Almost every documentary I’ve seen at Sundance so far has ended with an explicit call to action, whether it’s a website to visit for more information or a petition to sign. Robert Redford kicked off the festival by talking about the intensely difficult times we’re in, and that urgency is embedded in both narratives and the drive to give audiences momentum that will carry them out of the theaters and into the streets. Precisely how to do that was the subject of a panel I attended on Sunday with some of the festival’s most pointedly political filmmakers and subjects. ProPublica managing editor Stephen Engelberg asked them how to do with movies what he does “at ProPublica [where] what we try to think about every day is how to do journalism that brings change,” saying, “it’s great to preach to the converted” — but that it’s not enough.
Raj Patel, the writer and food activist who is interviewed in food insecurity documentary Finding North, gave what I thought was one of the best answers. “In the U.S.,” he pointed out, “It has always been the movements’ dialogue on the ground with movies and books that make change happen. It’s hard to imagine a single movie emerging like a ray of light from the heavens and illuminating people’s consciousness” in the absence of an existing way to mobilize and engage. There are a lot of good reasons for documentaries to try to hook up with existing movements rather than trying to create them from scratch. Movements have ready-made characters and narratives, as well as a sense of authenticity. And rooting a movie in them means audiences can walk out of the theater with some place specific to go. Fahrenheit 9/11 may have made serious bank for a documentary, but it didn’t exactly come with an action plan.
And Dr. Steven Nissen, the cardiology chair at the Cleveland Clinic who is featured in the health care documentary Escape Fire, said he thought movies could do the activating work of making audiences angry.
“We have to shock the public to get change,” he said. In the fight for health care reform, “we allowed the opposition to organize in ways e didn’t organize. We didn’t create a movement…I hope [the movie] makes people angry…I have patients who have strokes because they can’t afford decent blood pressure medications. That ought to make decent people angry.”
And Kelly McMasters, author of the nuclear plant memoir Welcome to Shirley, reminded the audience that their experiences may be different that those of the people most affected by the issues portrayed in the movie. “Activism is a luxury,” she said. “When you’re thinking about where your next meal is coming from, you’re not listening to Democracy Now…it’s a luxury until it’s not…because it has damaged you or your child.”