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By Lawrence Daressa [i]


“La question n’est pas de faire des films politiques mais de faire des films politiquement.”
(“The point is not to make political films but to make films politically.”)

            - Jean-Luc Godard


“The world in a grain of sand
And eternity in an hour.”

            - William Blake


μέγα βιβλίον μέγα κακόν.”
(“A big book is a big evil.”)

            - Callimachus


This paper will argue that short-form, activist [ii] media has the potential to replace long-form documentary as the paradigm for social issue film production in today’s digital environment. Concise, inexpensive, politically focused modules can radically change how activist media is produced, distributed and used by offering a financially sustainable model, directly accountable to organizers and educators, not institutional funders. It would result in timelier and more affordable precision media tools crafted for the specific needs of social change activists as their movements unfold. At the same time, a vigorous short-form media practice would nurture a larger, more diverse pool of activist/producers, many with hands-on experience of the organizing and educational settings where it would be used. Finally, such concise, Nano-media could collapse the distance between activist media content and the contexts where it used, making it a better integrated and hence more effective component of day-to-day social justice activism and advocacy.

An analogous shift is already detectable in patterns of Internet production and use, though their potential for social change media remains largely unexplored. Such comparative neglect is not unexpected since the Internet, despite its ubiquity, is by most historical standards a technology still in its callow youth. It has developed during a period of unprecedented, largely uncontested capitalist domestic and global hegemony, which has paralyzed and demoralized the traditional left unable to offer a systemic critique and credible alternatives. Not surprisingly, the Internet has become the pre-eminent platform for a “society of spectacle,” where anyone can make a spectacle of him or herself. These factors explain but don’t excuse the continued neglect of a potentially valuable, largely untapped resource for reinvigorating political activism.

Towards Accountability: The Discrepancy between Supply and Demand

My conviction that short-form media has a central role to play in the future of social change has evolved reluctantly but ineluctably from 40 years’ experience as a Co-Director of California Newsreel, one of the more improbable survivors of the social ferment of the1960s. Four decades of producing and distributing almost exclusively, long-form, social issue documentaries has persuaded me that social justice activists cannot continue to rely on narrative non-fiction produced largely for broadcast and theatrical exhibition for their most pressing media needs. They require more nimble, more succinct, more economical and more forthright forms, specifically designed for day-to-day use in their grassroots organizing and education. In my day-to-day interactions with Newsreel’s customers, it has become clear to me that long-form essay-, character- and story-driven documentary is usually neither the most effective nor efficient format for advancing the immediate and long-term goals of social change advocacy.

Indeed, each year the distance between the social issue films produced and the films activists request seems to have widened into a chasm where any connection appears largely serendipitous. As the funding opportunities for big-budget social justice documentaries have narrowed in recent decades, mounting commercial pressures from broadcasters and the increasingly narrow social agendas of philanthropies has exacerbated this discrepancy. In the present absence of credible ascertainment and evaluation of social justice media that could link demand with supply, accountability will continue to rely on clairvoyance, good intentions and wishful thinking.

The reason for the present disconnect between social change media production and activism is neither especially surprising nor reprehensible, indeed so obvious it is often overlooked. The only funders for expensive, long-form, social issue documentaries – foundations, government agencies and broadcasters – support films aimed at influencing “public opinion” of an amorphous audience of passive, media consumers not for citizen activists. Neither organizers nor educators have heretofore been able to fund the media they need and have had no recourse but to use often-inappropriate films produced for fundamentally different social purposes and audiences. Until activist institutions can support production on the subjects and in the forms they desire, I am convinced they will lack the media resources which systemic social change requires. A shift from big budget, long-form documentaries to short-form, low-budget, easily-funded, modular work is therefore vitally necessary if these organizations are to articulate the far-reaching social critiques and radical alternatives, so conspicuously lacking from present political discourse.

Why More Is Usually Less

Even a passing familiarity with the day-to-day life of organizers and their organizations makes clear that they are perennially pressed for time; the task of social change is endless, while the human and financial resources available by definition, inadequate. Like everyone in our media-drenched society, activists are drowning in information; the last thing they need is longer films, multi-part series, supplemented by time guzzling “enrichment” web-sites. Instead, they seek more concise, precisely targeted, politically pointed media designed to produce specific social change outcomes.

More precious than organizers’ own time is the time they spend with their constituents, which they rightly want to devote to engaging and mobilizing them behind their current campaigns, not inertly watching films. When Newsreel recently assessed the media preferences of our most frequent film users, one of the most consistent findings from the more than 500 survey-respondents was a desire for shorter, more direct, more action-oriented work. (A prototype for an ascertainment process for activist media needs is more fully described in endnote 3.[iii]) Concise media is essential in activist contexts for the simple reason that it leaves both the time and conceptual space to incorporate a film into on-going local organizing campaigns. A film, however militant, can’t be considered politically effective, if does respond directly to the emerging challenges facing existing social change movements as articulated by their activists and if it is not then applied by them to advance their concrete goals. This is what I take Godard to have meant in the epigram at the head of this paper: media making must grow organically out of day-to-day activism, responsive to its ever-shifting obstacles and opportunities.

Short-form activist media, in contrast with long-form documentary, would not attempt to pre-empt, substitute or circumvent existing, community-based organizing either on a mass media platform or through its own “community engagement campaign.” In place of feature-length documentary’s century-long monologue, it would see itself as a self-effacing contributor or facilitator in the larger conversations that alone bring about social change. Unlike 90-minute feature length documentaries, a five-minute module isn’t tempted to see itself as a self-contained text, narrative, argument, let alone stand-alone event. In fact, I would argue, short-form work should be deliberately, even defiantly, incomplete and fragmentary, eschewing the false closure of a dramatic arc for an open-endedness which acknowledges its modest role in a larger social discourse whose very purpose, in a sense, is to prevent closure of political debate. In contrast with long-form documentaries, short-form media cannot have an Aristotelian beginning, middle or end but is perpetually in medias res, like history and life.

But Sometimes Can Be More

The many advantages of short-form media for activism extend beyond its efficiency: 1) more films can be produced, 2) expressing more political points of view, 3) from a greatly expanded pool of producers, 4) hence drawing on more varied life experiences 5) to address more social issues 6) more closely targeted to specific outcomes 7) in much less time, 8) therefore, on more topical subjects, 9) for much less money. The math is simple: the $1,000,000 plus dollars invested in a one-hour, public television, Ford Foundation or NEH-backed documentary blockbuster could produce 200, $5,000 or 100 $10,000 humble organizing tools, not in a matter of years but weeks. Any putative loss in “filmic values,” “human interest,” “dramatic build,” emotional “punch” and analytic subtlety (never a conspicuous strength of social issue documentaries, in any case) would easily be compensated by the breadth of subject matter addressed, its timeliness, the innovative approaches explored, its political candor and the diversity of organizations and audiences served.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that films with lower budgets and less grandiose ambitions require less skill than the canonical, long-form documentary; they simply call for different talents. These would include the ability 1) to identify a specific constituency, define with them measurable outcomes and remain unfailing responsive to them, 2) to make one point, clearly, forcefully and unambiguously, in other words, to have a message and “stay on it” 3) to invent (or choose) a specific form which frame that perspective in a few minutes and 4) to do all this before a single pixel is shot or word scripted.

Democratizing Production: The Activist/ Media Maker

Such productions, meticulously thought-through in advance, with a clear point, intended audience, approach and objective stand in stark contrast with what might be characterized, as “shoot-first and find the point later among the footage.” They would help eliminate the extended shooting and reshooting schedules that bloat so many long-form documentary budgets and postpone their completion until years after their original point has become moot. In political filmmaking, as distinct from ethnographic, the point should determine the footage, not the reverse. This obviates months of futile editing and re-cutting, trying to make a point so nebulous and remote from a film’s ostensible subject matter the footage can’t sustain it, a wound so deep no “script doctor’ could mend or editor’s sleight-of-hand suture. Short form media by greatly reducing the most common causes of the budget overruns and delayed releases, would obviate the permanent fund-raising dramas which has become one of the less attractive aspects of the independent documentary mystique.

The increased volume and velocity of short-form production offers an additional advantage – it makes possible the nurturing of a significantly larger and, more diverse pool of competent, short-form media activists than the present exclusive guild of producers with experience making the few and far-between big-budget activist documentaries. More generally, the conspicuous absence of experienced social change media users, the stakeholders of these works, among both the makers and funders of social change media reflects a striking lack of diversity often overlooked. More and shorter projects would mean more media makers could move down the “learning curve” more quickly, making five or more five-minute films a year, instead of one film every five. A $5000 or $10000 project doesn’t demand a terminal degree from a film school followed by years as a full-time, apprentice on commercial and independent documentaries. Short form media makers could acquire the necessary skills while simultaneously gaining the necessary experience working at the social change organizations and in the communities where their future work will be used. Tearing down the increasingly anachronistic caste barrier between “professional” media makers and “grassroots” activists would help eliminate a root cause of the present disparity between social issue media demand and supply, closing the gap between media and its users which is the rather amorphous theme of this “manifesto.”

The Risk of Never Taking Risks

Inexpensive, short-form media also would provide an economical laboratory where bold experiments in activist media form, distribution and application could be undertaken and evaluated at minimal expense. Any new communications platform, such as the Internet, will inevitably generate new formats appropriate to its unique capacities and idiomatic to the culture of its users. Social issue media makers cannot be content simply to copy new, on-line forms spawned by the global media oligopoly that merely internalize, replicate and amplify the values of consumer capitalism. Social justice media makers have both the opportunity and responsibility to evolve digital forms adapted to the specific goals of social change - turning passive audiences into political actors.

Innovation is inherently risky; if success is assured, there has been no experiment; if there are no failures, there has been no risk. Big-budget, long-form documentaries are a classic example of projects “too big to fail;” even the most profligate foundation or adventurous cable network won’t spend $500,000 to $1,000,000 on a film which veers too far from the “tried and true” in both its form and politics. In contrast, $5,000 or $10,000 projects can take the chances necessary to test a wide range of strategies, both formal and political. These experiments will only yield knowledge if their effectiveness is consistently monitored with metrics quantifying not just “views” or “hits” but how efficiently they produce well-defined social change outcomes. This is the pre-requisite for establishing best practices in activist media production and funding, as well as insuring accountability to the goals of social change organizers. If long-form documentary remains the unchallenged paradigm in the teaching, theorizing, funding and production of social issue media, the field will remain a stagnant backwater, incapable of speaking in the language of today’s online audiences or of providing an incisive, dissenting voice to the ranting and grand-standing which passes for political debate on so much of the web.

Why the Subject of Activist Media Is the Second Person Viewing Subject

The fundamental reason short-form media can be concise and economical and clear is that it has no need to simulate a narrative space/time on the screen separate from the one in front of it, the hoary “illusion of reality.” They aren’t compelled to make their political point emerge out of some narrative, often as confected as any fiction film. [iv] First person, essay and character-driven documentary, as well as with third-person, story-driven, “voice-of-god” narrative first dis-place the historically situated viewer from the here and now, in order to become a spectator of the there and then. In contrast, the subject of short form media is not an “I” or an “it” or “they” but “you,” the second person, viewing subject - not coincidentally, the one person in a position to effect social change. In other words, short-form work can call upon its viewers, explicitly or implicitly, to act, just as commercials and political ads ask viewers to “buy this” or “vote for me.” It need not stop short by showing society needs to change, it can go on to say you, the viewer, are the only who can change it and here is a way to start. Rather than “transport” its audience in every sense of the term, someplace else, it aims to reorient it towards where it is already situated, to look at its surroundings from an unfamiliar perspective. Thus, short-form media has the potential to transform long-form documentary’s “site of (passive) reception” and political impotency into a site where social agency not only becomes possible but unavoidable.

This results in dissolving the space/time of the image on the screen into the social spaces rippling out from the viewer; as a result, “reel” and “real” time converge. The “site of reception” is no longer deliberately erased in a darkened theatre or secluded family den. Short-form media could train a spotlight on the circles of economic and political forces, both immediate and global, surrounding the viewer, revealing them not as spaces of spectatorship but potential empowerment. This shift from a first-person cinema of self-revelation (perhaps, exhibitionism) and a third-person cinema of observation (or voyeurism) to a second-person cinema of self-examination (or reflection) opens up, indeed, would seem to demand a questioning and exploring of conventional film form. The documentary has always spoken in the indicative mode; short-form media could give it vocative, optative, subjunctive and interrogatory voices as well.

Film-as-Lens, Not Film-as-Images

It is no secret that commercial media already assaults and numbs organizers and organized alike with a deluge of images. The Internet offers infinite novelty and choices, but within the rarely questioned boundaries of the consumer society it so slavishly and obsessively documents. Activists therefore don’t need still more images, or even different images, but different ways of looking at the literally thousands of images assailing people every day. Short-form media is uniquely positioned to provide these new lenses that can shift or at least destabilize the perspective through which viewers normally view but don’t scrutinize these images. A film-lens can not only offer a different point of view but also propose a different point or purpose for viewing. Unlike conventional narrative documentary, a film-lens does would not disguise its perspective behind the pusillanimous pretense of a deceptive and indefensible “objectivity.” It would unapologetically draw attention to its political stance: in fact, its real subject is its point of view or, more accurately, the point of view of its viewers. Therefore, a film-lens would not just present an alternative perspective on “reality” but show that “reality” is itself a perspective, a social artifact, what Godard called in another celebrated epigram, called “the reality of an illusion.”

While these short-form media interventions would be uncompromisingly upfront about their politics that isn’t the same thing as strident or militant. Social change media should not be a platform for filmmakers to harangue viewers with their opinions, air their grievances or parade their righteous indignation; such films simply shout down the one voice that really counts, the one inside the viewer’s head. If that voice is to change what it says, it needs space to speak and think for itself. Therefore a film-lens would not so much anathematize images as place them in an uncommon light or context and view them from multiple perspectives.

A film-lens therefore would focus its few minutes on the frame through which viewers look rather than what it frames; the context which shapes the content. It would take-apart the taken-for granted, consensus frame to reveal how it frames viewers in while framing out alternative perspectives, a blinkered “tunnel vision” with no light at its end. By showing that frames are omnipresent, historically contingent, social constructs, they become susceptible to social reconstruction. By depriving the image of its authority as a “given” “fact of nature,” it become a contested terrain between different political perspectives and values which viewers must reconnoiter for themselves; an image, at least its interpretation, is a choice not a fate. A film-lens thus could penetrate the previously opaque image, exposing it as a permeable and pliable present suffused with possibility and intentionality, overlaid with the pentimenti not just of the past but also of possible futures. [v]

Thinking about film as a lens or frame rather than as its images makes concise media possible by making 1) its form, its content 2) its content, its context and 3) its story, its use. It eliminates the primary expense of character- and story-driven documentary: the need to construct a narrative arc stretching for 60 or 90 minutes to make a political point which usually could fit on the back of a postcard. A film-lens has no narrative; in a sense, it is always beginning, always returning to the viewer’s point of view. Its real “story” or “narrative” is what its viewers do after seeing it. If the shift from reading to writing your own story could serve as a metaphor for what social change is all about, then a film-lens or film-tool is the pen for beginning to write that story.

The “Narrative Imperative”

The idea of a film-lens as the renunciation of narrative goes against the prevailing orthodoxy in most film schools and documentary scholarship, inculcated in generations of filmmakers and film-goers, which has made story-driven narrative the paradigm for social change filmmaking. Character-driven and first-person “story-telling” has become the de facto “house style” of independent documentaries on public television, not least because they allow timorous station managers to take ideological cover behind the “personal perspectives” of the independent filmmaker and his or her characters. A caucus of independent documentary producers recently opened its manifesto declaring baldly, “We are story tellers,” while a current $50,000,000 dollar Ford Foundation, social issue film initiative stated that it was looking for “powerful stories, well told.” (I suspect they’ll get them.) Even producers of ostensibly informational and educational documentaries feel pressure to build a strong “dramatic arc,” over 60 or 90 minutes, have their points enunciated by “compelling characters,” illustrated by “moving” examples from “real life.”

This “narrative imperative” may originate from atavistic notions of the filmmakers as a digital bard or online griot passing on the myths and traditions of the tribe around the flickering hearth of the home entertainment center. One might have expected social change film to be more about exploding myths, rather than perpetuating them, not repeating stories but showing how they could avoid being repeated. What is rarely questioned is whether story telling is the most effective or even an effective means for advancing social change? To my knowledge this assumption has never been empirically tested (but neither have any other of the truisms about social change media,) so it must rely on the “wisdom of the elders.” Yet the subjects of social injustice logically don’t need to be told the story of what they experience every day but how to change it and the inert “viewing public” doesn’t need to be fed more vicarious horrors and cut-rate catharsis, what filmmaker Jill Godmilow acutely compared with “political pornography,” but told to get off their sofas and act.

Since forms are not innocent, it seems ironic that social issue filmmakers whose purpose is to gore sacred cows have been so ovine when it comes to the dogmas of their own field. It is surely no secret that narrative documentary from the first attempted, however awkwardly and unconvincingly, to mimic narrative feature films the pre-eminent commodity of the entertainment industry. The “discourse of sobriety,” as film scholar Bill Nichols, apparently without irony, once described documentary, will never be as “eye-ball grabbing,” “en-thralling” (enslaving) or “en-trancing” (hypnotizing) or as “heart-warming” and “uplifting” as what Hollywood does so much better with so much more money and so much less interest in the film’s “social impact.”

Why the Story Is Never the Story

Story- and character-driven documentaries by purporting, however disingenuously, to “document” reality abrogate their primary responsibility to interrogate it and the very ideology which makes it appear “real” and “natural.” It is as if the word “documentary” and film’s photosensitive base (actually, emulsion) had destined the genre to drool, slack-jawed before the flux of appearances. [vi] This faux-humility counterfeits a spurious “objectivity” resulting too often in superficiality and a feel-good politics of individual “pluck” and heroic “unsung heroism,” the stuff of soap-opera and day-time talk shows, but a blunt instrument for social activism.

While story-driven narrative trains an almost prurient leer on the most virulent symptoms of social injustice, it cannot probe beneath their surface to name their causes. The pursuit of verisimilitude is documentary’s “original sin” because it binds the genre to the “tyranny of the status quo” in front of their lens. Their “ambulance-chasing” after the most dramatic “stories” of social oppression can unwittingly make the everyday injustices experienced by “the 99%” seem trivial or “natural.” Narrative documentary’s focus on extreme symptoms rather than their general systemic causes conforms comfortably with the original charitable mission of the philanthropies which fund them and the liberal reformism they promote in place of systemic change and shift of power.

There is no credible evidence that story-driven exposés of social injustice have achieved more than provide their producers and audiences with 90 minutes of righteous indignation. Iniquity and inequity are not news and neve has been; the question is what can and should be done about them? Victimization is the one political identity all Americans share (although, with varying degrees of justification) and revanchism dominates the rhetoric of both left and right. Documentary media fixates on past and present abuses because it has no convincing vision for the future nor compelling, new values which alone could build one. It can inveigh against capitalism, but without advocating a viable alternative, nothing will change. Any “social change” media worthy of the name must promote a candid and coherent program for an unambiguously radical reconstruction of society.

Giving Documentary Back its Brain

The usual excuse for story- and character- driven documentary not addressing the underlying causes of social injustice directly is that film is a “visual medium,” appealing viscerally to the viewer’s emotion unmediated by thought. Since systems or ideologies aren’t “visual,” that is, can’t be photographed, films can’t “be about ideas.” This simplistic syllogism is disturbing, not just because of the clueless epistemological naiveté it betrays, but the low opinion it suggests filmmakers and their backers have of their viewers’ intelligence, (admittedly predicated on the simian cognitive demands of commercial media.) Nonetheless, the ability to think, rather than react instinctually, however atrophied, is still what distinguishes Homo sapiens from Pavlov’s dogs or, for that matter, couch potatoes. “Human interest value” is not opposed to ideas because ideas are how humans take an interest in their world; indeed, ideas are the world humans inhabit whether filmmakers know it or not. If social issue documentary can’t or won’t straightforwardly name, explain and dispute the underlying ideology that masks, institutionalizes and perpetuates social injustice, why should social change activists take an interest in it?

Short-form social issue media because it does not purport to be an eyeball without a brain behind it, the proverbial “fly on the wall,” is nothing but its point of view, its stance or “attitude,” in a word, its politics. It should not pretend to be an unmediated mirror of “reality” or transparent, “objective” window but a prism refracting social reality as a spectrum of possible points of view. Activist film does not aim to short circuit thought by appealing directly to the reptilian brain, its purpose is precisely to provoke thought, to start people thinking about what the taken-for-granted, what passes for reality in front of their eyes. It does not appropriate cognition by thinking for them, it asks them to start thinking for themselves.

Short Form Media: The Future Is Now

These animadversions about short-form media versus long-form narrative documentary may seem abstract, even hermetic, but, as is often the case, practice has already anticipated theory. Short form media in a real sense is the very purpose of legacy communications technologies, I mean of course commercials, while paid political advertising, lamentably has been the dominant form of political discourse in this country for decades. Because of their unabashed point of view, documentary activists and their academic allies, philanthropic advocates and aficionados have ironically dismissed short-form work, as a potentially powerful format for social issue media.

Short form content has also proliferated on the Internet where the paradigmatic leap from fetishizing content to prioritizing perspective was made far in advance of documentary. “Remixes” or “mashups” are among the most popular and pervasive practices indigenous to the online environment; what is spoofing self-important public figures by laying in an ironic soundtracks or “sampling” popular music to mix in new backgrounds but a change in perspective? The fact that this culture is no more politically astute or less captivated by celebrity (not least its own) than American society in general is not an indictment of the form only the values of the society which has arrested its development. Too many new communications formats have been introduced over the past century with Utopian, “blue skies” promises, only to replicate the same values on a new platform, for any but the hopelessly naïve or personally interested to have any remaining illusions about technologically-driven social change. It is not surprising but inevitable that a new technology will be exploited according to the imperatives and values of the dominant economic interest. Under consumer capitalism, “technological innovations” will be deployed to manufacture demand for superficially novel but equally meretricious commodities as the ones they so relentlessly replace.

Therefore, it is not unexpected that these new online forms have not been extensively or systematically applied to the needs of social justice organizers and educators – any more than legacy technologies were. Nonetheless, short activist videos have received broad exposure on the web with significant political impact beyond it, most conspicuously in the case of raw cell phone video documenting the thuggish face behind the mask of legitimate authority from Cairo’s Tahir to Istanbul’s Taksim Squares and from the streets of Ferguson to Brooklyn. These videos extend the original documentary impulse to record and publicize events both trivial and history making, democratized by the Internet to anyone, anywhere with a mobile device and Internet connection. The focus of the present essay has, however, been not so much the content of social issue media as how content is viewed and used to produce lasting political change. In this sense, the film-lens or film-tool could be seen as deliberately, even perversely, frustrating the most basic documentary impulse, the vicarious thrill of spectatorship or scopophilic obsessions, to provoke reflection, introspection and ultimately activation.

Surfing the web for the most widely-viewed short videos on social issues is not encouraging: the vast majority consist of excerpts from broadcast, cable and digital programs like “60 Minutes,” “The Daily Show” and “The Young Turks,” as well as clips from lectures and TED talks, not original, short-form content promoting particular social change objectives. There are, of course, notable exceptions but even the most incisive of these often neglect to suggest concrete alternatives to the inequities they deplore or to offer links to the activist organizations in a position to do something about them. This footnote provides some representative links scavenged from a search of short on-line, social issue videos with among the largest number of “hits.” [vii] The paucity of this content and the often-perfunctory formulae they employ underlines the potential and the need of the genre for innovative content and forms.

Why “Independent Documentary” Isn’t Independent – And How It Could Be.

How can these short-form films lenses be funded and produced so they remain accountable to the needs of social change stakeholders? The “inconvenient truth” ignored by most social issue documentary makers and commentators, academic and journalistic, is that the decisions about which big-budget, high-visibility social issue documentaries actually are made rests in the hands of a half-dozen or so institutional gatekeepers. It should go without saying that such concentration of power in the hands of any coterie, enlightened or benighted, is profoundly unhealthy for a democracy. Fear of reprisals has inhibited wider public discussion of this issue, despite its distressing parallels with the much more widely remarked oligopoly dominating the global, for-profit information industry. The handful of broadcasters, both public and private, who still fund independent social issue documentaries, inevitably choose projects which will maximize subscriptions, membership and advertising revenues while antagonizing as few viewers as possible.

Philanthropic funders are instinctually wary of any film which treads too far from the path of liberal reforms by offering a radical critique of why such reforms will ultimately fail or be eviscerated. Government agencies are a fortiori subject to similar pressure. Filmmakers who want to make films, at least big-budget ones that can pay their bills for a few years, are essentially held hostage to the tastes and politics of these gatekeepers. The situation has sharpened producers’ fund-raising acumen and heightened and sensitized them to grant makers’ covert agendas but muddied their political perspective and mired their cinematic imaginations. The most effective media censorship has always been financial rather than official, a threat not to the films that do get made but those that don’t and aren’t even considered because they are “un-fundable.” Self-censorship, the internalization of media policing, is not just a phenomenon of police states.

Short form filmmakers are immune to such pressures, first, because major funders have no interest in their work and, second, because their low budgets free them from the groveling for grants from feudal philanthropies incumbent on makers of big budget documentary blockbusters. Finally, since short-form work can’t be monetized, there is little temptation to cater to a mass market, however illusory, dumbing down content to the lowest common denominator and diluting politics to the most anodyne.

User-Based Production: Sustainability through Accountability

The greatest advantage of short-form activist video is that its low budgets makes it affordable for many social change organizations and activists to fund themselves, in the end, the only true guarantee that productions will match their needs. Many advocacy groups could redeploy $5,000 or $10,000 from their regular public relations and education budgets or use their existing outreach network for a Kickstarter campaign for a concrete project with a highly visible payout. Nonetheless, funding media even at budgets under $5,000 or $10,000 will be a new area for many already financially over-stretched social change advocates. They will need concrete examples of media that responds effectively and economically to some pressing programmatic objective. The most convincing way to build this trust is through an authentically collaborative process, which can be a streamlined version of Newsreel’s User-Based Media Design Prototype (endnote 1) since the commissioning organization will already know the need, audience and desired outcome. In practice, each collaborator would be unique; growing organically out an organization’s particular needs and the skills which media makers brings to them.

Social change organizers clearly have the most intimate experience of the obstacles, practical and conceptual, they confront in their daily work and, consequently, what shifts in perspective or frames would most advance it. Short-form, activist media makers should therefore put aside preconceptions and pet projects and listen to organizers and educators, asking probing questions to clarify a production’s purpose while observing closely the dynamics of the groups where it will be used. They can then apply their greater experience viewing and making activist video to finding the most effective media solutions. The more media makers can internalize an activist’s outcomes- not film-based perspective, the more efficient and successful the design process will become and the more likely social justice organizations will be to contribute to them.

Calls for closer cooperation between filmmakers and users have sometimes been dismissed on the ground that such work would be “work for hire” and not “independent.” The salient question from the perspective of social change, however, is hired by whom and independent of what? Insulation from the commercial and institutional pressures that presently shape independent documentary production is a pre-requisite for a candid analysis of the causes of social injustice and the radical remedies necessary to redress them. On the other hand, independence from the tangible needs of everyday organizing might as equally be termed indifference and irrelevance. It has also been objected that media designed to achieve a clearly defined outcome would curb independent producers’ vaunted “creativity” but it could as easily be seen as redirecting that creativity from self-expression to inventing effective and innovative media solutions to today’s social change challenges. Therefore user-funded, short-form social issue work offers the best hope for a steady, economically sustainable, politically daring stream of diverse and topical media to counter the increasing hegemony of “free market” ideology over online “public affairs” content.

Confessions of a Distributor: Apologia Pro Vita Mea

A new production model for activist media logically demands a new promotion and distribution model as well. It seems surprising that social issue documentary critical of so much else in contemporary American life, continues uncritically to embrace and enthusiastically practice its marketing techniques, even though advertising is the lifeblood or perhaps nervous system of consumer capitalism. It would be unwise to assume that the makers and distributors of social issue media are ipso facto more candid and less self-interested in their works’ financial and critical success, than the makers of any other commodity. Instead of casting aspersions on my colleagues, I will cite myself as an unflattering, indeed flagrant example of why an alternative to producer and distribution-driven promotion needs to be found for the future. I cannot recall in over 40 years as a film distributor, a single instance when I suggested to a potential customer that his or her organization’s time and money might be more profitably spent reading a pamphlet or leafletting a bus stop than screening one of Newsreel’s titles. Nor can I remember an occasion when I recommended a title from another distributor, if Newsreel had a release on the same topic, even if I knew our title was inferior. Looking back, I realize I have devoted more ingenuity inventing “creative” (that is far-stretched) uses” for our films than accurately describing their strengths and weaknesses, and I won’t claim to be exceptional in this respect, just a run-of-the-mill flack. I might even try to exculpate myself by pointing out that a distributor is contractually bound to maximize the revenue of its films’ producers, not undermine them.

Caveat emptor should be the rule in the non-profit sector as much as anywhere else. Whether euphemized as “outreach partnerships,” “community engagement campaigns,” “trans-media enrichment environments” et al, a distributor’s primary function is to advertise its products. At the same time, promoting a film which may be ineffective or, indeed, whose effectiveness has not been independently verified, could squander social justice organizations’ time and money, in effect, sabotaging, not supporting, social change. Tools for social change deserve to be scrutinized at least as seriously, rigorously and impartially as tools for vacuuming carpets or drilling teeth. Scientific papers are subject to peer review and independent verification; social activists deserve no less. Producers, distributors and funders of social issue media, occasionally need to remind ourselves that our “public purpose, ”our real “bottom line,” is the social outcomes we advance not the income we generate or festival prizes we garner.

User-Based Promotion

Such considerations raise larger, largely unaddressed ethical considerations about the marketing not just of social change media but all not-for-profit, public-interest resources and services. Just as users should determine the activist media that is produced, they should also determine how it is evaluated and if it is promoted; in other words, if something is produced as a public service, it should be promoted not by self-interested advertising but by the public served. These purely theoretical speculations have again been anticipated in daily practice on the web. Recommendation engines are one of the more encouraging innovations to emerge in online culture, just as the barrage of irresponsible spam which makes them necessary is one of the more irritating. These engines provide decentralized, disinterested, user-based promotional networks (just as sharing links has the potential to become a de facto audience-based delivery platform). The Internet has made it practical for organizers and educators to evaluate social issue media themselves and promote only those whose worth has been proven in hands-on use.

Recommendation engines, however, can be highly unreliable if they do not have clearly defined criteria and experienced contributors. Yelp provides a cautionary example of a highly influential site whose most vociferous reviewers also appear to be its least informed and impartial. Social change organizers and educators are not petulant weekend gastronomes but committed professionals with both defined objectives and an interest in promoting the use of the resources that will advance them. Peer networks, as many wikis and list-serves have demonstrated, can be trusted to evolve relevant procedures and norms to insure their content comes from qualified, disinterested reviewers, while policing themselves against self-interested commercial (and non-commercial) interlopers.

Organizers and educators are by definition organized and most are enthusiastic users of the web; they also “self-identify” through their professional affiliations, the conferences they attend and the on- and off-line journals and blogs they follow. Distributors have long exploited these existing professional networks as economical vehicles for targeting their key markets. Social change media users, however, can use these same networks to aggregate news, reviews and experiences for themselves without relying on irksome e-mail blasts, “newsletters” and “twitter thunder” from distributors like Newsreel.

The communication networks necessary for user-based activist media evaluation and promotion already exist; they simply don’t incorporate regular and rigorous media evaluation among their content. Organizers, educators and their professional associations will first need to be convinced that media is an important enough resource in their work to merit as searching an evaluation as the other materials they use. They would then recognize that their hands-on experience using these media tools constitutes an invaluable, largely untapped resource to be shared with their colleagues.

“A Modest Proposal”

It would be unrealistic to expect such systematic, comprehensive, reliable, widely read user-based evaluation and recommendation of social change media to emerge spontaneously. Here, I think, the producers, distributors and funders of social change media have a legitimate role to play - though I am not so naïve to suggest it except as a provocation. I propose a moratorium on the advertising of social justice films and the redirection of the not inconsiderable sums presently devote to hawking their releases to an authentically public-spirited “community engagement campaign” - nurturing disinterested peer review of these releases through the existing networks of activist film users and potential users. Producers and distributor would, of course, exercise special vigilance against a recrudescent reflex to hi-jack this review process as they have the decisions over which activist films are available to review.

Such a campaign admittedly would be unprecedented in the annals of American business, (except when required by law as in the case of the tobacco industry) so I have no expectation that it could or would be implemented. Nonetheless, the redistribution of power over how social justice media is promoted would ultimately benefit both users and media makers by 1) initiating a long-overdue discussion of what criteria and assessment tools should be used in measuring the effectiveness of social change media 2) using these tools to generate the data for evidence-based best practices in social change media production, a pre-requisite for any efficient or accountable allocation of resources 3) heightening through this dialogue an awareness among social change organizations that media could play a more integral role in their work 4) thus, expanding this dialogue beyond the strengths and weakness of existing productions to productions which don’t exist but should 5) conceivably creating a recursive loop, so these fora became incubators for the collaboratively designed, user-funded, short-form, social issue media, already identified as the most sustainable and accountable long-term source of content responsive to the current challenges facing social change activists.

User-Based Distribution

The traditional function of distributors has been to promote and thus monetize (sell, rent or license) content. The usual rationale for charging for social justice films (even when they have has been fully-funded by tax-exempt dollars) has been that the royalty income from “ancillary” (educational and consumer video) distribution supports producers during the needlessly protracted, uncompensated development period required for these big-budget epics. Even in the halcyon, pre-digital era of high prices and unit margins, royalties averaged at best between 10% and 15% of the actual cost of producing a standard television documentary. Changes in how digital media is accessed and used, the large quantity of “un-monetized,” “open-source” content on the web and the deflationary pressure of mass market content aggregators like Amazon and Netflix, have reduced this paltry revenue flow to a trickle. I would argue that the barriers erected by even a minimal charge for social issue content far outweigh any putative benefit to producers from its continued monetization and that it should therefore be made available to everyone at no charge.

Distributors, as “middlemen,” stripped by the new digital marketplace and delivery platforms, of their former function of promoting and monetizing content, becomes not only untenable but redundant. Promotion and distribution could, in effect, become simultaneous; wherever a film was reviewed, recommended or mentioned – an online newsletter, Facebook posting, etc. – a link could appear where that content could be streamed through a window embedded in an activist website; this same link could be shared virally with other organizers, educators, rank and file activists or general public. If we recall the rule of thumb that 50% of visitors to a site are lost with each additional click, the convenience of simultaneous promotion and distribution, coupled with the elimination of e-commerce registration and payment, assumes the force of a political imperative.[viii]

Freely available content, of course, presumes that not just production but development costs for social issue media would need to be funded up-front by the commissioners of that content, whether broadcasters, foundations, private contributors or social change organizations. If funders had to pay for development costs, they might not be so eager to prolong the process with demands for elaborate proposals and meddlesome rewrites massaging projects until they fit within their institutional agendas. They might also not be so coy about approving or rejecting projects, stringing along producers for months and sometimes years with little hope of funding often on projects with less reason for it. How many inexpensive short-form projects could be made if all this time and effort were channeled into projects for which there was a “clear and present” need?

Since short form activist media could never be monetized, it has no alternative but to be fully funded in advance from its potential users as well as promoted and distributed virally by them through their existing networks, expertise and commitment to the value of the work.

Content in Its Context: Beyond the Frame

In today’s post-DVD, video-on-demand world, social issue content is increasingly distributed (delivered) by digital streaming from third-party servers directly to end users, whether a teacher, student, organizer, rank and file activist or visitors to an social advocacy site. The stand-alone film and time-specific screening event as embodied in the DVD and video projector will not disappear but simply become one niche within a much broader spectrum of delivery options; as a paradigm for the exhibition and use for social issue content, however, it has become an anachronism. This traditional “cinematic apparatus” has been replaced by a multi-media platform where short-form work, excerpted long-form films, graphics, print and user-generated content are all available for a non-linear, interactive experience – whether for on- or off-line learning. Although the files containing this content may reside on remote “server farms” in the “cloud,” the interface between the viewer/user and that content needs to be as transparent as possible so that media can be integrated or “embedded” as seamlessly as possible into the larger flow of long-term organizing and education.

Therefore short-form activist media makers need not just make their work concise and easy-to-use, requiring no time-guzzling supplementary “enrichment” materials, but also to conceive it as modular and flexible so that its users can customize this content to their context, that is, to its particular constituency and objectives. There are a few simple, practical steps, costing nothing, which social issue media makers can take to give organizers and educators the freedom they need to translate the insights and perspectives of short work directly into political action. Paramount among these is streaming their content without restrictions on the devices that can access it or the ways organizers can adapt it (including adding pop-ups, their logos or urls, excerpting and adding sub-titling for the hearing impaired or non-English speakers). You Tube, for example, offers non-profit producers and organizations an especially robust menu of features for customizing media for the particular windows through which it will be screened.

This essay began by discussing the importance of designing media as temporally “open-ended,” asking questions not simply giving answers, broadening discussions not closing them off, integrating seamlessly with on-going organizing, curricula and public debates. Short-form work can also be made more spatially open-ended, what might be thought of as “open-framed.” Several elementary techniques can counter the inherent focus (perspective) of the camera lens drawing (absorbing or suturing) viewers to a point inside the frame, by deliberately redirecting their gaze to its periphery and the virtual and actual environments beyond it. These might include: 1) composing (actually de-composing, dispersing, deflecting) the focus of a shot towards its edges; 2) pointing outside the frame with graphics or superimpositions, thereby referencing other spaces, actual and virtual; 3) using narration which challenges the image’s prerogative to define space and time; 4) simple “shock tactics,” such as screening a film with the lights on, so its context doesn’t disappear; 5) tapping experimental films’ rich vocabulary for destabilizing the image “distressing” or “degrading” it, blurring or occluding it with gels and mattes, etc.

Here social action media needs to go beyond the nostalgic ruins of experimental film’s degraded analog images and the deconstructive fervor of post-modern iconoclasts. It needs to point beyond or outside the frame to the presence of the present, to reverse the image’s direction from an index of the absent present of the past to a trajectory to an absent present of a more just future. Such techniques will no doubt be deemed “anti-filmic,” even Puritanical and they are if the “filmic” is equated with pandering to the politically lubricious scopophilia of the media consumer. The habitually passive viewer cannot be reminded too often or too forcefully that the subject of social change media is sitting in front of the screen not inside it.

Valediction: A Conclusion and Commencement

If this bricolage from a lifetime distributing social issue films has a coherent theme, then it has been narrowing the gap between the making of activist media and its use by activists. It has tried to demonstrate that the goals of condensation, concentration and contextualization coalesce in the idea of user-based design, production, promotion and distribution. In the spirit of concision, more preached than practiced in this essay, I have tried to compress these into ten points.

  1. User-Based Design: insuring that activist production is accountable to activists’ needs through collaborative, user-based design tied to specific political outcomes defined by its intended users.
  2. User-Based Funding: funding social change media in advance by activist, advocacy and educational organizations and supporters, thereby guaranteeing accountability and independence from outside institutional pressures.
  3. User-Based Promotion: replacing advertising of social issue media with peer review and recommendation; incorporating rigorous, comprehensive media evaluation as an essential component of organizers’ and educators’ networks.
  4. User-Based Distribution: freely streaming all social issue content through windows embedded in activist websites, enriching organizations’ online presences while strengthening their programs’ effectiveness; fusing viral marketing with viral distribution.
  5. Economy: developing inexpensive, clearly targeted, concise media forms which activist and educational organizations can afford to fund and will want to use because they minimize media's demands on organizers’ time.
  6. The Viewer as Subject: making the explicit subject matter of activist media the second-person viewing subject, the “you” the film is addressing, the situated agent of social change; in short, turning passive spectators into citizen activists.
  7. Compression: collapsing screen (narrative or diegetic) space with the space beyond the screen, thus transforming the site of reception into a site of political activism.
  8. Prioritizing Perspective: making point of view both the point of films and the point for viewing them; clearing the clutter of narrative masking a film’s politics; conceiving film-as-a-lens (frame or perspective) not film-as-its- images (story or document.) .
  9. Customization; designing flexible, open-ended media which organizers and educators can adapt and incorporate easily into their specific, local and national social change campaigns on-line and off.
  10. User- Not Film-centrism: approaching activist film as a means not an end, a tool for activists to achieve social change outcomes; not a stand-alone text, document or event, but a self-effacing participant in an existing process of social self-definition.

The aim of all of these convergences can be summarized as synthesizing media space and the space of the historically-situation viewer into a discursive space, that is a space subject to public discourse and hence social change. The point is not to replace one ideologically frozen sense of space with another but to thaw space so it is experienced as a resonating field charged with different values, priorities and political possibilities. Short form media, the film-lens or film-tool, can present its viewers/users with the opportunity and responsibility to choose - not assume - the perspective with which they frame and construct their world. Such discursive space is unapologetically and self-consciously fictional, that is, man- and woman-made, hence subject to revision, a work-in-progress like social change itself (and, one might add, the species for whom change is its defining essence.) The poet, Wallace Stevens, once wrote: “We must believe in a fiction, knowing it to be a fiction, knowing there is nothing else.” To which one might add, except the creativity, indeed, necessity to change that fiction constantly so it offers more possibilities to more people.

Every valediction or leave-taking is at the same time a commencement, a beginning, a disorienting moment mingling uncertainty and nostalgia with anticipation and opportunity. We are at a similar moment where we must abandon long-form documentary as the paradigm for politically engaged media, only certain that we must invent or evolve new forms to replace it. (The same could be said for society as a whole; we cannot move forward without the conviction that we both can and must develop an alternative to the status quo.) This essay has argued for rethinking activist documentary as short, ephemeral, open-ended, strategic media interventions in the ever-shifting larger discourses that produce social change. It has suggested two related metaphors for such a change - the film-lens and the film-tool - but these are only metaphors; they could just as easily have been the film-as-hinge, film-as- trajectory, film-as-swerve (clinamen, dérive), even film-as-cyber-guerilla-raid. These new forms themselves will arise not from theory but concrete practice tested against measurable outcomes; some, as noted, are already emerging spontaneously on the web. What is crucially lacking is a dialogue, reaching beyond the narrow confines of narrative documentary discourse, which can draw together the vast pool of potential, short-form media makers with the equally vast number of potential short-form, activist media users. This “manifesto” is not that beginning, only a call for one.


[i] The author of this essay has been a Co-Director of California Newsreel since 1974 and a public television activist. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of California Newsreel.


[ii] As experienced readers will no doubt have surmised to their dismay, “short” in this essay’s title refers not to “manifesto” but “film.” (A brief 10-point summary is provided for the faint-of-heart at this “manifesto’s” end. The meaning of “short-form media” ranges widely from a 30-second PSA to a highly produced 30-minute, “presentation piece” on the way to Hollywood director status. For the purposes of this paper, “short” is meant more as a qualitative than quantitative distinction, specifically, media which does not primarily document, explicate or tell a story but presents a new perspective, in John Berger’s memorable phrase, a new “way of seeing” the familiar. As a practical matter, modules under five or at most ten minutes are most easily incorporated into activist websites, community organizing and educational curricula, as well as the new funding model proposed in this paper.

Throughout this essay, the term “activist” is used more or less interchangeably with “social change,” “social issue,” “social justice,” “political,” “advocacy,” “organizing,” though each of these terms has its own nuance. Here it refers specifically to media used in activist settings such as community organizing, public awareness campaigns, inservice training and social service providers. In addition, universities and colleges continue to play a crucial role in social change both by injecting a radical social critique into public discourse and as sites where movements for social justice often originate. They remain the most frequent users of social change film and video, though their willingness and ability to pay for it may have declined. This paper deliberately does not address the contribution of television broadcast or theatrical exhibition, the intended platforms of most long-from documentaries, to that most nebulous of concept “changing public opinion.”


[iii] Newsreel’s ascertainment process, despite its statistical naiveté and inconsistent implementation, was innovative in at least one respect: it sought to generate a major production (a five part public television series) without preconceptions as to its ultimate form or specific content from the expressed priorities and preferences of the stakeholders of its intended field (early childhood development advocates and practitioners.) Its “user-centered” design process, in effect, reversed the standard production sequence: Production > Distribution > Exhibition into Exhibition (intended use or context) > Distribution (existing user networks) > Production (design of content.) In other words, a social change outcome was first defined and the film’s form and content followed from that. Newsreel ‘s User-Based, Activist Media Design Prototype proved cumbersome, as any first attempt would, with steps which in practice could be easily combined. It seems likely, for example, that a short-form film could and should rely on its collaborating or commissioning activist organization(s) to ascertain its own needs, audience and desirable, measurable outcomes. The filmmaker’s task would then consist largely in finding a treatment which his or her partners felt met those specifications and then producing it with their input and feedback.

Newsreel’s original prototype design process had six-step:

1) A needs assessment conducted using standard survey research instruments, supplemented by qualitative interviews with organizational leadership and an environmental scan of stakeholders, their media capacities and existing media resources.

2) A “design collaborative” recruited as part of this ascertainment process.

3) Transparent online project management software and an FTP site allowing collaborators to track each phase of the production and maintain accountability to the project’s intended goals and users.

4) Beta testing in actual organizing and educational settings both by participants in the initial survey and potential users not invested in that design process.

5) User-based promotion and delivery of the completed project in place of third-party promotion and delivery by content aggregators, distributors or producers.

6) Independent evaluation in terms of measurable outcomes to contribute the metrics necessary to formulate evidence-based, best practices in activist media design, production and funding.

A fuller description of Newsreel’s User-Based Activist Media Design Prototype is available at https://newsreel.org/articles/social-justice-media.pdf


[iv] Readers casually familiar with academic film studies will recognize that “space/time on the screen” is an awkward translation of what is usually referred to as “narrative diegesis” or “diegetic space time.” This section and the following make frequent use of concepts more rigorously “theorized” by those disciplines but eschews their technical vocabulary both from fear that its use by an autodidact he might result in solecisms and that its arcane vocabulary might allow filmmakers to dismiss valuable theoretical insights as irrelevant to their daily practice, or should I say “praxis.” For example, “taken-for-granted” and “unquestioned values,” depending on their context, approximate a “reified,” “objectified,” “alienated,” “essentialized,” ”naturalized,” etc ideology or metaphysic. Similarly, “tunnel-vision,” “frame,” “perspective” and “point of view” crudely render “imbricating” (over-lapping like roof-tiles,) “reticulating” (enmeshing like a net,) “privileging” (excluding alternatives) and “hegemonizing” (totalizing) discourses.


[v] The idea of a film-lens offers significant opportunities for creating multiple, socially-inflected experiences and representations of space, what might be called “spatialities” by analogy with the more familiar “temporalities.” These would “presence” the most obvious “absent present” - the erased site of reception and the disappeared viewer. As importantly, film-lenses could (hyperbolically) aim to transform the space of spectatorship from a box, literal and ideological, an activist’s coffin, walled- off from the social dimensions surrounding it, into a porous, layered “hyperspace” of over-lapping social force-fields, rippling out from the site of reception to the edges of the global economy. These super-imposed planes could map alternative political topographies, revealing sub-altered values and priorities, thereby opening paths to social change which before were locked doors. An analogy from the visual arts might be Analytic Cubism of 1909 - 1911 which shattered the reified object/instant of single-point, Renaissance perspective into arcs and planes cut from varying perspectives, rearranged on the picture plane into a destabilized image of modernity. The spatial dimension of film-lenses as more than a frame recommends them especially for locative media where they can escape the dictatorship of the visually given as well as apps revealing the non-visual, social parameters of a cell phone’s image, the “enriched reality” of a problematized place resonant with values other that the visual and habitual. The platforms for displaying hyperspaces, unhappily, are still out of reach of most media consumers but the current urgency (commercial not social) in developing VR platforms would bring them willy-nilly into reach of the most benighted gamester.


[vi] A brief detour into epistemology provide the theoretical basis for regarding the very idea of “narrative documentary” as oxymoronic. The word “documenting assumes” there is something there to document which, as Gertrude Stein pointed out, at least for poor Oakland, cannot be taken for granted. The “commonsense” assumption that the world is filled with things is presumed by the creation myth of Genesis, where words literally “speak” the universe. It first achieved philosophical respectability in the shape of Platonic Forms (or Ideas) and Aristotelian universals (general types or entelechies.) These significantly were not properties of nature but of mind or “ideas” in the philosophically extended sense of that term. Skeptics liked Hume asserted that particulars were “filed” together merely based on frequent association rather than any intrinsic qualities, dismissing causality as mere repetition. Kant attempted to refute the claim of scientific positivism that its empirical, a posterior data and the inductions made from it could provide knowledge about ultimate reality, what he called the Ding-an-Sich or “things-in-themselves,” on the ground that these observations were based in a priori, mental categories, e.g. space, time, causality and similarity (the “transcendental aesthetic and analytic.”) This view of perception as active, mediated and constructive rather than reflective has been corroborated by contemporary neurology.

 Documentary could then be said to suffer the double delusion of empiricism and idealism by assuming its images accurately represent a “reality” and that there is a given reality to document. Kant anticipated this when he pointed out that an empirical realist is in fact a transcendental idealist. In terms of semiotics, documentary asserts its images have clear referents, specifically, as an index to a pro-filmic event, the “absent present” like smoke to fire. But if there are no signifieds, no things-in-themselves, documentary images become unanchored, post-modern “floating signifier,” adrift in self-referential Derridean “circles of deferral:” Metz’s cinematic “imaginary signifier” becomes imaginary because it imagines it has a signified. Thus, documentary becomes a pre-eminent example of the “myth of the given,” the notion that there are “truths” and “narratives” “out there” waiting to be stumbled over – or documented by filmmakers. As the 18th Century skeptic, Vico observed, “Facts are made not found,” and therefore Protagoras, rather than Plato, was right when he said “Man is the measure of all things.”

The immense expense of story- or character-driven documentary, as any documentarian must intuitively sense, is a direct consequence of this epistemological error. The need to create a convincing narrative where none exists, to impose a narrative inevitability where there is only the flux of sense stimuli emitted by an amorphous “alterity.” All this effort and expense simply to disguise as “objective fact” a political point so simple and often simple-minded, it could easily fit on the back of a postcard. The solution, of course, is not to abandon the political point but the pretense that it is a given instead of an idea of how society should be constructed.


[vii] This endnote provides eight links to short-form, social issue media culled from a cursory search of the most obvious content aggregation sites on the web. As a consequence, they do not purport to be exemplary, merely examples; they make no claims to be the most politically astute, formally innovative or influential online activist video.

They suggest at best a baseline from which to build. If any readers have suggestions for comparable material illustrative of the potential impact of short form video, we would be happy to consider including them here.

An on-line, juried festival which did spotlight the most exceptional work could be an effective way to focus attention on short-form as a genre, promote some of its more exciting formal innovations while giving well-deserved recognition to activist filmmakers who have chosen to work in this neglected format and forego the chance, however remote, of the glitz and glory of a documentary feature premier at Sundance or Tribeca.


  1. “The Beast Inside,” produced at a community college, uses animation to illustrate a homeless teen’s view of his life. Although it offers no insight into the causes or remedies of his plight it provides a perspective rarely encountered in the media. https://www.shortoftheweek.com/2014/05/23/the-beast-inside/


  1.  “Conversation with My Black Son” is built around what has become a “rite of passage” for young black males facing a racist, criminal justice system. Again, it expresses grievances while still leaving the concrete steps which would remedy the situation up to those at blame for it . http://www.nytimes.com/video/opinion/100000003575589/a-conversation-with-my-black-son.html?playlistId=100000001150263&region=video-grid&version=video-grid-thumbnail&contentCollection=Op-Docs&contentPlacement=4&module=recent-videos&action=click&pgType=Multimedia&eventName=video-grid-click


  1. “Hotel 20,” another New York Times Op Doc, dispenses with narration and plot, to offer an experiential, cinema verité insight into one method homeless people in the midst of the Silicon Valley’s boom economy cope with the need for a safe, warm place to sleep at night. Had it provided a sense of the affluent sleeping soundly out there in the dark, the cause of the problem, growing inequality, might have become more obvious. http://www.nytimes.com/video/opinion/100000003473921/hotel-22.html?playlistId=100000001150263&region=video-grid&version=video-grid-thumbnail&contentCollection=Op-Docs&contentPlacement=11&module=recent-videos&action=click&pgType=Multimedia&eventName=video-grid-click


  1. “The Public Square,” from the same series, relies on an apparently un-staged debate of opposing sides of a public issue rather than a monologue of its own; by showing how assumptions can be challenged, it models an important first step towards social change.
  2. http://www.nytimes.com/video/opinion/100000001957917/the-public-square.html?playlistId=100000003465281&region=video-grid&version=video-grid-thumbnail&contentCollection=Op-Docs%3A+Season+1&contentPlacement=0&module=moreIn-videos&action=click&pgType=Multimedia&eventName=video-grid-click


  1. A search of You Tube for the most frequently viewed short videos on “racism” inevitably included the ever-popular “Ten Most Racist Moments in TV” and “Racist Sororities at the University of Alabama” but “Elevator Film,” a short “dramatic fiction” has received more than 8,000.000 views in six years. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HRfjLfyXYlA


  1. This split screen comparison of whites and African Americans from Brave New Films received over 1,600,000 views in less than three weeks following the police shootings in Baltimore; it admirably includes a petition and opportunity to subscribe to the producer’s feeds. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fTcSVQJ2h8g


  1. Again searching You Tube, this time under “economic inequality, U.S.,” turned up this simple tutorial, employing only computer graphic, which nonetheless, received 16,520,000 over the last two years; although it too misses the opportunity to suggest political alternatives or follow-up. actions. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPKKQnijnsM


  1. Not surprisingly, “Reinventing Education,” part of a series, “12 Ideas to Save the Economy with Robert Reich” from Move On spells out a clear political program ,as well as offers opportunities to become a members of the organization, sign a petition and donate for future productions. https://archive.org/details/RobertReich-TenIdeasToSaveTheEconomy-2015


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