The Agent of Change
Imagine yourself in a Palestinian city, surrounded by Mediterranean Sea. In front of you, kids are climbing the pile of stones, right behind you, there are ruins of the city. You can see only two intact condominiums and a huge mosque for miles. All other houses were bombed. Feel free to turn around – look at the bright blue sky above you and at the grey ground under your feet. Somebody is showing you around: the woman is talking about the death of her children during the bombing.
Now you can take off the headset and come back to the downtown in Toronto. You’ve just watched a fragment of virtual reality documentary My Mother’s Wing about challenges of life in Gaza. While we keep thinking about documentary as dry and boring genre, many documentary works are quite impressive. Thy even can be called cinematic pieces of art. The best of them you can check out at Canadian International Documentary Festival, or simply Hot Docs Festival. It takes place every year in Toronto. This time Hot Docs gave us an opportunity to dive into films – just put on the headset, and you become the character of the film, not just an observer.
You may ask, aren’t documentaries supposed to be… serious? How ethical is to make an amusement park from serious social issues?
This is The Agent of Change episode. My name is Alexandra Prochshenko, and today we are going to discuss, how entertaining documentaries will change the world.
THE FIRST SCENE
Hot Docs is the largest Documentary Festival in North America, marking the record attendance with 200 500 people (Barnard, “U.S. Documentary Unbranded”). Over 200 documentary films are presented at the Festival every year. In 2016 Hot Docs introduced the audience to the new project: DocX, the section which celebrates unusual work within the genre. In DocX section, you can find hybrid documentaries and virtual reality videos – sounds quite exciting, does it not? You can literally try other people’s shoes on and get a unique experience, as we did with the film My Mother’s Wing about Gaza.
But even in the middle of this heartbreaking story about bombings and death it is easy to find yourself wondering, how cool that is – to be in the different part of the world without making any efforts.
So, what is the point of this experience? Do characters of such documentaries get real help after the screening? Or is it just a cyberspace amusement park for the first world audience – you watch it and forget about it immediately?
Laurence Green: Some filmmakers who got excited about 3D technology, might think wait, maybe this is a tool, for a new way of making documentaries. Maybe VR [virtual reality] represents an innovative new approach to how we can make documentaries better or maybe not better but different.
This is Laurence Green, documentary filmmaker and a York University professor. His works were screened at Toronto International Film Festival, Yorkton Short Film & Video Festival, International Leipzig Documentary Film Festival and Hot Docs itself.
Laurence Green: There are filmmakers who present their work at Hot Docs, who want to help individuals or a community, the subject of their films. And they see the screenings as an opportunity to further somebody’s cause, or raise awareness about an injustice that the subjects of their film are suffering. The Hot Docs screenings are a way for those filmmakers to advocate on behalf of their subjects. In another way they hold forums where people can come with documentary ideas and meet with comissioning editors, and distributors, and find financing for their projects. So, in an indirect way, some benefit might come to those characters because those documentaries get made, and maybe those documentaries wouldn’t have been made if it wasn't for the Hot Docs's forum that allows them to find financing for their project.
Matt Kamen, The Wired journalist, claims that films like My Mother’s Wing, “are used to raise awareness and stimulate donations for often-overlooked causes.” So, Hot Docs provides a platform for such films, and invites the audience be active. People should go and investigate the problem by themselves after watching a film.
What is so cool about that? Well, there is an idea of cool and hot medium. Marshal McLuhan, Canadian professor and public intellectual, made a distinction between different types of media. Some of them need us to participate, like telephone or speech. These are the cool medium, because they are cold, they don't respond. Hot medium, like radio, print or film, do all the work for us. Even reading comics makes our brain work better than reading, for example, a newspaper with the solid block of a text. Hot medium gives us a lot of information. (Mann 11). And this makes audience lazy.
From one side, VR films are definitely hot media: there is no space for imagination, you have 360 degree view, you see the world around in a details. But if we think about not just how we watch the film, but also how we react on it, we can get the whole new interactive experience. And this is a cool medium experience. Plus – it is hard to deny it – virtual reality is an interactive tool itself.
This kind of films can seem a little bit unethical, but sometimes it makes us think more and be more involved in the problem than a regular film does (Proserpio and Gioia 71) .
THE SECOND SCENE
Usually, the goal of any documentary is “spreading awareness”. But does it really work? For example, after the film a regular observer will know how terrible is life of some other people. So what? Isn’t this “spreading awareness” point overestimated?
Laurence Green: There are activist films, that are political documentaries, and the goal of the film is not actually to be successful, win awards and fill theaters, the goal of the film is to raise awareness about an issue and promote change. The documentary is actually, an agent of change in some cases. And there are people, there are cases where people who were wrongfully accused and are in prison get released because the documentary has increased the awareness of their injustice. so there are people who have gotten out of jail because of documentaries.
Alexandra Prochshenko: Cinematic art has a huge influence on people and culture. Let's take Casablanca, it is a famous drama, but it is also a propaganda film, which let the U.S. audience embrace the idea of joining WWII. This film heated people up, let them wanna fight. The same thing documentary genre does. It shouldn’t necessarily be a direct propaganda to make people embrace changes, but it still affects people’s mind, even in a gentle way.
Again, it leads us back to the questioning an entertainment element in documentary form. If you want to affect people, you make them remember you. The easiest way to achieve it is to entertain them. DocX section, the part of Hot Docs festival, achieve its goal: it makes people remember their unusual experience.
Laurence Green: A lot of people complain that documentaries are very boring. And they have a very old-fashioned or conventional or limited interpretation of what documentary is going to offer. So lots of documentary filmmakers are trying to fight against that prejudice, and make documentaries that are not boring, and that are not limited and push back the boundaries, and do something which does engage and interest viewers. So, entertaining is one way. And I don't have a problem with that strategy as long as it is a strategy towards another end, it's a means to an end. If it's an ending itself, you just wanna make something entertaining, and you don't have any other goal, then, probably, I am less interested.
DocX section, the part of Hot Docs festival, achieve its goal: it makes people remember their unusual experience.
THE THIRD SCENE
Alexandra Prochshenko: Before we go to hybrid documentaries, let’s make clear, what documentary film is. Oxford dictionaries define it as “a film or television or radio programme that provides a factual report on a particular subject”. This definition is pretty broad, because people usually describe it simply as “film that capturing the truth”. There are two most debatable issues about this genre: what is the truth and who provides it, is telling the truth possible at all? (Hayward 111).
So, watching documentary is supposed to be a struggle. Your critical thinking switch always has to be turned on. You are watching the movie and permanently asking yourself: who made this movie? Why is it so touching? What is director’s interest?
But there are a couple of hybrid-documentary genres, that way further from even subjective “truth”, and Hot Docs invites us to celebrate them. Let’s look at the Hot Docs Canadian premiere in 2016 – a film Operation Avalanche, made by Torontonian Matt Johnson and his crew. This movie represents the alternative version of the Apollo 11 story.
In other words, it is about the fake moon landing in 1969. A classic conspiracy theory.
Operation Avalanche was partly shot at York University, partly at NASA, but looks exactly like a documentary from 60s. It got tons of flattering reviews from NY Times, The Guardian, the Globe and Mail and lots of other media. This film was screened in terms of DocX section of festival, which, as we said, celebrates unusual works within the genre.
Laurence Green: What I think is interesting about Matt Johnson is although the genre of his film might be called mockumentary, because it is a film which uses documentary language and documentary techniques -
Alexandra Prochshenko: …wait a minute, what is mockumentary? Basically, it is a fake documentary, which doesn’t try to hide that it is fake. It usually looks just like documentary, with interviews, forgotten tripod in a frame, or shaky cameras (Green). But there is always a hint for the audience, like a famous actor pretending to be someone else. For example, nobody will ever think that Borat, the character of popular mockumentary, is actually a person from Kazakhstan, because Sacha Baron Cohen is maybe not the most popular celebrity, but he is still pretty famous. Laurence Green describes it is as “a wink” to the audience: it is supposed to be hard to make a mistake and take mockumentary for the real documentary film. In Operation Avalanche Matt Johnson, the director, is acting himself with his friends – so, we know that this is a mockumentary, because Matt Johnson wasn’t even alive in 1969.
Laurence Green: …the last thing that Johnson wants to do is mock documentary. He LOVES the documentary of the late 1950-s and 1960-s, the whole Cinéma Vérité movement, and in many ways his film is a kind of tribute to the pioneers of that era who were trying to change the way documentaries are made and change the language of documentary.
Alexandra Prochshenko: This year Hot Docs took the risk and showed mockumentary Operation Avalanche as a Canadian Premiere at the festival filled with usual documentary films. It is not the first time when such festivals shows hybrid-documentaries, but there are never a lot of them.
Not every hybrid-documentary is welcome at Hot Docs. Let’s think, what else can be a hybrid-documentary? Any Hollywood movie, based on true story, like biopics or social drama, can be called “docudrama” and it is a hybrid-documentary too. It tells us the real story, but it usually dramatized and shot with actors, in a big studio, with a budget. For example, Catch Me if You Can with Leonardo DiCaprio, or Ed Wood with Johnny Depp. But Hot Docs doesn’t support such films, even if they are hybrids. Is it because documentary is more about the form than the content?
Laurence Green, a documentary filmmaker and a professor at York University, suggests that Hot Docs shows films that everybody would agree are documentaries.
Laurence Green: And if there is actors playing a role – then they are less comfortable with that. Definitely, Matt Johnson, and Owen, and Josh Boles, the guys that acted in Operation Avalanche, are playing roles, but because they are completely unknown actors, you can watch it without knowing that it’s fake. You know, you think maybe that is a real guy, maybe that was shot in 1968.
Alexandra Prochshenko: Doesn’t it mislead the audience?
Laurence Green: I think it’s deliberately misleading the audience, yeah. I think fake documentaries are lying to the audience. But they are lying in order to tell the truth, they are lying in order to explore the truth. But I guess all film making at some level – all art making – at some level is questionable in terms of the goals and the honesty of the filmmakers and the true ambitions. In general, films with known actors, based on scripts - those are not going to show on Hot Docs. This a kind of an odd exception, and I guess, all mockumentaries are an odd exception.
But how mockumentary deserves this status of exception of Festival? What is so great about mockumentary genre?
Laurence Green: Mockumentaries are often made to comment on real world situation. Just because the scenario was came out of the imagination of the writer’s head and actors are delivering lines, it doesn’t mean there is nothing TRUE in that film, or applicable to real life. So I think people often adopt that form of mockumentary because they want a stronger voice, commenting on real life. So, by making a fake documentary you are trying to lure in viewers to think about themes more seriously.
Operation Avalanche is fascinating not because it represents a popular conspiracy theory, but because it asks: if there is a theory, how would NASA do this? Who were the guys who made it, why did that happen?
Laurence Green: So, those are questions that people are normally asking, and it’s very fun. And it’s very entertaining. But it’s not just about that, I think this is a serious film, I think they are interested in serious issues. Just like they were when the same filmmakers, Matt Johnson and his collaborators made The Dirties, the previous documentary they made, or mockumentary they made really, which was about high school shootings. So, I think these guys are thinking carefully about these questions and these issues and they are exploring them in their films in a serious way. But they’re also love comedy, and so there is an absurdist quality to both of those films.
Matthew Miller: We were really excited to get screened at Hot Docs this year, and how our Canadian Premiere be, you know, the preeminent documentary festival here.
Alexandra Prochshenko: Meet Matthew Miller, the producer of mockumentary “Operation Avalanche”-
Matthew Miller: Like I said, we really love the documentary form. A lot of our favorite films are documentaries. And… you know, we really strives to stay true to that form.
Alexandra Prochshenko: DocX section, Hot Doc’s passionate project, gives the opportunity for other people’s passionate projects to be shown.
Matthew Miller: Our cinematographers, Andy Appelle, Jared Raab, like really killed themselves to shoot this in exactly the way these documentaries from the era would have been filmed, and we worked really hard, like not to expose too much, information that wouldn’t belong in a documentary, we obviously took certain liberties, just because we’re still trying to tell a story.
Mockumentary addresses a “knowing” audience, so if we want to be a part of the show, we are supposed to be thoughtful (Rhodes & Springer). Mockumentary is easy to recognize, but this product of filmmaking is challenging, it often crushes dominant ideology’s frames. It makes you think critically – and therefore it deserves its place among documentary films.
DocX section pushes the boundaries of documentary genre, and challenges the Hot Docs audience. It makes us leave our comfort zone and ask questions, looking for the truth. And it – again – promotes changes. The only one difference is that while VR social docs promote change in the world around us, mockumentaries makes us change own thoughts. So, it looks like both VR documentaries and mockumentaries are perfectly ethical, if they make the audience think critically, develop and become better.
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