Documentary and Participatory Media Cultures

A Critical History of Documentary and
Participatory Media Cultures
The 20th century kicked off with an increase in documentary film production, which
led to new social and political spaces where communities could form. Since then,
documentary film and video have produced and facilitated participatory publics.
In the 1920s, cine-clubs provided a space for people to meet, talk about film, and
screen experimental works. 1 Film collectives developed out of later manifestations
of the documentary impulse. In the 1930s, for example, the Workers Film and
Photo League organized to make activist newsreels and critical political films.2 In
the mid-1950s, collectives formed around producing documentaries, later called
“black films;’ critical of the administrative shortcomings of socialism.3 With further
technological developments in the 1970s, media cultures formed with the goal of
democratizing media by establishing a network of local production communities
and a parallel broadcasting system that took advantage of community-operated
cable stations in the United States.4 In the last two decades, the standardization of
the internet and the increased visibility of political documentary in mainstream
commercial culture have transformed generally passive documentary viewers into
agents of interactive activist engagement. 5
Benedict Anderson theorized these kinds of public collectives as imagined
communities in which members hold in their minds an image of affinity and solidarity created through shared interests and forged through identification independent of face-to-face communication in everyday life. 6 A social movement’s
success in creating instrumental social change depends on its ability to forge
a collective identification by “transforming mere aggregates of people sharing
the same condition into a social network, and thus into a more easily mobilizable group.”7 Social movements are sometimes born from shared conditions, and
counterhegemonic discourse can provide the social cement for a participatory
media culture. 8 Examining the dynamics of participatory media cultures allows us
to study how groups with shared interests become a “historical bloc”9 that is a complex, contradictory public agitating for recognition and redistribution of resources.
The participatory condition10 is composed of practice, culture, and expectation. We are fundamentally motivated to act by the promise that participation will
strengthen “social bonds, communities, systems of knowledge, and organizations,
as well as politics and culture:’11 Our invitation and hailing into participation forms
part of the foundation of society; it is how we become political subjects invested
in the system. These impulses go back to the Athenian polis, where being political
was defined by participating in public life and committing to speech as action.12
Participatory acts of democratic expression generate power by moving opinions
through critical-rational debate and other means, testing the legitimacy and authority of the status quo.13 There is widespread optimism about the power of participation, but does more activity create a productive political process? Art historians
and critics are pushing back on the magical thinking that surrounds the concept
of participation, challenging what constitutes an effective intervention. W hat if
dialogue, exchange, and connection don’t yield political outcomes? For contemporary art historian Claire Bishop, antagonism must be present as part of the participatory intervention; otherwise the potential is lost, along with the capacity to
challenge forms and confront power. 14 Agitation exists when people outside of the
decision-making process advocate for social change and encounter significant resistance in the process, requiring more intentional and substantial intervention. For
social movements, these interventions have established patterns and practices that
include petition, presenting the social injustice to decision makers; promulgation,
tactics used to win social support from outsiders; solidification, rhetoric that unites
unlikely actors and builds connections between supporters; and polarization,
presenting a forced choice to the audience.15 Agitation is a sign that power is being
confronted and that a request for change is being presented, demanding a response.
Participation is a fundamental principle of Western democratic culture, but
“what is distinctive about the present conjuncture is the degree and extent” to which
social, political, and economic activities are organized around participation.16 The
tendency toward participation is increasing, and the invitations to act are plentiful.
While many scholars study facets of participation in social life, research into participatory media cultures focuses on specific community actions that respond to, with,
and around media. Most of this research is bound up in the more recent capacities
of digital culture to shift pathways of communication, with a focus on virality and
spreadability of media communication.17 Media and communication scholar Henry
Jenkins led the field in investigating fan culture and other kinds of participatory
media publics. In Textual Poachers ( 1992), he began sketching out the possibilities
opened by these emerging public spaces. Over the next several decades, the idea of
participatory media cultures evolved together with scholarship. In the last several
years, Jenkins’s new research has been grounded in educational technology, with
special attention to youth production culture. In Spreadable Media ( 2013 ), Jenkins,
Ford, and Green argue that participation replaced resistance. Jenkins clarifies this
position in Participatory Culture in a Networked Era (2016): “There may no longer

Critical History of Documentary 29
be a unified mainstream culture against which subcultures can define themselves:’ 18
While he acknowledges the value in the bottom-up, local participatory enterprise,
Jenkins is skeptical about the radical political possibilities of this type of initiative.
Instead, he places a premium on how communication travels through networks,
gaining meaning and value. His focus is on the spreadability of communication and
its ability to range and transform,
9with the content generating value in attention and
visibility as opposed to how it challenges power. Expressions that might have had a
limited audience now have the potential to yield significant social consequences.20
An interest in the ways documentary discourse travels through networks, gaining
meaning and value, is central to the present study. In social change documentary,
the circulation of discourse meets collective, material movements for change. It is a
rhetorical engagement in which participation includes or translates into resistance,
rather than one replacing the other.
I define participatory media culture historically, in terms of a trajectory of
participatory networks across time.21 This trajectory begins with early, nondigital communities and arcs into an exploration of how the documentary impulse
is transformed in our digitally immersive contemporary culture. Some scholars
studying digital networks assume that participatory culture began with social media.
To correct for this assumption, Jenkins argues, “we need to place these practices in
larger historical context’:
22 This allows us to better understand the particular atmosphere created by the participatory environment in a digital culture as distinct from
the primarily analog and face-to-face communities in previous historical moments.
There is no mistake that digital culture has radically transformed participation, but
the participatory impulse finds its roots in the human experience and the desire to
transform the world for one’s own pleasure or survival.
Documentary theory and history seldom address documentary and the participatory condition. Some of the earliest efforts to understand documentary as a material force with collective action are found in the research on social realism and
radical filmmaking in the United States during the 1930s.
3 In privileging the relationship of film to reality and referring to a world outside the art object itself, this
scholarship opened up the space to consider documentary as a material force of
change. Thomas Waugh further contributed to this trajectory with his book, Show
Us Life: Toward a History and Aesthetics of the Committed Documentary. He suggests,
“[I] f films are to be instrumental in the process of social change, they must be made
not only about people directly implicated in change, but with and for those people
as well:’24 For Waugh, this research involved connections with the world outside
the film and included conversations about documentary history and theory with
filmmakers, programmers, distributors, and activists.
Attempting to use scholarship to shape the terrain of politics, Michael Chanan
explores the capacity of documentary to create pathways for new attitudes to enter
into wider ciiculation, 25 and Jonathan Kahana posits that documentary “makes us
think about the world outside the sphere of media consumption,” inviting “public
subjectivity and civil interaction that transports viewers beyond the immediate
context of viewing.”26 Alex Juhasz complicates the act of choosing what we include
in the study of media, acknowledging the nuance of collective action in a documentary public sphere. Activist documentary, she states, is agitational in production, distribution, and exhibition, fragmented in coalition building, hostile to the
mainstream, and built for vernacular expression.27 Juhasz’s intervention is important in that it insists on including alternative documentary media in the study of
a larger canon of documentary work, providing a complicated assessment of social change. This fragmented research space does not clarify understanding among
scholars about the ways documentaries can act as catalysts, propelling organized
collectives with shared interests and investments into taking political action. As the
editors of a recent forum on documentary functions and impacts suggest, “scholars
need to consider more deeply the important dimensions that distinguish a film that
engages and empowers publics:’28 It is especially crucial to examine how this field
evolved from analog expressions into an expanding digital culture; documentary
history provides robust ground for understanding participatory media culture from
multiple dimensions and technological shifts. We need interpretations of the participatory condition that “require [ s] us to think beyond accounts that would simply
equate it with the rise of digital technologies:’29 This underscores the importance of
illuminating networks whether they are built in analog culture or are circulating in
digital life. Alongside participatory media culture research, scholars Rita Felski and
Rosa Eberly passionately argue that cultural texts, through a variety of media and
contexts, prompt the formation of publics.30 Documentary history provides complex insight into participatory media culture, before and after the rise of the digital
landscape. It is historical context that draws attention to the way people act in the
world with media, circulation as a form of belonging to each other.
Documentary and participatory culture is a radical idea; it’s a force of grassroots
social change, involving cultural practices that make a difference in local and political
struggles. The history of this culture is largely in opposition to the dominant culture,
resisting government, mainstream institutions, news, and capitalism. Exploring participatory media cultures in documentary history may yield new assessments of the
participatory condition and its possibilities for political intervention.
The documentary impulse and participatory culture are places where reemerging publics construct shared identification that again coalesces around documentary media. This chapter focuses on how the participatory condition around
documentary (1) confronts power in the form of agitation, (2) shares information,
( 3) creates new output, and, as a consequence, ( 4) experiences control and surveillance. I broadly map the terms of participation, identifying when different forms
occur and emerge, and then I explore the ways documentary production has shaped
and been shaped by technology, advancing from recrafted lightweight cameras and
portapaks in the late 1960s to the explosion of inexpensive digital video and editing equipment in the 1990s and finally to the emergence of mobile media and

Critical History of Documentary 31
online community building at the turn of the century. The imagined communities
that form around documentary are diverse in composition and function, including
fan cultures as well as communities formed through shared production interests,
such as mobile recording and activism. The emergence of documentary participatory culture-the core interest of this book-is not a new phenomenon, but the
new ways these publics engage with documentary are specific to this form of cultural production.
What function(s) does documentary have in the process of social change, especially in initiating and sustaining activist participatory media cultures? In her book
Reality Bites, rhetoric scholar Dana L. Cloud argues that facts alone don’t move
people to action. What turns facts into beliefs and then into common sense, she
says, are emotion, embodiment, narrative, myth, and spectacle. These rhetorical
strategies create regimes of doxa (common sense) that organizes knowledge and
creates priorities around what is, true.31 This mediation of information-which
Cloud understands as primarily a process of language-can shift frameworks of
understanding. This chapter traces the well-documented opportunities for participatory media culture and social change that have emerged from the documentary
impulse since its beginnings, moving through the development of the portable
sync-sound analog, video-recording equipment of the late 1960s, and a digital culture of mobile recording.
This chapter establishes a broad framework for rethinking documentary history in relationship to the participatory condition. It does not include all films or
social change encounters, but it identifies significant waves of movement toward
using documentary for collective agitation. This history is organized around three
waves of documentary production in which political unrest, technological innovation, and artistic movements in documentary expression have collided to produce
new patterns of documentary circulation and activist reception. Such a theoretical
mapping process can help us gain more conceptual clarity about what formations
of participatory media publics and documentary are conducive to social change.
These include a consideration of documentary as a political platform, mirror, and
vehicle to challenge representation, an axis of collaboration, a conduit for information exchange, a tool of political intervention, and an organizing agent. The
remaining chapters in this book use this historical framework to address undocumented film communities that sit on the sidelines of this history as well as underrepresented topics and filmmakers that fall outside current scholarship. This
organization of documentary history will allow us to consider documentary and
the varying ramifications of these impulses for the process of social change. Finally,
I outline a framework for understanding documentary as it engages the process of
social change.
The portrait of documentary history that I offer is painted in broad brush
strokes; the narrative is by no means complete or inclusive. Working with the partially archived history of a largely underground media culture means that access
to the work itself is limited. The retelling of this history is also limited by the
sparse documentation that exists in formal scholarship, archives, and oral history.
My conversations with media professionals forced me into introspection and a
rethinking ofthe ways academic scholarship typically organizes ideas, calling attention to some of the unquestioned intellectual frameworks about documentary that
need to be reconsidered. As a result, I seek to blur the boundaries of traditional
cinema scholarship in order to also consider how people are using the documentary moving image in their everyday lives. This telling of documentary history is
the start to a conversation about the possibilities presented by participatory media
cultures. I offer this book as an invitation to include and integrate more voices into
the history of social change documentary, especially those stories that have rarely
found proper documentation. Finally, this particular investigation of documentary
history through the lens of social change does not negate the other capacities of
documentary. This history shines an intentional light on the political dimensions of
documentary capacity, so we can all take a closer look.
The First Wave of Social Change Documentary
In the world of silent film, before distinctions were made between documentary and narrative film, cinema production often intervened in political controversy. Melodrama that depicted life and ideological perspectives on sex, drugs,
Prohibition, crime, political corruption, women’s suffrage, prisons, poverty, immigration, and labor exploitation were projected on the screen, with reception
ranging from tolerance to outright censorship and criminal arrest. Almost threequarters of the film audience of the time was working class, and early films were
seen as the “organ for revolt.”32 Despite not quite living up to the expectations
of facilitating revolt, films did intervene to polarize, bring people together, and
change the world outside the screen. These early “sociological films” contained
precious historical evidence such as representations of slum districts in big cities
and stories that featured real people, like Margaret Sanger, at the center of controversy. Beginning in 1905, there was a steadily growing working-class film culturesilent filmmakers creating representations of everyday life featuring real people and
images of workers that met the demands of vaudeville houses, road shows, and the
expansion of exhibition outlets.33 This influenced the radical documentary cinema
that emerged around the 1930s. Film critics played a significant role in redefining
working-class cinema as it “flickered dangerously across a liminal zone of cheap
amusement and the avant-garde, depravity and reform, American and foreign
influences-and the introduction of sound further burst open its possibilities:’34
People were experimenting with cinema, and, from the beginning, political influence was more than a playful possibility.

Critical History of Documentary 33
In the early 1930s, economic collapse produced significant political tension and
strife. As a result, media outlets were dominated by controversy over political ideology.3
5 Documentary film technology had just acquired sound and was simultaneously celebrating the last moments of silent film. For the first time, words could
be added to image. For many documentary film scholars, this historical moment
initiates the genre’s civil potential. This period was populated mainly by social-issue
documentaries concerned with representations of marginalized communities. Yet
the technology of documentary production remained nestled squarely in the hands
of the elite.36 Governments, scholars, and rich patrons controlled documentary
production technology, which meant the form and content of the genre often reflected these interests and perspectives. Under these constraints, documentary was
not radical in that it did not typically question political and state institutions, but
films did sometimes engage the politics of representation. The early period of social
change documentary film in the 1930s was primarily reformist in nature, while still
situated left of dominant political conservatism and showing the influence of the
emerging radical ideas of the time. 37
The 1930s were a moment of abundance for reformist documentary, yet a radical working-class cinema existed before and throughout this profusion. For example, The Passaic Textile Strike (IWA 1926) documented the work stoppage of
over 25,000 mostly foreign-born mill workers in New Jersey.38 In this strike, organized by the Trade Union Education League of the Workers’ Party, workers fought
against dangerous working conditions, low wages, and their lack of recourse to address their circumstances. Directed by Samuel Russak and Alfred Wagenknecht, the
film was part documentary footage and part melodrama. It begins with a reenacted
prologue showing the events that led to the strikei the living conditions of workers
are edited alongside villainous portrayals of the bosses, creating identification with
the collective worker.39 There is an emotional and heavy-handed crafting of identification as a form of polarization, and in this way power is confronted directly. The
audience is with either the working class or the bossesi there is no middle ground.
Footage from the rooftops shows police charging into lines of peaceful protestors
and powerfully documents bloody attacks on the crowd. The framing of the strike
actions is recorded at a distance, in wide shots with no close-up framing. The police are seen steadily and forcibly encroaching upon a sizeable crowd. Working-class
identification is forged in opposition to the state, which is seen as the instigator of
violence.40 The footage was “straightforward;’ with “dramatic tension,” created by
“cutting back and forth between the hardships faced in the workplace and home,”
alongside parades and mass meetings.41 The strike ended in November 1926
with the company agreeing to restore wages and grant union recognition.42 The
Passaic Textile Strike (IWA 1926) was an important radical documentary for many
reasons: ( 1) it was a precursor of what was to come, functioning as a bridge between
the melodramas of earlier workers’ films and the social realism of radical films in the
1930s43; (2) it represents an ongoing labor struggle as it happened in real time; and
(3) the representations led to social change. Documentary films of the 1930s form
part of a larg�r body of cultural discourse focused on social critique, political representation, and grassroots social change through media production.
In his book The Cultural Front, Michael Denning addresses the cultural strategies
of U.S. political movements in the 1930s: “The thirties became an icon, the brief
moment when politics captured the arts, when writers went left, Hollywood turned
Red, and painters, musicians and photographers were socially minded:’4
4 This
cultural front
reshaped American culture. Just as the radical movements of abolition, utopian
socialism, and women’s rights sparked the antebellum American Renaissance,
so the communisms of the depression triggered a deep and lasting transformation of American modernism and mass culture-the laboring of American
The social investments of documentary in the 1930s led directly to its later function
as a political platform and mirror.
Many basic forms of social change documentary film were established during the
time Denning identifies as “The Cultural Front/’46 and by most accounts, British
filmmaker John Grierson led the charge. While studying at the University of
Chicago, Grierson traveled around the United States interviewing filmmakers,
scholars, politicians, and journalists, observing the workings of the American
melting pot. Like many of his contemporaries, he began to question what seemed
like the illusory democracy of the United States. According to Grierson, social
problems had grown beyond the comprehension of most citizens, and their political participation was nonexistent, apathetic, or performed out of a sense of obligation. Grierson believed that popular media could provide a solution, influencing
ideas and actions historically shaped by churches and schools. He believed that
the documentary genre had the potential to persuasively command the zeitgeist, turning benign cultural production into a political act. Grierson is widely
recognized as the first to argue for the use of documentary film as a platform for
political analysis; he sought to conceptualize the documentary as a mirror for political culture.
“Documentary as mirror” and “documentary as hammer” are two of the more
robust metaphors used to describe the relationship between documentary images
and the world. The concept of”documentary as mirror” foregrounds the revelatory
aspects of seeing ourselves on the screen, highlighting the elastic power of identification and audience-centered reflexivity. The metaphor minimizes attention to how

Critical History of Documentary 35
stories are selectively shaped and narrativized for viewing. The comparison insists
on the indexical connection between the documentary image and reality. In this
metaphor, recordings function as a copy of the world for others. Through this exposure to the lives of communities who are less visible, documentary helps us see ourselves and our connections with others. Given the rudimentary media technology
of the time, the documentary form was one of the few mediums to visually and verbally reflect the immediate world around it. Documentary film could evoke a “hangover” effect, creating a lingering ideological impression on audiences.47 It became
Grierson’s mission to produce films that dramatized issues and their implications
in a meaningful way. He hoped that documentary could lead citizens through the
political wilderness.48
Grierson’s work laid the groundwork for social change documentary film in
several ways. Overall, his approach to the production and distribution of documentary film was unique. Instead of viewing the documentary film as entertainment to be consumed, he believed it could be instrumental in transforming people
and institutions. Specifically, documentary could inform a citizenry and improve
a crumbling democracy. In his film 1he Drifters (1929), Grierson dramatized the
work of herring fishermen that astonished audiences in packed theater houses.
According to film historian Eric Barnouw, “There was nothing doctrinally radical about it, but the fact that British working men-virtually ignored by British
cinema except as comedy material-were the heroes, gave the film an almost revolutionary impact.”49 The film gave the workingman a new public dignity, a new
narrative. In Grierson’s hands, the documentary camera functioned as a mirror,
reflecting images that challenged normative notions of class and legitimacy. In
vivid detail, Grierson edited together labor sequences, depicting the relationship
between human and machine. His idea was to bring the image of the workingman
away from “the Edwardian, Victorian, capitalist attitude.”50 While Grierson
performed his influential work as a theorist and practitioner primarily in England,
the history of reformist and working-class cinema in the United States goes back
even further.
During this time, a collective, politically minded documentary film movement
was mounting in the United States that was committed to documenting workers’
strikes, foreclosures, and elections.51 The Workers’ Film and Photo League was the
first body of activist filmmakers in the United States to connect around a shared
commitment to documenting the economic and social crisis. The League was an
international group that operated in major cities in the 1930s, producing a prolific body of workers’ newsreels and films. Newsreels were short films produced
on a regular basis to be shown in cinemas before the featured film events. They
included image-based political news, capturing moments of significance in global
culture, circulating postcard-like images, and offering distant and static portraits of
daily life. While most newsreel operations were business or government projects,
a thriving labor movement saw the potential of the form. The Workers’ Film and
Photo League brought workers’ consciousness to the public through documentary
newsreels and organized collectives. In a 1977 interview published in Jump Cut by
Russell Campbell, Leo Seltzer, who shot much of the New York Film and Photo
League footage, explains:
Ours was a total involvement in what was happening in the world on a very
practical and realistic level. We filmed the everyday social scene, the economic struggle. And we put it together to represent a realistic, not dramatized
point of view. Then we carried those heavyweight “portable” projectors and
the films back to the union halls and the picket lines and showed them to an
audience that was the living subject of the films. 52
These on-screen reflections of the lives of workers, Seltzer maintained, provided a
much-needed moral boost to the strike lines during the Great Depression. The representation functioned as a kind of affirmation, creating solidarity among those who
were in struggle and providing energy for the workers’ movement.
Filmmakers making nonportable film equipment movable was one of the first
instances of documentary filmmakers using technology in unintended ways. In
subsequent years, they continued to find alternative uses for technologies and
completely redesigned camera equipment to better capture life as it unfolded before their eyes. This type of filmmaking required structural support and a flexible
lifestyle. Seltzer continues: “For me the Film and Photo League activity was a
way of life, often working all day and most of the night, sleeping on a desk or editing table wrapped in the projection screen, eating food that might have been
contributed for relief purposes and wearing clothes that were donated:’ 53 The
Film and Photo League was supported by the Workers International Relief, a
Marxist organization that reinforced workers’ struggles around the world, with
a focus on cinema production. This was clearly groundbreaking work, but does
documentary film have the potential, as Grierson suggests, to create instrumental
social change?
In this interwar period, representation was the primary revolutionary action of
social minded cultural texts like documentary film. Documentary films aimed to
make visible the people and ideas situated at the margins of society. In these films,
this mostly meant placing the lives of white working-class people on display for
democratic ends. Filmmakers like Grierson assumed that multivocality through
documentary would provide the missing ingredient to remedy a troubled and homogeneous democracy. 54 But, as social movements scholar Albert Melucci asks, are
activist cultural strategies designed to constitute an audience, organize information,
and create new meaning through cultural codes enough?55 The following section
analyzes the second wave of activist documentary film that grew out of the political
and social strife of the late 1960s and continued into the 1970s. 56

Critical History of Documentary 37
The Second Wave of Social Change Documentary
The second wave of social change documentary was a reaction against industrial documentary production closely tied to corporate sponsorship and
interests: filmmakers of the early 1960s began embracing the role of observer. The
films of this period-often called direct cinema-were ambiguous, documenting
subjects that society was inclined to ignore and leaving conclusions up to viewers.
Filmmakers liberated themselves from the tripod and began innovating with handheld camera work. In this form of production, life appears to unfold in front of the
camera, long shots, and unsteady framing direct attention away from the production
process. For filmmakers in North America, this style represented a commitment
to observation at the cost of intervention and an attempt to transport viewers into
unfamiliar places. Of course, these views of unfamiliar places were determined by
those making these films. With few exceptions, this was a space of white, heteromale culture and its amusements. The liberating potential of this observationfocused moment in documentary expression is the legitimacy it gave to groups at
the margins of society, but it also exploded the rhetorical potential of documentary
by foregrounding the ideas and speech of the film subjects. Unlike the earlier era
of documentary film, in which the filmmaker-often the narrator-could manipulate footage to create their own arguments through voiceover, the methodological
commitments of direct cinema demanded that subjects speak for themselves:
In the new focus on speech-talking people-documentaries were moving
into an area they had long neglected, and which appeared to have surprising,
even revolutionary impact. Since the advent of sound-throughout the
1930s and 1940s-documentaries had seldom featured talking people, except in brief static scenes.57
Now film subjects, with the help of technology that recorded synchronized sound
and image, took significant interpretive control out of the hands of the director.
It was during this moment that the unfiltered vernacular voices of marginalized
communities began to appear in documentary film representation. This evolution
in form increased the rhetorical potential of social change documentary, allowing it
to move from speaking for people to having people speak for themselves. The distance created between the “voice of God” narrator and the distant images oflife was
replaced with the voices of everyday people, speaking freely.
With this focus on observation, new ways of looking emerged. For example,
in Robert Drew’s Primary (1960), we see then-Senator John F. Kennedy chatting
with constituents, speaking intimately with his wife, joking after the news camera
were turned off, and collaborating with his handlers. In these moments, we observe
the slippage between Kennedy the human and the political persona he projects.
1his observational crafting of authenticity is one reason the documentary genre
has historically functioned as a vehicle for public address. By foregrounding the
voices and experiences of documentary subjects, filmmakers could do more than
speak for communities: it could bring marginalized voices directly to the public
as a means of bearing witness. Town Bloody Hall ( 1979) by D. A. Pennebaker and
Chris Hegedus documents a 1971 public debate between feminist advocates and
antagonist Norman Mailer on the shifting gender roles in society. A critical mass
of women were speaking out about abortion, rape, and sex-based education, and
this documentary provided an amplified platform. The amplification of “voice;’ in
this case women’s voices, is significant when we place this film in the context of
the long-entrenched inequalities that still exist. Considered in this way, the concept of “voice” can be used as shorthand to describe the continuous human struggle
for recognition in society, suggesting that “spaces for voice” are “spaces for power”
and a petition to be acknowledged as “part of the landscape:’58 Giving expression
to marginalized voices is a form of reflexive agency, 59 creating subjects of ourselves
and linking us to others while addressing the universal human desire to make sense
of our lives.
In the late 1960s, documentary film and social change found new life as direct
cinema foregrounded vernacular voices and European cinema verite remained committed to intervening in the project of political dissent. The widespread political
unrest of the moment and the development of low-cost video technology created
fertile ground for a new generation of filmmakers. People living in the margins
began making their own films, and activists created their own media. The late
1960s through the 1970s marked the flourishing second wave of social change
For documentary to act as a vehicle to challenge representation, there had to
be innovations in form and content that produced creative ways of including
underdocumented experiences and stories. These unconventional articulations
and representations prompted reevaluation and engagement in the world. This
approach unified one of the most diverse movements in documentary industry.
According to Deirdre Boyle in her book, Subject to Change: Guerrilla Television
Revisited, the activist-video movement began with the development of lightweight, affordable, and portable video-recording equipment in the late 1960s and
early 1970s. Although video equipment was developed in the late 1950s, it was
cumbersome, stationary, complex, and expensive. The Sony Corporation did not
launch its first major effort to market consumer-grade equipment until 1965. The
first genuinely portable video equipment-the half-inch, reel-to-reel consumer
video portapak-was released in 1968.60 This gave baby boomers the resources

Critical History of Documentary 39
to make their own brand of television. This “new brand of television,” also called
guerrilla television, was part of a larger alternative media tide that swept across
the country during the late 1960s and 1970s. For a generation that grew up in the
shadows of the civil rights and antiwar movements, television was “the window to
the world:’61 Troubled by the political and social unrest of the 1960s, the guerrilla
television movement-made up of autonomous groups with diverse and often
contradictory organizing frameworks and interests-collectively imagined utopian programming to change the structure of information in America by creating
a distinct parallel broadcast system providing oppositional content: “Optimism
about television and its dynamic impact not just on communications but on contemporary consciousness was seized by the first generation raised on television,
who found … a euphoric explanation of themselves and their changing times [in
television] :’62 This section addresses the documentary impulses and interventions
of this movement.
The political crisis of the late 1960s, provoked by the Vietnam War and ongoing
resistance movements, in conjunction with technological innovations in video,
precipitated new spaces and forms for the documentary impulse. The new medium
of video recording provided challenges and opportunities for activists. For example,
video is more accessible and less expensive than film, and it also allows an immediate
playback function not available in film recording. Early activist-video collectives in
the second wave capitalized on this playback function as a community-building
mechanism, screening footage in popular spaces immediately after recording it. The
portability of video also allowed activists to use the medium to screen footage in
makeshift theaters and community spaces. The screen as an object transforms viewership. W here the screen resides, whether pinned to a community wall or traditionally framed among ornate design in a theater, influences the viewing experience. In
practice, video provided portability and access to recording technology that had the
potential to invigorate democratic practices. As documented in a video handbook
produced by the Video Freex collective:
We want to catch them in the action of their daily lives, record them on our
magic tape. We want to introduce people to each other and we want to saturate them with information, information about human beings, “fellow
Americans.” Seize the time, capture the situation! History in the making, life
recorded, but not just the life we read about in our mass media, or see on our
network television stations.63
Video happened in real time, allowing communities to see themselves and the world
differently but at the speed of broadcast television. Participatory organizing was
influenced by anarchist-inflected practices1 “establishing their own cells,” adopting
consensus decision making1 rejecting hierarchy1 occasionally promoting direct action, but more often, “attempting” to carve out a better world:’64
Documentary culture acted as an axis of collaboration, spurring autonomous
organizing and early experiments, with documentary as a participatory commons.
The term axis of collaboration refers to the ways groups used the documentary production process as a means to include diverse communities-locally and across
geographical divides-around shared interests through participatory practice.
New York City was one of the major hubs for experiments with activist documentary video in the late 1960s. Prominent video collectives included the Video Freex,
the People’s Video Theater, Global Village, and the Raindance Corporation. 65 The
following section focuses on the function of activist documentary and political collaboration as practiced by three prominent collectives in the second wave of activist
documentary: Video Freex, Top Value Television, and the Raindance Corporation.
Although each of the video collectives worked autonomously and employed divergent strategies, they shared common goals and a similar mode of activism. Notably,
each video collective group was bound by ( 1) an outright opposition to mainstream
broadcast television, (2) a belief in the medium of television as a vehicle for critical analysis and information exchange, and (3) a commitment to universal access
to video technology to allow underrepresented communities to create their own
media. They were also insular and utopian, and they often were composed of privileged people who had the space, resources, education, and time to experiment with
remaking culture through video. One of the first such media activist groups was a
handful of citizens who called themselves Video Freex.
Figure 2.1 Some of the most important work of the Videofreex involved recording the
growing political uprisings in the late 60s, including rare footage of a 1969 interview with
Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers as well as Abbie Hoffman during the Chicago 8 trial.

Critical History of Documentary 41
The Video Freex collective began as a small group of video activists housed in an
industrial section of downtown Manhattan. As one member remarked, “We were
happy to blur our provenance and thus assume our rightful role among the elite
if not the vanguard of the counter-culture and anti-war movements:’ 66 The group
produced an array of video, including some of the more entertaining and accomplished work on the scene. Their Chicago travelogues provide an inside view into
the workings of late 1960s radical activists and groups, including Abbie Hoffman,
Jerry Rubin, the Yippies, and the Weathermen. These tapes also provide rare footage
of the Black Panthers as they organized in Chicago, including the powerful oratory
of Fred Hampton. The group sought to establish a countercultural lifestyle collective rooted in the production of activist documentary and video art. Beginning in
the city but eventually moving to rural upstate New York to illegally broadcast their
micro-power television station, they were committed to building community and
providing democratic access to production resources: “[G]uerrilla television was
configured not as a weapon, but as a cultural tool bringing people together:’67 By
giving people access to tools that allowed them to document their lives and negotiate the world on their own terms, the movement created a vernacular space that
countered the prevailing dominant ideology ofbroadcast television:
[V]ideo could involve people by making them active participants in the “video
environment” rather than passive viewers of network TV fare … video’s potential [ was] to offer people a variety of viewpoints rather than the official,
objective one promoted by Walter Cronkite’s ”.And That’s the Way It Is:’68
This kind of production happened around collectives and media centers, generating
many fluid experiments in collaboration.
For example, in 1972, New York’s Downtown Community Television Center
(DCTV) was founded by Jon Alpert, who had worked as a taxi driver in a multiethnic area, and Keiko Tsuno. Together, Alpert and Tsuno produced a documentary about taxi unions and the issues of exploitation drivers faced. Seeing their
lives mirrored on video, citizens became excited about the potential of television
to provide an audience that would witness their concerns. As a result, Alpert and
Tsuno launched free training sessions in video production in three languages. The
work that emerged out of DCTV was produced in fifteen languages and broadcast
by stations in various parts of the world.69 DCTV continues to be a robust production company and community outreach program, providing production skills to
underserved communities. W hen I talked to Tsuno, she explained how DCTV was
able to survive the dire cuts in arts funding and the challenges of keeping a community media center functioning for over four decades:
This is also one of the reasons we are still here. I think it … there are two things.
Number one is we are not dependent on grant only. The people who are only
dependent on government grant, they just wiped out when, you know, big cutback happened. It was … once it happened in 1980s, and then again recently.
But, also … well, this 1980, when our grant from government shrank from
90 percent to 15 percent, or … we knew that was very big, you know, turnaround time. And we started to rent our professional equipment and professional editing suite. That’s how we survived. Then our lawyer and accountants
start saying, “look, you are doing some commercial activities under name
of, you know, non-profit:’ We said, “yes, it’s a contradiction. But, that’s the
way people have to survive:’ So they said, “ok, make two organizations. And
all profit goes to a non-profit. So this doesn’t make money, but you have to,
you know, file separately:’ So we did. And that one is still … it’s … that one
is ended by 1995. But, now we have also two organizations under the same
DCTV name. One is DCTV Doc, which is basically who we’re producing
for, you know, HBO and other channels, networks. And, that is still big, large
profit, 50 percent of our income to support this [nonprofit].
Sustaining community media collaborations took more than good intentions; it required crafty negotiation of income streams to fund social justice objectives that the
market and government institutions did not reliably support. In addition to fundraising, these organizations also had to build the networks needed for community
media broadcasts to reach the masses.
One of the most significant and historically unrecognized social change documentary filmmakers is George Stoney. With a career spanning more than sixty years,
“Stoney, better than any other single figure, bridges the traditional Grierson world
of documentary film production and the current digital democratization of the documentary:’70 He developed an understanding of documentary that “has work to do
in the world/’71 but he also invested in establishing activist media networks and infrastructure. Stoney’s work began in the 1940s, when he used Pare Lorenz’s documentary, The River (1939), as a discussion tool in meetings with southern rural
communities that were organized by Roosevelt’s Farm Settlement Administration.
For Stoney, the postscreening discussions were just as important as the film,
and perhaps even more important. In these discussions, biases were confronted,
connections were made, and identifications were solidified. These sorts of critical
engagements transform viewers into activists. Stoney’s rich legacy profoundly affected how documentary filmmakers understand the possibilities of participation.
Stoney’s films often existed in a strange vortex between educational, training,
and social issue films, reflecting his commitments to bridging community problems
with social institutions. One of Stoney’s most revered documentary works, All My
Babies ( 1953 ), addressed the culture of black midwifery in the South, focusing
on procedures and processes of care. The documentary was used extensively as a
training video for the medical community and helped contribute to lower maternal
and infant mortality rates. 72 During the 1960s, when direct cinema filmmakers were

Critical History of Documentary 43
embracing observation, Stoney st
ayed focused on the participatory possibilities of
documentary intervention. He routinely invited his subjects to pick up the camera,
give feedback on edits, and contribute to crafting the story. Stoney worked with
institutions interested in using film for outreach, and he was not particularly skeptical of institutions or conscious of their tendency to control communities even as
they served them. He worked with government institutional funding and never had
problems with censorship or with making documentaries that went against his own
principles. The result is an uncritical paternalism in some of his work that may explain why it was so well received by mainstream institutions.
When I interviewed George Stoney on a rainy summer
day in 2009, a few years
before his death, we talked about the care work of documentary, the telling of undocumented history, and the process of participation. In response to my question
about how social change documentary functions in the world, he clearly and firmly
answered: “It [documentary] confirms the conviction of the presenter. It causes the
viewer to identify him or herself with the objective. And, it shows some methods
of change, methods of bringing about change:’ 73 He believes the collective identification experienced through documentary is not just a matter of solidifying
associations between like-minded people. According to Stoney, documentary also
Figure 2.2 A scene from All My Babies ( 1953) directed by George Stoney. Midwifes are
directed into formal education from the white, male medical establishment. Experienced
midwifes sit and listen to doctors explain the medicalized procedures for birth.
Figure 2.3 A midwife helps a woman through labor, a scene from All My Babies ( 19 53)
directed by George Stoney
informs us about how one should act in the world, generating a form of agency.
His commitments to participation are more practical and less situated in an ethical
framework. He explains, “I found when I involved the people who were gonna use
the film in their production, they were not only much more useful, but the people
had a commitment to use them …. I found that people responded much better
when they did their own stuff …. I think that when people [are] involved in their
own production, they are much easier about having the public see them:’74 Unlike
a finished film, the process of collaboration during production is often invisible,
though it has its own impact on the world.
In the early 1970s, while working as a professor at New York University, Stoney
and others pioneered a project to realize the ultimate vision of every citizen having
a voice and the access and resources to author their own media. This vision included
building a network for broadcast distribution through local cable access channels to
allow easy circulation of activist media. To achieve these goals, Stoney launched the
Alternative Media Center in New York City and petitioned cable stations for community access resources across the country.
These early efforts worked to shift television content away from banal entertainment and negative images of youthful protest toward representations of
countercultural values and a new television reality. As Boyle observed, “fueled

Critical History of Documentary 45
by adolescent rebellion and utopian dreams, video promised an alternative to
the slickly civilized, commercially corrupt, and aesthetically bankrupt world of
[broadcast] television:’75 The aim of the portable-video movement “was ‘guerrilla warfare’ insofar as it enabled citizens to fight the ‘perceptual imperialism of
broadcast television’ on a small scale in what was then an irregular war:’ 76 If this
was the goal, how exactly did activist media collectives use documentary to create
social change?
While George Stoney and DCTV worked to build open and accessible community media collaborations, groups such as Video Freex became mired in building
alternative lifestyle communities around video production. The video production
lifestyle, rather than the shared political principles, acted as the marker of the community. Activist-video collectives, an outgrowth of the commune movement, had
an ecological vision that attempted to subvert “commercial media, state bureaucracy, and the nuclear familY:’77 As one Video Freex member recounted:
We called ourselves Video Freex. Officially, it was a corporation as well as
our collective name. It had become a generic term as well, with the pejorative
sense of freak undermined by the prevailing sub-culture, such that any enthusiast or aficionado, regardless of the subject-sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, food,
video-was non-judgmentally classified as a freak:’7
Although many experimental projects evolved out of the Video Freex collective,
their approach fostered experimentations with production and exhibition rather
than significant social change. Still, this work picked up the autonomous, radical impulse that was fomented during the early moments of cinema. Still other
activist-video collectives-in an attempt to directly combat the homogeneous news
environment-were reformist in nature, confronting the mainstream media from
the inside.
In the late 1960s, the Newsreel movement was particularly active across the
United States. Politically focused independent filmmakers within specific geographical locations, pooled resources to document life in urban spaces. These
documentary representations in the form of motion picture newsreels captured
the unseen people and circumstances that did not penetrate the thick veneer
of broadcast television, with organizations developing in San Francisco, Los
Angeles, Chicago, and Boston. New York Newsreel’s focus was on cinema as a
tool to engage spectators, an organizing mechanism of bringing new people
to the movement and prompting action in real life.79 The Newsreel movement
and the larger guerrilla video movement shared a resistance to the aesthetics of
production and what those choices symbolized. There was an outright rejection
of the professional culture and the slick production of mainstream and broadcast
media, whic4 were deemed inauthentic, consumer-based, and empty of vision or
political principle.
Newsreels produced by the movement were not just new representations of
unseen content, but rather the production process was made transparent through
experiments with montage and perspective. These production interventions had
visceral impacts on communities, narrating stories that straddled the space between
oral history and urban lore. Chris Robe documents two such incidents illustrating
their impact. First, Newsreel’s Columbia Revolt ( 1968) captures protests at Columbia
University when students discovered links between the university and the institutional apparatus of the Vietnam war as well as the compounding issues of segregation on campus. The documentary represents the story of those occupying five
university buildings for social change, the camera capturing the story from inside
while the press waited outside. The documentary screened at the State University
of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo and provided the energy that led 500 students to
burn down the ROTC building. Second, at the University of California, Santa Cruz,
embolded by the screening it “strengthened student resolve” to confront the Board
of Regents the next day with their own set of demands. Within many of these organizations, there was a push and pull between artistry and activism, a focus on
aesthetics that often traded off with authentic connections and relationships with
working-class members of Newsreel and the communities they The
way Newsreel and a nationwide collective documented the bubbling undercurrents
of culture was unprecedented. The diversity in representation straddling class, race,
and gender was striking, as these works became some of the most important historical documents in our visual history.
Documentary’s function as a conduit for information exchange is bound up in
the politics of representation, as well as the structures of alternative distribution
and exhibition. Alternative media networks circumvent gatekeepers and create
pathways in which information can flow with minimal top-down obstruction. In
traditional media structures, some information is more accessible, documented,
privileged, and accepted than other information. When documentary functions
as a conduit of information exchange, it provides information that had been
missing, submerged, or undocumented. This manifests in the form of unheard of
perspectives, undocumented history, and alternative archiving and cultural production. Alternative networks make space for this underground information to be
broadcast publicly and forcefully. At the other end of the guerrilla television spectrum, Top Value Television (TVTV) was an ad hoc group organized to cover the
United States’ 1972 national presidential conventions for a growing cable television market. Equipped with the newly available portable-video technology, activists
flooded young Republican rallies, cocktail parties, antiwar demonstrations, and the
convention floor.s1

Critical History of Documentary 47
1he TVTV group produced Four More Years (1972), a behind-the-scenes
look at the 1972 National Republican Convention. Focused on capturing the
counternarrative of the convention, Four More Years edits together loosely connected
scenes from the events, showcasing undocumented moments and opinions, especially those that counter the slick veneer of broadcast television narratives. 1he documentary recorded news reporters complaining about their work circumstances,
the production crew playing harmonica on the convention floor, and images from
the production side of television culture, shown in close and intimate framing. As
one member of the TVTV noted, the goal was to “cover the media covering those
actions and cover the people planning for or reflecting on them. 1he [convention]
actions themselves are of negligible importance to us:’82 In this context, activist
video recorded events from a perspective that countered that of mainstream television. The videos challenged the objectivity of the news by focusing on events that
traditionally fall outside the television screen. As one member of TVTV recounted,
“Our tapes must represent the event-far less than traditional media trips-but the
content of the event must be there. Our role is unique:’ 83 Unlike mainstream television reporting that focused on events, this approach to activist video attempted
to capture the missing contexts of those events. Although TVTV was not overtly
advocating a particular ideological stance, the texts produced a new aesthetic
and a fresh position on the media. As prominent media activist DeeDee Halleck
Spunky, restless, and iconoclastic, TVTV’s tapes were a breath of fresh air
in the seventies, in stark contrast not only to stodgy commercial fare but to
the overtly earnest tapes from the New/Old Left with their interminable
harangues from microphones at demonstrations. Although never willing to
spell out a specific ideological stance, TVTV made the media their politics,
and even their checklist for camera people has a stance of defiance against the
standard broadcast mores:’84
Underneath the innovative use of cameras and the ecological vision of media
produced by collectives lay a current of white and middle-class privilege that
impeded work with historically disenfranchised groups. 85 TVTV walked a line between counterculture and mainstream, embracing a narrow sense of agitation at
combating mainstream broadcast production representations and practices.
While Top Value Television produced alternative media content, the Raindance
Corporation functioned as the research and development arm of the video movement. Raindance operated as an experimental video collective and was most famous for coining the term guerrilla television. This name marked a new brand of
television that emerged from the collision of activism, art, and the development
of accessible video technology in the early 1970s. In his book, Guerrilla Television
(1971), Michael Shamberg describes the activist collective as an “analogue to the
Rand Corporation-a think tank that would use videotape instead of print.”86 The
collective’s primary objective was to agitate against the slick world of mainstream
television broadcasting.
Fighting the slick world of broadcast television, the collective was rhetorically
more concerned with “appearing in public” as opposed to “acting in public:’ There
are some notable exceptions, but the movement was more focused on projecting
missing representations than using images to create social change, engaging in a
kind of magical thinking about moving image discourse. Political contestation was
addressed “not by directly assaulting the system-as in a political revolution-but
by extending the unifying properties of electronic media to everyone:’ 87 Attempting
to avoid the ideological warfare on broadcast television, early video activist Frank
Gillette commented that he was not imposing his structure on people, but rather
he was letting people “give their raps on tape:’ 88 1he movement located the political
moment of social change in providing access to technology resources, focusing on
alternative expression and lifestyle community. Abandoning instrumental political
goals, the new breed of video activist was connected through the aesthetic of the
countercultural lifestyle. Film and media studies scholar Chris Robe argues that the
retreat into a collective lifestyle-especially with more radical groups such as Video
Freex and the Newsreel collectives-was an anarchist-inflected movement toward
remaking culture. Regardless of the intention, these activist cultures abandoned direct political agitation, ultimately preventing their work from actualizing into effective media formations. This shift meant that any instrumental platform for social
change documentary that had been established was lost or, at best, not prioritized
in the 1970s. Marco Vassi, an active member of the early video scene, commented
on the environment of a grassroots video collective: “We sit stoned and dig each
other’s worldview. We rap and eat and fuck and watch tape. And for us, it’s about the
same as it has always been: just living fully, openly, honest to what is:’ 89 Although
the production process collaboratively engaged communities, the engagement was
not necessarily instrumental.
The political moment was concerned primarily with disseminating multiple
viewpoints and developing a counter political community rather than taking
agitational actions that might better guarantee, as Nancy Fraser suggests, the cultural recognition and redistribution of economic resources that are the foundation
of oppression and marginalization. The emphasis on community building resulted
in not “much time thinking about strategies for changing even the policies that were
of central interest to them: media policies:’ 90 The strategies of political agitation
were misdirected. As Dee Dee Halleck concluded, “The video guerrillas were reluctant to undertake the exhausting and thankless work of infrastructure development,
and there was little prospect of funding long-term progressive initiatives:’ 91 As a result, the movement failed to reach its objective of systematic social change, but it did
succeed in displaying alternative media content:

Critical History of Documentary 49
As a part of the counter-culture, guerrilla television helped raise a critique of
American Society that went beyond the bounds of the political Left, even if
it missed essential leftist insights about power, economic exploitation, and
The 1970s movement pioneers also successfully established the foundational infrastructure for activist production, training, and distribution. This impulse led to
early experiments in collaboration and information exchange that helped build future pathways toward social change.
The activist-video movement was insular in orientation, not because of its commitment to a distinct parallel broadcast system,93 but because of the drive toward
producing politically polarizing videotexts that mostly addressed an insider community. A community that fetishized new media resided comfortably in the privilege of play, largely ignoring agitation and the power dynamics that undergirded
this work. The movement experimented with different communities in a superficial way, for example, the People’s Video Theater built a temporary grant coalition
with the Young Lords, a movement within the struggle for Puerto Rican liberation.
Upon receiving the grant, the People’s Video Theater purchased four portapaks,
giving one unit to the Young Lords and keeping the rest. Each group went its
own way, not formally collaborating on any creative projects. In this exchange,
the People’s Video Theater replicates a “colonial relation of white benefactors
bestowing goods upon the colonized receiver to ingratiate themselves into the
tribe:’94 Remnants of this political tourism continue in documentary culture today.
Reflecting on the objectives of the activist-video movement, Marco Vassi observed
that activist filmmakers must realize “that all their complex equipment is just so
much metal junk, toys and tools, which have no more worth than the hands and
hearts of the people who work them.”
95 At some point, countercultural interests
must engage with dominant hegemonic interests that are conscious of replicating
oppressive structures. Video activism needed to attract a massive viewership to
engage in persuasive appeals that could push audiences past the stalemate between
countercultural interests and dominant hegemonic discourse.96 The presence of
alternative viewpoints alone was not enough to translate facts into beliefs and then
into common sense.
As the 1970s came to an end, a new assault on video culture was mounting.
The 1980s brought drastic cuts to arts funding in general and documentary in
particular. The Reagan era’s hostility to the arts ushered in a new cultural regime
in which documentary “did not imagine new social spaces, but rather affirm[ed]
unique individuals:’97 The restructuring of the telecommunications sector, political targeting by conservatives, and congressional debates “turned documentary
into a bloody political battlefield:’98 Patricia Zimmermann identifies this moment as a war over how public space and nationhood are defined. Documentary
became a location for the expression of larger conflicts like the “war between the
imagined white nation-state and the new formations of diaspora:’ 99 As U.S. culture adopted a more conservative stance in the 1980s, radical media found new
platforms and escape routes. The last decade of the 20th century then ushered in
more new technologies, a maturing neoliberal economic system, shifting political
formations, and new democratic practices that further collapsed the line between
politics and culture.
The Third Wave of Social Change Documentary
One thing becomes clear from the history of social change documentary: locating
the political potential of the genre does not tell the whole story. Documentary
filmmakers have used production and distribution to engage the process of social
change, creating moments of fundamental political significance. The Workers Film
and Photo League contributed to representations that created identification with
the working-class struggle for survival deeply influenced by Soviet montage and
Dziga Vertov, a Soviet documentary and newsreel director who deeply influenced
theories of cinema and filmmaking. Video collectives in the 1970s located their activist production and distribution strategies in the choice to screen works in community centers and to teach communities how to make their own media. These
shifting social and political contexts have dictated the strategies, texture, and civic
potential of documentary over time. Therefore, different periods of social change
documentary not only cluster around moments of political crisis, but also function according to the needs and limits of a given historical moment. For example,
the Workers Film and Photo League of the 1930s was energized by the economic
crisis of the time but was limited by the lack of portable technology available to record the personal and intimate struggles of the working poor. Much like the activist
documentaries of other periods, a unique political and social context produced a
particular kind of activist moment in the third wave.
The third wave of activist documentary fomented in the late 1980s, bursting
onto the scene after the turn of the century and continuing to evolve today.
Analyzing pivotal changes in the independent documentary in a post-1989 landscape, Patricia Zimmermann argues, “radical documentary practices graphing difference have been engaged in a civil war over the national imaginary.”
100 This war
began in the 1980s with the Reagan administration’s draconian reductions of federal and state arts funding and the dismantling of the noncommercial media sector
in the United States-reducing documentary to a more marginal practice. This
historical moment also included accelerated media restructuring and mergers that
demanded new production ecologies. These circumstances were accompanied by
an intense cultural war on content. As national discussions about sexuality-explicit
art raged on, documentary’s historical reputation for repudiating “the fictions of

Critical History of Documentary 51
the nation with the real, the document, the historical, the particular,”101 meant the
genre was at odds with conservative positions on cultural politics. By the end of
the 1980s, these conditions reali
gned the production culture of documentary in
the United States, pushing more documentary production to the nonprofit sector
and eventually, into commercial institutions. As a result, “the entire project of documentary itself has been contested by realignments and new developments in new
communications systems, the state and consumer culture:’102 Before 1989, independent media was framed as a common good for democratic ends: arts funding
and public television were understood as spaces for voices denied access by capitalist interests. The third wave is a reaction to dozens of not-for-profit media
centers closing their doors and the emergence of new documentary practices
shaped by advances in new digital technologies and the internet. Understanding
documentary as a robust commons is about returning to media production as a
social good, a process to connect the underrepresented with a larger political and
cultural horizon.
Varied contemporary documentary and social change strategies led to the
third wave; they included an influx of labor documentaries that marked significant shifts in manager-worker relations, documentaries that recorded a living history of the growing AIDS crisis, and documentaries that questioned government
and corporate globalization practices. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there
was a proliferation of union films that depicted a societal transition in workermanagement relations. Films like Barbara Kopple’s American Dream (1990) and
Michael Moore’s Ro
ger and Me ( 1989) were portraits of American workers living
through crisis. During this time, community access channels in the rising cable
market continued to produce an interesting variety of activist programming that
ranged from media literacy education programs such as “Herbert Schiller Reads
the New York Times” to the expansion of parallel broadcast networks such as Paper
Tiger TV.103 Then, the explosion of the AIDS crisis in the late 1980s and early
1990s produced a new kind of activist video. Those afflicted by this disease, about
which the U.S. government remained silent, made their voices heard through documentary production.
The AIDS activist-video movement documented demonstrations, the struggle for
visibility, and the evolution of the disease from the perspective of those experiencing
it. The videotexts functioned as a necessary and powerful counternarrative to the
consistently negative depictions of AIDS in the mainstream media. 104 During this
time, ACT UP, a prominent gay activist group, created a video collective called DIV A
TV (Damned Interfering Video Activist Television). Gregg Bordowitz, a DIVA TV
member, produced some of the most influential work in AIDS activist video, such
as Voices from the Front ( 1991) and Fast Trip, Long Drop ( 199 S). Using a combination of personal and autobiographical modes, activist street-tape recordings, and
reused silent and found footage, Bordowitz captured the essence ofliving with HIY.
He used montage to construct familiar relationships with unknowable experiences.
The videos provide stirring portraits of the political struggle surrounding the AIDS
crisis in public and in intimate close-up as Bordowitz struggles with the effects of
the disease on his own body. AIDS activist video, Paper Tiger TV, and DIVA TV
all played an important role in developing the foundation for the third wave of activist documentary. While these works continued to sit at the margins of popular
culture, a new form of social change documentary was about to explode into the
Unlike the second wave of documentary, which characterized social change as a
fight between surly commercial broadcasting and activist media, the new struggle
for power is issue driven, underscored by the tensions of exploitation and marginalization that are amplified by a maturing neoliberalism in the United States. In
fact, popular contemporary activist media is at home in the slick world of corporate broadcasting and commercial distribution, which is dependent on maintaining
a loyal viewership through subscription, advertising, and sales. A familiar strategy
of third-wave activist documentary is to place films in major distribution outlets,
hoping to reach the maximum viewing audience without compromising critical political content. The most significant test case of this phenomenon was the wide release of Fahrenheit 9 I 11.
Figure 2.4 In his personal autobiographical epic Fast Trip, Long Drop ( 1993) 1 Gregg
Bordowitz stiches together a narrative about living with HIV through archives, personal
performance and activist street tapes.

Critical History of Documentary 53
Documentary’s move into mainstream commercial culture shifted strategies for engaging social change. Previously, documentary functioned as a mirror, an axis of collaboration, or an information exchange, but with the move to commercial culture,
it began to intervene more frequently in larger political discussions, policymaking,
the news agenda, and legal proceedings. The walls of the theater have long been porous for documentary, and this new kind of exposure, amplified by the comfortable
circulation of documentary discourse in commercial and institutional networks,
increases the genre’s productive and destructive consequences in public culture.
In the summer of 2004, the United States was embroiled in a questionable war
against Iraq. In this heated political moment, provocateur and documentary filmmaker Michael Moore released his fourth feature film. It addressed the Iraq War,
condemning the sitting Bush administration and the mainstream press. Fahrenheit
9 /11 is one of the most commercially successful documentaries, yet its significance
resides elsewhere. While media makers frequently address social issues on a local
level, it was rare at the time for a film of this magnitude and genre to attempt to
mobilize a nation around a national political issue during an election year.105 The
most interesting and significant aspect of Fahrenheit 9/11 is the film’s evolution
into something bigger than the documentary itself.106 With Fahrenheit 9 I 11, Moore
entered into an agitational relationship with the mainstream media while simultaneously existing within it.107
Fahrenheit 9/11 marked a new evolution in the third wave of activist documentary. The controversial film received significant attention from mainstream news
media, allowing it to defy traditional activist documentary positioning. Instead of
being situated at the margins of the counterculture, today activist documentaries
like Fahrenheit 9 I 11 take center stage in popular culture. The popular activist documentary is one aspect of the third wave that can either explode or bury the potential
of social change. Does intense visibility make audience members numb to social injustice, or does it urge different populations to engage beyond the viewing moment?
Many other activist documentaries followed Fahrenheit 9 I 11, comfortably existing
in the stratosphere of popular, mainstream reception.
The political and social context of third-wave activist documentary is distinct
from that of previous periods. As Mcchesney and other scholars have noted,
media is becoming a more pervasive and persuasive aspect of contemporary li
In this historical moment that is characterized by media saturation and participation, commercial political protest is around every corner: “Capitalism, at least
as it is envisioned by the best-selling management handbooks, is no longer about
enforcing order, but destroying it. ‘Revolution� once the totemic catchphrase of the
counter-culture, has become the totemic catch-phrase of boomer-as-capitalist:’109
Unlike other periods of history, perpetual revolution and rule-breaking are the orthodoxy of the day. 110 During the first and second wave of activist documentary,
recordings were always outside the mainstream, while today’s commercial media
often adopt edgy counterhegemonic media for profit.111
The texture of contemporary social change documentary reflects the blurred
boundaries between counterhegemonic ideas, political dissent, and commercial culture. Distribution outside the commercial media apparatus is no longer a
clear marker of an activist documentary. Recent mass-marketed documentaries
have targeted the media and corporate exploitation: filmmaker Morgan Spurlock
attacks fast-food corporations in the blockbuster Supersize Me (2004), Michael
Moore routinely targets corrupt corporations and inefficient political institutions
in Bowling for Columbine (2002), Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), and Capitalism: A
Love Story (2009). Moore released Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018) in an attempt to revive his 2004 success bearing a similar name but in the Trump era. By most accounts, Moore continues to speak for social change, though his approach and style
are wearing thin in a different political moment.Josh Fox exposes the practices of
£racking in Gas/and ( 2010), and Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s ( 2013) helps
expose and dismantle the practices of Sea World, a multinational corporation. The
benefits of commercial media lie in its power of mass distribution. In order to reach
the maximum audience, activist media may benefit from tapping into the commercial media apparatus. The pressing question facing the rhetorical situation of
third-wave social change documentary, however, is how activist messages exist in
the mass media environment and resist cooption by commercial interests. One
popular HBO documentary and its sequel managed to circumvent this dilemma by
finding an audience in the mainstream media while extending political work that
led to social change.
The HBO documentary films Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood
Hills ( 1996) and its sequel Paradise Lost Revisited (2000) chronicle a murder trial in
Arkansas in which three teenage boys were convicted of killing three younger boys.
The first film documents the trial, while the second film reflects on the first film’s impact on the trial. There arose a significant question as to whether the convicted were
indeed guilty, and an instrumental social movement developed from the viewership
of the first documentary.112 The first film helped turn passive consumers of communication into deliberating agents. The audience collectively turned public communication into political communication in the counter-public sphere by sharing
evidence in the case on a public website, gathering support internationally with
a postcard petition, and forming an instrumental social movement organization
called Free the West Memphis Three. In praxis, the impersonal, passive, and relaxing
aspects of the consumption of mass media were overcome in this instance by participatory internet use. An analysis of these two films and their publics suggests that
the internet has the potential to unite unlikely citizens. It does so by providing a
way to overcome geographic distances between activists and facilitate connection
through affective affinity and critical-rational exchange.113

Critical History of Documentary 55
1his documentary event is especially intriguing because the directors had no activist intentions. As seasoned filmmakers, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky were on
assignment for HBO and were not motivated activists working from the margins.
Yet, the culmination of their work is perhaps one of the most significant instances of
documentary confronting the legal structure; it ultimately resulted in the release of
three innocent men from prison, one of whom was released from death row.
1he third wave of activist documentary is also distinct in that it coincides with the
proliferation of mobile recording and online engagement. Much as developments in
recording technology and television drastically changed the project of the activist
documentary, the internet and mobile recording created a new paradigm for culture
and social change. Audiences can now extend the documentary viewing experience
by seeking more information online and connecting with others who share their
concerns. In online forums, collaborations are created, shared interests are expressed,
and connections are strengthened through participation. 1his means documentary
production can use online engagement as a clearinghouse for information and connection.114 With features like live chat, biogs, listservs, and grassroots archiving, the
internet has the potential to make the documentary viewing experience interactive
and consequently more conducive to the formation of participatory media cultures
around collective identifications for facilitating social change. Picking up the work
of collaboration in a new digital landscape, mobile recording and internet streaming
made possible a new population of media makers.
1he collaborative impulse found new traction with the introduction of new technology and growing political unrest. New digital technology created a new playing
field for organizing with the documentary impulse in order to gather diverse
communities for agitational action. At the turn of the 21st century, there was a resurgence of street tapes and participatory media collectives. Perhaps the most significant grassroots site for global citizen journalism in the last several decades was
the Independent Media Center (IMC). Although the IMC has been inconsistent in
recent years, its video networks and experiments at the turn of the century were essential to media activism from 2000 to 2010115 and after, ranging from Occupy Wall
Street to Black Lives Matter. In the’early days of the third wave, the IMC was touted
as the “newest phenomenon to hit the political scene,” and it subsequently became
a “surprisingly effective news organization”1
16 that included thousands of volunteer
reporters in thirty-seven cities in the United States and forty-five locations around
the world. It is an internet-based activist-video movement “born out of protest
against corporate interests and governments’ role in globalization. It is a movement
that has joined diverse groups, from grassroots organizations to labor unions:’ 117
1he IMC is the newest iteration of a larger activist-video movement ·committed to
the marriage of low-format sound and video technology and activism that began in
the early 1970s and was revitalized at the turn of the century.11
The IMC website reported over one million hits during the 1999 World Trade
Organization (WTO) meeting and subsequent protesti people visited the website
to view streaming videos of stories investigated by IMC volunteers and captured
with donated video and audio equipment. The volunteers-many of them WTO
protestors themselves-logged footage of protest events around the clock and
conducted street interviews with everyone from black-dressed anarchists to the
police. The stories emphasized the concerns of the protestors and functioned as
a means of bearing witness to the numerous acts of police brutality that occurred
in an effort to control the crowds.119 These street tapes depict a celebration of life
in the streets: puppets, performers, drum circles, elaborate costumes representing
wildlife, and free-form dancing. Arresting moments of the video streaming out of
the IMC during the protests included, among other types of video, repetitive violent sequences and montages of police dominance. The street tapes bear witness to
police use of excessive violence and to the protestors’ helplessness against a wellequipped military unit. The videos feature scenes of protestors forcefully pinned
down, thrown around, and beaten by police; these events are captured in close and
intimate proximity, where the camera translates the experience of such repression.
Jill Friedberg, co-director of This Is What Democracy Looks Like and an activist
who was part of the first meetings to organize the IMC in Seattle, describes the
experience as frenetic and fast paced. In our conversation about Seattle in 1999,
she explains: “It felt a little like getting shot out of cannon, and everybody in the
Independent Media Center in Seattle felt that way. After the tear gas cleared and
everyone went home, we all felt like we’d been launched out of a cannon, and in
the process, I had to do a lot of thinking about, you know documentary and social
change, and what we were making and what did we want to do with it:’ This kind of
collective organizing and the images generated during protest form a specific kind
of production culture. The fast circulation of images is emphasized, sometimes at
the expense of taking time to consider the best ways to approach the process. The
internet alters traditional political participation by overcoming the limitations of
geographic distance and access to informationi it can even multiply strategies of
agitation. 120 The onset of mo bile recording exponentially increased our exposure to
images of real-time political struggle and vernacular history.
If we pay attention to the lessons of documentary history, we come away with
several clarifying observations about social change that seem most salient: First, as
scholars, we must study a wider documentary ecology. Interventions in the process
of social change manifest in the production, distribution, circulation, and uptake of
documentary as well as in the participatory culture(s) that emerge around them.
This insight suggests that we might revisit how we study documentary and question
our preferred methods and the limitations. The study of documentary and social
change demands new methods of scholarship, connecting the knowledge of those

Critical History of Documentary 57
who make documentaries with those who use documentary in political struggles
and in conversation with those who study this work. Second, cultural and theoretical assessment of social change must take into account the widely varied scale and
effects of these films. This could challenge iron-clad theorizing about this process,
but it matches the nature of this political exchange. Finally, the theoretical and historical space for investigating documentary and social change should balance the
project of productive political intervention with the craft of cinema, engaging in
knowledge production that is inclusive of the entire media ecology.
The third wave of social change documentary reflects a movement toward systematic analysis of social injustice, illuminating a web of problems and uncovering
possible solutions. One way to assess the effect of social change documentary is to
consider how it contributes to a broader public dialogue about its content. We can
also measure the success of documentary in terms of its capacity to elicit feelings
and new perspectives in audience members through the process of storytelling. If
social change is our concern, we must consider the rhetorical capacity of documentary to contribute to larger civic-sector conversations by calling together publics
and sustaining participatory networks. The field of documentary studies must begin
to directly investigate how the genre has become part of social life. In the 1930s, the
documentary moving image stood in for critical rational debate and social change.
In the early activist-video movement of the 1970s, attempts to foster critical rational
debate took a backseat to community building and providing access to resources. It
is not enough to visually and aesthetically parade a series of countercultural values
and images in front of audiences. Effective documentary must leave a footprint in
the sphere(s) of politics and in the hearts of its audience, opening up spaces for social change.
Documentary and Social Change
A common response emerged in my interviews with filmmakers, activists, and other
media professionals: these media practitioners expressed a visceral desire to make
clear that the documentary object alone does not have the capacity to create social
change. In my conversation with George Stoney, he repeated: “the activist documentary is one that is useful in bringing about social change as a part of a movement and a part of an activity. It’s not. … It doesn’t stand on its own. W hen a film
just stands on its own, it doesn’t bring about social change. It has to be applied and
absorbed by the audience:’ Documentary is part of a system of relationships and
communities, built on networks that harness the kinetic energy of agency. Living,
breathing bodies are needed to connect documentary to the process of social
change. Despite advances in online communication in the last twenty years, on-theground accountability and agitation are most powerfully expressed in person, using
new channels of communication as innovative tools and repurposing technology
for specific needs. Retelling the history of documentary and political struggle with
an emphasis on participatory media cultures yields a spectrum of possibilities for
future exploration and intervention. This history uncovers the genre’s patterns and
strategies and yields abstract models for understanding media engagements as well
as practical information for practitioners.
We currently find ourselves in the throes of documentary’s third wave and in
the middle of a digital revolution that reconfigures pathways of communication,
diminishing barriers, and changing conditions of participation. These changes are beginning to reshape social relationships between activists and the state, communities,
and law enforcement, and the documentary impulse and power. There is a new and
growing media commons with evolving participatory investment in documenting
everyday life, exchanging political ideas and urgencies with the documentary impulse. The smart phones carried in the back pockets of many people in the United
States hold tremendous participatory potential. The ability to capture, remix, and
circulate live content-faster than the news media-is now routine. Recording
bits of our daily lives and recirculating these images for pleasure and business are
now deeply stitched into our culture. The ubiquity of public cameras, mobile recording, and surveillance means that daily life, in all its complexity, is documented
more frequently than ever before. Exploring the currency of these images can reveal
how social change documentary circulation becomes a culture in itself and for itself, developing into a media commons. Collective organizing around the commons
does not appear in a vacuum: it requires intention and labor. The commons is “an
activit)li not a result;’121 defined by “the positive, material and innovative capacity
to build:’ 122 In the midst of dire circumstances and political strife, people find innovative ways to build communit)li organize, and fight back by any means necessary.
In this chapter, we have explored how documentary can function as a political
platform, mirror, vehicle of representation, axis of collaboration, conduit of information exchange, tool of political intervention, and organizing agent. While those
strategies provide categories of documentary engagement with participatory media
publics, they give us little in the way of assessing the political impact of this work.
Given documentary’s range of potential social change outcomes and functions,
I propose the following framework as a starting point for exploring the political potential of documentary and social change:
Representing Social Change: This category refers to activist documentary that
petitions for various underrepresented stories to be included in public
memory. It includes historical works documenting radical social movements,
street-tape recordings of direct action, and other works focused on recording
the process of political struggle as a form of historical documentation.
A wide range of documentaries fall into this category, ranging from Sam
Green and Bill Siegel’s acclaimed The Weather Underground to Big Noise
Film’s This Is What Democracy Looks Like.

Critical History of Documentary 59
Speakingfor Social Change: These works are focused on speaking for the
marginalized, identifying problems, and making arguments for social
change. These documentaries function as free-floating signifiers of political
discourse and are only loosely connected to the process of social change.
These works don’t direct action to particular political struggles, nor do they
point to any specific movement or propose coherent calls to action.
Collaboratingfor Social Change: These are production collaborations between
filmmakers, activists, audiences, and institutional stakeholders that articulate
new visions, document unheard voices, establish underrepresented views,
and seek justice. This would include documentaries like Kirby Dick and
Amy Ziering’s The Hunting Ground but also questionable applications of
collaboration such as Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing.
Engaging in Social Change: This form of documentary intervention holds space
for activism, utilizing media work as a tool of organizing and agitation.
Coupled with new media technology, these documentary works create
and sustain participatory culture and activism, engaging with communities
who agitate for the interests on the documentary screen. Popular films like
Berlinger and Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost and grassroots video focused on local
political struggles are examples of this kind of intervention.
The modes of social change documentary in this framework have various
ramifications for collective identification and agency. In the following chapters,
I discuss how these categories map onto collective organizing and engagement,
producing an emerging documentary commons. As Stuart Hall suggests, the role
of theory is to provide better maps and tools for furthering political issues and
motivating various projects.123 At its best, theory gives us maps that allow us to find
ways to struggle more effectively against forms of injustice. The territory mapped
here straddles the borders of theory and practice, moving between disciplines and
through politically charged terrain.
To sustain social change, documentary circulation requires social movements and
participatory media publics. In examining the lessons of historical documentary, we
see that media texts must play out in larger publics. 124 Michael Warner suggests that
publics form partially through the construction and circulation of text.125 This may
help explain how documentary film and video achieve a civic function. Circulating
through networks, the documentary travels pathways of exposure as new meanings
and connections emerge, giving the discourse a central place in various political
struggles. However, circulation of documentary is only one part of the process of
social change, which also requires agitation opportunities in production, collective
organization, and instrumental action.126 The documentary alone cannot maintain
the complicated process of social change or sustain the embodied political struggle
necessary for social transformation. Discussion of the role and function of the documentary is important heuristically for practitioners and scholars alike, especially
those concerned with the social change potential of the genre. New objectives could
draw documentary audiences into spaces of collective investment where they are
inspired to act instrumentally to alleviate injustices foregrounded on the screen.
Social change documentary must be less concerned with developing community
to appear in public and more concerned with acting in public to create a space for

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