What Should Documentaries Do?


Perhaps it was inevitable. One of the 20 films showing at this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival, a documentary-heavy program of stories of oppression and injustice, critiques nonprofit monoliths and, by extension, the spirit of armchair activism, a known affliction of certain well-intentioned docs. Fatal Assistance, Raoul Peck’s livid debrief on the international relief and rebuild efforts that followed Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, casts heavy doubt on the global community’s interventions, including that led by Bill Clinton. The first world, Peck suggests, is better at congratulating itself for good deeds than doing actual good. More implicit is the suggestion that a first-world audience, having texted its $10, is content to watch a documentary and trust that Sean Penn is on the case.

What impact can documentaries like the ones showing at this festival hope to have? The question has preoccupied social action filmmaking in recent years: In 2008 the Sundance Institute created Stories of Change, a funding program whose mandate requires filmmakers to somehow benefit the subjects they document. This year’s films include In the Shadow of the Sun, about the persecution of Tanzania’s albino population, Camp 14: Total Control Zone, in which a North Korean recalls his horrific labor camp imprisonment, and The New Black, which cross-examines the African-American community’s resistance to gay rights. Is it enough for them to inspire in principled viewers a few shakes of the head and quick flush of empathy?

Several of this year’s selections suggest similar answers. In the Shadow of the Sun follows Josephat Torner, a Tanzanian man with albinism, as he travels through rural Tanzania, talking to villagers about a superstition that has proved deadly for his community. A local belief, perpetuated by witch doctors, that albinos are demons whose body parts might bring fortune, has led to a spate of murders and dismemberments. Those not hidden away are in perpetual danger; albino children, including 15-year-old Vedastus, a budding engineer, are not allowed into regular schools.

Director Harry Freeland follows both men—called “white ghosts” and un-African—with a focus on Torner and his speaking tour. Torner risks his life at these village gatherings, where something simple and powerful happens: He makes himself human to those who believe him to be otherwise. With charisma and eloquence, he educates the villagers, even making them laugh.

Over in Cameroon, where homosexuality is against the law and the gay population lives in mortal fear, the thoughtful Born This Way describes the plight of several gay men and women living in Douala, Cameroon. Like Torner, they are fighting the immediate threat of violence, but also face arrest and prosecution. Also like Torner, their hope of living freely rests on the problem of ignorance and the imperative of education. Directors Shaun Kadlec and Deb Tullmann found memorable subjects in Cédric, who works in AIDS/HIV education, and Gertrude, a devout Catholic, neither of whom has come out to their loved ones. For now they seek understanding among themselves, building a gay community of necessity, in the manner of similar subcultures around the world.

The New Black, Yoruba Richen’s adroit portrait of the African-American divide on gay marriage, is an apt companion. Its true subject, in the words of one activist, is nothing less than “the unfinished business of black people being free.” Richen engages boldly with tricky issues, letting impromptu debates between her subjects and their community members hold the floor.

These make for the film’s most compelling scenes, and recall Torner hot-footing across Tanzania, armed only with his personality and his cause. Is it enough, then—these attempts to educate, and instill empathy? Neither Torner nor his counterparts can afford to answer that too honestly; the answer must be in the attempt. The same is true for these films, which in their attempts to educate and give human dimension to abstract problems extend profoundly necessary and ongoing efforts.

The festival’s opening night film, ANITA, in making a cult heroine of its subject, also provides a feminist history lesson for the generation that grew up after the 1991 hearings that brought Anita Hill and the issue of sexual harassment to the front of American culture. In 99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film and Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, also concerned with contemporary stories, the education feels even more urgent.