JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

In The Age of Stupid, after “opening” a selection from the Archive, we are presented with short documentary and animated narratives about various aspects of climate change.

In a “Making of The Age of Stupid” featurette, hand-drawn animation calls attention to how certain effects are created. In this case, pouring milk into a fishbowl of water will simulate the beginning of the universe.

We then see that effect realized in a clip from the opening sequence of The Age of Stupid.

In Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed Ben Stein is sent to the principal’s office — expelled, to use the title of the film — for offering an unorthodox viewpoint against a supposedly liberal and elite scientific establishment.

From the beginning of the film, Expelled uses documentary and re-created footage to introduce the argument that “Big Science,” like Communism, does not allow any dissenting viewpoints.

An animated Ronald Reagan lectures Barack Obama on government spending in I Want Your Money.

I Want Your Money seeks to depict Tea Party activists as silenced by the news media.

Dylan Avery’s Loose Change uses graphic imagery of the September 11 attacks to make the argument that the attacks were orchestrated by members of the United States government.

The title card for Loose Change: Final Cut illustrates both the film’s thesis about a battered national identity and its use of multiple documentary versions that could reflect changes as new evidence was uncovered.

The War Tapes places additional emphasis on the role of the soldiers in producing the documentary by showing shots of soldiers holding video cameras, often while they are directly addressing the viewer.

 

The Age of Stupid

One of the more innovative uses of transmedia documentary to support political activism is Franny Armstrong’s 2009 environmental documentary, The Age of Stupid. The film offers a hybrid documentary approach, with Pete Postlethwaite playing a librarian in the year 2055. He’s identified as the Archivist, who scolds the human race for their inaction in preventing global warming. The Archivist curates a “Global Archive,” a series of short documentaries that depict symptoms of climate change, including the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina, a Nigerian woman who fishes in oil-polluted waters, and an octogenarian mountaineer who has witnessed the receding of glaciers where he hikes in the Alps. Armstrong skillfully weaves between these narrative threads to suggest that people were — to use the film’s terminology — stupid in allowing climate change to continue. The film is a bracing polemic, one that aggressively asserts the urgency of combating global warming. However, given its strident critique of corporations that engage in harmful environmental practices, it also offered Armstrong a difficult challenge in terms of funding and distributing her film.

As a result, Armstrong drew from audience support, seeking assistance in funding, producing, promoting, and distributing the film. Like many recent filmmakers, Armstrong used Crowdfunding techniques to raise the money to make The Age of Stupid. Crowdfunding is a specific form of crowdsourcing in which a producer raises funds, often through online services such as Kickstarter (http://www.kickstarter.com), often accompanied with the promise that the filmmakers will give gifts back to people who make donations, with gift ranging from a poster for the film to a copy of the DVD or even, for major donors, a trip to the movie’s theatrical premiere. In fact, Armstrong, shaped by her experiences with self-distributing her critique of the fast food industry, McLibel, chose to crowdfund Age of Stupid, in part because it would make it easier for her to retain distribution rights, therefore providing her with more control over when and where the film would be seen, with Armstrong speculating that millions of people saw the film because she retained rights rather than selling them.[7] [open endnotes in new window] Thus, even at the pre-production stage, Armstrong was able to engage audiences and get them involved in supporting the film and the cause associated with it.

This sense of participatory production also ensured that the film would receive an additional boost when it came time to promote and distribute the film. Armstrong surmised that the crowds who invested in her film would also likely offer the film free publicity through blog posts, tweets, and other forms of word-of-mouth advertising. These collaborative activities are not completely disconnected from existing institutions. In fact, like Greenwald, Armstrong worked with existing NGOs and other advocacy groups, including MoveOn.org and Greenpeace, in order to leverage their networks to build an audience for the film. Such techniques led filmmaker Jon Reiss (2009), a high-profile advocate of do-it-yourself filmmaking, to characterize The Age of Stupid as

“the future of film, film culture and film distribution and marketing.”

Reiss goes on to point out that the film premiered on 550 screens in 45 countries, supported largely by a massive event screening in which the film’s premiere party, featuring performances by musicians including Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, was broadcast live to audiences, creating what Reiss called “a worldwide cinematic event.” The event itself was timed to precede the United Nations Climate Summit in Copenhagen, which began only a few days after the premiere, with the film’s producers actively campaigning to get the U.N. to enact stricter fuel standards. Although it would be difficult to measure the film’s overall impact on climate change activism — the summit in Copenhagen did not lead to any specific policy changes — the “event” status of the premiere helped to ensure more mainstream media coverage than a typical documentary would receive.

The Age of Stupid also served a pedagogical purpose by teaching other low-budget filmmakers their techniques for crowdfunding and crowdsourcing aspects of the film.

However, The Age of Stupid is perhaps more significant because of the ways in which it sought to offer a “transparent” model for showing how to crowdfund and for demonstrating its environmentally friendly production techniques. The film’s website (http://www.spannerfilms.net/crowd_funding) consists of extensive, if humorous, tips for showing others how to crowdfund. These suggestions include the decision to publically release the film’s budget, as well as offering templates for loan agreements and other financial and legal texts, but in all cases, the filmmakers preach the idea of involvement, suggesting that supporters want to be considered “part of the team.” Thus, like other transmedia approaches, The Age of Stupid began with the recognition that audience participation could be mobilized, not merely to get people to attend the film but also to promote it and, in turn, to promote the political causes associated with it.

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

Finally, although most of the examples offered here are of films that support progressive political causes, the principles of the transmedia documentary — especially its populist model of participation — are not aligned with a specific point of view. In fact, conservative organizations can and often use alternative distribution techniques, through church groups and think tanks, among other groups, to distribute documentaries. In addition, the populist aspects of participatory culture fit neatly within what Thomas Frank (2004: p. 194) refers to as the “Great Backlash” associated with conservative anti-intellectualism, which encompasses “a powerful suspicion of professional expertise associated with the historical left,” whether the educational system, evolutionary theorists, or government institutions.

The documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, starring actor and former Richard Nixon speechwriter, Ben Stein, deploys many of the techniques typically associated with the transmedia documentary. Expelled argues that the scientific establishment, which Stein refers to throughout the film as “Big Science,” has operated to suppress evidence that the universe may have been created through intelligent design. Stein positions himself as a rebellious underdog, challenging the scientific community and defending the academic freedom of scientists who have been denied tenure for espousing intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. The film is at its most vicious during a concluding montage, in which images associated with evolutionary theory are crosscut with depictions of the Holocaust, suggesting visually and implying verbally that “Darwinism” and the Holocaust are related.

Like many transmedia documentaries, the filmmakers behind Expelled sought to use a wide range of ancillary media to build a grassroots movement around the issue of intelligent design. In fact, the movie marketing company, Motive Entertainment, which specializes in promoting movies to Christian audiences and also promoted The Passion of the Christ and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, used a wide range of techniques to get audiences to attend the theatrical premiere, refining Greenwald’s house party model by creating a culture of anticipation surrounding the film.

Expelled also uses interviews with scientists who were reported to be punished for espousing intelligent design in their research. Each interview is punctuated with an image underlining the professors’ accomplishments before showing their resumes receiving a red “expelled” stamp.
A final montage in Expelled equates intelligent design advocates with the anti-Communist speeches of President Ronald Reagan. Tearing down the Berlin Wall while The Killers’ “All These Things That I Have Done” plays off-screen.

In fact, the company sponsored a contest in which the church or school group that submitted the most ticket stubs would win a $10,000 donation. This contest provided further encouragement for these groups to attend the film early in its theatrical run, allowing the filmmakers to be reasonably assured of a relatively large opening weekend box office, a move that led to a $2.9 million box office on opening weekend, with the film earning over $7 million in theaters, placing it as one of the highest grossing political documentaries in North American history.[8]

Such a technique could also be used rhetorically to suggest that there is a large, but often unmet, audience for films with Christian or conservative themes, further implying that the political views of the film are, in some sense, affirmed by their popularity.[9] It’s worth noting, however, that many of the claims in Expelled were challenged by a powerful and web-savvy group of film critics, science professors, and religious skeptics, who posted blog entries and even created websites where scene-by-scene critiques could be published. In fact, this anti-Expelled movement, typified by the website Expelled Exposed (http://www.expelledexposed.com/), was often far more visible online than proponents of the film.

More recently, Ray Griggs’ 2010 documentary, I Want Your Money, helped to give expression to conservative opposition to the economic stimulus package passed by the Obama administration, while arguing that Obama’s goal is to usher in a socialist state. Both the documentary and the film’s trailer mix inexpensive animation, interviews with conservative leaders, and sound bites from the film’s ideological hero, Ronald Reagan (“government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”). In fact, the trailer is structured around an imagined conversation in the Oval Office between an animated Obama and Reagan, in which Obama reports that he has “learned in school that it’s better to redistribute wealth,” with an angered Reagan huffing back, that he “learned in real life that it’s not; it’s called theft.” Aside from transparently offering a defense of lower taxes and diminished social programs, the scene helps to reinforce Obama’s image as a detached intellectual, removed from the ostensibly “real life” experiences of the B-movie star, Reagan. Thus, like Expelled, I Want Your Money positions Reagan as aligned with an anti-institutional backlash.

However, in addition to this conservative narrative, I Want Your Money is significant because of its attempts to depict the Tea Party protests as a response to being excluded from full political participation or, more precisely, to being inaccurately depicted — and therefore silenced — by the mainstream news media. Over images of the protests on the National Mall, Griggs remarks in voice-over that the Tea Party includes “conservatives pushed too hard for too long,” once again reinforcing the idea, suggested in Expelled, that conservatives have been excluded from participating in politics. Shots of individual protestors show them holding signs that argue that the Tea Party has been depicted as “angry racists,” while another protestor holds up a sign that says.

“Doesn’t Matter What My Sign Says. The Press Will Call It Racist.”

While the images are meant to challenge the argument that Tea Party protests were a racist response to the election of an African American President, the signs also serve as an expression of the backlash against the news media, which conservatives have depicted as silencing them. These films offer a clear illustration that many of the strengths of the transmedia documentary can be mobilized by any political group, especially those that feel excluded from current political discourse. Like their progressive counterparts, these documentaries succeed in reinforcing a sense of community around shared political views, a practice that is reinforced by the transmedia documentary’s immersion in the tools of social media.

Conclusion

While the transmedia documentary seems to offer a potentially new way for filmmakers and audiences to engage with social and political problems that matter to them, it is important to be attentive to the possible limitations as well. Like all social media tools, transmedia documentaries rely upon widespread and affordable broadband access, which is certainly far from universally available. Further, the existence of blogs and other online forums is no guarantee of productive political discourse and does not ensure that a variety of voices will be heard, as a quick glance at the comments of any YouTube video will quickly make clear. In fact, comments that are controversial often receive more attention, thus obscuring some of the more substantive forms of dialogue that circulate online. Finally, contributing to an online discussion may not satisfy the need for more active participation in a political cause.

And, as Jonathan Kahana has observed (2008: pp. 331-336), in his discussion of Dylan Avery’s Loose Change, the ideology of authenticity associated with desktop production and distribution tools can be used to support a profound skepticism toward the networked public sphere, rather than a belief in its ability to affect change. Like a number of transmedia documentaries, Loose Change sought to refute official political discourse, in this case arguing that the attacks of September 11 were either permitted or even orchestrated by members of the U.S. government; however, unlike these other documentaries, Avery’s film alleges a deeply entrenched — albeit mostly discredited — conspiracy theory that seems to render any sort of political change impossible. Instead, helpless viewers are confronted with a massive, if faceless, bureaucracy that inhibits any kind of meaningful response to government policy.

Even with these alternative modes of distribution, the transmedia documentary may struggle to reach even a relatively small audience, especially given the difficulty of making users aware of the wide range of films that are available online. In research conducted by the Center for Social Media, for example, they found that Deborah Scranton’s documentary, The War Tapes, earned less than $300,000 at the box office (Aufderheide 2007: 63 and Wittke 2007). However, as the Center for Social Media concludes, these numbers obscure the ways in which Scranton was able to use social media tools to facilitate viral marketing practices that can extend the reach of a documentary film into multiple publics. In the case of The War Tapes, Scranton’s carefully calibrated promotions reached a variety of audiences, including documentary enthusiasts, military families, and others curious to know more about the war in Iraq, an approach mirrored in Scranton’s studious attempts to prevent the film — and the publicity materials that framed it — from taking a clear position on the war.

Like many other transmedia documentaries, The War Tapes, use YouTube to extend the life of the documentary by providing “outtakes” not included in the original film that update the experiences of the soldiers depicted in the film.

Thus, an unstable and shifting documentary marketplace has forced filmmakers and producers to develop new and creative approaches to engaging with audiences. These practices often involve the creative adaptation of social media tools to encourage the active participation rather than the passive consumption of documentary texts, building upon — and in some cases — helping to define a newly emerging networked public sphere. As a result, the transmedia documentary is actively involved in rethinking how social media technologies can be used for political activism and for fostering vital public conversations about issues that matter.

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