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Docs Without Borders

An activist filmmaking collective wants to change the world—one documentary at a time

"I like to go to the front line on drugs," a young girl clad in green beret and camouflage gear declares defiantly to the camera. "When I'm on drugs, even if I'm face-to-face with someone, I have no pity and kill them and then walk away." Sixteen-year-old January is one of more than 20,000 child soldiers recruited by militias in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Dragging on a cigarette, she boasts of taking up arms at 10 in retaliation for the murders of family and friends. Other kids were abducted from their villages, like Mafille, a melancholy 15-year-old. Back home after a traumatic stint in the army (where, like many girls, she suffered sexual abuse), she is now a changed creature. Her mother confides that Mafille avoids boys and is too fragile to attend school.

This powerful short film, one of six being shown on the Sundance Channel on Human Rights Day, was co-produced by a local Congolese group called Ajedi-Ka; their mission is to bring home and rehabilitate child soldiers, and to pressure the International Criminal Court to stop recruitment and prosecute the perpetrators. But Ajedi-Ka probably couldn't have reached an American audience without the help of Witness, a nonprofit organization that uses video to expose human rights horrors.

Outside the activist milieu, Witness is best known (if at all) for its founder, musician Peter Gabriel. Although it sprung into being in 1992, Witness has never gone out of its way to court mainstream media attention. That's because Witness chooses each project with a specific audience in mind, often congressmen, government ministers, or CEOs. Other Witness films are intended to be used as evidence in an international court, or as a deterrent to abuse. One of the pieces included in the Sundance Channel sampler, "Dual Injustice," about a Mexican man falsely tortured into confessing that he murdered his cousin, was screened by court officials; days later, a Mexican national newspaper got word that charges might be dropped. And executive director Gillian Caldwell says she's already seeing widespread response to a film on violence and neglect in the California juvenile justice system, including new legislation proposed by California's senate majority leader.

Witness has roots in the vérité documentary tradition, and Caldwell herself first got involved with the organization when she filmed an undercover investigation of the Russian mafia's involvement in prostitution and human trafficking in the mid '90s. Witness clearly shares some kind of distant kinship with blockbuster filmmakers like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, whose movies make accessible political statements. But if critics have accused Moore of peddling propaganda, what would they say of Witness? Each of its docs brazenly wears its agenda on its sleeve. In fact, the power of Witness films partly stems from an undeniable sense of authenticity and sincerity: These are intimate glimpses of another world made by amateurs with handheld cameras. As Luc Sante pointed out in a Slate discussion of Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others, "If the Rodney King video had been properly framed and lit, it might have appeared fake. We want our documents to look like documents: hasty, ragged, produced under duress, so emotionally overwhelming the photographer could not concentrate on his craft."

Sontag herself was wary of the sympathy conjured by viewing images of atrocities, though. She wrote, "So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence," and so absolves us from thinking or acting further. But Witness counters that impotence. Unlike the nightly news, which asks only that you file away a stream of information for future dinner party conversations, Witness implores the viewer to take some tiny role in derailing an atrocity in progress, listing links and helpful actions on its website, witness.org.

Not that the group is averse to television network attention—it's collaborated with most of the big news organizations, supplying footage and contacts. Two of its contributions to Primetime Live won awards, but there's a limit to how far that kind of partnership can go since, as Caldwell points out, "Major media likes to do a couple award-winning stories of social significance, and the rest is about ratings." A group like Witness, with its grassroots sensibility (it trained 435 partner organizations in 110 countries last year), sees its real future in new media, where anyone can be a broadcaster—or a documentarian. "The Net and blogging and citizen journalism is fundamentally reshaping how media thinks about itself," Caldwell says. And Witness is allowing people around the globe to post their message in a bottle for all to see.

 
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