Paige Sarlin is an artist, filmmaker, scholar political activist, and Assistant Professor of Media at the University of Buffalo. Her feature-length documentary film, The Last Slide Projector, premiered at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in 2007 and she is completing a book-length manuscript entitled Interview-Work: The Genealogy of a Media Form.

Irresistible Rise of Story: The Historical Transformation of Radical Commitments

Paige Sarlin

Volume 5Article 7

Irresistible Rise of Story: The Historical Transformation of Radical Commitments

Paige Sarlin

Volume 5Article 7 Download

Irresistible Rise of Story: The Historical Transformation of Radical Commitments

Paige Sarlin
Volume 5/Article 7 Download
Paige Sarlin is an artist, filmmaker, scholar political activist, and Assistant Professor of Media at the University of Buffalo. Her feature-length documentary film, The Last Slide Projector, premiered at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in 2007 and she is completing a book-length manuscript entitled Interview-Work: The Genealogy of a Media Form.

Real innovations attack the roots.

—Bertolt Brecht, “The Modern Theatre is the Epic Theatre”


The Irresistible Rise of Story

Writing in the 1930s, Walter Benjamin lamented the apparent decline in the prominence of the storyteller and the value of experience.{1} For Benjamin, storytelling had served as a traditional means by which experience and personal connection could be fostered and valued. Benjamin celebrated storytelling as an antidote to the proliferation and circulation of “information,” which he saw as an emergent symptom of what would later be called “the Culture Industry.”{2} From Benjamin’s perspective, it would seem that a “return” to storytelling could be a sign of resistance to capital’s forces in the realm of culture. But in the context of the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, storytelling is a means to an end: experience has become a commodity and stories circulate far from the social situations in which they are produced (and from which their use and value emerge). Stories are everywhere, shared in all sorts of settings and across all types of media. Everyone has a story. Claims for the universality of storytelling and “the power of story” have come to dominate and shape cultural production in the realms of art, advertising, political campaigning, humanitarian advocacy, social services, and social media. As Alexandra Juhasz and Alisa Lebow argue, this trend has crystallized in the emergence of a set of formal conventions and structuring logics that circulate under the banner of “story” among North American and European documentary filmmakers, producers, programmers, funders, and distributors.

In “Beyond Story: A Community-Based Manifesto,” Juhasz and Lebow argue that the hegemony of story is epitomized in the dominance of one particular form of story which they argue is borrowed from commercial narrative features. Character-driven three-act films that celebrate individual tales of overcoming adversity get funded, screened, and programmed far more than any other type of documentary. For them, the reliance on this “mainstream” formula not only streamlines production but also discounts the experimental and politically radical traditions of documentary filmmaking. By embracing and reproducing this story paradigm, documentary film has become a vehicle for the naturalization of “bourgeois values” and the “economic system that supports them.” The imperative to make and fund films that fit into the framework of “story” quashes the broader political possibilities of nonfiction forms of media production. It is then possible to read their manifesto as an assertion that documentary film has a role to play in the struggle against the rise of right-wing populism across the globe, provided it rejects the formal paradigms of story and embraces the possibilities of digital and interactive formats. Their diagnosis of the current state of documentary film production also registers a tipping point with respect to the very association of documentary film with progressive and radical politics. In other words, it’s the historical transformation of documentary film’s status as “the privileged medium” to project political commitments that we must reckon with.{3}

From this perspective, a return to the ideas set forth in an earlier manifesto seems warranted. In their 1969 essay “Toward a Third Cinema,” Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino assert that the power of documentary film emerges not on account of its radical form, but rather in its opposition to and circulation outside the “system” and its association with and connection to anti-colonial and anti-imperialist social movements.{4} Extending this concern, many feminist scholars, including Patricia Zimmermann and Alexandra Juhasz herself, have argued that the conditions of production and reception, questions of infrastructure and resources, and most importantly the force and politics of social movements are as determinant of the political value of documentary film as what appears on screen.{5} Understood as a site of struggle, documentary film’s radical potential emerges in relation to the collective activity of social movements that not only challenge “the neoliberal logics” of individualism but also call for the abolition and “subversion” of old institutions, and the production of new ones.{6}

I believe that a call to “resist” the formal paradigm of story is misplaced. For advocates of politically committed documentary media production, the focus should be on challenging what the hegemony of the character story-arc represents. On one hand, these storied narratives celebrate the logics of individualism or heroic overcoming by individuals in the face of systemic problems. But the rise of story also represents a historical process by which the gains of social movements have been coopted and stripped of their radical commitments within contemporary structures and systems. When we focus on questions of method—and especially method at the level of film form—we allow outmoded assumptions to be smuggled into our debates.{7} In this instance, there are two old ideas that need to be confronted: that 1) documentary film should be privileged as a medium with respect to political activism and social change and that 2) aesthetic critique and calls for resistance and innovation at the level of the aesthetic are adequate to the tasks of social transformation. It’s time to confront once again (and anew) the ways in which all documentary film practices (even radical ones) cannot escape the systems from which they issue and, in turn, reproduce many of the contradictions we wish to resolve. Resistance at the level of the aesthetic is insufficient to the sorts of change that makers, activists, and scholars like Juhasz and Lebow want to see. It’s not simply that change doesn’t come from new forms on screen. But, as Lebow and Juhasz write, “forms are commitments” that must be understood historically in relation to the political, economic, and social conditions, infrastructures, and movements that have engendered them.


"When Did Story Become King?"

“When did story become king?” Juhasz and Lebow’s answer, “when there were profits to be maximized.” In a footnote, they offer the example of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), “listed by IMDB as the top-grossing documentary of all time,” to verify that the “prospect” of profit earned by the theatrical release of a documentary film emerges around 2000. There can be no doubt that the documentary industry has grown since 2000. In fact, the winner of the Grand Jury prize in the documentary competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Boys State, landed a $12 million distribution deal from Apple and A24, the largest dollar amount ever paid for a documentary feature.{8} With the advent of many new commercial distribution platforms like Hulu, Amazon, and Netflix that are flush with cash, we are seeing the emergence of a new documentary film “market.”{9} But the ascendance of story as a paradigm within the ecology of Western documentary film is part of a political trajectory that is not limited to documentary film or media. Nor is it reducible to financial profiteering, for the neoliberal logic of storytelling has extended well past the private, for-profit sphere. Indeed, it is within the context of the “Non-Profit Industrial Complex” (NPIC) that the production and circulation of stories has gained its momentum.{10}

Since the 1990s, storytelling has become a highly reproducible vehicle for producing consensus, the common, and the universal through the endorsement of the “personal.”{11} The liberal idea that everyone should have a “voice” in government has devolved into the neoliberal maxim that everyone “has a story” to tell, but even more, that stories are an ideal means for the transaction of social reconciliation outside the realm of politics altogether.{12} Story’s formulation and formalization as a standard shape for “successful” documentaries emerges in relation to and on account of the development of the notion that a story is something which all individuals “own” or “have.”{13} In this sense, documentary’s formulaic conventions for the representation of experience make visible how “story-as-capital” has become both a neoliberal paradigm for narrative but also a currency or universal equivalent and a vehicle of both use and exchange value. From this perspective, documentary storytelling has become a practice through which contradictions are harmonized, inequality and injustice are personalized, and social reconciliation is effected. No longer understood primarily as a “weapon in the struggle” deployed by social movements outside formal politics and in non-Western contexts, documentary films operate within a global system in which division and injustice is so blatant and extreme that assertions of the value of human life over profit appear progressive.{14} The truisms “stories make us human” and “we are all storytellers” seem to justify and naturalize story as a generic cultural form that exists outside history and ideology.{15} But all cultural trends have a history.


Before Story was King: Feminist and Queer Documentary Films

Storytelling acquired a political valence in the context of the US civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1950s and 1960s. The association of “speaking out” with protest and political commitment was channeled into women’s consciousness-raising groups where the sharing of personal experiences served as the foundation of feminist analysis and the organizing of the women’s movement. These explicitly social practices informed the work of female documentary filmmakers, many of whom were involved in the women’s movement. Prior to the 1970s, as evidenced in Solanas and Getino’s manifesto, the medium of documentary film was celebrated as a means through which social movements could project events, perspectives, and analyses not valorized or represented by commercial media. In the context of the women’s movement, feminist documentary film embraced the importance of talking about the impact of individual experiences of sexism. Telling one’s own story to a camera challenged the ideological distinctions between the private and the public. Performed for cameras, the articulation of “experience” that had served as a starting point for collective political organizing was transformed and complicated by cinematic inscription.{16} In the hands of feminist filmmakers, documentary film was reframed as a medium to showcase and project individual stories that confronted sexism and sexual violence. In addition, feminist filmmakers established collective efforts to develop new ways of producing and distributing films that built on the political principles and networks developed within social movements.

Liane Brandon’s Betty Tells Her Story (1972) serves as a brilliant example of how political commitments shaped the intersection of storytelling, formal innovation, and new structures for film production, funding, and distribution. The twenty-five-minute film features a woman who tells the same story twice. The film and its subject are “modest” in scale and scope. Shown with her face and shoulders almost filling the entire frame, Betty speaks directly to the camera and her performance is clearly unscripted. Composed of two separate uninterrupted takes, Brandon’s film illustrates some of the complexities involved in giving an account of oneself. Both versions of Betty’s story detail the same plot: Betty bought herself a green dress, showed it off to her family, and then lost the dress before she was able to wear it in public. But the difference between the two descriptions illustrates how significantly a story can change in the telling. In this respect, Betty Tells Her Story epitomizes the power and art of storytelling that Benjamin celebrates. It isn’t “information” or plot that Betty’s twice-told tale communicates, but rather the affective dimensions and emotional impact of gender norms and the contradictions of working-class consciousness. In Brandon’s film, Betty’s “story” is shown to be anything but self-evident. As a result, it reveals documentary’s capacity to contest the very notion of “one’s own story” as something given.

Moreover, as Brandon herself has argued, Betty Tells Her Story wasn’t just novel at the levels of form and content. Responding to the challenges she faced while distributing an earlier film, and eager to build on the growing interest in her work and the women’s movement, Brandon joined forces with Julia Reichert, Jim Klein, and Amalie Rothschild to establish and run New Day Films as a collective.{17} Betty Tells Her Story continues to be distributed through what remains a filmmaker-led and member-owned cooperative. As they state on their website, they are “not a traditional distributor. New Day Films accepts films and the filmmaker as a member-owner. We do not distribute your film for you, rather New Day provides the infrastructure to help you self-distribute your work.”{18} An extension of their experiences of grassroots organizing, these filmmakers embraced collective and democratic methods. But even more, they recognized that a documentary film’s political value could only be fully realized when it was shown to a wide range of audiences that included students, community groups, activists, and artists.

Other filmmakers coming out of the women’s movement also recognized the need to organize “alternative” and “independent” methods of documentary film production in addition to distribution. Organizations such as Women Make Movies incorporated as nonprofits in order to provide training, equipment, and most of all, to enable funding for filmmakers who weren’t looking to make “commercial” films. Operating as 501(c)(3)s meant that filmmakers attached to these organizations could compete for federal funding as well as grants and donations from foundations and individuals. In both cases, the belief that individuals needed to come together to create new models and structures for the production and distribution of documentary films outside the “for-profit” realms of television and Hollywood served as a guiding principle. These filmmakers were committed to building and sustaining vehicles and platforms through which individual filmmakers could be empowered. In the case of both of these organizations, it was explicitly women’s “stories” and voices that the organizations sought to amplify—a commitment which is still central to the operations of Women Make Movies today and informs the politics of New Day Films as well.

Figure 2. Stills from the film. BETTY TELLS HER STORY, Liane Brandon (1972). Courtesy of Liane Brandon. Photo credit Liane Brandon. Distributed by New Day Films and Criterion Channel.

The circulation of films such as Betty Tells Her Story and Janie’s Janie did much to affirm documentary film’s power as a means through which women’s stories might be reframed, generalized, and circulated.{19} Despite attacks by some feminist scholars who criticized these films as examples of naive realism, it was clear that feminist documentary film generated and exemplified a new energy around the social and political power of “telling one’s story.”{20} In particular, gay and lesbian filmmakers connected to the struggles for gay rights used similar formal strategies to present their “stories.” Mariposa Group’s Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (1978) is a film comprising talking head interviews with twenty-six people who identify as gay or lesbian. Initiated by Peter Adair, a gay filmmaker and producer who had done extensive work for public television, the film involved many people on both sides of the camera over a number of years and screened on PBS in 1978. It first premiered in 1977 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco as part of a benefit for gay rights organizations.{21} Closely allied with what came to be called “identity politics,” the film plays an important role in the history of American queer film, but even more in the representation of gays and lesbians on American television. Part of the struggle for visibility on a national level, the film uses interviews as a means for individuals to come out as gay. In this context, telling one’s story was seen presented as a personally significant act as well as a contribution to gay liberation more generally, integral to the struggles for social acceptance, civil rights, and state protections.

Figure 3. Stills from the film. WORD IS OUT: STORIES FROM SOME OF OUR LIVES, Mariposa Film Group (1977). Distributed by Milestone Film & Video.

Word is Out demonstrates how crucial the politics of visibility (legibility and audibility) are to claims for the “power of story.” Edited together, personal stories make visible and audible historical oppression and discrimination. But the string of interviews also provides evidence and assurance that attitudes and practices change, and that transformation and acceptance are possible on personal and societal levels. In this sense, Word is Out and other films that featured the “stories” of gay and lesbian individuals illustrated how documentary storytelling functions as a weapon against ignorance, discrimination, and homophobia. In addition, the film inscribes the idea that the “sharing” and recording of personal experience can have both cultural and personal impact. Designed to reach people in their living rooms, Word Is Out communicates to the viewer who may be gay, “you are not alone.”

Simultaneously an affirmation of shared experience and the individuality of each of the people featured in the film (some of whom even remark on their desire to not be slotted into predetermined categories or structures), the film’s title acknowledges that the film is only a sampling of the stories of gay life, an attempt to represent collective experience. Made by a group that became “a collective in retrospect,” over 100 people were pre-interviewed before the final 27 were decided upon. Apart from an initial grant from WNET, the public television affiliate based in New York that eventually broadcast the film, the funding for Word is Out came from grassroots efforts to collect donations from within the gay community.{22} Responsible to the people it represented and aimed to serve, the film was screened as a work-in-progress at different community centers on route to its airing on PBS. These events offered an opportunity to raise money, but more importantly, they were occasions for audience members to provide feedback to the filmmakers (and debate one another). In this sense, the film is a product of movement-based storytelling, understood as an iterative and collective social process. An extension of that project, the final film was aimed at “the general public” hailed by American public television. The documentary film illustrates how the aggregation of personal stories can challenge discrimination on a broader scale, to attempt to influence and impact a national audience. Shorn of “political rhetoric,” the film represents the capacity of documentary to make a whole out of parts. But it also demonstrates how documentary’s collection and projection of “diverse” stories can contribute to the promotion of social reconciliation, “normalization,” and integration. Word is Out grew out of a movement, but it’s the film’s articulation of commonality and its narrative of historical progress, of improvements in the lives of gays and lesbians, that structures its final form. In Word is Out, the inscription of multiple stories contributes to an explicitly national project, confronting the inhumanity of American society. The presentation and representation of stories functions as an endorsement of what would come to be described as diversity and tolerance, and as a means to produce commonality and consensus out of difference and in response to division.


The Not-For-Profit Narrative (a.k.a. Stories or Money, Stories for Money)

In her 2017 book, Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling, Sujatha Fernandes traces how “social movement storytelling represented by . . . feminist consciousness-raising was repurposed by states, international agencies, and the culture industries.”{23} Focusing primarily on non-governmental organizations involved in the promotion of storytelling in truth commissions and courtrooms, Fernandes details how “stories were abstracted from the goals of building mass movements that confronted power, and they were reoriented toward transaction and negotiation.”

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, state-sponsored projects and NGOs tasked with administering and facilitating reconciliation projects began to develop and employ storytelling workshops to build and/or restore “civil society” in countries and communities destroyed by civil war and division. Drawing this further, Fernandes argues that the emergence of therapeutic discourses and the language of trauma became the only means by which certain atrocities or violence could enter into the public sphere or international stage. This, along with the media framework of “talk shows,” helped to advance another aspect of the transactional politics involved in storytelling—in which recognition was granted in exchange for entrusting personal narratives to legal or quasi-legal organizations and institutions.{24}

For Jacques Rancière, like Benjamin, storytelling’s critical and political power derives from its capacity to make visible and sensible that which is hidden by power. Relying on Rancière’s concept of a politics of consensus, Fernandes argues that storytelling’s capacity to make visible is used to quash resistance rather than to sharpen it. “Stories were shorn of their nuance and complexity to become short texts that would fit in a report or could be easily recitable for the purposes of a legal hearing, daytime talk show, or civil litigation. Storytelling promoted reconciliation and/or catharsis rather than class-based antagonism.”{25} Truth commissions in places such as South Africa, Argentina, and Chile relied on storytelling and testimony to describe what happened—not why, providing the appearance of social and political activity within communities and countries while at the same time doing nothing to address “questions of structural power.”{26}

The imperatives of consensus building were central to various storytelling projects in the 1990s and early 2000s. Referring to the US strategy to inspire Afghan women to use “stories to encourage voting,” Fernandes writes:

Rather than mass mobilizations that could put pressure on the government and challenge the broader conditions of exploitation, these storytelling activities narrowed the field of action to the voting booth and legislature, thereby reducing the range of independent actions available to groups.{27}

Figure 4. is a website and app that enables people to “share their stories” via smartphones. Launched in 2015.

“‘Telling one’s story’ became linked to discourses of participation, empowerment, and social capital.”{28} The importance of the collective in the production of “stories” was displaced by an emphasis on the capacity of individual stories to contribute to the development, grooming, and construction of audiences and publics. According to Fernandes, the practices of legal storytelling and reconciliation formats also helped to shape storytelling, producing formulaic tropes and criteria, attaching certain political outcomes to the ability of stories to be “recognizable” and even aggregable in order to improve their effectiveness. In addition, the production of manuals and toolkits aimed at training nonprofits to compete for funding also laid the groundwork for the commodification of “story.”

In the early 2000s, successful storytelling projects also drew an explicit link between the aesthetic capacities of “storytelling” and the imperatives of consensus building and social cohesion central to the construction of national sentiment. In 2003, David Isay established StoryCorps as a nonprofit organization to facilitate the production and audio capture of personal stories and conversations in Grand Central Terminal. Part of a national project, StoryCorps’ recordings continue to be broadcast regularly on National Public Radio and their archives are housed by the American Library of Congress. Their mission statement couldn’t be more explicit in its humanist aims, universal claims, and nationalist sentiment. On their website (and all of their promotional material) they state:

StoryCorps’ mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world. We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters. At the same time, we are creating an invaluable archive for future generations.{29}

In the case of StoryCorps, campaigns around various “national tragedies” and “common experiences” such as 9/11 and mass incarceration, respectively, have been central to the longevity of the project and its consistent funding over the years. The development of toolkits, protocols, and prompts has also contributed to the “success” of the program and enabled the recordings to acquire a very particular style and tenor. Every week some of these “unscripted conversations” are turned into stories and repackaged in episodes with consistently high production values and a recognizable tone. Focused on “what’s really important in life: love, loss, family, friendship,” they all share a “structure of feeling,” to use Raymond William’s phrase.{30} And this uniformity underscores the organization’s explicit interest in fostering connections and asserting commonalities rather than addressing the social, economic, political, racial, gender, and ethnic divisions that shape lived experience in the United States.


Money for "Story" and the Documentary Turn

The narrative Fernandes builds about the development of storytelling as a political and social practice modelled on consensus politics and market logics is particularly instructive for understanding story’s role in the funding of documentary film for American public television broadcast. In 1988, the Independent Television Service (ITVS) was established as a non-profit production service through legislation passed by the United States Congress.{31} Part of a move towards inclusion and representational politics, the organization was given a mandate “to expand the diversity and innovativeness of programming available to public broadcasting.” Since the 1990s, ITVS has become the central funding body for documentary films seeking broadcast on American public television. In the context of fiscal and cultural conservatism (what came to be called the “Culture Wars”), the structure of “story” as both pitch and justification emerged as a suitable means with which to defend funding for culture and art. Story strategies became even more appropriate as discourses of consensus and centrism shaped American cultural and political policy.

Television documentary has often been understood as the “other” in the discussion of political documentary film—but the infrastructure of nonprofit funding institutions for independently produced documentary films has played a central role in the rise of story. The material histories of cable television, as well as independent media centers in the US, UK, and Canada, as well as streaming platforms and crowd-funding more recently are pivotal in this narrative. The development of film festivals also plays a role in this story, especially as sites where funding, commissions, and distribution deals for both broadcast and theatrical release are negotiated. But the intersection of the ideological, economic, and aesthetic is epitomized in the centrality of “story” to the mission of ITVS and a high percentage of the films that it funds.

The clarity with which Fernandes articulates how financial logics are applied to social justice storytelling when organizations are forced to compete for funding is illuminating. “In the new millennium,” she explains “nonprofit storytelling and advocacy storytelling are increasingly defined by a business model that emphasizes stories as an investment that can increase competition positioning, help to build the organization’s portfolio, and activate target audiences. Social change organizations that work within nonprofit structures are encouraged by foundations to use stories as a way of driving their social impact through measurable goals such as legislative wins and voter registration.”{32} Drawing a direct connection between story forms and political outcomes contributes to the instrumentalization of story.{33} These sorts of calculations become foundational to establishing frameworks for quantifying and assessing documentary media’s ability to reach people, to create “buy-in,” to affect and mobilize individuals and groups. Of course, this sort of logic translates even more seamlessly into the discussion of documentary film’s impact with respect to humanitarian causes, social advocacy, and fundraising. In this sense, the association of documentary film with the culture and context of nonprofits becomes central to an understanding of the dominance of “storied narratives.”

In the 1970s many filmmakers incorporated as non-profit organizations in order to qualify for the tax-exempt category of a 501(c)(3). In order to compete for dwindling state funds, but even more, for monies from other nonprofits, corporate foundations, and public charities, these organizations were obliged to create boards of directors, write mission statements, establish by-laws, and hire both lawyers and administrators. In the 1980s and 1990s, many organizations like Women Make Movies also began to offer and administer grant-writing workshops, fiscal sponsorship, and regranting programs that funneled funding from donors, foundations, public charities, and state-affiliated institutions to individual filmmakers.{34} To exist within this political economy of independent media (i.e. outside the commercial film industry), documentary filmmakers were required to craft compelling proposals that distinguished their “vision” and “voice” from other artists. Severed from the communal ethos of movement-based practices, the social dimensions and political possibilities enabled through documentary film production and distribution were repackaged into serving “the public good” and the imperatives of “community engagement” and “audience development.” The division of labor with respect to funding, production, and distribution is crucial here: offering the services of distribution takes a tremendous burden off of filmmakers—but this framework also requires makers to divert their energies from responding to the needs of social movements and building grassroots networks. Translated into a set of applications, guidelines, and expectations, the documentary funding cycle guarantees that filmmakers working within this “industrial complex” are firmly connected to crafting the very stories necessary to convince funders to support them.

In the 1990s in the global art world, however, funding for documentary practices was divorced from the aesthetic and ideological imperatives of the non-profit world. Without the demands of measurable outcomes or even elaborate pitches, formally diverse, experimental, and open-ended approaches to documentary practice emerged. Some filmmakers with formal and political commitments migrated to the art world—most notably Harun Farocki, whose decision to produce video installations for gallery contexts resulted from the elimination of state funding for his non-character-driven documentary films.{35} Chantal Akerman was another “experimental” documentary filmmaker who began exhibiting in the art context, starting in 1996 when she was commissioned to adapt two films for the Walker Art Center.{36} In the face of dwindling public funds, the gallery functions as a refuge for filmmakers interested in challenging hegemonic narratives. Bypassing the endless grant proposals, artists working within the gallery and museum circuit often adopt the work-for-hire model, making films in response to commissions. Of course, in all cases, whoever pays the piper calls the tune—and these artists still answer to the institutions (and foundations as well as corporate donors that fund them). But with questions of fundraising and distribution sidelined, artists are left to focus on aesthetic experimentation, avoiding the streamlining of production embodied and enabled by the logic of story-as-capital.{37}

The energy around the prospect of autonomy within the art context ran parallel with the excitement about the democratic potential of new media platforms and technologies among documentary filmmakers, scholars, and funders. On the one hand, the development of digital platforms has been embraced as a means to feature a diversity of “new voices” and stories, as well as to facilitate “participation,” crowd-funding, distribution, and promotion. Technologies like cell phones and social media have facilitated the emergence of “digital storytelling” alongside citizen-journalism. Early on, web-based and/or interactive documentary was held up as an arena for both formal innovation and social engagement. In addition, virtual and augmented reality appear to offer the potential to produce “interactive” modes of storytelling with the power to generate empathy. Whereas “new media” platforms seem to offer the prospect of both multilayered, non-linear narratives and extended market penetration. The celebration and embrace of new media platforms by funders like the National Film Board of Canada, whose early support for web-based documentary projects continues today, is symptomatic here. The irony is, of course, that the more variegated the platforms, the more explicitly a simplified and abstracted notion of “story” emerges as something which retains its “communicability” across and between various formats and interfaces. Enabled by smartphones and social media, digital storytelling has become a medium-agnostic activity—and story has become a moveable object, translating its communicability across mediums, platforms, and contexts. In doing so, it reminds us of the importance of structural analyses that call our attention not just to the formal structure of individual films but also to the restructuring of cultural and political production around the world.


Lessons from Other Manifestos: Beyond Documentary Exceptionalism and Privilege

Solanas and Getino’s “Toward a Third Cinema” looms very large on account of the global scope of its arguments as well as its influence as a call for the decolonization of cinema and culture. Turning to it today we can see the distance documentary has travelled from the historical moment in which it appeared as “the privileged medium” for militants, revolutionary politics, or radical social movements. But the manifesto’s focus on the significance of methods and relations of production, circulation, and reception to the militancy of any given film continues to be instructive.

The time has come to recognize documentary film not as a refuge from commercial or market interests but rather as a site of political confrontation; where our media forms can’t help but reproduce the contradictions of our current political moment. As a result, I think we should be talking about documentary media’s ability to contribute to and participate in various cultural, economic, and political struggles that extend beyond the screen. The struggle against “the logics of neoliberalism” and for “the decolonization of culture” cannot be fought at the level of the text, nor just through the organization of production and structures of distribution for documentary film—but it must extend to the other structures which these films support and represent. “Story” is not merely an organizing logic for films, a framework for decisions around which individual filmmakers intervene. It is part and parcel of a larger set of discursive and material practices and institutions that require us to think the aesthetics and politics of formations and form beyond the filmic text.

Many of today’s efforts at decolonization focus on the province of Indigenous cinemas (what has been called fourth cinema).{38} In that set of discourses, the discussion and celebration of storytelling traditions looms large; however, what Jo-ann Archibald calls “storywork” has a different (though not unrelated) relationship to the “market” and to the nonprofit industrial sector than the ones described above.{39} From this perspective, it appears that the particular definition of story that Juhasz and Lebow are criticizing is part of a much broader cultural framework—one that requires a wider conception of media form, and demands some collaborative thinking about what it would mean to conceive the politics of form when it involves or accounts for production, circulation, and remediation. Scholars and activists have been making these points for decades (including the authors of this manifesto). But there is some recent work in this area that is especially pertinent. In her recent book, Angela J. Aguayo has developed the framework of “documentary resistance” to highlight the association of documentary films with social movements and the new practices enabled by “participatory media.”{40} MTL Collective’s “Principles for Decolonial Film” offers the explicit framework of “decolonization” for understanding the relation between film and on-the-ground organizing, informed quite explicitly by a critique of institutional and state structures.{41}

The rise of story is entangled with the political consequences of the development of what the collective INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence terms the non-profit industrial complex (NPIC), and it is these aspects that we need to focus on in our assessment of the aesthetic and ideological imperatives that shape today’s documentary industry.{42} We have to move outside the fortress of story and the institutions that fund it if we want media practices to advance political struggle, sharpen contradictions rather than dull them, and facilitate the generalization and improvement of tactics and strategies for building social movements. If we want to foster media practices that engender and develop what Jonathan Kahana calls “forms of association,” aesthetic techniques and structures, as well as analyses, organizations, and practices that foster connection and counter individualism, we would do well to remember INCITE!’s battle cry that “the revolution will not be funded.”{43}

For INCITE!, the development of grassroots funding sources has allowed them to serve their project and community without compromising any of their political commitments. In the context of documentary film, the “grassroots” fundraising model is quite alive and well, having been turbocharged and transformed into “crowd-funding” with platforms like Kickstarter and GoFundMe. And while these platforms have been vital for funding films that don’t have to comply with the story paradigm, they perpetuate the market and transactional logic in addition to the individualism that story-as-capital embodies.{44} So the answer to the problem that Juhasz and Lebow associate with the hegemony of story isn’t in finding new or more responsive funding sources or a call to greater independence or aesthetic autonomy for documentary filmmakers. Instead the lesson from INCITE!’s anthology is that we need a structural critique, not a moral objection to the limitations of individual organizations and their funding requirements or even the NPIC as a whole.

Juhasz and Lebow challenge cultural assumptions about the political capacities of documentary film. In order to honor their challenge, we need to consider the social and political function of media practices in terms of their relations to the conditions and organization of production, circulation, and consumption, as well as their infrastructures, institutions, resources, and social and cultural contexts. But mostly we need to interrogate the ways in which the logics of social reconciliation have become embedded in our understanding of documentary film through the affirmation of story-as-capital, as something every individual has or owns. In the struggle for resources, militant media projects aren’t going to be funded unless they conform.

For Benjamin, the deterioration of storytelling as an art signaled a more general loss of the very “ability to exchange experience.”{45} Writing early in the development of sound film, Benjamin suggested that the power of storytelling derived from experience passed on from “mouth to mouth.” In many respects, Benjamin’s association of speech and “immediacy” with the power of storytelling dovetails with more recent focus on the role of sound and voice in film. But it also suggests that the full potential of media technology to produce new contexts and forums for storytelling was not yet in view for Benjamin. For him, the power of storytelling is derived, in great part, from its artisanal and interpersonal—embodied, shared, and experiential—quality. The power of storytelling had to do with its social dimensions, its political “usefulness,” its capacity to challenge the state and economic mechanisms that aim to “contradict” the articulations and analysis of “lived experience” developed within social settings, gatherings, and movements.{46}

The domination of instrumentalized and reified “storytelling” at every level in our cultural milieu suggests that we do not need new and alternative forms so much as we need new institutions, logics, and structures. In other words, we must recognize the ways in which the systems of documentary film production are permeated by a neoliberal logic committed to justifying its own reproduction and survival above all else.{47} This isn’t to say that the fight that Lebow and Juhasz are waging should be abandoned—but let’s not forget that challenging what “story” represents is a broader and longer struggle that isn’t just the province of filmmakers or funders. And that it’s in the connection to, participation in, and development of new systems, structures, collective practices, and social movements that new histories and futures can be forged about which new stories will be told and how.



Title Video: Betty Tells Her Story, Liane Brandon (1972). Courtesy of Liane Brandon. Photo credit: Liane Brandon.

{1} Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 83-109.
{2} See Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (London: Verso Books, 1997).
{3} In his introduction to an influential collection of essays on the committed documentary, the scholar Thomas Waugh wrote that documentary film was considered “a privileged medium—indeed the privileged medium—for committed artists and their publics, and a resource of first priority for the political activist.” In 1984, the hegemonic logic of liberalism was the enemy. Thomas Waugh, “Why Documentary Filmmakers Keep Trying to Change the World, or Why People Changing the World Keep Making Documentaries,” in “Show Us Life”: Toward a History and Aesthetics of the Committed Documentary (Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1984), xix.
{4} Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, “Toward a Third Cinema,” Cinéaste 4, no. 3 (Winter 1970-71): 1-10. Influential for movement-based and politically committed filmmakers globally, the full passage reads: “The cinema known as documentary, with all the vastness that the concept has today, from educational films to the reconstruction of a fact or a historical event, is perhaps the main basis of revolutionary film-making. Every image that documents, bears witness to, refutes or deepens the truth of a situation is something more than a film image or purely artistic fact; it becomes something which the System finds indigestible.”
{5} Alexandra Juhasz, “Introduction,” in Women of Vision: Histories in Feminist Film and Video (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 1-44; Alexandra Juhasz, “They Said We Wanted to Show Reality—All I Want to Show is My Video: The Politics of the Realist Feminist Documentary,” in Collecting Visible Evidence, eds. Michael Renov and Jane Gaines (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 190-215; Patricia Zimmermann, “Flaherty’s Midwives,” in Feminism and Documentary, ed. Janet Walker and Diane Waldman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).
{6} Solanas and Getino, “Toward a Third Cinema”: 2.
{7} See Charles L. Briggs, Learning How to Ask: A Sociolinguistic Appraisal of the Role of the Interview in Social Science Research (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
{8} Chris Lee, “A Complete List of Movies Sold at Sundance (and How Much $$$ They Cost),”, February 3, 2020. Angela J. Aguayo offers this same periodization in her chapter “Documentary Goes Popular: The Rise of Digital Media Cultures” in her excellent and extremely relevant book Documentary Resistance: Social Change and Participatory Media (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 61-101.
{9} See Joshua Glick’s article in this volume.
{10} The INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence collective defines the Non-Profit Industrial Complex as “a system of relationships between the State (or local and federal governments), the owning classes, foundations, and non-profit/NGO social service and social justice organizations,” in INCITE!, “Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex.” In her introduction to INCITE’s 2007 book, Andrea Smith explains that “capitalist interests and the state use non-profits to (1) monitor and control social justice movements; (2) divert public monies into private hands through foundations; (3) manage and control dissent in order to make the world safe for capitalism; (4) redirect activist energies into career-based modes of organizing instead of mass-based organizing capable of actually transforming society; (5) allow corporations to mask their exploitative and colonial work practices through “philanthropic” work; and (6) encourage social movements to model themselves after capitalist structures rather than to challenge them.” Andrea Smith, “Introduction,” in INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, eds., The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (Boston: South End Press, 2007), 3.
{11} What Lauren Berlant calls the “juxtapolitical.” See The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 10.
{12} The definition of “successful” or “effective” is a moveable and malleable target: appealing, saleable, watchable documentaries as well as documentaries with the capacity to affect audiences, to make them change their minds, feel, identify, learn, motivate.
{13} See Brett Story’s article in this volume.
{14} In their manifesto, Solanas and Getino describe second cinema as films that are aimed at challenging formal conventions and bourgeois ideology but still very firmly rooted in the commercial model. Third cinema is documentary film because it can’t be digested by the system. In calling our attention to the ways in which documentary film is now modelled on the system, operating as a means for the reproduction of dominant neoliberal logics, their call for alternatives to “story” appears much more like a call for a second documentary cinema to be funded. Solanas and Getino, “Toward a Third Cinema”: 4.
{15} See Jacui Banaszynski, “Stories Matter,” in Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, eds. (New York: Plume Books, 2007).
{16} See Joan W. Scott, “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry 17, no. 4 (1991): 773-97.
{17} See
{18} See
{19} Janie’s Janie (1971) was produced and distributed by Newsreel—a collective of movement-based filmmakers committed to grassroots distribution as well as collaborative film production.
{20} In the 1970s and beyond, these films were subject to debate among feminist film scholars. Where scholars such as Claire Johnston took up “anti-realist” positions, others such as Julia Lesage, E. Ann Kaplan, and Alexandra Juhasz championed these films. For a critical engagement with the “realism debate,” see Juhasz, “They Said We Wanted to Show Reality.” More recently, Shilyh Warren has provided an excellent account of the historical stakes of this debate in her book Subject to Reality: Women and Documentary (University of Illinois Press, 2019).
{21} Greg Youmans, Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives: A Queer Film Classic (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011), 30.
{22} Ibid, 82.
{23} Sujatha Fernandes, Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 17.
{24} Nelly Richard’s concept of a politics of transaction is central to
Fernandes’s framework. Nelly Richard, The Insubordination of Signs: Political Change, Cultural Transformation, and Poetics of the Crisis (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2004), 65.
{25} Ibid.
{26} Ibid, 20.
{27} Ibid, 165.
{28} Ibid, 31.
{29} See
{30} Williams uses this term first to describe something that is “tangible” in its “delicacy” as a recognizable logic and structure—but not necessarily as a concrete or solidified literary or aesthetic form. For Williams, a structure of feeling is inherently contradictory, a bearer of ideology that is simultaneously structured and evanescent. Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (Orchard Park, NY: Broadview Press, 2001), 64.
{31}Public Telecommunications Act of 1988, H.R.4118, 100th Congress, introduced in House March 9, 1988,” US Congress, House.
{32} Fernandes, Curated Stories, 18.
{33} See Neill Coleman, “Making the Case to Invest in Story,” Hatch for Good, November 23, 2014. Fernandes writes: “with the growth of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and nonprofits as a privatized form of service delivery and professionalized social action, these refashioned storytelling approaches were to find expression in various kinds of instrumental projects and campaigns designed by governments, political consultants, and grantmakers.” Curated Stories,
{34} WMM served as the fiscal sponsor for my first documentary film The Last Slide Projector (2007).
{35} Another notable example of a migrator is Isaac Julien, whose formally and politically innovative documentary films from the 1980s and 1990s were funded by and screened on public television. His first installations appeared in 2002, the same year that Barbara Gladstone began to provide him with gallery representation.
{36} Malcolm Turvey, “Persistence of Vision: The Films of Chantal Akerman,” Artforum 47, no. 3 (November 2008): 312-317.
{37} Interestingly enough, it is precisely Benjamin’s conceptualization of the radical formal and political potential of storytelling that grounds The Storyteller, an exhibition of documentary art curated by Claire Gilman and Margaret Sundell in 2010. See catalogue essays in Claire Gilman and Margaret Sundell, eds., The Storyteller (Zurich: JRP Ringier, 2010).
{38} See Sergio Garcia, “Toward a Fourth Cinema,” Wide Angle 21, no. 3 (July 1999): 70-175.
{39} Jo-ann Archibald, “Editorial: Sharing Aboriginal Knowledge and Aboriginal Ways of Knowing,” Canadian Journal of Native Education 25, no. 1 (2001): 1.
{40} Angela J. Aguayo, Documentary Resistance: Social Change and Participatory Media (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).
{41} MTL Collective, “Principles for Decolonial Film,” World Records 4 (2020). First published in 2018.
{42} INCITE!, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, 3. The work of both Dylan Rodríguez (The Political Logic of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex,” 21-40) and Ruth Wilson Gilmore (“In the Shadow of the Shadow State,” 41-52) is particularly instructive here. In her contribution, Gilmore calls attention to the relation between the NPIC and the prison-industrial complex, suggesting that these two structures serve the state in complementary ways. Always relevant, Gilmore’s contribution serves as an important warning for anti-racist activists: be wary of how quickly and efficiently professional organizers employed by nonprofits will work to divert the energy, anger, and politics of the uprising after the initial protests die down and various state agencies and bodies begin to respond to demands to defund the police.
{43} Jonathan Kahana, Intelligence Work: The Politics of American Documentary (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 204.
{44} Josh MacPhee, “Who’s the Shop Steward at Your Kickstarter?,” The Baffler 12 (November 2012).
{45} Benjamin, “The Storyteller,” 84–83.
{46} Benjamin writes: “Never has experience been contradicted more thoroughly than strategic experience by tactical warfare, economic experience by inflation, bodily experience by mechanical warfare, moral experience by those in power.” If the contradiction of experience by structures of power and new modes of production was the chief cause of the decay in storytelling at the beginning of the twentieth century, today the contradiction of experience is enacted, celebrated, and commodified by the various mediations of storytelling.
{47} Sara Archambault, “Tribeca Film Institute’s Closure Should Worry All American Independent Filmmakers,” Indiewire, June 4, 2020.