Uncovered shows Secretary of State Colin Powell addressing the United Nations, with C.I.A. director George Tenet literally standing behind him.

C.I.A. Analyst Ray McGovern then models a close reading of that image in Uncovered, providing viewers with a quick lesson in media literacy.

Outfoxed shows how Fox News helps to manufacture outrage through clips of host Bill O’Reilly’s interview with Jeremy Glick, son of a Port Authority worker killed in the September 11 attacks.

The spinning tire image from Rethink Afghanistan serves as an apt metaphor not only for the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan but also the logistical difficulties of delivering supplies to the soldiers.

Al Gore famously uses the photograph “Earthrise” to romanticize his attachment to environmentalism in An Inconvenient Truth.

Graphic depictions of climate change data help to underscore Gore’s arguments.

Footage of Hurricane Katrina used in An Inconvenient Truth suggests that climate change may lead to more extreme weather.

Waiting for “Superman” positions audiences to view the education system through the lens of reformers such as Geoffrey Canada.

The Snag Films logo instructs audiences in how to engage with social and political documentaries with their “Find, Watch, Snag, Support” logo.

Harvey Milk posing in front of a campaign poster in Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk. Snag offered a temporary streaming release of Epstein’s documentary during the feature film Milk’s theatrical run.

Boxer Dicky Eklund, as seen in High on Crack Street: Lost in Lowell. Snag used the tie-in of a commercial feature, in this case, The Fighter, to raise awareness of an older film.


Brave New Films            

Perhaps the most frequently discussed socially networked documentary practice is the house party model devised by Robert Greenwald and his colleagues at Brave New Films. While Uncovered is significant for launching the socially-networked house party model, Greenwald has since released half a dozen other films, many of them critical of various Bush administration policies in Iraq, but all of them attentive to questions regarding the role of corporate and governmental institutions in shaping public culture. In addition to introducing well-researched films that engage with important social issues, Brave New Films’ role in reshaping distribution has been crucial in establishing the possibilities for transmedia documentary. As Greenwald himself observes,

“what we’ve learned about distribution may be more important in the long run than the films themselves” (quoted in Aufderheide 2005).

Further, in his most recent work, Greenwald has even reversed or reworked normal promotional practices by making the content of his 2009 project, Rethink Afghanistan, available online in short ten-minute videos before making the film available as a complete feature-length movie, allowing Brave New Films to continue to make timely interventions into public discussions of U.S. foreign policy.

Rather than a feature-length documentary film, Rethink Afghanistan functions as a series of timely short videos that can respond more rapidly to current events.

In fact, Greenwald has moved away from producing feature-length documentaries altogether, instead opting for short-form interventions using online media, suggesting that he has chosen to privilege timeliness and immediacy over the event status typically associated with the house parties.[2] [open endnotes in new window]

Like many of the activist documentaries and videos produced by Paper Tiger TV, the Gulf Crisis TV Project, and Top Value Television, Greenwald’s films are typically structured around what could be called “pedagogies of media criticism,” in that they seek to prepare viewers themselves to become media critics. Uncovered, for example, focuses on the use of faulty evidence to justify an U.S. attack on Iraq. Throughout the film, former diplomats and intelligence experts raise questions about key pieces of evidence, most notably Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech before the United Nations and the use of forged documents to depict the sale of uranium. Alongside these critiques, Greenwald depicts the use of provocative and threatening language including repeated phrases in State of the Union speeches and on Sunday-morning talk shows (“weapons of mass destruction,” “the smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud”) to indicate that Bush officials carefully choreographed the build up to war, even scripting the very phrases that might incite fear in a nation still traumatized by the September 11 attacks. Greenwald’s films then seek to illustrate how these talk shows play a hidden, but crucial, role in shaping political discourse that, in turn, shapes policy.

Although these moves may conform to a relatively standard form of journalism, the film itself was less crucial than the attempts to create a public event, one in which audiences could discuss and, presumably, blog or write about the film in order to turn it into a newsworthy event. These house parties, as I have argued, helped to show that social networks could be used to assemble groups of people based upon shared political affiliations.

Similarly, his subsequent film, Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism also seeks to depict some of the harmful editorial practices associated with Fox News. A number of sequences depict how Fox News anchors were given instructions to repeat specific “talking points” that would either praise the policies of President George W. Bush or denigrate liberal and progressive causes. In addition, the film uses Rupert Murdoch’s media empire to introduce some of the genuine problems associated with media consolidation, making the film an important intervention in the political activism around that issue. Like Greenwald’s other films, Outfoxed is rooted in a longer history of media activism, echoing strategies used by Dee Dee Halleck in the 1980s with Deep Dish and Paper Tiger TV.[3] In this sense, Greenwald’s films are, as Charles Musser (2007: 12) characterizes them, “struggles over representations,” in which the commercial news media is seen as complicit with official discourses. In contrast, Greenwald and other media critics are positioned as experts who can challenge the dominant representations of politics, even while preparing viewers to cultivate those skills and to produce their own media criticism.

One of the more powerful and influential practices modeled in Outfoxed consisted of the film’s “close reading” of a number of representative case studies in which Fox News supported conservative positions, even while claiming to be “fair and balanced.” In fact, by taking these scenes out of sequence and juxtaposing repeated language, Outfoxed seems to offer an implicit critique of the news channel’s use of the discourses of liveness and immediacy for emotional affect. Similarly, discussions of the graphics of the Fox News Alert engage with what John T. Caldwell (1995) refers to as the “pictorialism” of contemporary television. One of the more powerful sequences was a segment profiling Jeremy Glick, the working-class son of one of the people who died in the World Trade Center, and who was interviewed and subsequently attacked by news commentator Bill O’Reilly. Glick’s interview functions primarily to illustrate how Fox News shuts down opposing — liberal or progressive — viewpoints, painting them as either unpatriotic or “radical.”

Although Outfoxed offers a number of anecdotal examples of conservative bias, its larger purpose is to foster a more general culture of media criticism. Within the film, this goal is articulated through the film’s concluding utopian impulse, in which Greenwald highlights a small number of success stories of locally owned media start-ups that were able to compete with corporate-backed rivals, as well as a number of community groups, which focused on preparing teenagers and young adults to produce their own media. Further, the house party for Outfoxed also served as the launch for the liberal media watchdog site, Media Matters, with the site’s founder, Chris Brock, inviting viewers of the film to become contributors themselves. Like the film, Media Matters models the kinds of media criticism that Greenwald deems to be important to a vibrant public sphere.

Jeremy Glick then comments calmly about the event, while describing his strategies for engaging with the Fox News host. Outfoxed also introduces viewers to critiques of media consolidation, with Bob McChesney here providing viewers with a short lesson in political economy

All of the films produced by Greenwald direct viewers to the Brave New Films website, and given the need for timely interventions in political discourse, the website has moved toward the production of quickly-produced, concise videos that seek to make a point about an issue currently in the news, with videos appearing mere hours after the story develops. During the 2008 election, for example, the website posted a series of “Fox Attacks” videos, in which they edited together a series short sound bites from Fox News to show how the channel was repeating false or misleading allegations against Democratic presidential candidates and policies, including “Fox Attacks…Black People,” which showed how Fox used racially-charged language in order to depict then-candidate Barack Obama as a mysterious outsider.

As an outgrowth of Outfoxed, Brave New Films then began producing short-form video media criticism, including “Fox News Attacks Black people,” which traces how Fox News reinforces stereotypes. Fox News’s use of stereotyping can then be deployed to reinforce negative perceptions of then-candidate Barack Obama.

Subsequently Greenwald has reworked many of his earlier film distribution and exhibition practices for Rethink Afghanistan, which he assembled gradually during the summer of 2009. As the film’s title suggests, the documentary asks us to reconsider the mainstream depiction of Afghanistan and the foreign policy logic that emphasizes a military solution in that country. However, what makes Rethink Afghanistan unusual is the decision to release the film in short ten-minute segments focused on a specific area of concern in Afghanistan, in much the same way that DVD chapters or a series of webisodes might be used to present short, accessible chunks of information for interested audiences. This approach prompted Greenwald to characterize the film as his first “real-time documentary” (Stelter 2009). Early segments focused on the treatment of women and on the tenuous situation in Pakistan, and this online rolling release strategy helps to produce an ongoing engagement with our policy in Afghanistan, rather than a single punctual dialogue focused around the entire film. Such an approach can, potentially, lead to a more detailed engagement and would potentially allow the film to remain in the public eye longer. It also allows the film to be viewed not as a final product but as a mutable object, capable of being changed as the situation in Afghanistan changes or as new information becomes available.

Videos from Rethink Afghanistan are often divided up into coherent themes, such as war profiteering. The producers of Rethink Afghanistan engage in a bit of street theater by having the “Easter Bunny” deliver eggs with anti-war messages inside.

Thus, Brave New Films illustrates two significant components of the transmedia documentary. First, it makes extensive use of the idea that documentaries and other films can be endlessly revised, altered, and supplemented as new information becomes available. In fact, Greenwald altered the original DVD version of Uncovered when it was briefly released to theaters in 2004. Ongoing examples of bias at Fox News supplement Outfoxed years after the film originally appeared on DVD. Rather than a single narrative, transmedia documentaries allow filmmakers to react and respond to social and political events as they change over time. Second, Greenwald helped to establish a popular concept of audience participation. Whether that entails hosting a house party or simply agreeing to attend, audiences could express public support for a political cause by using social media.

More crucially, Greenwald’s films also served a wider pedagogical role, modeling forms of media criticism that audiences could then emulate in their daily lives. In this sense, Greenwald’s films, in their best moments, serve to reproduce a skeptical attitude toward the commercial media and toward political speech in general, equipping viewers with critical thinking skills that they could use to read future news broadcasts.

Participant Productions and SnagFilms

While Brave New Films deploys the tools of social networks in order to virally promote their films and to transform viewers into media activists, a number of new media entrepreneurs have sought to leverage low-budget distribution tools for the purpose of building an infrastructure of for-profit documentary distribution and social activism. The two most prominent organizations to use these tools are Participant Productions and SnagFilms. Jeff Skoll’s Participant Productions uses a more traditional theatrical and DVD distribution process, combining that with an active web presence where the social and political aims of their films can be extended. Skoll’s status as an “author” of the Participant model is established in a number of news articles, including a profile in Fast Company (Kamenetz 2009), in which the former eBay executive explains his desire to use commercially viable films to have a social impact. He says he’s been informed by the “social-entrepreneurship movement,” in which business practices are used to “solve” social problems, making the movement a hybrid of commercial and social interests. This entrepreneurial approach may obscure the degree to which many social issues cannot be resolved — and may in fact be exacerbated — by this approach, especially if the social issues involved are not seen as financially profitable.

Skoll’s company has made a number of films, most of them documentaries, focusing on issues such as disability (Murderball), genocide (Darfur Now), and freedom of expression (Chicago 10). After choosing scripts that combine a degree of commercial and social potential, Participant then seeks to work with various non-profit organizations to expand the film’s outreach. In this regard, Participant inherits from and reworks what Jonathan Kahana (2008: 26) describes as “the Griersonian tradition of humanist advocacy,” operating under the belief that if these films can effectively frame a social or political problem, viewers watching the film will be moved to act. In the case of Participant Films, they are encouraged to do so through the vibrant websites associated with each of the company’s films.

This approach of mixing advocacy and entertainment has been most explicitly modeled in Participant’s involvement with An Inconvenient Truth, in which Al Gore’s status as a public intellectual is used to reflect upon the global warming crisis and the need for citizen to demand a change in corporate and governmental environmental policies and practices. Although the film is most widely discussed in terms of the dramatic visuals used in Gore’s slideshow, the biographical commentary that frames the film also serves as an attempt to theorize its reception and the potential for a global environmental movement. In fact, by positioning Gore as a failed politician (he comments at one point to a chuckling audience that he “used to be the next President of the United States”), An Inconvenient Truth essentially makes the case that the active viewing public watching a documentary can accomplish what the political process did not. What’s needed is a grassroots movement around climate change, one that is shaped by Gore but that requires the intervention of individuals making the daily choices to live their lives in an environmentally-beneficial way.

Davis Guggenheim’s documentary is structured around a presentation, in which Gore uses a series of visual images — shocking footage of melting glaciers, charts and graphs depicting dramatic temperature increases — to make a case, based primarily in the authority of scientific evidence, that global warming is happening and that human activity is a significant factor. The film served not only to rally support for climate change activism, but it also worked to transform the politician’s image from a stiff, humorless policy wonk into a knowledgeable, passionate activist on behalf of both climate change and social media tools. The film uses Gore’s personal story to redefine him as someone who is deeply invested in both scientific inquiry and in the activity of teaching. The film also conveys Gore’s ambivalence about the potential of working within the political system, where he had served as a member of Congress and, later, as Vice President, and had come to the conclusion that the structural problems of party politics worked against meaningful, rational discourse (Gore 2007). Thus, the film combines a pedagogical impulse with a desire to realize social change through the public sphere, where through the power of documentary, Gore’s message might truly be “heard” for the first time. Thus Gore comments at one point,

“I’ve been trying to tell this story for a long time and I feel as if I’ve failed to get this message across.”

Thus, while Kahana (2008: p. 28) is correct to argue that Gore’s success in delivering his message depends, in part, on the documentary “restaging” of Gore’s lecture, it also relies upon a documentary public that can act upon his prescriptions.

Although the film received quite a bit of attention, grossing over $24 million domestically and $49 million worldwide, making it the third highest earning political documentary of all-time, as of June 2011, the film is inseparable from the framing materials that shaped — and extended — its reception, building through social media tools an activist culture around climate change. In fact, as Patricia Aufderheide (2006: 50) observes in her review, the film leaves us with the conclusion that combating climate change has become “our problem” and that

“it is something that we can take action on right now, and something that will in fact depend on myriad individual choices.”

During the closing credits, the film directs audiences to the website (http://www.climatecrisis.net), where viewers of the film ostensibly can become more involved in reducing global warming, a strategy typical of participant films. A link in the sidebar invites viewers to “take action,” where they can learn about the effects of their personal environmental practices, join a “virtual march” against global warming, or find other resources in campaigning for renewable energy. At least 2.7 million people have gone to the general company’s central activism site, takepart.com, over 400,000 of them to determine their carbon footprint, as of May 2008 (Keegan 2008). However, such changes are often difficult to quantify, given that many people who attend screenings of An Inconvenient Truth or Robert Kenner’s Food Inc, or go to takepart.com, may already be predisposed to support the causes depicted in the film.

During the credits of An Inconvenient Truth, audiences are directed to the website, where they can extend the life of the movie by becoming more involved. Fliers with these environmental tips were also available in theaters where the film played.

This focus should not suggest that Participant Productions necessarily espouses a specific political position or approach. Although many of Participant’s films can be aligned with progressive or liberal political positions, one of their most high-profile documentaries was Guggenheim’s Waiting for “Superman” (2010), a documentary that traced argues that the education system is in decline. The film drew from unorthodox education leaders, including Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system and Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone. Guggenheim, who professes to be politically liberal, used the documentary to argue for nominally conservative positions on education, including vouchers and charter schools, while also criticizing teachers’ unions under the guise that they stifle innovation and change.[4]

Like most Participant Films, Waiting for “Superman” includes a political campaign. In this case, the website includes a standard email that users can send to their elected representatives, asking them to ban limits on the number of charter schools and to expand school choice programs. Other links on the site take viewers to Facebook pages where they can support “causes” such as Stand for Children Leadership Center’s “Support Our Teachers,” which solicits support by promising that $1 will be donated for everyone who watches a video introducing users to the cause.[5]

Waiting for “Superman” seeks to show that engaged students are often not given the chance to succeed. A student in Waiting for “Superman” waits to see if her number will be selected in a lottery that will determine if she is eligible to attend a charter school. The suspense in these scenes leaves us believing that students who lose the lottery will receive an inadequate education.

In most cases, however, the forms of activism imagined by the film’s producers tend to be constrained by the possibilities offered by the available social media tools. Thus, in some sense, Participant’s practices expose some of the limits of the consumer-oriented activist documentary, showing that transmedia documentaries need not be tied to a specific political orientation. More crucially, the models for activism may be limited to online forms of activity, such as signing and forwarding petitions, a kind of “one-click” form of activism (what White refers to as “clicktivism”), rather than encouraging fuller forms of engagement.

SnagFilms, by comparison, is an online distribution hub that positions the documentary audience as potential programmers of documentary films in “virtual theaters,” streaming video widgets embedded by the user on a blog or website. While the founder of SnagFilms, Ted Leonsis, has produced a number of provocative documentaries, including Nanking and Kicking It, SnagFilms’ most explicit contribution is its attempt to imagine new documentary distribution models by inviting bloggers and others to “donate their pixels” by placing a widget on their website where people can stream one of the films in Snag’s library, which as of June 2011, consisted of well over 2,000 documentaries. By asking potential audiences to use the widget to post Snag’s films on their blogs, SnagFilms is allowing their films to circulate freely among documentary audiences, turning documentary movies into what Leonsis refers to as “user-distributed content” (Mehta 2009) and turning users into viral marketers promoting films and causes they support. Once again, this requires little commitment on the part of the user, who can simply copy and paste the code into a blog post.

The Snag Films Player allows users to embed documentaries on their blog or website, but in some cases, the advertiser-supported model may lead to jarring contrasts, as when Phillipe Diaz’s End of Poverty? is sponsored by Goldman Sachs.

In order to make their documentaries available for free online, SnagFilms relies upon an advertising-supported model in which the documentaries are briefly interrupted by short 15-20 second ads, usually about five times per film, rather than paying documentary filmmakers an upfront fee for distributing their movies.[6] While this practice can produce forms of cognitive dissonance — as when Morgan Spurlock’s humorous health-conscious documentary, Super Size Me is sponsored by a fast food restaurant or when Phillippe Diaz’s The End of Poverty? is sponsored by a bank — the advertisements themselves are somewhat less intrusive than on TV. In addition, Snag works with filmmakers to arrange that some of the revenue earned from the films be donated to an organization appropriate to that film. More recently, Snag has arranged with Hulu, YouTube, and the Internet Movie Database, as well as a couple of video-on-demand services, for their films to stream at those sites, expanding their reach even further.

But the most significant component of SnagFilms is its goal of using documentaries to promote discussion among socially networked audiences. Although the ability to embed a documentary on a blog or personal website might seem to be a trivial feature or gimmick, it can also allow bloggers to become participants, able to contextualize the documentaries historically and politically. For example, in his blog entry on Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk, Andrew Sullivan (2009) begins by criticizing Gus Van Sant’s 2008 biopic, Milk for its artificial depiction of the 1970s era Castro District where Harvey Milk rose to prominence, and its apparent lack of interest in Milk’s political activism. Sullivan not only recommends the documentary as a superior historical narrative but also criticizes a dramatic film that focuses on psychological realism and emotional affect rather than political change. Although there is no necessary reason to assume that the documentary (the original) is better than the narrative feature (the follow-up), Sullivan is able to engage with audiences who “visit” his virtual theater about the political relevance of a documentary made over twenty years earlier, while also allowing him to build a community of interest around the film.

A similar example emerged when a number of film bloggers embedded the video of High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell soon after the release of the David O. Russell biopic, The Fighter, starring Mark Wahlberg as the boxer Micky Ward. Russell’s film famously cited High on Crack Street because one of its subjects, Dicky Eklund, was Ward’s older brother, who had also been a successful boxer before developing a crack addiction. On the one hand, such a video can affirm the realism of Russell’s film, but on the other, it also encourages other discussions about the role of documentary in shaping perceptions of the city of Lowell, Massachusetts, where the documentary was filmed, while also raising questions about the exploitative aspects of High on Crack Street’s depictions of drug use.

By promoting political documentaries such as The Times of Harvey Milk, Sullivan and other bloggers like him are participating in public conversation about a range of important political issues. Although Sullivan is somewhat exceptional in that he had a career as a political commentator before turning to blogging, his citation and discussion of Epstein’s film carries well beyond the “associational boundaries” needed for public dialogue, allowing users of the Snag widget to contribute to a networked public sphere. In this case, it is worthwhile to note that the theatrical release of Milk — and its heavy promotion as an Oscar contender — also likely shaped the decision to make it available, however temporarily, at SnagFilms. Thus, although Snag links many of its movies to specific political causes, the free widget also encourages other forms of sharing that may go well beyond the intentions of the documentary itself.

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