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The Beneficial Impacts of Social Documentaries on the World

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A specific ideological understanding and declaration of solidarity with the goal of radical social-political transformation. “We realized that the important thing was not the film itself but that which the film provoked” – Fernado Solanas (1969). Social documentaries excel at telling complex societal problems and deep human stories. Openly addressing societal problems, with the goal of making audiences aware and motivated for social justice, equality and democracy. Helping to engage members of the public as citizens rather than merely media consumers. They have gained in popularity and number in the last decade. Despite the critical success of many high-profile documentaries such as Supersize Me or Inconvenient Truth, in general their social impacts have been hit or miss. ‘I wish I could say that you make a movie, and the world changes the next day. But it takes a while for culture to catch up,’ Psihoyos told Motherboard. Today’s documentaries practices develop from social trends and technological advancements. The civil rights movement, such as rights for African-Americans and feminism, ethnic and gender rights, spurred many people to express themselves through documentary. No matter appears to big to tackle, animal rights to looking at the state of country, to mention a few issues that have been accessed by documentary. Most importantly is the impact they leave on society. What does drug policy reform in Brazil, immigration rights in the United States and non-violent resistance in Palestine have in common? Over the past few years, these movements have all been impacted by powerful documentary films. As such social documentaries have become a powerful tool in combating societal problems. Below are a variety of documentaries focusing on various ethnic or societal problems and showing their impact and reception. From this we can have a greater understanding on how documentaries can advocate for civil rights and societal issues.

The Act of Killing

The “Act of Killing” investigates the individuals who participated in the Indonesian mass killings of 1965-1966. Just like Peter Lennon’s Rocky, Road to Dublin, the Act of Killing was also attempted to be covered up by the government, but their efforts were futile in an age where the distribution of media is so prominent. The killer’s re-enactment the murders by juxtaposing killing and cruelty with dancing and bright colours. It often appears surreal at times but always keeps this disturbing tone. To be put bluntly the documentary is about people celebrating the killing of others. What is most impressive is the influence and impact it left. Joshua Oppenheimer was clever to get his film out there:

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  • Private invitation only screenings across the country – Autumn 2012
  • International Human Rights Day – 50 screenings in 30 cities held by leaders of Indonesia’s civil society – December 2012
  • Released in conjunction with the National Human Rights Commission Indonesia’s report on the atrocities.
  • Indonesia’s Independence Day – 45 Screenings announced publicly for the first time.
  • Available for free download across Indonesia on September 30th anniversary of start 1965-1966 genocide.

The film was made with clear goals in mind:

  • To catalyse a fundamental change in how the 1965-1966 genocide is understood in Indonesia.
  • To generate a nationwide critical discussion about how the past lives on in the present.
  • To demand an official apology, a truth commission, a reconciliation process, and an end to impunity, corruption and the use of gangsters in business and politics.

The “Act of Killing” went on to receive both recognition and praise. It was nominated for an Oscar in 2014. Other milestones include:

  • 600 news articles published in Indonesia
  • 100 Festivals in 57 countries
  • 1000 Community Screenings in 118 cities
  • 21 countries have released the film for cinema
  • 29 awards and prizes

Indonesia stills suffers from censorship and corruption, but this documentary was a step in the right direction. With the use of the internet and unlicensed distribution many copies of the Act of Killing have been viewed by the Indonesian people. “The Act of Killing is” thought to be ground-breaking in helping Indonesia break its silence about its history. International attention will surely help the country come to terms with its past, as one woman said: ‘I hope that Joshua goes all the way with this film and that the film creates international attention. Then the government of Indonesia may be forced to deal with human rights in this country.’

The Cove

An example of a documentary advocating for animal rights is “The Cove” directed by Louie Psihoyos is 2009 documentary film analyses and questions dolphin hunting in Japan. The dolphins are herded, by small fishing boat, into a cove where they are killed for their meat. The film brings to light the atrocities of the dolphin mass killings, urging the audience to call a halt on the killings and to bring about change to the Japanese fishing practices. It also educates the public to the risk of mercury poisoning from dolphin meat. The film highlights the fact that the number of dolphins killed in the Taiji dolphin drive hunting is several times greater than the number of whales killed in the Antarctic, and asserts that 23,000 dolphins and porpoises are killed in Japan every year by the country’s whaling industry. Japan’s country-wide dolphin catch is now down to less than 6,000 animals from 23,000 when the film was released, said The Cove’s director, Louie Psihoyos, in part because of the gruesome images of dying dolphins and blood-red water that splashed across film screens in the US and elsewhere. Louie would later go on to receive the rights to distribute it throughout Japan, were many citizens are oblivious about the killings in Taiji. ‘Hopefully, they are just as horrified as western audiences have been,’ he said. ‘Most people there don’t believe it. They just can’t believe the horror that goes on inside their own borders.’

Rocky, Road to Dublin

Peter Lennon’s “Rocky, Road to Dublin” is a prime example of a documentary challenging not only social norms but the far greater task of bringing Irelands cultural isolationism, Gaelic and clerical traditionalism into public view. Peter Lennon grew up in the 30’s in the aftermath of the independence of Ireland. People were told they were the sons and daughters of heroes and their new role was that of gratitude. It was seen as treason to question the society that the old guerrilla heroes had fought to create, and it was this lack of questioning that led Ireland down a dark path. Peter Lennon would later travel to France in his adult years and grew to love the French new wave of cinema and it inspired him throughout the making of his documentary. After living in Paris for decades working as a journalist critiquing films, Lennon decided to revisit his home country in 1967 to create a film looking at the state of Ireland. He captured Ireland on the cusp of enormous social changes but still mired in a regressive, semi-theocratic mentality that would later erupt in repeated church scandals. It examined the contemporary state of the Republic of Ireland, posing the question “What you do with your revolution once you’ve got it?”. Using seemingly innocent interviews we see, Lennon has many of the Irish establishments Blends interviews with writers Sean O’Faolain and Conor Cruise O’Brien, a spokesman for the Gaelic Athletic Association, film director John Huston, an editor of The Irish Times, a member of the censorship board, theatre producer Jim Fitzgerald, and a young Catholic priest, Father Michael Cleary. Brainwashed school kids admit casually that because of Adam’s sin their ‘intellect was darkened, their will weakened, and their passions inclined them to evil”. A patriotic sportsman confirms that any member of their organisation, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), who played a ‘foreign’ game such as cricket, rugby or soccer would be banned for six months. University students tell how they were not allowed to discuss politics on campus. The number of banned writers in Ireland included Capote, Hemingway, Orwell, Salinger and Wells, as well as the Irish Samuel Beckett, Brendan Behan, Sean O’Casey and even George Bernard Shaw. Although he had seen the Guardian pieces, the Archbishop agreed to my request to follow a priest for two days, obviously believing that the singing and dancing 60s swinging priest he produced would win over the prodigal son. Released in the late 60’s, this documentary shattered Irelands complacent view of itself as a liberated country. The Irish establishment was frosty towards the film. Irish cinemas wouldn’t screen it, RTE didn’t broadcast it, and it didn’t get a full release until 2006. Even so in later years Peter Lennon’s documentary would become a grim reminder of Ireland trading the oppression of the British, for that of the church. Selected by the Cannes Festival to represent Ireland in 1968 and immediately shown across Europe and North America. When the Cannes festival collapsed, the student uprising under siege by the riot police adopted Rocky Road and distributed it around the Sorbonne faculties. Peter Lennon himself had this to say: “The French saw it as a film, the Irish as an insult.’ In later years Peter Lennon’s documentary would become a grim reminder of Ireland trading the oppression of the British, for that of the church. The unfortunate truth is that it was swept under rug but today, in the west, we have free rein to express ourselves and through the guise of the internet it is made far easier to have these documentaries gain recognition.

The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross

Tackling the USA’s dark past on the matter of black rights. Written and presented by Harvard University scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. This Emmy award winning documentary spanning 6 series, delves into not only black history but what it means to be an African American in the USA today. Starting from African slave trades and concluding in present day America. Dr. Gates challenges many contradictions made throughout black history and debates many of Americas top historians. America, the land of the free, was built on the back of slaves. The documentary does a good job of intricately explaining the roles that European, Africans and Americans played when it came to slavery. It paints an accurate black history and allows audiences to gain a greater understanding, teaching an important lesson for the value of equality.

An Inconvenient Truth

“An Inconvenient Truth” is a 2006 American documentary directed by Davis Guggenheim. Davis was inspired by a slide show, to educate citizens on the matter of global warming, given by former United States Vice President Al Gore’s. Davis, producers Laurie David and Lawrence Bender went on to adapt the slide show into a documentary. Having a successful premiere at the Sundance film festival in 2006 and opening in New York City and Los Angeles on May 24, 2006. It wen on to win two Academy Awards for best documentary feature and best original song. The film grossed $24 million in the U.S. and $26 million at the international box office, becoming the tenth highest grossing documentary film to date in the United States. One of the documentaries biggest milestones is that has been added to the science curriculum in schools around the world. It has helped give rise the publics awareness of global warming.


No matter the subject matter or style, be it personal, political, comical, revolutionary. Social documentary films increase our awareness of ourselves and the world we inhabit. They are a window into who we are. As such, they have a unique ability to engage, illuminate and inspire. It has been theorised by some that documentaries have to portray the truth to have an impact on society, others argue no matter what, documentaries will always be constructs of reality, due to the nature of editing. Documentaries need only to bring attention to matters. Some may argue that that being aware of a problem is not the same as addressing it but there is no doubt that is a step in the right direction. Film is an art and as such people will always choose to express their views and thoughts through it. As with all art it may instil a passion within the viewer to take the next step, become an active advocate. The impact they leave can be long lasting and help build a world with stronger ideals. Social documentaries such as the ones discussed above, tell us that they have become a tried and tested medium, to allow directors to bring social issues and the abuse of civil rights into the public view. A social documentary may become an active intervention in the events it is documenting. Useful content may mobilize advocates. Documentaries such as Rocky, Road to Dublin made in the late 60’s show that social documentaries are nothing new. Of course, in recent years they have become more common and are not so easily hushed by those who would rather not see certain topics brought to light. Documentaries represent as well as record. They are reliable seen as reliable sources of information and as such are valuable asset in raising awareness and lending a voice to those in need. In today’s world people are a lot less reserved and are not afraid to tackle controversial topics and defend what they feel is right.


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