Public Intimacy: The Development of First-Person Documentary

Article excerpt

Using the camcorder she got from MTV for its "Unfiltered" segment, a determined young woman chronicles the student movement she marshaled to stop harassment of women on a college campus. On public TV, a brain-damaged man charts his experience of disability with family, friends, bureaucrats and employers, with the help of an experienced video producer On Nightline, a journalist recounts his experience of living under the U.S. embargo for a week in a small Haitian village.

First-person video storytelling, fueled more every year by the flood of camcorders into the marketplace, is beginning to emerge as its own genre, somewhere in between the essay, general reportage and the well-told tale.(1) It is marked not only by the first person voice in testimonial, but also by the bringing of the viewer into the world of the storyteller's experience. Often socially engaged, it is rarely polemical. Indeed, it typically does not make a direct argument, but an implicit request for the viewer to recognize the reality of the speaker, and to incorporate that reality into his or her view of the world.

Such work, whose compelling quality is the drama of its storytelling, crosses the makeshift line between journalism/ public affairs and culture/art/fiction. As it becomes a mini-genre of its own, it stands both as symptom of and response to the challenge of social location in a postmodern society.

The first-person documentaries that have burgeoned over the last few years have developed in several ways and styles. There is the confessional video, a first-person diary or meditation, drawing on a long history of independent and art film. Collaborative efforts between artists and otherwise disenfranchised voices use the strategy of social activism through documentary. First-person or Op-Ed style journalism, through the portability and quality of small-format, brings to video the well-established (and often left-wing or socially-activist) print genre of first-person reporting and opinion.

This kind of work is part of a much broader social movement that blurs the lines between public and private life. It arises in the same media era that has seen on broadcast commercial television the rise and pervasive reach of the tabloid news show and the confessional talk show format, the boom in web sites devoted to personal diaries and mainstream newspaper and magazine reports that put the private lives of public figures under a microscope.

Personal-essay documentary has become a popular form in American independent cinema. It is now the dominant style of documentary submitted to the highest-visibility showcase today for independent film -- the Sundance Film Festival.(2) In 1995 the festival even created discussion panels and a film series to highlight and analyze its popularity. Family Name (1997), in which filmmaker Macky Alston, scion of a Southern family with plantation roots, searches for the "other Alstons," black descendants of Alston slaves, won an award at the 1997 Sundance Festival.

The first-person saga has become a feature of venues once identified as feisty bastions of left-wing perspectives. The public TV series P.O.V., established by leftist film advocate Marc Weiss to feature partisan filmmaking, has become a showcase over the past 10 years for the personal-essay documentary. Its 1997 season features two notable memoir films: Alan Berliner's Nobody's Business (1996), the third in his trilogy of family history, focuses on his reluctant father; Judith Helfand's A Healthy Baby Girl (1997) recounts the cost of cancer related to DES, a pregnancy drug, in her own and her family's life. P.O.V now proudly identifies itself as a place to discover "America's storytellers." The San Francisco-based Independent Television Service (ITVS), the product of a decade of struggle by the same kinds of filmmakers that Weiss fought for, saw the category of personal or diary proposal rise to become the largest single category by 1993, or a sixth of the total, with the trend continuing until subjective filmmaking became a prize-winning, dominant category of ITVS production. …