I’ve just finished watching the trailer for Bully, 2 minutes and 21 seconds of school bus beatings, educator indifference, and parental grieving set to a gloomy piano soundtrack. I have a son—too young for school, but he’ll be there soon enough. And so will the bullies. I shed a tear thinking about this. Shouldn’t I, the documentary film implores me, do something to spare him from seeing bullying or becoming a victim of it? Yes.
Do I do something about it?
Documentaries have been around in some form or another since the late 19th century. Early pioneers captured boxing bouts and surgical procedures; those who followed showed exotic, but still silent, locales to astonished audiences. A century later, the medium remains relevant. More than 100 million people have watched Kony 2012, an online rallying cry against an African warlord—and almost as many again seem to have an opinion on it. Documentary filmmakers, from Ken Burns and Barbara Kopple to Morgan Spurlock and Ricki Stern, continue to produce works that appeal across generations. Al Gore couldn’t win a presidential election, but he did win an Oscar for his documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.
But, and here’s the rub, did any of them change the world? We’re still polluting, still eating too much junk food, still tracking Joseph Kony through Africa. And still bullying. But, we’re also talking about these things: there are green tax incentives, no more supersize meals, and U.S. lawmakers are now pushing for Kony’s capture.
Oscar winner Margaret Lazarus (COM’72) spends a lot of time watching documentaries. She’s a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ documentary branch, which decides who gets a coveted golden statuette—and who doesn’t. If anyone is going to be a big fan of the format’s power, it should be Lazarus. But even someone who grabbed an Oscar for her 1994 take on abused women behind bars, Defending Our Lives, and has taught a university course called Producing Film for Social Change, concedes that the question, Can you change the world with a documentary? is a tough one.
“That’s a great question, because it’s not simple,” she says. “The answer is yes and no.”
Four-time Emmy winner Orlando Bagwell (COM’74,’77) takes up the point: “I’m not sure you can change the world with a documentary,” says the producer of the civil rights series Eyes on the Prize and current director of the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms initiative, which seeks to advance social justice through the work of filmmakers, “but I do think stories can in some way be a part of changing the world or help people become actively involved in changing the world.”
The question of efficacy is especially difficult because no one quite agrees on what a documentary film actually is. Defined literally, such films shouldn’t even be in the business of changing the world, but of capturing it, objectively documenting it. Simple translations rarely take you very far, however. “It’s not journalism,” says documentary filmmaker Sam Kauffmann (COM’77), a College of Communication professor of film and television. “It’s kind of like an op-ed piece. Most documentaries today, they explore an issue, but they generally have a point of view; they want to reveal a particular side of a subject.”
Lazarus admits that the term documentary film is something of a misnomer: “Some people prefer to use the term nonfiction film and sometimes that’s not terrifically appropriate either,” she says. “It’s hard to define, but I think it’s film that is more defined by what it’s not—it’s not mostly acted; it’s not a story made up by someone that follows a script format.” Bagwell calls it “a dramatic representation of real life in some way.” The late filmmaker John Grierson labeled documentary the “creative treatment of actuality.”
According to Kauffmann, the job of documentary filmmakers, however they define their medium, is to shed some light on a neglected people or issue. Kauffmann’s documentaries include 2004’s Living with Slim: Kids Talk About HIV/AIDS, about seven Ugandan HIV-positive children, and the 2010 follow-up film Kids Living with Slim.
Into the rain forest
It had taken a couple of airplanes, a boat, an open-air bus, and finally, a three-hour canoe trip to reach the Tiputini Biodiversity Station. Nestled in 1,500 acres of lowland Ecuadoran rain forest, the research station would be a chance for biology student Jennifer Berglund to put her education to use during a semester abroad. But it wouldn’t be nature that caught her attention. Moving among the trees was a small group of people with microphones—National Public Radio reporters recording a story about treehoppers, little insects with a powerful sound. Berglund (CAS’07, COM’10) began to trail the radio team.
“I knew at that point that I wasn’t really excited about going into bench science,” she recalls. “I just wanted to be out in the world experiencing it, and also doing my part to tell the stories that needed to be told.”
When she returned to Boston, Berglund wrapped up her biology degree and shifted focus to take on a master’s in science and medical journalism; she’s now an executive producer at Prehensile Productions, which specializes in films on nature and science, and a freelance writer for publications such as Nature and Discover.
She doesn’t describe herself as a filmmaker—storyteller might be closer to the mark—but she produces documentary films that aim to change the world. Current projects include Defending Eden, about the fight to preserve indigenous knowledge in Ecuador, and Family Trees, documenting the intricate social interactions among a species of monkeys in Costa Rica. Berglund’s background says something about the qualities needed to succeed in this business, and technical filmmaking expertise isn’t necessarily one of them.
“Curiosity. I think that’s absolutely necessary—curiosity and the ability to see something interesting and want to dig into it more,” she says. “It’s almost a need—you see something and you need to get to the bottom of it.”
An effective filmmaker, it seems, cannot be content just being a good storyteller and an inspiring teacher, but has the need to be a grade-A pupil, too.
“If we are driven by our own beliefs and a desire to promote just those beliefs, then we’re moving toward propaganda,” cautions Bagwell. By trying to “honestly understand the complications in any story,” you’re more likely to win the trust of an audience.
That loosely fits into another of Bagwell’s ingredients for an effective documentary filmmaker: the ability to recognize what all people have in common.
“As a filmmaker and a storyteller,” he says, “you are using those commonalities, as well as the excitement that comes with new discoveries, to help build a dramatic structure and rendering that helps people not only see the person or issues that you’re trying to address, but see themselves in that story. I think that’s the real hard work of it.”
Berglund brings that into her films by showcasing a “powerful personal story,” she says. “Humans have a hard time relating to subjects, but they can very easily relate to a person.” She sees it as a key element in documentary’s enduring power.
“People like watching people. Why do we still read the paper? Why do we read blogs? We’re interested in what goes on in our world, and we’re interested in the people who live in it. We’re interested in faces; we’re interested in emotion. Documentary conveys all of that. That will never go away.”
Paths for activism
Emotion gets to the heart of the matter for Lazarus. In her view, a film’s success, its ability to change something, comes down to that one word. Emotion. A film that rocks our world “unleashes and harnesses” it. A film that just drifts by? We might emerge enlightened, but no spark of activism is lit.
“I think the power of change comes when people are able to bring what’s in their hearts, minds, souls, and ideas and meet the documentary halfway,” she says. That’s why she’s no fan of the old-school “baritone in the box” documentaries, with an earnest narrator explaining one side, then the other: “If everything is covered, it doesn’t let you engage.” And it doesn’t take into account that “there might be six points of view.” For her, the film must be like a “molecular protein—it can’t be smooth and flat; it has to have hooks.” Its screening, meanwhile, should be an active, public one. Lazarus prefers school and cinema screenings framed by moderated expert discussions to “really motivate” people and help them find “paths for their activism.”
Which brings us back to Kony 2012. Invisible Children, the nonprofit organization behind the film, took Kony 2012 to schools nationwide, but the vast majority of viewers watched it—and engaged with it—online. In this internet age, in-person, moderated discussions are no longer a given for documentary films. Even public-viewing format fan Lazarus admits that “theatrics” doesn’t have to mean theater and that while the film had its flaws, the team behind Kony 2012 was at least trying to find new ways of engaging an audience.
Berglund predicts the era of the stand-alone film is coming to a close. Her Defending Eden project has “become not only a documentary; it has become a transmedia campaign.” As well as the central film, she’s produced an advocate website with links for getting involved and short films to delve deeper into different aspects of the central story. This is where documentary becomes more than a film. Bagwell encourages the filmmakers he supports through the JustFilms initiative to consider what they want to accomplish before they even push the record button.
“People can stand up and testify that they’re outraged by what they see and want to do something about it,” he says. “The real challenge for the filmmaker and those working in social change is what you do with that moment and how you move them to a place where they can take the next step, and once you have them there, how you move them to the next step.”
JustFilms has provided grants to support films probing and espousing causes related to the criminal justice system, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and rising sea levels. Whether viewers decide to talk with friends about an issue raised by a film, donate some money, or quit their job to be a full-time campaigner, Bagwell is content that the film has kept its side of the bargain. And that shapes his view of Kony 2012; pushing the “like” button on Facebook still counts for something. “I don’t quibble with any one of them,” he says of the different levels of engagement. “I think all of them are an opportunity to build toward the next step.” It’s what the filmmaker does with those “likes” that really counts.
And that’s the conundrum. Can documentary films change the world? Alone, probably not. But they can educate, inform, and provoke, bringing the things that need fixing into the light. What separates those films—or more accurately, campaigns—that do make a difference from those that flounder is that they also empower their audiences, showing them how they can change the world.
One film won’t change the world, but 100 million people just might.
Andrew Thurston can be reached at email@example.com.
A version of this article was originally published in the fall/winter 2012 edition of COMtalk.