A specific ideological understanding and declaration of
solidarity with the goal of radical social-political transformation. “We
realized that the important thing was not the film itself but that which the
film provoked” – Fernado Solanas (1969).1
Social documentaries excel at telling complex societal
problems and deep human stories. Openly addressing societal problems, with the
goal of making audiences aware and motivated for social justice, equality and
democracy. Helping to engage members of the public as citizens rather than
merely media consumers. They have gained in popularity and number in the last
Despite the critical success of many high-profile
documentaries such as Supersize Me or Inconvenient Truth, in general their
social impacts have been hit or miss. “I wish I could say that you make a
movie, and the world changes the next day. But it takes a while for culture to
catch up,” Psihoyos told Motherboard.2
Today’s documentaries practices develop from social trends and technological
The civil rights movement, such as rights for African-Americans
and feminism, ethnic and gender rights, spurred many people to express
themselves through documentary. No matter appears to big to tackle, animal
rights to looking at the state of country, to mention a few issues that have
been accessed by documentary. Most importantly is the impact they leave on
What does drug policy reform in Brazil, immigration rights
in the United States and non-violent resistance in Palestine have in common?
Over the past few years, these movements have all been impacted by powerful
As such social documentaries have become a powerful tool in
combating societal problems. Below are a variety of documentaries focusing on
various ethnic or societal problems and showing their impact and reception.
From this we can have a greater understanding on how documentaries can advocate
for civil rights and societal issues.
The Act of Killing
The “Act of Killing” investigates the individuals who
participated in the Indonesian mass killings of 1965-1966. Just like Peter
Lennon’s Rocky, Road to Dublin, the Act of Killing was also attempted to be
covered up by the government, but their efforts were futile in an age where the
distribution of media is so prominent.
The killer’s re-enactment the murders by juxtaposing killing
and cruelty with dancing and bright colours. It often appears surreal at times
but always keeps this disturbing tone. To be put bluntly the documentary is
about people celebrating the killing of others.
What is most impressive is the influence and impact it left.
Joshua Oppenheimer was clever to get his film out there:
Private invitation only screenings across the
country – Autumn 2012
International Human Rights Day – 50 screenings
in 30 cities held by leaders of Indonesia’s civil society – December 2012
Released in conjunction with the National Human
Rights Commission Indonesia’s report on the atrocities.
Indonesia’s Independence Day – 45 Screenings
announced publicly for the first time.
Available for free download across Indonesia on
September 30th anniversary of start 1965-1966 genocide.
The film was made with clear goals in mind:
To catalyse a fundamental change in how the
1965-1966 genocide is understood in Indonesia.
To generate a nationwide critical discussion
about how the past lives on in the present.
To demand an official apology, a truth commission,
a reconciliation process, and an end to impunity, corruption and the use of
gangsters in business and politics.
The “Act of Killing” went on to receive both recognition and
praise. It was nominated for an Oscar in 2014. Other milestones include:
600 news articles published in Indonesia
100 Festivals in 57 countries
1000 Community Screenings in 118 cities
21 countries have released the film for cinema
29 awards and prizes4
Indonesia stills suffers from censorship and corruption, but
this documentary was a step in the right direction. With the use of the
internet and unlicensed distribution many copies of the Act of Killing have
been viewed by the Indonesian people. “The Act of Killing is” thought to be
ground-breaking in helping Indonesia break its silence about its history. International attention will surely help the
country come to terms with its past, as one woman said: “I hope that
Joshua goes all the way with this film and that the film creates international
attention. Then the government of Indonesia may be forced to deal with human
rights in this country.”5
An example of a documentary advocating for animal rights is
“The Cove” directed by Louie Psihoyos is 2009 documentary film analyses and
questions dolphin hunting in Japan. The dolphins are herded, by small fishing
boat, into a cove where they are killed for their meat. The film brings to
light the atrocities of the dolphin mass killings, urging the audience to call
a halt on the killings and to bring about change to the Japanese fishing
practices. It also educates the public to the risk of mercury poisoning from
dolphin meat. The film highlights the fact that the number of dolphins killed
in the Taiji dolphin drive hunting is several times greater than the number of
whales killed in the Antarctic, and asserts that 23,000 dolphins and porpoises
are killed in Japan every year by the country’s whaling industry.6
Japan’s country-wide dolphin catch is now down to less than
6,000 animals from 23,000 when the film was released, said The Cove’s director,
Louie Psihoyos, in part because of the gruesome images of dying dolphins and
blood-red water that splashed across film screens in the US and elsewhere.7
Louie would later go on to receive the rights to distribute
it throughout Japan, were many citizens are oblivious about the killings in
“Hopefully, they are just as horrified as western
audiences have been,” he said. “Most people there don’t believe it.
They just can’t believe the horror that goes on inside their own borders.”8
Rocky, road to Dublin
Peter Lennon’s “Rocky, Road to Dublin” is a prime example of
a documentary challenging not only social norms but the far greater task of
bringing Irelands cultural isolationism, Gaelic and clerical traditionalism
into public view.
Peter Lennon grew up in the 30’s in the aftermath of the
independence of Ireland. People were told they were the sons and daughters of
heroes and their new role was that of gratitude.9
It was seen as treason to question the society that the old guerrilla heroes
had fought to create, and it was this lack of questioning that led Ireland down
a dark path. Peter Lennon would later travel to France in his adult years and
grew to love the French new wave of cinema and it inspired him throughout the
making of his documentary. After living in Paris for decades working as a
journalist critiquing films, Lennon decided to revisit his home country in 1967
to create a film looking at the state of Ireland. He captured Ireland on the
cusp of enormous social changes but still mired in a regressive,
semi-theocratic mentality that would later erupt in repeated church scandals.10
It examined the contemporary state of the Republic of
Ireland, posing the question “What you do with your revolution once you’ve got
Using seemingly innocent interviews we see, Lennon has many
of the Irish establishments
Blends interviews with writers Sean O’Faolain and Conor
Cruise O’Brien, a spokesman for the Gaelic Athletic Association, film director
John Huston, an editor of The Irish Times, a member of the censorship board, theatre
producer Jim Fitzgerald, and a young Catholic priest, Father Michael Cleary. Brainwashed
school kids admit casually that because of Adam’s sin their ‘intellect was
darkened, their will weakened, and their passions inclined them to evil”. A patriotic sportsman confirms that any member
of their organisation, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), who played a
‘foreign’ game such as cricket, rugby or soccer would be banned for six months.
University students tell how they were not allowed to discuss politics on
campus. The number of banned writers in Ireland included Capote, Hemingway,
Orwell, Salinger and Wells, as well as the Irish Samuel Beckett, Brendan Behan,
Sean O’Casey and even George Bernard Shaw.
Although he had seen the Guardian pieces, the Archbishop
agreed to my request to follow a priest for two days, obviously believing that
the singing and dancing 60s swinging priest he produced would win over the
Released in the late 60’s, this documentary shattered
Irelands complacent view of itself as a liberated country.
The Irish establishment was frosty towards the film. Irish
cinemas wouldn’t screen it, RTE didn’t broadcast it, and it didn’t get a full
release until 2006. Even so in later years Peter Lennon’s documentary would
become a grim reminder of Ireland trading the oppression of the British, for
that of the church. Selected by the Cannes Festival to represent Ireland in
1968 and immediately shown across Europe and North America. When the Cannes
festival collapsed, the student uprising under siege by the riot police adopted
Rocky Road and distributed it around the Sorbonne faculties. Peter Lennon
himself had this to say: “The French saw it as a film, the Irish as an
insult.” In later years Peter Lennon’s documentary would become a
grim reminder of Ireland trading the oppression of the British, for that of the
The unfortunate truth is that it was swept under rug but today,
in the west, we have free rein to express ourselves and through the guise of
the internet it is made far easier to have these documentaries gain
The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross
Tackling the USA’s dark past on the matter of black rights. Written
and presented by Harvard University scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. This Emmy
award winning documentary spanning 6 series, delves into not only black history
but what it means to be an African American in the USA today. Starting from African slave trades and
concluding in present day America. Dr. Gates challenges many contradictions
made throughout black history and debates many of Americas top historians.
America, the land of the free, was built on the back of
slaves. The documentary does a good job of intricately explaining the roles
that European, Africans and Americans played when it came to slavery. It paints
an accurate black history and allows audiences to gain a greater understanding,
teaching an important lesson for the value of equality.
An Inconvenient Truth
“An inconvenient Truth” is a 2006 American documentary
directed by Davis Guggenheim. Davis was inspired by a slide show, to educate
citizens on the matter of global warming, given by former United States Vice
President Al Gore’s. Davis, producers Laurie David and Lawrence Bender went on
to adapt the slide show into a documentary.
Having a successful premiere at the Sundance film festival
in 2006 and opening in New York City and Los Angeles on May 24, 2006. It wen on
to win two Academy Awards for best documentary feature and best original song. The
film grossed $24 million in the U.S. and $26 million at the international box
office, becoming the tenth highest grossing documentary film to date in the
One of the documentaries biggest milestones is that has been
added to the science curriculum in schools around the world. It has helped give
rise the publics awareness of global warming.
No matter the subject matter or style, be it personal,
political, comical, revolutionary. Social documentary films increase our awareness
of ourselves and the world we inhabit. They are a window into who we are. As
such, they have a unique ability to engage, illuminate and inspire.13
It has been theorised by some that documentaries have to
portray the truth to have an impact on society, others argue no matter what,
documentaries will always be constructs of reality, due to the nature of
editing. Documentaries need only to bring attention to matters.
Some may argue that that being aware of a problem is not the
same as addressing it but there is no doubt that is a step in the right
direction. Film is an art and as such people will always choose to express
their views and thoughts through it. As with all art it may instil a passion
within the viewer to take the next step, become an active advocate. The impact
they leave can be long lasting and help build a world with stronger ideals.
Social documentaries such as the ones discussed above, tell
us that they have become a tried and tested medium, to allow directors to bring
social issues and the abuse of civil rights into the public view. A social
documentary may become an active intervention in the events it is documenting.
Useful content may mobilize advocates. Documentaries such as Rocky, Road to
Dublin made in the late 60’s show that social documentaries are nothing new. Of
course, in recent years they have become more common and are not so easily
hushed by those who would rather not see certain topics brought to light.
Documentaries represent as well as record. They are reliable
seen as reliable sources of information and as such are valuable asset in
raising awareness and lending a voice to those in need. In today’s world people
are a lot less reserved and are not afraid to tackle controversial topics and
defend what they feel is right.
Roacky rd qoute