Documentaries may not be changing change, but they're changing just about everything else.
Sundance Film Festival 2012 featured a panel this weekend on "How Documentaries are Changing Change," but none of the panelists seemed to agree with the premise. CNN news anchor Soledad O'Brien led a lively discussion with Robert Redford, Nick Fraser and Sheila Nevins.
The distinguished panelists did agree that documentary has a unique appeal to audiences.
According to Fraser, "we love them because they appeal to our curiosity and common humanity." For Redford, they are "different things to different people." For Sheila Nevins, "the reality of docus is that you've made a wave" rather than a seismic change.
The documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival may be out to prove them wrong already. And the role of the Sundance Film Festival in providing a platform for social issue documentary is not to be overlooked. Dan Satorius, documentary producer and entertainment attorney said "before Sundance, documentaries didn't have commercial viability."
Not only have documentaries been established commercially (albeit to a limited extent), commercial viability itself is being redefined. Just yesterday evening ro*co Films International announced a new partnership with 1492 Pictures to begin adapting documentary films into narrative features. First up is the powerful social issue documentary Crime After Crime. You can meet the director, Yoav Potash, at the Center's Media That Matters conference on February 11.
Adaptation is just one way that documentaries are tackling change. What the panelists omitted from the conversation is a discussion of the dedicated profession of social change documentary. One need look no farther than The Invisible War, which is creating a significant buzz among audiences for its powerful story about the incidence of sexual assault against women (and men) in the military, and the deliberate cover up and denial among military administration in all branches. The film profiles several women who were victims of violent assaults and were brave enough to go public in a lawsuit. Just this last December a court ruled that rape is an occupational hazard of military service, the revelation of which produced an audible gasp in the theater.
The ability of these powerful films was the greater emphasis among the above panelists. Redford said "I find them beautiful very often because they're surprising." The highly refined craft and art of today's documentary, social, or not, is undeniable. And we're not talking about absolute truth, but rather storytelling that reveals truth. Redford pointed to the words of Georgia O'Keefe, "Nothing is less real than realism … It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things.
Redford went on to say that one of the best things that documentaries can do is tell people what's going on in their world. I disagree, they do so much more. Just look to 1/2 Revolution, which brings to back to life the experience for individuals in the midst of a revolution. Detropia introduces audiences to the the passionate individuals who refuse to lose hope for the Motor City in what has become a side show attraction for many outsiders. The audience member gains much more than awareness, they can have a visceral experience and become invested in the message of hope from the stories of real people.
I've only just tapped into the many powerful documentary films waiting to be seen here in Park City. And I do agree with a closing statement by Sheila Nevins that the most powerful documentaries, if they don't change the world, show that the world can be changed.