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Newsreel at Forty And Zero

by Larry Daressa, California Newsreel

Newsreel's 40th anniversary comes in the midst of the digital revolution at a time of unprecedented changes and challenges. Therefore it is not so much an occasion for celebration and self-congratulation as for reappraisal and reinvention. Longevity may be as much a matter of habit and lack of imagination as of persistence and vision. Now is the time to take our slogan "a tradition of innovation" seriously. In particular, we need to scrutinize the unique relationship between political film and its audience -so different from that in any other genre - and to explore its potential in the internet age.

If one truth could be distilled from Newsreel's four decades producing and distributing hundreds of social issue films it would be that the link between the form and content of political media and the needs of political organizers is critical but often tenuous at best. Whenever producers bring us a new film, we ask whom they expect to use it and how. More often than not they respond that they haven't had time to think about that yet. At Newsreel we have a paradoxical saying: exhibition precedes distribution and distribution precedes production. By this we mean, the subject, form and script of a film must all be determined by where and why it will actually be used. In a sense, you could call this the opposite of independent production. While productions should be independent of commercial interests, to say nothing of the agendas of foundations and public television entities, they should not be independent of the needs and priorities of the social change movements they purport to support.

Newsreel has long argued that political media projects should not be pre-conceived but develop out of fellowships, residencies or incubators bringing together activist and independent producers to generate media from the bottom up rather than impose it from the top down. Such workshops could select the topics, lengths, genres and platforms most appropriate to the communications infrastructure of these organizations. Again, use must precede and determine production, not the reverse. Newsreel, for example, has during most of its 40 year history distributed almost exclusively long-form theatrical or television documentaries. Are these the most effective forms for activists or even academics? On the most prosaic and obvious level, neither leaves enough time in a classroom hour or public meeting for the film's discussion or integration into a curricular or organizing context. Already excerpting clips rather than showing complete films is becoming the norm on college campuses and the internet.

More damagingly, perhaps, documentary filmmakers have uncritically adopted commercial forms deliberately designed to entertain passive media consumers not to empower active citizens. Documentary, we are repeatedly told, is a medium for "telling stories." Stories however absorb audiences into another narrative space or diegesis, rather than into scrutinizing and reframing their own here and now. They rely on identification with someone else's story not their own. Viewers become spectators to the suffering and struggle of others in what Jill Godmilow has referred to as "political pornography." There is a pressing need to theorize the distinction between the positioning of the audience in social change filmmaking as distinct from theatrical and television entertainment. Similarly there is a need to shift documentary's traditional focus from its content to its actual context, that is, from documenting the other to documenting the viewer, from a text-based to an audience-based film practice. Heretofore "reflexivity" has meant acknowledging the role of the filmmaker in documentary practice; it might better mean acknowledging the role of viewer in that practice.

The inappropriateness of most long-form documentary is revealed by the now obligatory study guides, web-sites and outreach projects which are among the latest ill-advised fads to have caught the imagination of foundations. Not only do they divert scarce funds from production to under-used frills, they unconsciously testify to a film's estrangement from its intended audience. If a film has been designed organically, in close collaboration with its potential users, there would be no need for web-sites and outreach campaigns. The film could be seamlessly integrated into the daily life of an organization and its utility would be immediately recognizable. Films should never deflect viewers to their own web-sites rather they should be embedded in the web-sites of the organizations actually doing the organizing. The curious idea of organizing around a film rather than integrating a film into on-going organizing is again indicative of the fetishism of film over context. In all candor, of course, most social change documentaries are not made for use in schools, community organizations or the internet; they are made and funded to elicit the highest Nielsen ratings or the most "buzz" at Sundance.

This reflects the assumption that seeing a film in the undefined political environment of a living room or theatre is somehow of equal value to viewing it in the structured, motivated, social context of a meeting, a class or even an internet community. At Newsreel we have always distinguished between the quality and quantity of an audience. There is a bankrupt epistemological notion that data is simply reflected, imprinted onto the tabula rasa of the brain. But research into how we learn reveals that people actively integrate data, including films, into their own continuous creative effort to understand and shape their world. Filmmakers must relinquish the idea of the passive spectator and the idea that their job is to enthrall (literally make a slave) and absorb the viewer - the very skills they learned at film school. Rather, they should self-effacingly conceive their films as tools for thinking not substitutes for it. They must deliberately redirect attention from what is happening on the screen to what is happening in the mind and life of the beholder. They must make films not for passive but, what we at Newsreel call, "interactive viewing."

The internet obviously offers the potential for a more democratic, more dynamic, more engaging political discourse than has been possible since the town meeting; it gives substance to the idea of a "global village." But the internet, like any technology, will be no better than the society which implements it. Hence in a capitalist society it will be largely a place for profit-making distractions and narcissistic attempts at fleeting individual celebrity. The "technological fallacy" that greater access means greater audience for educational and civic content has been disproved by radio, television, cable, videocassettes and DVDs; it is simply disingenuous to assert the internet will be any different. For media outside the mainstream, which social change media by definition is, the struggle for audience is a political struggle not a technological inevitability; we must use but not rely on new technology. We are engaged in a daily struggle to convert the dominant discourses of our society from consumerism to citizenship, a struggle for the heart and mind of the internet, a struggle to pioneer public interest communities on the frontiers of the digital age.

The internet presents us with a radically different environment from that which labored to use Brobdingnagian, long-form documentary series over the years. The internet can instantaneously network people from around the country and the world behind new issues and ideas, involve them actively in their evolution and then translate them into political action. It encourages bottom-up, grassroots, polycentric organizing loosely coordinated across a number of portals. It is gradually replacing or at least supplementing the mass meeting, the free-standing film screening, the scheduled television broadcast, with a continuous, flexible flow of information and organizing, where the distinction between audience and speaker blurs. Social movements are becoming ongoing conversations, self-generating texts, in which citizens can participate whenever, however, they choose. Political film must see itself as participating tactfully in this conversation, not delivering monologues. Its role is to contribute open-ended comments, not stand-alone statements, to make strategic interventions into a continually rewritten, always unfinished text.

At this point one might well ask, is there still a need for carefully crafted, often costly professional content in such a spontaneous, egalitarian stream of ideas? Why not rely simply on free, user generated content, home movies and garage videos, the visual vernacular? This is yet another illusion actively propagated by foundations who don't want to pay for independent film and internet zealots who dream of an uncompensated information commons. But well-researched, carefully argued, artistically convincing content takes time, money and a lifetime's experience. There is no reason why social change movements should have to rely exclusively on amateurs for content while corporations can spend millions on the most talented media makers. User generated content left to its own devices will often drift, stall, confuse issues, become needlessly divisive and finally fail to coalesce into any consensus or policies. Professional content can play the role of a skilled moderator framing questions clearly, providing needed background information, summarizing threads and interjecting new ideas which user generated content can then embellish, critique, develop and disseminate more widely. But this content should not be confused with the producer's idiosyncratic opinion; it must be an accountable part of the feedback loops of any democratic movement.

How then to make public media on the internet financially sustainable? There is no reason to believe that serious content will be any more commercially viable on the internet than it was on television or DVD. This would be just another iteration of the "technological fallacy." Advertising-supported progressive media is an oxymoron. What is needed is substantial and reliable public funding for public service content dedicated to the new internet environment. To begin with, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting should be reconceived ab ovo as a Corporation for a Public Media, funding a broad range of non-profit, independent content providers. It would be anachronistic, indeed scandalous, to allow 300 terrestrial broadcast stations to monopolize government support for educational and public service content on the internet when there are so many other media organizations serving the same civic purposes, often better. Similarly, public foundations must start funding independent producers' content again rather than trendy but superfluous content aggregators and internet applications. They should include in the budget of every organizing project they fund a multi-media component, thus insuring an integral relationship between media production and their programmatic goals. And they should stop propagating the myth that individual donor campaigns on the internet can replace themselves as funders of major media projects. That said, there is no reason why social change internet streams cannot be monetized for low, competitive pay-per-view fees of a dollar or two or even just donations. We should not expect that these will cover the full costs of the truly diverse range of educational and civic content needed on the internet but like any ancillary royalties they can contribute to a total funding package. The ineluctable fact remains: social change content on the internet no less than on previous platforms deserves and requires public support to subsidize the civic discussions necessary for a vigorous democracy.

This does not mean that the form and cost of that content will not change. Political media makers need to explore shorter, more improvisatory genres more appropriate to the new internet environment of iPods, iPhones, Blackberries and social networking sites than the long form documentary. I think some of these have already begun to emerge from internet culture itself. Video blogs can provide regular and irregular "op ed" pieces by well-informed, articulate filmmakers. Short "discussion starters" or PSAs can be used to frame debate and mobilize action; Robert Greenwald has announced he will only work in short forms in the future. Excerpts or clips, linked to "learning objects" or key organizing points, are already widely used in classroom instruction and most often exchanged on social networks; they fit comfortably into the internet's spontaneous stream of conversation. Serialized fiction and non-fiction, 3 minute sit coms or comic strips, could also be regular features of activist web-sites. Open-form documentaries could be designed to allow for the accretion of user-generated content, becoming living, growing texts. User-generated content can on the other hand be itself aggregated and edited into coherent digests or "magazine" programs. There is still a place for that behemoth, the long form documentary on the internet. But that place is not isolated on the sites of various "content aggregator" superstores like iTunes, Amazon/Unbox, Netflix or Reframe, but as links and widgets on the web-sites, blogs and list-serves of academic and activist groups, where insight can be translated into action. Mere "awareness" of an issue will dissipate into cyberspace if not linked to a well-designed, pre-existing program of political action.

Thus the internet provides an unprecedented opportunity to redefine and revivify the increasingly sclerotic relationship between political film and its audience, the actual makers of political change. It can do this by transforming the role of the media professional from that of a content maker to a context maker, framing and moderating democratic discourses, focusing a dynamic flow of ideas into paradigms for a revitalized civic sector. Ironically, this idea of context-building seems at present most advanced in the area of commercial "social networking" sites, on-line games and "virtual worlds," "Miss Bimbo" being only the most notorious example. Nonetheless there is a small but growing body of work, including the "World without Oil" game, "Fatworld," "The War Tapes" and "Global Voices," which show how interactive media can be used to stimulate civic involvement rather than just dating and shopping.

Is it too wild to speculate that the really creative independent producers of the 21st century may not be the makers of closed-form content but of these open-ended contexts in which viewers, now users, develop their own content and build communities of their own? The internet is par excellence the locus of fluid identity and shifting social networks. Thus, the internet could move us beyond an identity politics to a politics of identity; that is a politics not of who we are but of who we want to become, both as individuals and a society. Such an audience-based media implies a politics focused more on the viewer than the other, linking the personal to the political more forcefully. Social change, internet-based networks could well be where the communities, new social identities and dominant discourses of the future emerge. Independent producers have a special role as the architects, the facilitators and some of the most eloquent orators of these agoras of a more democratic society.

At 40 will Newsreel be nimble enough or energetic enough to be a creative participant in the opportunities of the internet age? It is both exhilarating and exhausting to be beginning over again after four decades. One thing is certain: like everyone else, we will either have to reinvent ourselves and our relationship to our audience or enter a well-deserved retirement.

(Remarks delivered by Larry Daressa, Co-Director of California Newsreel since 1974, at Northwestern University's "Symposium on Social Issue Media," May 10, 2008. They reflect the author's opinion not necessarily those of California Newsreel.)

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