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California Newsreel at 30 and 2000
by Larry Daressa, California Newsreel
It should perhaps be more cause for suspicion than celebration that a social change media distributor like California Newsreel has survived and even prospered over the past thirty years. This modest success, despite the Great Disillusionment of late 20th century progressive politics, causes me to question the always problematic link between social change media and social change itself. After thirty years all but the most fanatical would want to scrutinize their youthful assumptions; maybe that's why we once said you should never trust anyone over thirty. Therefore I want to use this anniversary not to eulogize but to anatomize Newsreel and the social change media world of which it was the first and in some ways the quintessential example.
Any reconsideration of social change media must begin from the striking disparity between the programs produced and the needs of the audiences they purport to serve. Funders, producers and critics alike have failed to recognize that social change demands markedly different outcomes from conventional media and hence its own distinct approaches to audience, subject matter and form. This essay therefore suggests a shift in the way we think about social change media - not as discrete texts but as part of a wider context. It substitutes for our present media-centered paradigm an audience-centered one where the passive media consumer is addressed as an active citizen and the anomic audience as an engaged community. The paper concludes with a concrete, "twelve-step program" to link social change media integrally to a reinvigorated civic sector.
Accounting for the Unaccountable: Beyond Independent Media
Distributors have the dubious advantage of being one step closer to the end users of film and video than either their producers or funders. We are, as it were, on the front lines between illusion and reality, where what we hope the world can be collides with what it is. Each morning, for over 10,000 mornings now, we have answered the phone at Newsreel only to realize we don't have the films that our constituents really need. Perhaps the following dyspeptic ruminations can be excused on the grounds that disenchantment is the first step to wisdom. Beati monoculi in terra caecorum, blessed the one-eyed in the land of the blind.
Since criticism is supposed to begin at home, I will use Newsreel's own collection to illustrate why radical film content hasn't necessarily resulted in radical social impact. For example, I'm struck by how many early Newsreel releases shared the American Left's perennial evasion of originality, conceiving social change at home as merely an extension of revolutionary movements abroad, once called "creating one, two, three, many Viet Nams." Our films "saw the future and it works" first in Cuba, then Vietnam, North Korea, China of the Cultural Revolution, the guerilla camps of Mozambique and Palestine, finally, even phlegmatic Sweden. For some of our viewers this was more than armchair political tourism; I recall one San Francisco "community organization" that showed our Cuban travelogues to recruit for its own tropical Utopia - Jonestown.
When one after another of our favored regimes revealed themselves as venal or terminally incompetent, Newsreel films embraced what might be termed "revolutionary ethnography." They now discovered alternatives to post-industrial America in such improbable pre-industrial Edens as Pharonic Egypt, 13th century Mali, even the Sea Islands of Georgia. We championed revisionist histories, often merely romanticized or revanchiste versions of the past, because we were incapable of imagining any compelling vision of the future. We adopted a cultural politics because we could make no progress in our political culture. Newsreel's filmic escapism merely offered our viewers a moralistic catharsis, a frisson of otherness from an increasingly homogenized global mass culture. In short, we confused decontextualizing our viewers from the contexts of their daily life with giving them the tools to intervene effectively to change that context.
When Newsreel finally decided to try to acquire new releases on pressing domestic problems, we found that the films available usually touched these subjects only tangentially. We quickly learned to make the distinction between films about a particular community and films of use to a community in addressing its most urgent social problems and aspirations. I want to illustrate this difference by looking at Newsreel's largest collection, its films on African American life and history, precisely because I think they represent some of the more responsible community-based filmmaking today. They include, for example, award winning, NEH and CPB funded documentaries on W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, A. Philip Randolph, the Black press, key moments in the Civil Rights Movement and representation of African Americans in prime time television. But when we compare these unquestionably worthwhile films with the films which have never been funded, we are, I think, struck by the absences. Where are the films on economic marginalization, family dysfunction, the psychological impact of racism, welfare and criminal justice reform, policy debates within the African American community? Where, in short, are the films that can help African Americans deal with the issues they face in their daily lives?
Even if we could convince funders and filmmakers to make films on such topics, it is unclear they would produce them in a useful form. To take as simple an issue as length, teachers and activists perennially complain that films are too long to be used in a class period or during the crowded agendas of their regular meetings. Yet more and more films submitted to Newsreel have bloated to a Brobdingnagian 90 minutes or more. It is a not very well kept secret that many independent documentaries are feature length simply to qualify for the Sundance Film Festival, that annual beauty pageant for ambitious young directors. Social change filmmaking has evidently not outgrown its original self-infatuation as a free-standing theatrical or television presentation; it seems unwilling to become a self-effacing partner in movements for social change.
The production of films with neither the appropriate form or content has given rise to the curious spectacle of organizing around films rather than making films for organizing. This inversion has reached its logical absurdity in the current foundation fetish of funding "high impact television" events, an oxymoron on the face of it. It is obviously inefficient, not to say impossible, to develop a new, activist audience around just an hour of television, which would, in any case, immediately drift apart on a sea of commercial drivel. For example, one large foundation, a loyal supporter of independent film, recently convened a panel of distribution "experts" to design a program to convince community-based, anti-racism activists to use a nine-hour, cinema verité, television chronicle of an interracial marriage. Newsreel was asked to send a representative but declined noting that anyone actually involved in diversity training would never have thought to invest millions of dollars in such an inappropriate training tool. How could we in good conscience call on hard-pressed organizers to set aside their more pressing tasks to drum up viewers for this series, let alone devote weeks to discussing it?
Even if we were to admit that some community organizations are nearly as out of touch with their constituencies as filmmakers, the solution would not be to circumvent or hijack them by dreaming up well-funded but far-fetched media-based organizing campaigns. Rather we should fund media which can help these organizations relate more effectively to their potential base. There is, for example, a vogue for funding web-sites and chat rooms tied to specific programs, perhaps in imitation of commercial blockbusters. How much more logical it would be to refer interested viewers to the site of an existing group where the film could be discussed in the context of actual opportunities for organizing.
Foundations throw more good money after bad by funding unrealistic and extravagant "outreach strategies" for films which either should not have been funded in the first place or don't require subsidized distribution. Professional distributors could tell them that a film which actually meets a specific audience need will more than recover its distribution expenses, while even the most over-funded and misleading "outreach" campaign can't sell a film which is useless to activists and educators. These "outreach" grants are usually so generous that, as a distributor, I can't imagine how even amateurs could spend this much money on promotion. Indeed, some producers use these grants merely to tie them over between productions, while they hand the distribution of their films over to experienced companies like Newsreel. Grantmakers amplify these futile expenditures and further duplicate the efforts of distributors by funding elaborate "filmographies," listing dozens of marginal titles because they haven't funded one or two practical, barebones films specifcially designed to address community organizers' immediate needs.
Foundations might be better advised to execute their "outreach strategies" before they fund productions rather than after their completion. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a systematic assessment of the media needs of a single area of social change organizing. Nor, for that matter, has anyone measured with any candor, let alone precision, the actual impact on attitudes and actions of the films they have funded. Amazingly, in over thirty years, not one foundation or filmmaker has approached Newsreel to analyze our film bookers, let alone to survey them to see how their films are used, whether they were successful, how they might have been improved or what films might be useful in the future. In the absence of such data, how could foundations or producers responsibly evaluate the organizing value or cost-effectiveness of their projects had they wanted to? It should come as no surprise therefore that the connection between the millions of dollars spent on social change media and their usefulness has been largely serendipitous.
After thirty years, I've come to the conclusion that the conventional cycle of funding, producing and then distributing these projects in the hope they will meet some audience's needs must be reversed so that we start from those needs. Media arts advocates for years have repeated like a mantra that we need "audience development" to attract viewers to independent productions; it has never worked because we first need "media development" to attract filmmakers to audience's concerns. Perhaps we should declare a moratorium on social change filmmaking until we establish procedures which insure productions will be accountable to organizing needs and can function as integrated parts of long-term strategies for social change.
I can already hear some producers objecting that accountability to social change organizing would impinge upon their independence just as much as accountability to the market. They appear not to grasp that the value of their independence was only its independence from market pressures not from any social context. In the former, media stimulates and satisfies consumer demand but, in the latter, it stimulates and aids citizen activism. Other filmmakers will no doubt raise the ancient shibboleth that media can't change the world - doubtless true of the melange of one-off programs presently funded. But we can hardly ask for funding based on the supposed social change impact of our productions and then argue their impact is too negligible or diffuse to measure.
I would, on the other hand, agree with those who argue that not all independent media must serve social change purposes. The media arts field has pandered to foundations by trying to disguise itself as a not terribly efficient form of social work. We can all be grateful that Beethoven's Late Quartets or Murasaki Shikibu's Genji Monogatari or Theolonius Monk's 'Round Midnight did not have to fit within the often faddish agendas of many foundations. At the same time, I would insist that media projects which do justify themselves in terms of social objectives must be rigorously evaluated as to how efficiently they will contribute to those objectives. Otherwise we will continue to get banal art and puerile politics pretending to be a significant social service.
Rethinking Social Change Media: Beyond Text and Context
Perhaps the reason we have failed to notice the inappropriateness of so much social change media is that we have unconsciously and uncritically applied criteria designed for one purpose, commercial entertainment, to a radically different one, civic activism. We have failed to ask if the modes of address, formal strategies, viewing habits and media environments developed by a given socio-economic system might be ineffective and even counter-productive for trying to alter that system. As a result, social change media makers have assumed that it was enough to change the content of their work without also changing how and where it functions.
If every social system is, in a sense, the reality of an illusion, then media functions to represent this illusion as reality. During the three decades of Newsreel's existence, the United States has increasingly become a society of consumers rather than citizens, where markets not the civic sector determine more and more social issues. Indeed, many social change activists argue that the nation's most intractable problems result from our reductive definition of social and personal development as economic growth and consumption. It is logical that in such a society the predominant relationship between the media and its audience should be that of a commodity to its consumer. Film and television aspire to be "eye-grabbing," "spell-binding," or "absorbing" so audiences will both consume and be consumed in their images, thus relieving them of the immemorial phenomenological responsibility of constructing reality for themselves.
Social change media, in contrast, wants to direct its audiences back to their own world; it addresses them not as passive viewers but potentially active participants in civic society. It accordingly recognizes that its true subject is always the audience itself, specifically, how that audience is constructing social reality in their minds and daily lives. It locates itself not in the narrative space of the television or movie screen but as an intervention in society's continuing self-narrating around and beyond those screens. Like a skilled conversationalist, social change media aims to integrate itself into this discourse, raising questions, reframing arguments, suggesting new directions or additional resources, in short, providing a structuring frame for these larger civic sector conversations. As social change media texts become more integrated into their context, that context, social life, will become more "textualized," more articulated and problematized, as a subject for democratic discussion.
Social change media therefore is committed not to its own self-expression but to faciliataing the discourse of communities joined around social change. It does not, however, define these communities as market niches or demographic groups as a commercial cable network like Univision, MTV or Lifetime might. It also rejects any essentialist or traditionalist view of community as unified primarily around historical differences from a dominant culture. Instead, social change communities are joined around a systemic critique of the status quo and committed to developing a more inclusive social vision. In the familiar formulation, they are communities not just in themselves but for themselves, more concerned about what they can become than what they have been. Cornel West and Sylvia Ann Hewlett, for example, have recently suggested forming a movement cutting across race, class and gender lines around the revitalization of parenting and one can imagine similar deliberately transformative communities coalescing around other core social activities.
The long-term development of such discursive communities, however, cannot be advanced by the short-term, program-centered funding presently favored by most foundations and television networks. The waste of such project-based funding can be graphically illustrated by the Independent Television Service (ITVS), currently the largest funder of social change media in the country. Created by Congress in 1988 after lobbying by independent producers, ITVS has distributed over $60,000,000 for hundreds of one-off programs and series, broadcast desultorily across the PBS schedule. Because ITVS has defined its primary mandate as funding independent productions, it has missed the chance to create coherent, sustained blocks of public service programming which might be capable of attracting new, under-served audiences to public television and of nurturing the growth of social change communities.
ITVS actually retreated from just such an opportunity. A group of independent producers from Chicago proposed a weekly magazine program, Grassroots Journal, conceived as a public television "how-to" show, not for gardeners, cooks or investors, but neighborhood activists. It was designed to offer a high-visibility national gateway to a field which, like so many areas of social change, is fragmented into numerous, under-funded, local organizations. The Benton Foundation even created an interactive, internet-based "Grassroots Toolbox" to accompany the series containing resources and hot-links back to activist organizations in viewers' local communities. The program was to be broadcast and heavily promoted across the widening spectrum of potential outlets for social change programs: public television stations (especially overlap signals,) PEG channels and frequencies opened up by digital compression. Two pilots were actually produced with the support of ITVS and an informal network of inner city public television stations. ITVS, however, dropped the project on the usual nebulous grounds that it wasn't "good television" but it hasn't attempted any similar public service series since.
A program from post-apartheid South Africa demonstrates that such projects are not hopelessly Utopian and that with commitment and imagination media can be effectively integrated into larger social change strategies. The Soul City multi-media project is organized around a weekly television drama, scripted collaboratively by professional screenwriters and public health professionals. Try to imagine ER or General Hospital set in a Soweto clinic with continuing story lines around AIDS awareness, quitting smoking and child abuse. This television series is coordinated with radio programs broadcast in eight languages, feature columns in daily papers and popular comic books distributed in doctors' offices and community centers. Now in its third season, Soul City is reputedly South Africa's most popular domestically produced program and has been widely hailed as a path-breaking innovation in public health education.
It is distressing that U.S. foundations, the oldest, richest and most experienced in the world, and our 1.5 billion dollar a year public broadcasting system have been unable to produce a single media project which addresses so concretely the daily needs of so broad an audience as Soul City. The best they seem to have been able to achieve are expensive, prestigious prime time series with accompanying coffee table books eulogizing social change movements while embalming them in celluloid. Apart from children's programming, there is, to my knowledge, not a single continuing strand of non-commercial public service media currently in production on film or television - nothing about aging, working life, inner city renewal, alternative education, immigrant life or media reform.
Many trust that new interactive, internet-based technologies will create these public service media environments but, while technical innovation will undoubtedly play a role, we should not be seduced by technological determinism. Four times already in this century new communications technologies - film, radio, broadcast television and cable - have been introduced with "Blue Sky" promises of a rebirth of civic society. And each time they have been used for the same meretricious commercial purposes; the quantity not the quality of media choices has increased. We could even postulate a Law of Mediacrity stating that a technology can only be as good as the values of the society which implements it. The task confronting media activists is to integrate existing and future technical resources into effective communications infrastructures for specific social change communities so we can revitalize our enervated civic sphere.
To End With A Beginning
I want to conclude by proposing a "twelve-step" program for social change media's recovery from its present self-intoxication. As a precondition to becoming useful partners in social change organizing, producers and funders must give up their present media-centered perspective for an audience-centered one; they must come to think of their audience not as viewers but users of media. Since these twelve points suggest a substantial shift in how we produce and fund media, they probably should be regarded as just a first tentative step towards putting the social change back into social change media.
1. Funders should support social change media projects only if they are designed as part of coherent, long-term strategies for community building centered in the work of existing organizations.
2. Funders must free themselves from project-based grantmaking and commit themselves to long-term support for the development of specific, alternative discourses on social policy. For example, they should favor on-going blocks of programming, journals (print, television and internet versions,) nationwide op-ed and advertizing campaigns and combinations of these rather than one-off programs or series.
3. Funders must not be afraid to make media grants directly to educational and activist organizations, not just filmmakers and television networks.
4. Any responsible social change media grantmaking must be based on rigorous assessment of the media needs of particular areas of social change organizing. Reliable ascertainment and evaluation tools for social change media need to be developed.
5. Social change activists will usually not have the media expertise or inclination to translate their organizing needs into innovative and effective media solutions. Analogously, media activists do not have the hands-on organizing experience or strategic perspective to identify those needs.
6. Therefore funders will have to set up incubators or workshops drawing together potential, community-based media users to specify their needs and then to work with media professionals to articulate appropriate media responses.
7. Funders may also want to sponsor internship or residency programs pairing media professionals with social change organizations so media makers can learn about their daily operations and then suggest appropriate media systems and programming.
8. While there will no doubt still be a place for conventional "linear" documentary, grantmakers may have to develop a new cadre of social change media producers skilled in working collaboratively with organizers and in designing multi-media solutions to their problems.
9. Our definition of social change media must be expanded beyond films and television programs to include PSA and billboard campaigns, short discussion starters, internet chat rooms and web-sites, even cable channels devoted to particular areas of social change.
10. Projects must justify their choice of technology as the most appropriate and cost-effective for their specific objectives rather than be driven by technological glitz or Hollywood glamour.
11. Over time, as new technologies are implemented, social change media may tend to resemble an interactive infrastructure more than discrete texts.
12. This frankly utilitarian production strategy may preclude the occasional masterpiece but it should immeasurably lift the overall accountability and cost-effectiveness of social change media.
Media produced within these parameters can play a strategic role in social change because it represents, or rather presents, society as something already under discussion, in the here and now, by media users, joined into transformative communities. In other words, it provides a communications infrastructure for the revolution of everyday life; it conceives democracy not just as a competition between large special interests but as a laboratory for social innovation at a grassroots level. Such a social change media can serve as a frame and forum for the exfoliation of alternative civic discourses, communities and social movements. But this will only happen if the funders, producers and distributors of social change media are willing to abandon their present text-based approach for a context-based one, not substituting for civic conversations but facilitating them. In these chiliastic times when many claim politics has reached an end, it is at least a beginning to create the spaces where more can be said.
(Larry Daressa has been Co-director of California Newsreel since 1974. He has served as Chair of the National Coalition of Independent Public Broadcasting Producers and was a founding board member of the Independent Television Service (ITVS.) The opinions expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of California Newsreel.)
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