Documentary can advocate for civil rights and societal
issues. Discuss using examples.
Introduce social doc’s
A specific ideological understanding and declaration of
solidarity with the goal of radical social-political transformation. “We
realized that the important thing was not the film itself but that which the
film provoked” – Fernado Solanas (1969).1
Documentaries represent as well as record.
Social documentaries excel at telling complex societal problems
and deep human stories. Openly addressing societal problems, with the goal of
making audiences aware and motivated for social justice, equality and
democracy. Helping to engage members of the public as citizens rather than
merely media consumers. They have gained in popularity and number in the last
Despite the critical success of many high-profile
documentaries such as Supersize Me or Inconvenient Truth, in general their
social impacts have been hit or miss. “I wish I could say that you make a
movie, and the world changes the next day. But it takes a while for culture to
catch up,” Psihoyos told Motherboard.2
Today’s documentaries practices develop from social trends and technological advancements.
The civil rights movements, starting with the battle for
civil rights for African-Americans and growing with feminist, ethnic rights and
gender rights movements, spurred many people to express their views, to create
new institutions, and to seek out support for expanded notions of citizenship
and rights. The expansion of non-profit organizations, including those that
represent rights movements, created institutional vehicles to channel that
energy. Public and foundation investment in culture and in mass media created
new resources for aspiring makers and institutions that supported them.
As such social
documentaries have become a powerful tool in combating societal problems.
Below are a variety of documentaries focusing on various ethnic or societal
problems and showing their impact and reception. From this we can have a
greater understanding on how documentaries can advocate for civil rights and
The Act of Killing
The “Act of Killing” investigates the individuals who participated
in the Indonesian mass killings of 1965-1966. Just like Peter Lennon’s Rocky,
Road to Dublin, the Act of Killing was also attempted to be covered up by the government,
but their efforts were futile in an age where the distribution of media is so prominent.
The killer’s re-enactment the murders by juxtaposing killing
and cruelty with dancing and bright colours. It often appears surreal at times
but always keeps this disturbing tone. To be put bluntly the documentary is
about people celebrating the killing of others.
What is most impressive is the influence and impact it left.
Joshua Oppenheimer was clever to get his film out there:
Private invitation only screenings across the
country – Autumn 2012
International Human Rights Day – 50 screenings
in 30 cities held by leaders of Indonesia’s civil society – December 2012
Released in conjunction with the National Human
Rights Commission Indonesia’s report on the atrocities.
Indonesia’s Independence Day – 45 Screenings
announced publicly for the first time.
Available for free download across Indonesia on
September 30th anniversary of start 1965-1966 genocide.
The film was made with clear goals in mind:
To catalyse a fundamental change in how the
1965-1966 genocide is understood in Indonesia.
To generate a nationwide critical discussion
about how the past lives on in the present.
To demand an official apology, a truth commission,
a reconciliation process, and an end to impunity, corruption and the use of
gangsters in business and politics.
The “Act of Killing” went on to receive both recognition and
praise. It was nominated for an Oscar in 2014. Other milestones include:
600 news articles published in Indonesia
100 Festivals in 57 countries
1000 Community Screenings in 118 cities
21 countries have released the film for cinema
29 awards and prizes3
Seeing Anwar’s humanity gave most of
the audience at the screening hope. The film showed them that Anwar acted on
impulses that “made sense” to him in his everyday life. They started
to understand the man behind the killer. But they also argued that forgiveness
had to come hand in hand with reconciliation. Gangster capitalism, corruption
and censorship still plague Indonesia’s social landscape. It is not in the
interests of the upper rungs of Indonesian society to analyse the atrocities or
seek justice for the victims. There is still a sense that the average
Indonesian has no rational alternative to the status quo. A vote for a
political candidate puts bread on your table. Bribery and racketeering provide
what one Indonesian woman described as “a heaven in this hell”.
Through a network of underground
distributors and social media, The Act of Killing has now been viewed by
millions of Indonesians.
It’s a film that is impossible to ignore. Even people at the
screening who didn’t appreciate the “film within the film” structure
and criticised its theatricality, thought The Act of Killing would be
ground-breaking in helping Indonesia break its silence about its history. International
attention will surely help the country come to terms with its past, as one
woman said: “I hope that Joshua goes all the way with this film and that
the film creates international attention. Then the government of Indonesia may
be forced to deal with human rights in this country.”4
The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross
Written and presented by Harvard University scholar Henry
Louis Gates, Jr. This Emmy award winning documentary spanning 6 series, delves
into not only black history but what it means to be an African American in the
USA today. Starting from African slave
trades and concluding in present day America. Dr. Gates challenges many
contradictions made throughout black history and debates many of Americas top
An example of a documentary advocating for animal rights is “The
Cove” directed by Louie Psihoyos is 2009 documentary film analyses and
questions dolphin hunting in Japan. The dolphins are herded, by small fishing
boat, into a cove where they are killed for their meat. The film brings to
light the atrocities of the dolphin mass killings, urging the audience to call
a halt on the killings and to bring about change to the Japanese fishing practices.
It also educates the public to the risk of mercury poisoning from dolphin meat.
The film highlights the fact that the number of dolphins killed in the Taiji
dolphin drive hunting is several times greater than the number of whales killed
in the Antarctic, and asserts that 23,000 dolphins and porpoises are killed in
Japan every year by the country’s whaling industry.5
Japan’s country-wide dolphin catch is now down to less than
6,000 animals from 23,000 when the film was released, said The Cove’s director,
Louie Psihoyos, in part because of the gruesome images of dying dolphins and
blood-red water that splashed across film screens in the US and elsewhere.6
Louie would later go on to receive the rights to distribute it
throughout Japan, were many citizens are oblivious about the killings in Taiji.
“Hopefully, they are just as horrified as western
audiences have been,” he said. “Most people there don’t believe it.
They just can’t believe the horror that goes on inside their own borders.”7
Rocky, road to Dublin
Peter Lennon’s “Rocky, Road to Dublin” is a prime example of
a documentary challenging not only social norms but the far greater task of
bringing Irelands cultural isolationism, Gaelic and clerical traditionalism into
Peter Lennon grew up in the 30’s in the aftermath of the independence
of Ireland. People were told they were the sons and daughters of heroes and
their new role was that of gratitude.8
It was seen as treason to question the society that the old guerrilla heroes
had fought to create, and it was this lack of questioning that led Ireland down
a dark path. Peter Lennon would later travel to France in his adult years and
grew to love the French new wave of cinema and it inspired him throughout the making
of his documentary. After living in Paris for decades working as a journalist critiquing
films, Lennon decided to revisit his home country in 1967 to create a film
looking at the state of Ireland. He captured Ireland on the cusp of enormous
social changes but still mired in a regressive, semi-theocratic mentality that
would later erupt in repeated church scandals.9
It examined the contemporary state of the Republic of Ireland,
posing the question “What you do with your revolution once you’ve got it?”.
Using seemingly innocent interviews we see, Lennon has many
of the Irish establishments
Blends interviews with writers
Sean O’Faolain and Conor Cruise O’Brien, a spokesman for the Gaelic Athletic
Association, theatre producer Jim Fitzgerald, a member of the censorship board,
an editor of The Irish Times, film director John Huston, and a young Catholic
priest, Father Michael Cleary. Brainwashed school kids admit casually
that because of Adam’s sin their ‘intellect was darkened, their will weakened,
and their passions inclined them to evil”. A patriotic sportsman confirms that any member
of their organisation, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), who played a
‘foreign’ game such as cricket, rugby or soccer would be banned for six months.
University students tell how they were not allowed to discuss politics on
campus. The number of banned writers in Ireland included Capote, Hemingway,
Orwell, Salinger and Wells, as well as the Irish Samuel Beckett, Brendan Behan,
Sean O’Casey and even George Bernard Shaw.
Although he had seen the Guardian pieces, the Archbishop
agreed to my request to follow a priest for two days, obviously believing that
the singing and dancing 60s swinging priest he produced would win over the
Released in the late 60’s, this documentary shattered
Irelands complacent view of itself as a liberated country.
The Irish establishment was frosty towards the film. Irish
cinemas wouldn’t screen it, RTE didn’t broadcast it, and it didn’t get a full
release until 2006. Even so in later years Peter Lennon’s documentary would
become a grim reminder of Ireland trading the oppression of the British, for
that of the church. Selected by the Cannes Festival to represent Ireland in
1968 and immediately shown across Europe and North America. When the Cannes
festival collapsed, the student uprising under siege by the riot police adopted
Rocky Road and distributed it around the Sorbonne faculties. Peter Lennon
himself had this to say: “The French saw it as a film, the Irish as an
insult.” In later years Peter Lennon’s documentary would become a
grim reminder of Ireland trading the oppression of the British, for that of the
The unfortunate truth was that it was swept under rug but today,
in the west, with have greater free rein to express ourselves and through the
guise of the internet it is made far easy to have these documentaries……
An Inconvenient Truth
“An inconvenient Truth” is a 2006 American documentary
directed by Davis Guggenheim. Davis was inspired by a slide show, to educate
citizens on the matter of global warming, given by former United States Vice
President Al Gore’s. Davis, producers Laurie David and Lawrence Bender went on
to adapt the slide show into a documentary.
Having a successful premiere at the Sundance film festival
in 2006 and opening in New York City and Los Angeles on May 24, 2006. It wen on
to win two Academy Awards for best documentary feature and best original song. The
film grossed $24 million in the U.S. and $26 million at the international box
office, becoming the tenth highest grossing documentary film to date in the
One of the documentaries biggest milestones is that has been
added to the science curriculum in schools around the world. It has helped give
rise the publics awareness of global warming.
No matter the subject matter or style, be it personal,
political, comical, revolutionary. Social documentary films increase our
awareness of ourselves and the world we inhabit. They are a window into who we
are. As such, they have a unique ability to engage, illuminate and inspire.12
Social documentaries such as the ones discussed above, tell
us that they have become a tried and tested medium, to allow directors to bring
social issues and the abuse of civil rights into the public rights.
Roacky rd qoute