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A still from The Hunting Ground showing college activists Activists gathering in response to college sexual assault in The Hunting Ground
  • Can documentary still make a difference?


    Posted on: 08/02/2016

    Ahead of the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC 2016), writer Garry Westmore questions the impact of activist docos on social and political change.

    Documentarian Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter) once said he thought it “inevitable that people will come to find the documentary a more compelling a more important kind of film than fiction.” But in a day and age where cynicism is rife and any perceived directorial bias results in countless think pieces on the Internet, can activist documentaries still make a difference?

    Prior to the 1960s, documentaries that sought change were quite rare; outside of news programs, few and far between were docos that wanted to land knock out blows on social and political issues.

    But with the rise of activism in the 1960s came the rise of the activist documentary. There were filmmakers like Emile de Antonio who made In the Year of the Pig (1968), a scathing indictment on America’s Vietnam War. Edward Murrows last CBS documentary, Harvest of Shame (1960), highlighted the plight of migrant agricultural workers and revealed the poverty present in America’s backyard, and the Academy Award-winning short Nine from Little Rock (1964) by Charles Guggenheim, showed the innocent faces of those on the frontier of desegregation.

    In The Year Of Pig Blog

    A still from In The Year of the Pig

    However, the impact of such films can be hard to measure; did they simply tap into existing sentiment? Or did they help turn the tide of public opinion?

    Certainly their cultural significance is clear – de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig influenced Apocalypse Now (1979), and The Smiths’ Meat is Murder album cover is a still from the film. Social activist and philanthropist Noam Chomsky dedicated a book to de Antonio, and activist filmmaker Mark Achbar (The Corporation) dedicated a film to him also. The statuses of Murrows and Guggenheim too, are beyond reproach.

    Filmmakers of the time certainly weren’t unaware of their impact either, documentarian Fernando Solanas stating in a 1969 interview that the important thing was “not the film itself, but that which the film provoked”; and sometimes that impact is quantifiable. Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1988) (a film any Making a Murderer fan should watch) was essentially an investigation into the wrongful conviction of Randall Dale Adams for the murder of a Dallas police officer, and played a huge role in Adams’ eventual exoneration.

    Not all documentaries have the desired affect though, even if they happen to become the world’s highest-grossing like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.  A mocking assault on the Bush administration, the film earned $120 million at the box office yet still couldn’t keep the then President out of office, who won re-election in November 2004, six months after the film premiered.

    But then again, 2016: Obama’s America (2012) couldn't keep Obama out of the White House either.  

    Made by conservative Denish D’Souza, the film failed to affect the 2012 election despite its attacks on Obama’s domestic policies and an impressive $33m in earnings. Not far down the list of top-grossing docos is the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth (2006), a film that arguably influenced fence sitters on the reality of global warming, yet couldn’t possibly solve the issue single-handedly.

    The goals of Moore and D’Souza’s films were pretty lofty, but perhaps too it’s something to do with our increased awareness that documentaries are often bias; making us more sceptical towards them.

    Yet despite the ease at which cynicism can spread across the Internet in response to a documentary, continued debate can be a filmmaker’s greatest ally. If we were to update Solanas’ quote for the 21st century, we could perhaps say the important thing is not how much money a documentary makes, but the momentum it maintains.

    Lee Hirsch’s Bully (2012), which addresses America’s longstanding issue of bullying in schools, aimed first and foremost to get the film in front of children. It’s estimated that as of 2014, 3.2 million children had seen the film, and the film’s website includes a plethora of resources for teachers, parents and students.

    So too does the website for Canadian filmmaker Grant Baldwin’s Just Eat It (2014). A personal investigation into the large-scale food wastage practised and endorsed by supermarkets, the film’s site also has a ‘do more’ section, with the issue is being taken very seriously in France where a recent law banning supermarkets from destroying unsold food has been passed.

    Josh Fox’s Gasland (2010) is often credited for galvanising worldwide grassroots campaigns in trying to prevent the practice of fracking, and has a site to keep the activism alive beyond the film, with constant updates the various fracking battlefronts around the world.

    Gasland Blog

    A still from Gasland

    Not that films necessarily need a website to be impactful, some are simply too big to ignore.

    Take Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish (2013), a film that challenged the dangerous and immoral captivity of killer whales, and influenced California regulators’ decision to ban SeaWorld San Diego from continuing to breed killer whales and orcas. The film also seemed to have an affect on the public’s appetite for the parks’ Killer Whales shows and affected overall attendance and stock price.

    Director Kirby Dick and writing/producing collaborator Amy Ziering’s 2013 effort The Invisible War blew open the silence surrounding the shocking epidemic of rape within the U.S Military. The film has lead to new legislation, been viewed by high-level military officials, political administrators as well as an estimated one million military personnel.

    Their most recent film, the equally as confronting The Hunting Ground examines similar problems in another, even larger American institution – the college system. Since the film’s release, many a screening has been held at Universities including colleges named and shamed in the documentary for their mismanagement of sexual assault claims.

     The Hunting Ground trailer

    Closer to home too it’s encouraging to see films such as Maya Newell’s Gayby Baby making a difference; thriving instead of wilting in the face of controversy, with many schools organising screenings despite NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli banning public schools from screening it during school hours.

    No good activist documentary is without detractors, but the difference made by those enraged by the findings of these documentaries, still continues to drown out those who’ll meekly screech: “there’s nothing wrong here, carry on”.

    Love documentary? Join filmmakers, producers, directors and industry insiders this month at the Australian International Documentary Conference, held for the first time at ACMI from 28 Feb – 12 Mar.

    As part of AIDC 2016, we will be screening The Hunting Ground, Catfish and an accompanying talk, as well as The Memory of Justice.

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