermannn explores this work as a processing of trauma, commenting,

“Reeves’ videos push to possibilities of camera-vision to unlock authenticity and transcendence through seeing and revisioning, often in layering of images, slow-motion images, or associative montage connected through dissolves that function almost like metaphorical bandages to the traumas within” (45-46).

Reeves later moved to creating important installation art pieces such as The Hand That Holds Up All this Falling (1997) and the internationally exhibited Eingang: The Way In (1990). The latter included volcanic rocks and Scottish beach stones as well as HD monitors inserted into large segments of tree trunks. The monitors displayed images from around the world. Zimmermannn comments,

Eingang suggests a post-1989, post-Cold War memorial to the end of arbitrary political and historical borders” (52).

Zimmermannn reflects on the lack of documentation of live multimedia performance, an absence that this book tries to remedy. Too much emphasis, she argues, is placed on texts, as opposed to what she describes as “the sprawling, historically significant area of media practice that configures relationships between images, music, people, spaces, and technology” (215). She cites a 2004 event at Ithaca College, where students produced Within Our Gates Revisited and Remixed (based on the 1920 silent film by Oscar Micheaux) with live music from hip hop culture. She comments,

“As the dominant commercialized practices of digitality desensitize, disconnect, disembody, and isolate, the layered histories of live multimedia performance remind us that gatherings of people still matter”(215).

She reflects that media scholars now have to take in multiple forms of exhibition and distribution: “activist groups, the art world, campuses, concert halls, media centers, museums, online communities, political groups, and specific local communities”(4). Her book is bound to create new paths for exploration and to open up a new awareness of the richness and complexity of the global media landscape.

As with Documentary Resistance, I would have liked a discussion of the censorship that some of this activist media is confronted with, as well as some concrete internet links and distribution networks. Here are a few links that I found or know from personal experience:

Daniel Reeves website:

Collateral murder (Wikileaks via Chelsea Manning)

Shocking and awful: Globalization at Gunpoint (Deep Dish TV)

Negativland: No Business (by a U.K. collage art collective)

4 Vertigo (Les Leveque)

New Immigrant and Refugee Visions (Community Supported Films, Boston)

Media in motion (Berlin and Zagreb)