Documentary Films And The Promotion Of Social Justice


People of all walks of life have come to the realization that documentaries are more important and compelling than works of fiction. Experts have even been of the opinion that there will be a paradigm shift from fiction to non-fiction in the film industry just as it was with novels and other literary works. To many, documentaries are like life experiences. When you see someone on your screen telling their story, there is an immediate elevation in your engagement level. The person on the screen gives an account of their real life experience, no matter how grim sounds. So, during that period ,when you are glued to your television set watching that story, you are, in actual sense, putting yourself in the shoes of that person. Documentaries have more often than not given two sides of a story; either providing evidence or disputing the evidence that exists already (Croton, et al. 14).The purpose of this essay is to explore how documentaries have been able to provide evidence or dispute it and provide case studies that include actual evidence of this phenomenon.

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The impact of documentary films in bringing social change

Documentary films are quite influential and have been known to have an impact on social issues brought to light. An impact space has come into being as a sector in the film industry where the sole purpose is to institute social change and social impact through documentary films. The impact producers from the documentaries’ production team are responsible for the devising and execution of strategic campaigns which may include engagement, outreach, and marketing of their film in order to maximize its impact. The main purpose of the production of such films is to significantly alter behavioral patterns, social norms and the cultural values of people as films often seek to institute social changes on a particular issue that is of concern. For those watching these documentaries, it typically feels as though they are taking a serendipitous journey where the life of a total stranger unfolds before their eyes.

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Pioneer filmmakers such as Maysles describe watching a documentary film as an identification with that which exists in a special manner of discovery together with feelings of close connection to an individual(s) who is the subject matter in a film (Moyano ). Moreover, documentary films are capable of awakening feelings of empathy within the audiences’ hearts and this is one intangible magic that documentary films have. When a documentary film creates empathy in the hearts of-of its audience, it illuminates new perspectives and activates powerful emotions. After such a poignant experience, what happens next is the audience walking out after watching the documentary saying, “I should do something about the feeling that documentary film and what I was just exposed to!” The empathy that a moving story creates can be the best fuel for action. Societies viewpoint can undergo major changes through the coordination and organization of strategic actions. A post-viewing inspiration can become coherent actions that can alter societal practices to a larger extent.

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More often than not, a winning documentary seems to land in the consciousness of the public and sets off a chain of events that can change society for good(Stam 25). These changes can alter the manner in which people do things, people that they had previously discriminate upon and even the foods that they choose to put into their bodies. In presenting these stories, the producers of the documentary often face the debacle of “selective bias”, especially if they are trying to measure the impact of their documentary (Documentary Filmmaker: Film & Tv Lance Kramer)

. All documentaries, regardless of distribution, and their budget size, often run against the audiences’ selectivity. It is important to acknowledge that the media structures that exist, are amalgamated with a diversity in choice of content (Documentaries). Citizens who lack a  preference or a penchant for public affairs in the media may find it quite easy to steer clear off the content that a documentary intends to bring forth all together.  Moreover, those few individuals who have strong interests in social or political issues might take advantage of this abundance of choice to subsequently tailor some of their common habits to the pre-existing political trajectory that they intend to take. As a result, one should expect both ‘preference” and “ideological”  gaps when dealing with any film audience.

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Blockbuster documentaries have fallen victim, during numerous occasions, to forces of selectivity. An example was in the 2004 United States election where there was an indication from a Pew survey that 31% of the adult population in America gave information suggesting that during the previous year, they did view a political documentary that had a direct correlation with the presidential candidates and their campaign. A large majority of the audiences did admit to watching Fahrenheit 9/11 by Michael Moore. In addition to this, other films would also generate attention for the campaign season duration, which included Going Up River together with Bush’s Brain by Joseph Mealey and George Butler.  Although a fraction of close to a third of the adult population in America constitutes one sizeable audience designated for whichever media programming, results from the Prew Survey that the viewership of these documentaries was skewed to a large extent (Hindi 14). Counties that were electorally “blue” were likely to be liberal and democratic and they would face off with those that were electorally “red” which had a younger demographic that that was already politically and socially active.

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Another example of how content choice option provided by documentaries can directly affect the direction that society intends to take is that of the United States presidential candidate, Al Gore. The survey data that had been collected for  the purpose of being used in documentaries of the blockbuster genre had information that would point to selectivity biases among the audience. Despite having massive box office success and publicity in the media for Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore, a survey undertaken by Los Angeles Times  taken one month after the film’s release found that only 4% of the adult population in America had taken the time to watch the documentary. Al Gore had previously been known to enjoy a favorable media “reinvention”  where his book going by the same title Inconvenient Truth apparently spent a couple of weeks at New York Times of best sellers list. Yet, according to the Gallup poll, his favorability ratings experienced little changes, remaining at  45%. Such an example goes to show that in a media environment that is ultra-competitive, the audience that viewed Inconvenient Truth was more concerned with the issue of global warming(To Dream the Impossible Dream). Additionally, a large majority of the American people who were indifferent towards Al Gore were likely to switch off their Tv sets or change the station when his documentary came on.

Brian Winston, in his harsh critique of the tradition of documentary films, as depicted by television journalism, argues that during the 1930s in Great Britain, filmmakers often took a romantic perspective of the working class subjects. In essence, they had failed to recognize that the worker is a self-determining agent. They failed to recognize the plight of the workers and how successive governments had ignored them.  For instance, Housing Problems(1935) was a documentary film that had the sole intention of giving slum dwellers an opportunity to speak independently for themselves. The interview was in the synchronous sound format and was set inside the subjects’ homes. What raises eyebrows among critics today is the manner in which the victims of this unimaginable poverty spoke about their plight, as if they came hat in hand. The victims were very calm and politely explained their living conditions in the hopes that a savior or someone else would agree with them about their condition and do something about it. Housing Problems(1935) had Coke Company and the Gas Light as its official sponsors; since the government’s slum clearance program had proposed a “solution” of some sort to the worker’s plight. Both companies were aware of the fact that the solution would also serve the company’s interests of increasing gas consumption at the end of the day. In this documentary, supplication stood out and militancy was suppressed. A stage was set for politics that was of charitable benevolence.

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From the example above, Winston notes that the urge to portray the worker poetically or romantically within ethics of charitable empathy and ethics of social concern ended up denying the workers the feeling of equal status between them and the filmmaker. The act of representation was in the control of the filmmaker and a sense of collaboration was missing in the film. Filmmakers from a professional corps would fist represent others in accordance with the ethics that they possess and their institutional mandate. The effect that such a film would have is that the presenter would come off as the start “artist” and the worker as a central subject who is pathetic, anonymous and a victim (Rosenthal, 274). Parenthetically, it is noteworthy to acknowledge that traits such as this did not reign with all presenters. There were documentaries that chose to stand in solidarity with the workers and display their resistance and protests. Henri Storck and Joris Ivens made their own position quite partisan and gave an activist account of a coal mine strike by Belgian miners. Misère au Borinage (1933), was the name of their documentary film which was also their sign of solidarity with these defiant workers(Bergh 16). The filmmaker’s intention was  to institute changes in the society, a rise in wages for the workers, better working conditions, and benefits for the miners who worked under difficult conditions

Documentary films can also bring about social change by using an “audience-centered” approach to telling a story that had been largely ignored. The adoption of this type of approach to the development of content would enhance the effect that the film would have on its audience. Documentary films derive a lot of their value from the ability to expertly “frame” a social issue in a manner that provides interpretations that are not readily offered by traditional mainstream media coverage. In the production process, a team of producers may take advantage of the fact that data from survey research, interviews, and focus groups is available and can be used to tailor stories able to make a subject have more personal relevance to the target audience. For instance, The Sierra Club Chronicles employs this strategy where the characters in the film are ethnically diverse and activists from across rural and urban communities. Such a narrative is “nonpartisan” in nature and is intended to encourage others in the society to embrace the same attitude.  Such films have a spirit of activism in them geared towards changing the society that we live in for the better. The production of a documentary film might reinvigorate and catalyze a group of other activists with the same goal and institute changes in the society. Furthermore, public screenings and community forums help in the creation of a space for individuals to have alternative interpretations of issues that are not in the public domain or within mainstream discourse during news coverage.

In other situations, the mere knowledge of a documentary’s pending release can initiate response and reactions from stakeholders, elected officials and other elites anticipating the film’s impact on the coverage of news or public perceptions. An example is that of The ACLU Freedom Files. An episode titled  “Gay & Lesbian Rights”  that was to screen in eight states that were same-sex marriages were banned. If the episode was aired there would be a range of possible impacts that would result from it. First, the screening would invigorate the activists in these eight states and renew their motivation. The activists would also have an increased repertoire of a whole new set of arguments that they would use during their campaign trail and provide an authoritative source for them to counter their opponents claims. To add to this campaign- specific activities and new linkages among those groups that were not previously aligned would increase. It is evident that documentary films can have a strong influence on the agenda-setters in  mainstream media. These films provide a spectacular “news peg” for those journalists that are seeking to either generate new coverage or sustain an existing issue.

During the golden age of Tv, news channels such as CBS would produce documentaries that were meant to tell the stories of those suffering in society. Hunger in America(1968) was a reality show in which children were shown to be living in situations of abject poverty and hunger when the economy was making onward strides(Alvarez, et al. ). The content of the documentary involved the depiction of children struggling to wake up in the morning or even concentrate while at school because they hadn’t eaten anything for days on end. What was shocking was that all this was happening in a first world country that was very much developed, with structures that could be implemented to assist these children, yet no one had offered a helping hand. Was it because the came from a  low-income neighborhood or was it because of the color of their skin? All these were pertinent issues that would be addressed in the film as they needed to be solved for the society to progress. The reaction among most Americans was that if shock and disbelief. Members of Congress would then enact a nutrition safety net that was modern with the sole aim of reducing hunger among children from disadvantaged backgrounds. In 2012, Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson made a follow-up film, A Place at the Table, which went on to reach an even wider audience. A coordinated campaign was thus born out of this and website created to follow up on the progress and strides made in feeding these children.

Documentary Case Study 1; Bully

                Bully was a documentary that sought to bring to light the bullying scourge  that had plagued the American schooling system for the longest time. The aim of this documentary was to bring to light the amount of suffering that students go through at school and how this phenomenon was in an actual sense growing, as opposed to diminishing. It was said that over 13 million young individuals are victims of bullying in the United States alone (Pilger 55). In the film, Lee Hirshi gets to explore the lives of five children who have been affected directly by bullying as they gave their intimate stories about how their lives changed drastically. Hirshi interviews teachers and administrators in schools that have been affected by bullying and tries to squash the cliché that “kids will be kids” the film (Glazier and Flahive).  The film represents a movement of parents, teachers and the society at large that is saying no to bullying and trying to redefine this “norm”.

The purpose of this film was to lobby the policymakers to create policies that would protect children when they were in school. Educational programs would be started to assist the students in understanding the effects of bullying and why they should not engage in it. Another goal was to shift culture, from that which condoned public bullying as normal to a zero tolerance policy (Haugen, et al. 45). Getting the film in front of a million school-going children was the first step in ensuring that children learned about the negative effects of bullying. The film was responsible for giving a voice to the voiceless children who had suffered for a very long time. Such a campaign was responsible for reducing instances of bullying and to change societies perception of this issue.

Documentary  Case Study 2: The Invisible War

This film intended to tell a story that no one had ever dared to tell, the issue of rape in the US military. No one knew the actual extent of rape in the military until this documentary was produced. It was said that one in every four female personnel in the US military would suffer rape during the course of their service  (Skaine 67). The documentary also explores the systematic cover-up of all the sex crimes that have been committed under the watchful eye of the US military and the struggles that survivors of this horrendous crime go through. Rebuilding their lives is the first step as they continue fighting for justice across the board to ensure that the perpetrators face charges for their crimes. The film was instrumental in raising awareness about rape in the military and how many women had struggled to overcome these experiences.

The Invisible War combined investigative journalism with the power of high-level campaigns ahead of the scheduled release of the film to start the conversation on rape in the military. The manner in which they went about the advertisement of the documentary meant that both the government and the military were expected to intervene, instituting a change of policy that would see a shift towards the handling of cases outside the usual chain of command
(Trudeau). It was this documentary that was responsible for 20 or so different items that were introduced on legislative agenda to deal with these “serial predators” and the rape epidemic. Organizations were then created to deal with those who had survived sexual assault in order to enable them to lead normal lives again.


            Documentary films have the ability to bring to light issues  affecting many individuals in the society and institute social change in the process. Most documentaries have a well-executed social impact plans that are able to substantially impact the whole society at large through the changes that they bring forth. The social impact category of documentaries is also growing at a very fast rate, evident from the social impact documentaries that are churned out on a monthly basis, the buzz around the films and the unending number of freelancers and firms offering their skills to ensure that they offer their skills (Winston, et al. ). It is very likely that this approach will continue into the future, but accentuate by media conferences, film festivals and open forums where issues that have been discussed in these documentaries are discussed and solutions to solve them sought. Government agencies and Non-Governmental Organizations( NGOs) should also support individuals who intend to bring positive social changes in the society through the power of documentaries.

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