Documenting Social Ills with an Eye toward Advocacy: Women's Health, Homophobia, Domestic Violence, and Rape Are Topics Mainstream Media Often Ignore. (Moving Pictures: Television and Film)

By Lazarus, Margaret | Nieman Reports, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Documenting Social Ills with an Eye toward Advocacy: Women's Health, Homophobia, Domestic Violence, and Rape Are Topics Mainstream Media Often Ignore. (Moving Pictures: Television and Film)


Lazarus, Margaret, Nieman Reports


My partner Renner Wunderlich and I approach the documentaries we produce and direct from a position of advocacy. Often a film idea begins as a roaring argument related to an issue that one or the other of us has been committed to either as an activist or supporter. We are not journalists, but what we produce arguably overlaps, in some respects, with the ways in which reporters and producers find and tell stories that touch on important issues of our time.

It was during the 1970's that Renner and I began producing and directing documentaries and public affairs programming for commercial television. It was a time when women were active in building a "movement," a time of anti-nuclear demonstrations and draft registration opposition. For us, there seemed too wide of a chasm between what we saw going on around us and what was considered "acceptable" television programming. We both quit our jobs and founded a nonprofit organization whose mission was essentially to create independent media that gave voice to opinions, ideas and groups that were ignored, misrepresented or trivialized by mainstream media.

We were also inspired by the "direct cinema" movement from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to create work that did not have the ubiquitous narrator, the person who told you what to think or who neatly framed the discussion in a "balanced" dance of pros and cons. This approach acted as if all questions had only two equally valid perspectives, as if very limited controversy needed to be resolved in a bicameral way. We wanted to create documentaries that challenged people to argue and express their points of view rather than passively receive information, believing that the controversy had been delineated, and then simply choosing one side or the other. We also unconsciously wanted to reproduce the far-reaching, vociferous arguments, often from many perspectives, that were part of our own learning process about critical social issues.

As we set out to do our first independent film, I was becoming interested in the growing opposition to radical mastectomy, the lack of adequate medical research on women, over-medicalized childbirth, demeaning advertising in medical publications, unnecessary hysterectomies, and in the growth of women-controlled feminist health centers. All of these interests coalesced in our documentary in an exploration of the women's health movement; our clear intention was to give "voice" to this nascent movement.

As a journalist might, we spent a lot of time researching and discovered groups engaged in similar but mostly unconnected activities. A common thread among those people we interviewed was their resistance to patriarchal medical practices. While we agreed with this sentiment (and wanted our viewers to feel the same way), frequently we decided not to include commentary by those whose research could not be independently verified.

Another journalistic approach might have been to document the absence of supporting evidence among the groups we, in the end, didn't include, but our belief was that there was already a great deal of discounting of the women's health movement, largely backed by the mainstream medical profession. What we saw as our mission was to document the serious and increasing efforts of women to regain control of their bodies from powerful forces within the medical community.

"Taking Our Bodies Back: The Women's Health Movement," our first documentary, generated great controversy. It was disqualified from the American Film Festival because members of the medical category jury believed that challenging radical mastectomies was promoting dangerous medical advice. It was not shown in medical schools and hospitals outside of coastal urban areas, but its distribution was supported by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, authors of "Our Bodies, Ourselves." They gave us their mailing list with the names of organizations that purchased multiple copies of the book, and we used it to get out word of our film. …

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