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Vivian Norris

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Documentaries: In Defense of Diversity -- Documenting Our Changing World

Posted: 06/26/11 11:37 AM ET

"May You Live in Interesting Times" -- an ancient Chinese proverb (often considered a curse followed by the following two curses -- "May you come to the attention of those in authority" and "May you find what you are looking for."

We most definitely live in interesting times. Leaving behind the strictly Anglo-Saxon media world, the news as entertainment, and turning towards places that are evolving quickly, telling stories dynamically, challenging us and growing at rates beyond belief, lie the realities of the rest of the world. Their points of view are not our own. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, recently added, "We are in an information war, and we are losing that war." But are we? Or are we simply sharing the stage with the billions of others who may or may not agree with us? Perhaps it is time to begin to approach not only the news but the very way diverse realities are described, in ways which will force us to open up to other ways of thinking about the information we receive.

Instead of fear, a chaotic economy in the West and upheavals elsewhere causing us to think nationally and turn inwards, now is actually the time to reach out towards other parts of the planet. Will this happen? Documentaries can help us move in this direction. And they have gone from being the side-show to one of the main attractions, both on television and in the cinemas. But the funding situation is not always easy, and there is a real need for potential audiences to make their voices heard so that these projects make it to both the big and small screens.

We in the English-speaking West are no longer the focus of documentary filmmaking, nor are we dominating the international news. The monopoly of information and history shaping is pretty much over. Just check into a hotel in Eastern Europe or even some parts of Western Europe, much less anywhere outside of the U.S., and you will find an increasing number of Middle Eastern, Asian, and Latin American channels. Often it is impossible to find CNN, yet Al Jazeera, France 24 and Russia Today are ever-present. But once again, we have not lost the "information war" we simply have to learn to be more respectful of the rest of the world, and frankly, learn to share. This is not to say that other sources of news and information are better, and yes, there will always be political and economic agendas at work behind the scenes editorially, but this new reality is forcing us to have to understand and accept diversity, because not doing so means being left behind. We need to be able to read these images, analyze what is behind them, become media-literate as a human race... and that means including every point of view.

As news reporting sadly becomes five-minute morsels, and more journalists are being fired to cut costs, documentaries are also supplementing news with in-depth analysis of the situations such as the uprisings in the Arab world, the war in Afghanistan, the growth of the Tea Party and the horrible nuclear uncertainties posed by Fukushima.

Just as economies in some parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America, can, to some degree, ignore the fact that we in the West are in crisis, so too do they seem to be adding to humanity's documentary heritage, telling stories in ways which have frankly very little to do with the West. I wish the United States would undertake a project such as the one I heard about at the Sunnyside documentary market in France last week, being financed by the Chinese non-profit foundation, CNEX (or China Next) in which 10 documentary subjects are produced and promoted each year, for 10 years. The result will be that after a decade, 100 documentaries will exist, which depict the rapid changes in Chinese society, and will become part of the heritage documenting this unique historical phenomena. Just as the United States, and the West are going through dramatic changes, we need to support documentary filmmaking even more in order that these changes be recorded, analyzed and made available for those who come after us.

Wouldn't it be absolutely awful that all that is left of this American decade is reality television? With all of the dramatic changes taking place, from the ways the financial crisis, (can we call it a depression yet?) are affecting people's lives, to the events which affect our communities and the environment (Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill, Fukushima etc.). If we did not have documentary films, whose creators have a notoriously hard time finding financing, we would be left with gaping holes in the recording of history. The international festival circuit, various foundations and State Department do select a handful of well-deserving docs to make the international rounds, but Americans in general could do with more support for documentaries from all points of view, both to be seen at home, and distributed abroad.

This is not to ignore all of the great documentaries already being made in the U.S., UK and elsewhere in the West (and I suggest everyone watch all of the documentaries ever made by the Brit Adam Curtis as well as great recent works such as Gasland), but rather to remind us that documentaries, as well as being entertaining, exist in order to document something. Reality these days is most definitely more exciting than most fiction. As the Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times" is also a boon for documentary filmmakers with an enormous amount of subjects to choose from these days. I for one want to see more of these "interesting times" documented for and shown on the big screen. This is why documentary markets such as Sunnyside have been branching out and creating, with the help of their enthusiastic director, Yves Jeanneau, both the Asian and Latin American markets as well, because that is where much of the exciting, youthful, innovative documentary filmmaking is coming from -- in addition to the filmmakers documenting extraordinary changes in the Arab world also recognized by this market.

Even when we make great docs about home-grown subjects, they are not well-distributed and are rarely seen in the cinema (though there is a growing market). Why was Inside Job relegated to one small screen in a film and documentary-loving city like Paris, yet it goes on to win an Oscar? How many people have actually seen the film? And how is it possible that a world-changing event such as the disaster in Fukushima, be recounted more often by short YouTube clips than by what should become prime-time documentaries informing us of the reality of what the evacuees are suffering, not only in terms of radiation, but fear and the destruction of a way of life? We need documentaries we can trust, ones which provide us with information and points of view, depicting human compassion for what our fellow humans, and ourselves, are experiencing. We need more than Youtube sound bites, though these too provide exciting access to events.

Whether it is a group of men who cried during a screening at Sheffield Doc/Fest of the remarkable documentary, Calvet by Dominic Allan, depicting the trip "to hell and back" of artist, Jean Marc Calvet (visit their Facebook page here) or the 10 years invested by two Canadians, along with their Chinese partners to make guerilla style docs inside of China via Eyesteele Film (now releasing their first doc to be officially distributed inside of China), or the brutally honest Mexican/French coproduced doc which includes disturbing photos of a boy's sexual abuse by a trusted priest in Agnus Dei by Alejandra Sanchez (at the time of the editing of the film the priest was still working in parishes in Mexico, with access to children)... documentaries are alive and shaking us up, giving us access to much-needed truths, from places where silence and control have often been the dominating factors.

Even if the Chinese call these upheavals "curses," I am glad to be living during "interesting times" of change. Even the "final curse" which comes with these "interesting times" can be viewed as a blessing...

"May you find what you are looking for"...

(To be continued...)
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