CIFF Diary: Day 4 - Art as Activism

10/10 - The CIFF has arranged a number of great panel discussions for free throughout the fest, and the first panel arrives with particular resonance amid the activities of the 99% occupying Chicago and other major cities around the world.  As I was driving to the fest last Friday, I contacted my close friend Jason Del Gandio, author of Rhetoric for Radicals (seen here, expertly articulating the goals of the "Occupy" movement on Crosstalk) and asked him for an update on the movement, which grew from reports of 800+ to 900+ cities just in the span of our short phone conversation.  It was becoming clear to both of us that something was really happening, and needed to continue.

Ruth Leitman, Alex Kotlowitz, and Naomi Walker
On Monday morning's panel, moderator Naomi Walker, a Columbia College teacher and mentor for young documentary filmmakers, reminded us and the panel of the words of John Dewey:  "The real purveyors of news are artists."  The very question the panel interrogated that morning was one that Del Gandio and I have been discussing for years:  what is the role of the documentary film within activism, and how do you negotiate that delicate point where art and activism meet?  In relation to the "Occupy Wall Street" movement, it seems a particularly important question to ask right now, as the cameras are still in the streets in the ongoing pursuit to bring "the news" to the masses.  The panel Monday morning served to remind us how important the aspect of storytelling is to the documentary form in relation to it's political potency.  The term "documentary" seems to have a wide-ranging definition these days, but, as panel member David Fine reminded us, the goal is to "show the other side" in the face of the corporate dominated media script, which so rarely listens to peoples stories anymore, especially those that reveal the kind of social unrest that is happening currently.  The panel identified themselves primarily as storytellers who allow the politics of their work to emerge through the stories of the individuals they encounter.  Featured on the panel were David Fine, director of Salaam Dunk, Ruth Leitman, director of Tony and Janina's American Wedding, and Alex Kotlowitz, the writer and producer of the new Steve James documentary, The Interrupters.

Up Next:  A very different kind of documentary - Thomas Imbach's Day is Done 


jason said...

No doubt an important topic, one that folks will talk about forever. At the very least, all art is political (in the widest sense of having real consequences in the world). Art also creates the world. And is there anything more political than that? But of course the question of "responsibility" comes in. Do artists have a responsibility to make their art overtly political? I tend to think that there is no "inherent responsibility." However, before we are artists, we are human beings. And telling, showing, and CREATING human stories that are too often ignored is part and parcel of a humane, just, and ethical world. Although artists and documentarians do not have to do this, they should. Why? Because it helps all of us become better people.

Just my two cents :)


Jason Hedrick said...

Thanks for your commentary, Jerz--concise and thoughtful, as always. I will only add an observation that "political film making" has, unfortunately, become too aligned with a "Michael Moore" sensibility, especially in doc film making, although I'm speaking of all film.

One of the questions the panel leader posed, in a paraphrase of Bill T. Jones (from a documentary about him) was, for the film makers, what they wanted to leave "lingering in the air" after a screening of their films. I kept thinking that what was "lingering in the air" was the Micheal Moore question, and although I like much of his work, even in it's polemical nature, I think that we have to expand our view of how film art is political.

In ECSTATIC's current incarnation, I have a quote from Wim Wenders posted prominently: "Entertainment today constantly emphasises the message that things are wonderful the way they are. But there is another kind of cinema, which says that change is possible and necessary and it's up to you." I think this should be considered in the most expansive way possible, because even the dregs of cinema culture, or the height of commercial dissemination, is political--in some cases, more overtly so than anything Moore could manage. Audiences that have great questions posed to them, no matter what the genre or budget, no matter how big or small the question, will take that into the world as a way to continue the creation of the world.

In short, yes, the artists who are able to marry a political question to artistic potency do help us, as you said, to become better people.