'Hot Coffee' is one of three social-justice issues documentaries featured in the first salon discussion at SFIFF.

Looking for the Moral with Bill Nichols

Michael Fox April 20, 2011

A half-hour phone conversation is wholly insufficient for plumbing the depths of Bill Nichols’ insights on the contemporary documentary. It does provide, however, a tasty teaser for The Social Justice Documentary, the salon Nichols hosts Monday night, April 25, at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas as past of the first-ever discussion series at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Instead of the standard-issue panel with visiting and local filmmakers, the longtime San Francisco State cinema professor (and instructor in San Francisco Film Society’s education program) envisions a format that favors the audience. After all, he points out, the directors will have ample opportunity to talk about their films at the post-screening Q&As.

Nichols will begin with a brief overview of social documentaries featuring clips from three landmark films: Willard Van Dyke and Ralph Steiner’s The City, a scathing critique of the modern city in favor of greenbelt communities presented at the 1939 World’s Fair; San Francisco State: On Strike, a record of the 1969 demand that ethnic minorities, especially African Americans, have a place in the state university; and Black Panther, featuring Bobby Seale’s recitation of the Oakland party’s shockingly moderate and reasonable (given the media portrayal of the Panthers) 10-point program. The historical examples allow Nichols to set a context for discussing the festival entries Hot Coffee, Better This World and Crime After Crime.

“The films I’ll show will demonstrate that it’s possible to make effective social-justice style documentaries outside of any standard media outlet,” Nichols says. “Without the television teat, as it were, as the source of nutrients and funding. But there’s a devil’s bargain that’s made. In order to get substantial budgets to make substantial quality films, television outlets—and I think of HBO as a positive model and PBS less so—are a necessary partner. They provide funds, they help reach audiences and they impose constraints—limitations on what can be done and how they can be done, which can be more or less generous. Part of the challenge of the filmmaker, always, is how to respond to constraints creatively.”

Nonfiction films reach their largest audiences via TV broadcast, even if more attention and prestige accrues to documentaries that receive theatrical distribution. I asked Nichols, whose books include Introduction to Documentary (the second edition is now out from Indiana University Press) and Engaging Cinema: An Introduction to Film Studies (just published by W.W. Norton), to describe the role of film festivals in the grand scheme.

“The festival is a special environment that is limited in number [of viewers] but it’s like a core constituency,” he mused. “It’s sort of like the heartland. It’s where many of the most passionate, articulate, involved, willing to be sources of word of mouth, come together. So it’s a kind of gateway, and festivals are gatekeepers that provide a very focused, intense and sometimes deliriously exciting place for a wide-ranging look at cutting-edge work, including social-justice documentaries. It becomes a stimulus for others, it becomes a stepping stone, it gets through the gate and into other venues.”

Nichols sees his role Monday night as facilitating a discussion and dialogue among impassioned audience members, including the filmmakers but not focusing on them. He envisions the salon as a kind of breathing space during the festival for people to reflect on what they’re seeing.

It’s hardly breaking news that the excitement generated by social-issue documentaries derives, in part, from their investigative journalism component. One gets a special thrill witnessing its practice, especially at a time when television news departments have abandoned it.

“On the whole, the mass media has forfeited its role as a Fourth Estate and become just another business empire,” Nichols declares. “As a business, it’s in the business of making money. Money comes from advertising, and advertising comes from corporations, so they don’t step on the toes of corporations and they find ways to promote corporate interests. So I think the media has become a more conservative institution. Corporations, for the most part, have a more deeply vested interest in profit than social justice, and the two are often in conflict.

“These documentaries have become a precious preserve where we get a different point of view from the mass media,” Nichols continues. “When you look around to see who’s reporting on environmental degradation, or the conflict between political power and social justice, you see these are not really covered with any degree of diligence by the mass media. It’s left to the weekly newspapers, the maverick radio stations, the bloggers and documentaries to carry the ball.”

It is precisely that need for social justice films that occasionally leads both documentary makers and the vast public that depends on them to overstate their influence. Nichols puts it all in proper perspective.

“I think it is a very, very rare for a single film to have a measurable effect,” he says. “But every social justice film helps do two things: It advances the dialogue, it increases the debate, it focuses the issue. Second, and this speaks to the power of film. many of these films give us an image that we take with us that serves like an emblem, a symbol, a memory bank that condenses into a very compressed form what values and principles are at stake. It could be smokestacks and pollution, it could be David Harris in The Thin Blue Line saying, ‘I’m the one who knows [who committed the murder],’ or an image of the woman with third-degree burns from hot McDonald’s coffee that erases the [perception of] frivolity of the lawsuit.”

Notes from the Underground

A retrospective of Jay Rosenblatt’s films screened at the Visions du Reel documentary festival in Nyon, Switzerland this month.... Inside Job closed after a 25-week Bay Area run....El Diablo Rojo, written by Brent Hoff and produced by Hoff, Malcolm Pullinger and Todd Hagopian, was one of six recipients of the TFI Sloan Filmmaker Fund, a co-venture of the Tribeca Film Institute and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to support films with science and technology themes....Happy 65th, John Waters, on April 22.

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