Reelpolitics : Cinematic Activism Is Enjoying a Comeback

Article excerpt

This past January, a Salt Lake City audience that included several state politicians watched Invisible Revolution, a documentary film featuring images of a teen Klan wedding replete with gun-toting (and -shooting) guests, shots of racially motivated murder sites in nearby Nevada, doggerel-spouting white supremacist young men, and street showdowns between Anti-Racist Action youth members and bigoted skinheads.

The film's director, Beverly Peterson, in Utah for the Sundance Film Festival, spoke to the assembled, drawing their attention to a recent expansion in racist skinhead activity in the area. Her goal was to inspire the politicians to rally behind a comprehensive statewide hate-crimes bill that was to be voted on later that week in the state Senate. "Sure enough, a week later the bill, which contained more protections for gays and lesbians, passed," says Robert West, executive director of Working Films, the year-old documentary film organization that mounted the Invisible Revolution event in Utah (the bill recently faltered, however, in the Republican-controlled House). Peterson--who shot her film on Betacam for roughly $85,000 of mostly her own money, with some small grants and a research fellowship--has high hopes that her film may influence other such fights throughout the country.

Fortunately, Invisible Revolution is not the only activist film out there. "The political filmmakers are still working, it's just that their activity doesn't get publicity," says Patricia Thomson, editor in chief of The Independent Film & Video Monthly, noting that the lion's share of today's activist films are documentaries.

This year will see the release from Cowboy Films International of On Hostile Ground, which follows three abortion providers through their daily medical routines while threats of injunctions, shootings and firebombings swirl around them, and the Sundance prize-winning documentary Southern Comfort, a low-key but eloquent defense of transgendered rights, on HBO and also in theaters. Working Films is organizing community screenings for On Hostile Ground, showing it to constituencies involved in pro-choice debates, like medical students and nonviolence and interfaith groups. Trembling Before G-d, a Working Films documentary about gay Hasidim, will be shown at gay-oriented churches and also at Christian seminaries in an effort, says West, to get "new faith leaders to examine their relationship to gay and lesbian members of their congregations."

There are even progressive documentaries and activist events aimed at college students. The ongoing McCollege Tour, for example, screens two rough-hewn films about academic corporatization--the student-helmed University Inc. and The Subtext of a Yale Education--at universities in the South in an attempt to raise student awareness about campus privatization. At some stops, the directors speak to students about how to make and distribute films that can effect social change.

Of course, progressive filmmaking is nothing new. It draws on a long history going back to the documentaries of the New Deal and the films of the New Left film collectives Newsreel and Pacific Street Films in the mid-1960s to early 1970s. The political films of that era ranged from amateur pictures on peace marches and other activist subcultures to self-representations by blacks, women and students--groups that hadn't had such access to the medium before. Others sought to expose the darker truths of American institutions and the Vietnam War, countering Hollywood's legacy of mindless optimism and its marginalization of minority voices. Frederick Wiseman, Shirley Clarke and Emile de Antonio illuminated the real lives of African-Americans, poor whites and radicals. Newsreel became Third World Newsreel and continues under that name now.

As the world of independent feature filmmaking became increasingly commercialized by the mid-1990s, there was also a parallel, much more positive development: a resurgence in documentary filmmaking, thanks in part to the advent of the cheaper, lighter digital format that helped to offset the daunting costs of pursuing political aims through film. …