“I’ve been thinking for a long time that the progressive or liberal documentary is an inadequate form - a relatively useless cultural product, especially for political change. Its basic strategy is description, and it makes arguments by organizing visual evidence, expressive local testimony and expert technical testimony into a deceptively satisfying emotional form. These standard filmic conventions do little to inform the audience of its own role in socially oppressive relationships and conditions, or to rouse the audience from its implicit complacency with the status quo… We liberal filmmakers (and our liberal audiences) understand “our” documentary films as residing outside the dirty domain of propaganda inhabiting instead a non-idealogical, pure information space.
The unscripted feel of the footage is its pedigree of “truth,” its guaranteed claim that there are no hidden agendas, political or otherwise, buried in its text. By utilizing descriptive footage as evidential proof of social or historical situations; by substituting personal memory for historical analysis; by using sentiment to produce audience compassion; by avoiding analysis of the limitations of its own material; by repressing demonstrations of how audiences are implicated in the situations described or could intervene in such situations-by all these means, the liberal documentary can be accepted (and enjoyed) as education at the least, and inspirational at the most.
As audiences, we are mesmerized by the tract of pure evidence and its claim to have made of us mental activists. We are consoled by our own willingness to consider other peoples’ problems, as we see and hear them thoughtfully described in the motion picture medium. Though the liberal documentary takes the stance of a sober, non-fiction vehicle for edification about the real world, it is trapped in the same matrix of obligations as the fiction film: to entertain its audience, to produce fascination with its materials, to achieve closure, and to satisfy. Certainly, it is a vehicle for compassion. My question is: what is the political use? Further, is the production of compassion subversive of progressive political change?”