Documentaries with a political bent are vital to Canadian cinema. Many are amazing films that deserve to be seen. They show the rest of the world—and us—what some Canadian filmmakers have accomplished in the art of documentary.
Political docs can make great stories. But rather than being incidental, it’s in the DNA of the subject matter. The stakes are often incredibly high (sometimes life and death). If the filmmaker has done their job, the audience will care deeply about the characters, or at least be impressed by the aesthetic of the film, by the time the credits roll.
There is a hunger not only for well-made films but for long-form content amid a media-saturated landscape. Whether or not we should have political cinema, there is still an appetite for it. The financial and critical success of U.S.-produced political docs like Bowling for Columbine, An Inconvenient Truth, and more recently Blackfish, are proof. But there are plenty of Canadian-produced heavyweights as well, like Up the Yangtze, Manufactured Landscapes, and The Corporation, to name a few.
Okay, so there’s an appetite. So what? If I should watch a political documentary and feel depressed or angry or emboldened for an hour or two afterward before returning to my everyday life, has it accomplished any more than a gripping (and completely fictional) drama could? Do political documentaries actually change anything?
In the foreword to the book “Challenge For Change: Activist Documentary at the National Film Board of Canada,” author Naomi Klein argues that we shouldn’t try to measure the impact a film could have.
“You know, all film can do, all books can do, is start a discussion,” Klein wrote. “You put an idea out into the world and you can’t control what’s going to happen. You just have to believe in the value of the production of ideas.”
Up the Yangtze
A documentary film that has a political dimension to it is usually meant to be a tool for social change. Let’s assume for a moment that in Canada there is some overlap between people who love movies and people who care about the world around them. For these people, a film like Up the Yangtze (2007) can be an eye-opener. I remember studying China in elementary school, and learning about the the Three Gorges Dam and the toll it’s taken on rural communities along the Yangtze River. But until you see a film like this, this is merely an “issue,” or an abstraction.
Documentary film tells a story, with a conflict, and a cast of characters. In so doing, the issue becomes more concrete, more human. Klein also points out in the foreword that when documentaries are political, they shouldn’t try to carefully build an argument, which is something a book might do better. Great film engages as many senses as it can. It’s primarily visual, and it’s better at engaging the emotions more immediately than a book may be.
So what distinguishes a political documentary from propaganda? If I had seen Up the Yangtze in Grade six, how is that different from simple indoctrination? The line can sometimes be blurred. But some documentaries, arguably the best ones, are about stimulating conversation, even heated argument.
The film Manufactured Landscapes (2006) examines the art of Edward Burtynsky, an overwhelming compilation of photographs of factories, mines, quarries, and landfills, left in the wake of China’s industrial revolution. The film isn’t making any overtly political statements. It doesn’t flat out argue what can be done, if anything, or what is even right and wrong in this circumstance (although the film certainly uses techniques to manipulate us to feel that something is wrong about what we’re seeing).
So what is it doing? Will a film as beautifully made as Manufactured Landscapes actually change anything? Does it even want to, and if not, does it count as “political”? This is hard to measure and probably beyond what documentary film—even the best—can do.
Then again, political docs can be about revealing an injustice, and trying to find a way to right it. The Corporation (2003) is another Canadian-produced doc film that makes no bones about its agenda: to compare corporations to psychopaths, and why this is bad for everybody. In either case, the political documentary is only one half of an equation. If these films are about starting discussion, how can those discussions be started unless the conditions are just right? And what are those conditions?
The Challenge for Change/Societé nouvelle was a program launched by the National Film Board in the late ‘60s to create social change in Canada through the production and distribution of documentary cinema. It ran for 14 years before it was axed by the Mulroney government. Part of its goal was to use the momentum that a documentary film could generate. Its spirit lives on in programs like Cinema Politica, a program that screens progressive political documentaries. Founded at Concordia University in 2003, Cinema Politica is now 10 years running and has since expanded to a network of semi-autonomous groups worldwide and across Canada. The local chapter can be found at Toronto’s very own Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.
At each chapter a film is screened, and then followed by a Q&A. This is a way to get the artists, activists, and audience all in the same room. In an article in THIS Magazine, Ezra Winton, the co-founder of Cinema Politica, says that “having bodies together in a space is a political aspect of viewing cinema that you don’t have when it’s online and you can be anonymous.” The key here seems to be getting different people in a room together. It’s a way of building community around a worthy cause. This is something the act of going to the movies still has the power to do, even in the Age of Netflix.
So what is political documentary worth to Canadian culture? It might help to ask this:
What does it mean when people don’t get together to watch and question these films together? What happens when the mechanisms that not only make it possible for these films to be made and distributed, but also create a forum for discussing them are no longer in place? (Take the NFB for example, which helped produce each of the docs I just mentioned, and which has been slowly drained of its funding year after year.)
Sorry for the rhetorical question. Given the subject matter it’s hard not to get a little political. It may be hard to measure the value of political Canadian documentaries to our culture, but considering what they’ve done and what they could do–even if it’s nothing but a debate that could lead to new ideas–I’d rather they were still around.