Sunday, March 11, 2007
The Will of Journalism, The Aesthetics of Change
Presentation from the 2007 Left Forum
Bradley Roland Will was murdered on October 27, 2006 by Mexican paramilitaries in Oaxaca, Mexico. Brad Will was a close friend and colleague. I last spoke with Brad on October 26, when he called my telephone to ask for some technical advice. He was to begin shooting for Telesur, the Caracus-based television station whose main fund-provider is the government of Hugo Chavez. It was to be a big step in Brad’s transition from being a political activist into being a professional video journalist. I did not know that this would be the last opportunity that I have to speak with Brad.
Brad Will’s tragic death in Oaxaca, Mexico helped to highlight the political struggle of APPO and to highlight independent journalism. Brad was part of the global independent media movement that grew from the movement for global justice in the late nineties. In recent years, video activism, a subjective form of alternative journalism, has gained in intensity and has had a significant cultural impact. Everywhere that one goes there are people with some form of video technology. The low cost of video technology and easy access to online distribution has created a new participatory form of journalism.
Although the technology today has helped to open new doors and has led to increased documentation of everyday life, the use of moving images as a means of social change was there in the beginning of motion pictures. The earliest films by Louis Lumiere in 1895/1896 were documentary in form. Early filmmakers thought that by capturing events on film, they could help project the truth before their audiences. Many documentarians believed in using film to show things as they unfolded.
In the 1950s and 1960s, filmmakers used newly developed, lightweight, hand-held cameras with synchronized sound. Filmmakers in the US and Europe made attempts to redefine the nature of the documentary film. This form of filmmaking was referred to as Direct Cinema (US), Cinéma Vérité (France), and Free Cinema (Canada and England). The films created by these filmmakers strived for immediacy and spontaneity and were an attempt to bring the filmmaker and the audience closer to the subject. These films are often characterized by the use of real people in unrehearsed situations. Voice-over narration is avoided, and directorial intervention is kept to a minimum. The idea is that one can view life through the lense and get an unbiased view of events as they unfold.
Now, some feel that seeing is not necessarily believing and that images even in Cinema Vérité are manipulated and distorted after going through the editing process. Now, subjectivity that exists in some documentary films is being referred to as Post-Vérité, where the artist understands his role in the creative process and places himself into the film. There is also a similar current in progressive journalism where journalists understand the bias in journalism and embraces her or his subjectivity. This was certainly the case with Brad Will as his motivation for video documentation was to highlight social struggles that he identified with. He was consciously using his camera as a weapon to combat neo-liberalism and identify the other side of politics.
In the past individuals also realized that the medium of film was subjective and could be used to produce social change. For instance, early Russian filmmakers used documentaries to raise social awareness of issues. Dziga Vertov constructed early newsreels to show people struggling through poverty, civil war, famine, and radical social change. These films were known as agit-prop films. In the United States, Hollywood worked to control the medium by exerting control and monopolizing the film-industry. This peaked in 1931, when the Fox Corporation banned controversial newsreels from play in its theaters. Many film historians see this as a reaction to newsreels that were showing the struggle of the labor movement that was then occurring within the United States.
In the 1960s, there was the formation of radical film collectives who worked to produce newsreels that highlighted social struggles going on within the United States. Film collectives produced shorts detailing the civil right’s struggle, the peace movement, and the efforts of the Black Panthers. This was once again due to the smaller lightweight cameras that became more accessible to everyday people. In Latin America, a similar trend was taking place. Cuban documentary filmmaker Santiago Alvarez produced creative newsreels documenting trends in international politics. The pieces were far from objective and were used as a means of expression as much as an educational tool. Another example is Argentine filmmaker Fernando Solanas who created the film the Hour of the Furnaces. The 1968 film was a documentary on neo-colonialism and violence in Latin America. It received critical acclaim and was used as an organizing tool in Argentina. In France, filmmaker Guy Debord created multiple agit-prop films in the 1960s and 70s which have more of an ideological influence on media activists than an aesthetic influence.
In the United States, a new opportunity for media activists came in the 1970s with the creation of public access television. This would allow everyday people to be able to contribute to television production. One collective that took advantage of this was New York’s Paper Tiger TV. In 1980, Paper Tiger began producing a television show that criticized mainstream coverage of issues and allowed leftist academics and activists to have a voice on television. In 1986, Deep Dish TV was formed as the first grassroots television network. Deep Dish TV would upload programs like those produced by Paper Tiger and allow different local public access channels to downlink the shows for free. This created a whole new approach to distribute progressive media.
In the early nineties, Canadian filmmakers Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick created Manufacturing Consent, a documentary about linguist and media critic Noam Chomsky. In the film, it noted that 25 corporations controlled over 50 percent of the US media. This would change under the Clinton administration with passage of the Telecommunications Act. This bill allowed for increased media consolidation. In the next ten years, media consolidation would leave only 5 companies controlling the majority of the media.
At the same time, there were many other media organizations in formation. Some who were involved with the creation of Paper Tiger TV and Deep Dish TV went on to create Free Speech TV, a 24-hour national television station. Free Speech TV is now available in over 25 million homes through the Dish Network. On FSTV, people can watch anything from socially conscious documentaries to progressive news programs like Democracy Now. Democracy Now itself has become widely watched and listened to by millions of people.
Another program that played for two years on Free Speech TV was Blacked-Out Media which myself and the late Brad Will worked to produce. There were over 80 television shows of Blacked-Out, which was a news program composed of short documentary pieces. Blacked-Out Media was a production of the New York City Independent Media Center, a not-for-profit, all volunteer, media collective. The New York City Independent Media is one of 160 Indymedia collectives that exist worldwide. Indymedia formed in 1999 at the Seattle WTO protests. Along with a website, a radio show, and a printed publication, there was a nightly public access show produced highlighting things taking place on the streets of Seattle during the meeting of the World Trade Organization. Brad Will’s death in October was the second death of an Indymedia reporter. It brought mainstream attention to independent media.
In the last ten years, we have seen a huge growth in the number of people using video as a way of documenting everyday life. The existence of low cost mini-DV cameras, cell phones that record low resolution video, blogs and vlogs, You Tube, and pirated non-linear editing programs has created a whole new opening for video activism and independent journalism. There are various video collectives throughout the globe that exist now due to easily accessible technology. Things like bit torrent, and open source p2p resources like Chomsky torrents and Indytorrents allow filmmakers to share there creations for free. Also, due to things like blogs, You Tube, Google Video, My Space, and Blip TV, individuals can upload video from anywhere that there is a computer with high-speed internet. We have seen the effects of this recently. One case is the execution of Saddam Hussein. An onlooker captured the hanging on a cell phone camera and uploaded the video. Within hours, news outlets began cranking out stories, military officials began calling for investigations, and people begin commenting on the brutal images of a modern day hanging.
The question now is what next? I believe that we as revolutionaries, activists, academics, artists, filmmakers, and media makers understand that we need to push for radical changes within the United States. I think that the role of journalists, as Robert Fisk, has said is to challenge authority. By embracing subjectivity in film and journalism, we form new ways of story telling. I think that there are things that we have not even begun to conceive of. On one hand, there has been a significant growth in alternative media and this is positive. On the other hand, our narratives are typically defensive and reactionary to stories that are pushed in the mainstream media. What was interesting about Brad’s work in Oaxaca, as I’ve looked through it, was that it was telling a new story not reacting to an existing story. I think that it is important to win the battle of story and not create the story of the battle. We need to think about our narratives and also the aesthetics of our creations. We have the opportunity to truly make a huge cultural impact at this point in time. It is a time when the politicians have made so many errors that everyone is looking for a way out. The politicians have opened up a space that we can use to shape the world that we live in. As it has been said before, it is not a matter of the means, but a matter of will.