More than Waking Up: We Need to Use Documentaries as Community Activist Tools
by Bob Banner
The first film, “Zapatista,” of the 25 you [The Ecologist] listed in your excellent December/January 2006 issue, woke me up in two ways. As I was walking the streets of Seattle during the WTO ministerial event in November of 1999, I saw many posters taped to buildings advertising a film screening of “Zapatista.” I had read much about Zapatistas but really wanted to see them, or at least see a film about them. After an hour-long wait to get into the basement of a darkened, smelly bar we finally managed to get inside. This was not a typical film theater or art house. Crowded tightly and starring at a white sheet taped to a wall with a blue light streaming from some obscure techno gadgetry, we were eager to see what it was all about. One of the 3 young filmmakers started to introduce the film: Three young guys from the US had purchased the necessary video cameras on credit cards and gone south to interview Subcommandante Marcos in the mountains of Chiapas. Marcos is the collectively-decided spokesperson for the Zapatistas, a very popular movement of indigenous people, made more popular because of their knowledge of using the Internet in the early years, right after NAFTA was issued into power.
The film came alive on the white sheet. A “video projector” was doing the work along with a sound system and video player. Not only did I wake up to the problems of the indigenous people but learned how the Zapatistas were creating a provocative blend of performance art plus political action to make people aware of NAFTA and other globalization crimes and the neo-liberal ideology of free trade (which is just another word for imperialism: raping the resources and exploiting the people) so prevalent in our global solution think tanks in the US.
I also woke up on that day to the revolutionary capabilities of the video projector showing politically astute and progressive radical films to communities throughout the country. I immediately purchased a number of copies and asked the filmmakers about screening the film in my hometown. That was the beginning.
We had a packed audience some months later to see “Zapatista” and to have the filmmakers answer eager questions from the audience. This latter wake-up call started us on the process of obtaining other documentaries for showing to the public.
We purchased “Culture Jam” before its filmmakers signed their rights away to a distributor, which allowed me to screen the film. That film blew me away. Not only did I first learn about the incredible, outrageous antics of Reverend Billy but saw the Billboard Liberation Front actually doctor those huge billboards in Silicon Valley in the middle of the night. We have shown that film numerous times, inspiring people when they learn about these brave people cultur- jamming and adbusting. When I saw “The End of Suburbia,” I was shocked to my core. This film is still reverberating throughout my body and psyche. To know (as much as it is possible to know) that our lives, our civilization, our behavior, our life styles have been predicated on cheap, limited oil has been a major wake-up call. We bought boxes of the DVD and sold every single one of them. We screened the film in four different cities to audiences who always left in shock, a good kind of disturbance, a waking-up.
One thing I have done is to learn how to facilitate a discussion after each film we show — to gather people’s responses and to have them speak about their projects in our communities. It is definitely not enough to screen a film and have them walk away in a stupor. We need to talk, to share, to cry, to scream, to do whatever it takes to embody the message of the film. And what better way to do it than with a group of people who have just seen the film. Also, from time to time, we have had the filmmakers come to the screenings or to have some expert on a particular subject speak after the film or answer questions. It makes the connections and the dialogue all the more pertinent and powerful.
Out of your 25 films listed, we have screened 17.
“Life and Debt” blew me out of the water when I first saw it on POV on PBS two years prior to its DVD appearance. It is the most powerful film about globalization, especially in its contrast of Jamaica as a resort place and Jamaica as a country to be raped by various global trade organizations.
“McLibel” blew many of us away because we did not know there was a trial happening in England by some green peace activists who had the balls to actually take McDonalds to court against their labor practices and a plethora of other social and environmental injustices. We were shocked — and thrilled — when the decision came down primarily in favor of the two heroes who had taken them to court.
“Blue Vinyl” is both hot and funny, definitely a wake-up call for us who are ignorant of the various supplies that go into building our precious homes. A chemically sensitive woman told me about the film years ago, and because of her personal sensitivity to vinyl as a toxic substance, she gave the audience (after the screening) an added jolt to their already shakened response.
“The Take” was powerful and expensive (the film distributors made it almost impossible to screen the film; they charge way too much and their antiquated notion of film screening does not include the new breed of community activists who use film as an organizing tool.) We took the chance and lost money. More activists need to negotiate seriously with certain political film distributors. More of this is in my book (see below). With all the hype about the film, it had some serious flaws. It focused ONLY on the workers in Argentina taking over the factories. Yes, that’s a great idea and to see it implemented was in fact fantastic! But a much broader film, and more accessible, is the film called “Argentina: Hope in Hard Times” that not only and simply and elegantly illustrates the workers taking over the factories but includes farmers, food, community, re-cycling the waste, starting up businesses and much more. Go to bullfrog films for more details about that film and how to order it (“The Take” just recently became available in the U.S. After two years! Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein: What were you thinking??!!)
“Affluenza” is another major film that can be shown time and again especially around the overconsumption maddening holidays. But a much better film is the sequel “Escape From Affluenza,” especially for those who already know what the problems are and want to do something about it — and who have a desire to find out alternatives to break out of the affluenza disease. The same type of film is in the makings called “Escape From Suburbia,” a sequel to “The End of Suburbia.” Stay tuned in August of 2006.
One film you didn’t include is Robert Greenwald’s film, “Wal-Mart.” It will blow you away. We screened that film in four cities to 700 people, all in a week’s time. We were even instrumental in having a city council decide against changing their laws which would have accommodated another Wal-Mart store to come into town, even though there was already a Wal-mart store in their town.
Thank you, The Ecologist, for putting these films together and for publishing the blurbs. We have 80% of your initial 25 films, plus 400 more in our Film Library that we rent out to people in the US. They are not only catalogued on-line but are shelved at a cool local bookstore where people can “rent” them and awaken to some powerful realities out there that get violently swept under the veils by corporate America. Check out our website at http://www.hopedance.org/new/videos.html to learn of the films and their summaries and check out what films we are going to be showing in our central coast cities.
It is not enough to simply be “privately” awakened by any of these films. To sit there being awakened without changing anything or doing anything is impotent. What we do is SCREEN the films publicly, talk about it right afterwards, and encourage people to go to their favorite cafe and keep the discussion going, meet up with other people with similar projects and strengthen the progressive element in small cities throughout the country, and the world.
[This essay is from "How to Screen a Film," an e-book that is a very thorough description of how to produce film screenings on a scale that can justify renting films and paying screening fees, and may actualy yield a modest profit - cs]