Forum, October 2021

Redistributive Justice and Participatory Documentary


  • Angela J. Aguayo

We are living in a historical moment marked by media engagement and anticipated impact.

The evolution of mobile media technology, the ubiquity of social media, and the omnipresence of multiple media platforms have led to new and evolving modes of interaction. They have also propelled magical thinking about the infinite possibilities to create social change with the documentary impulse.

I define the documentary impulse as a field of vision recognizing formal documentary cinema but also the everyday production practices people use to document lived experience.

The efforts of non-professional makers who contribute to a rich documentary commons of media exchange are growing in undeniable proportions. The recording of George Floyd’s murder by police officer Derek Chauvin through the cell phone camera of teenager Darnella Frazier galvanized the country in the summer of 2020, leading to massive protest and lively public dialogue about defunding models for law enforcement.

More than simply a significant portion of the entertainment industry, the documentary impulse is a mode of communication used by mobile recording users and integrated into most parts of public life.

Figure 1. Teenager Darnella Frazier (third from the right) records the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin, her cell phone video helped launch a global movement to protest racial injustice. In 2021, Frazier was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her “globe shaking” video.

These interactive conditions of digital culture align with a significant historical conjuncture: a pandemic crisis, growing political and social upheaval, historic uprisings around racial injustice, economic crisis, dissatisfaction with representative government, and disillusionment with state institutions. Struggles against racial injustice have become more complicated in the shadows of pandemic isolation where the screen is our primary connection to the world and its unfolding conflicts. From March 2020 and into the present, face-to-face life was dismantled and what emerged was a digital approach to collectivity, where the influence of the screen and user generated content became a spotlight of public life. The vivid documentation of racist conflicts captured on mobile recording devices widely circulated in pandemic isolation, as we looked out into the world through our screens via Twitter, TikTok and Instagram.

Participatory co-creation and community media practices can be harnessed to correct the tendencies of problematic visual tourism and surface-level transformation endemic to commercial documentary industry practices.

While the documentary impulse is frequently conceptualized as a democratic tool with civic potential, the way it functions in the process of social change is variable, contingent, and riddled with ethical considerations.

For most of cinema history, media makers fortunate enough to learn the craft with easy access to equipment to produce visual media have historically come from a privileged class. Filmmakers could gain access and/or exposure to grassroots stories but under tenuous conditions from outsider perspectives.

The advocacy film is a time-honored tradition in documentary history, made specifically for the aims of democratic exchange. Yet the commercial industry has been slow in confronting its own political tourism legacies, recording social injustices where the most significant benefit of production serves filmmakers rather than the communities on the screen.

Just before the pandemic the fissures of these tensions began to surface. At the 2019 True/False Film Festival a student activist disrupted a Q and A session following the screening of The Commons, a documentary made by white filmmakers about Black-led protests to remove the Silent Sam confederate statue on the UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus.

Shocked by the misrepresentation of activists in the documentary, activist Courtney Symone Staton read a statement to the festival crowd demanding action by “documentary filmmakers, funders, programmers, and audiences to question and address the recurring and systemic problem of racist, extractive and colonial filmmaking practices.” The faces, bodies, voices, and words of activists were “being shown to hundreds of people without their consent and depicted through a colonial gaze.”

In this historical moment where we must correct the problematic tendencies of documentary tourism, the bodies that push the buttons matter– and so do their intentions, examined or latent.

Figure 2. Activist Courtney Symone Staton confronts the filmmakers of The Commons and True/False festival programmers about the long-standing racist, extractive, and colonial filmmaking practices that are imbedded in the industry.

Arts funding agencies and other media institutions have recognized the increasing influence of activist documentaries. They now conduct their own research to understand these dynamics, attempting to measure influence through an impact model of engagement. Bill Nichols describes this misguided approach to understanding social change as “impact in a fishbowl, measurable and demonstrable but safely contained at the same time rather than transformative, liberal more than radical.” It is the social currency of hits and likes and purchases and circulation and hashtags and donations—actions that do not have direct correlations to the kinds of political agitation necessary for redistributive justice.

In this media environment, tensions mount around the needs for production funding and rapid circulation of documentary representations that keep pace with political struggle. The US government has for the most part abandoned support for civic media. The result is that commercial documentary saturates the plentiful media pathways and platforms that often encourage political tourism rather than substantive change. This includes foregrounding stories that court spectacle at the cost of social and material transformation. Additionally, the pace of production culture produces representations that do not keep pace with the new cycles of political and historical change, leaving many marginalized communities without commercial audio-visual representations and the corresponding lack of inclusion in the historical record.

Although the commercial documentary industry has embraced a top-down impact model, a grassroots participatory media model is worth considering as an ethical pathway to redistributive justice with the documentary impulse.

These ethical pathways of moving image exchange careened to the surface in this pandemic moment. Citizens armed with mobile recording devices documented and co-collaborated as both a form of survival and a demand for recognition and dignity.

Figure 3. Doctors, nurses, and patients document their experience with COVID in hospitals across the nation.

Social media platforms like Snapchat and TikTok reimagine access to editing tools for ubiquitous use. They encourage an understanding of short form video as a new form of public address, where unlikely people speak to each other about the pressing issues of the day. Teachers, nurses, and frontline workers document life under the contradictions of the dual crises of a global pandemic and massive racial injustice protests.

Contemporary production practices are thriving within this evolving public commons of documentary exchange.

Moving image discourse offers a vibrant pathway to understand one another through difference when so many other bridges of public communication have faltered. It produces representations that contribute to the process of influencing policy, culture, and our everyday lives.

# # # # #

Angela J. Aguayo is Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Cinema Studies and Dean’s Fellow in the College of Media at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is a scholar-media artist specializing in participatory and engaged cinema. Her most recent book, Documentary Resistance: Social Change and Participatory Media (Oxford University Press, 2019) investigates the political impact and democratic possibilities of engaged production practice. Aguayo is an award-winning writer, director, and producer of documentary shorts utilized in community engagement campaigns, screening at festivals and museums around the world.

# # # # #


Join the conversation, leave a comment on the discussion board.

Related Articles

Overture: Co-Creation Documentary during Pandemic and Protest

Helen De Michiel and Patricia R. Zimmermann, Conveners

Co-creating Opportunities During a Pandemic

Dorit Naaman

Elizabeth (Liz) Miller