A great documentary film can be a catalyst for veritable social change. In a similar vein to classic journalism, it can serve the purpose of engaging and informing the community and, like a great op-ed piece, it can also persuade. Over the past few years, a renaissance has been underway in non-fiction film style, content and audience participation. It has become a medium for mobilization and a social actor.
Breakthroughs in film technology have made it possible, and affordable, for almost anyone to create their own documentary. With the emergence of social media, online-streaming and a proliferation of web-based fundraising platforms, the ways in which a film is distributed, marketed and received has been completely transformed. As was the case in 2010, the Youtube crowd-sourced documentary Life in Day was created by and for a global community with over 80,000 video submissions from around the world capturing slices of life in 192 countries.
A hybrid of citizen journalism and social media, the collaborative documentary project #18DaysInEgypt captured the Egyptian Revolution in real-time putting a whole new meaning to group storytelling. As Clara Mertes, the Director of The Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program put it, "There has never been a time when creative independent documentary filmmaking has been more important in our society."
The problem this medium has grappled with since its inception, however, is audience reach.
At best, documentaries have a national television broadcast or find a home on Netflix. At worst, they fail to reach the merry-go-round of showcases and are left to dust on the shelves with thousands of other unheard or forgotten stories.
The power of this medium to illuminate peripheral stories and reveal the visual aspect of pressing social issues inspired us to launch a documentary film column. From the clean water struggle in Haiti to child prostitution in the U.S., we will highlight documentaries that engage a human rights theme and inspire action. We invite documentary enthusiasts, activists, and anyone who wishes to write about these films that bring awareness to key global social issues.
To launch the column, we chose to highlight La Source, which recently had its world premiere at AFI's Silver Docs Film Festival just outside Washington D.C. It embodies how a documentary can unite an audience and a community to make lasting social change. Directed by Patrick Shen and narrated by the lovely Don Cheadle with music scored by Sigur Ros, La Source is cut from exceptional talent. It revolves around Josue Lajeunesse, a janitor at Princeton University, and his dream to build a clean water system for his native Haitian village.
Audiences were first introduced to the doc's central characters, Josue and his brother Chrismedonne, in 2009 with the award-winning documentary, The Philosopher Kings also directed by Shen. The film highlighted Josue's tireless efforts to support his extended family back home in Haiti through custodial work and a second job as a taxi driver in Princeton, New Jersey, adding up to a 20-hour work day. After the film's sold-out release at AFI's Silver Docs Festival in 2009, audiences were so moved by Josue's story that they donated to his cause of completing a fresh water system for the villagers of his native La Source.
The funds raised from the film and a student-organized committee at Princeton brought Josue's dream to fruition, culminating in basic PVC piping routing the clean water to 5,000 villagers. The follow up film to Philosopher Kings, captures the journey and hardships along the way to implement the new water system in the village, where the only clean water source is an hour-long trek up a mountain with dangerous terrain. The return trek often takes double the time. In the beginning of the film, one villager asks, "Why do I have to go all the way up there to get water. Why?"
According to a study done by The Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, close to 70 percent of Haiti lacks access to clean water, contributing to the nation's major health crisis. Today, contaminated water is also the world's leading cause of death and illness according to the World Health Organization. But Josue's commitment to providing the basic human need of water for his people reminds us the facts aren't static.
As the narrative progresses, La Source documents the community's successful transformation catalyzed by one man's vision and a global network of support. After the piping construction, a villager puts it simply, "The new project is the best thing that could have happened to this area"
Watch the trailer of the film here:
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