Documentary film/video and social change: a rhetorical investigation of dissent



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For well over a century, non-fiction film has figured prominently in the public sphere as a powerful means of persuasion. This dissertation will explore the intersection of cultural texts and social change by investigating the history of contemporary activist documentary film. Using all the available means of persuasion and coercion at their disposal, social movements have collectively developed a diverse set of tactics and strategies to prompt social change, documentary films being one of the most understudied texts. Documentary films that reflect the interests of social movements are important but to what end and in what rhetorical situation are these strategies most effective for social change? This study will not call into question the importance of cultural texts like documentary film but rather how constitutive cultural strategies constrain or aid the instrumental goals of contemporary social movements. This project will explore the commitments of early activist media, theories of social change, the second wave of activist media and finally, the function of contemporary activist documentary. There is much left to be studied about the relationship of activist cultural texts and social change. The manner in which activist documentary film is conceptualized in theoretical literature or in film reviews, primarily qualifies the term “activist” with the intentions of the film maker and his or her ideological commitments outside of filmmaking. There is, however, another tendency to label documentary film as “activist” based on content. If the film mediates as political or moral controversy, the inclination is to label it “activist.” However, such labels are fruitless if the film does not actually intervene in a larger public space to create active political agents that will extend and execute the political work initiated by documentary film. For the purposes of this study, it is not enough for documentary film to “be” activist; it must help in creating the space for activism and invested in producing material and cultural change. This project will include a multi-method approach that includes interviews with filmmakers and public officials, analysis of the movie text, interviews and email surveys of members in activist community organizations and analysis of historical materials.