- Exporting Fogo:Participatory Filmmaking, War on Poverty, and the Politics of Visibility
I am frightened by how the intellectual neatness of the philosophy is so flawless that we often seem to feel there is no need to look at our motivations.1
The preceding quote is a reflection from Henry Lanford, a research assistant on a 1968 state-sponsored documentary film series, The Farmersville Project (US). A graduate student at the University of Oregon, Lanford had been invited to join a team of Canadian and American filmmakers who were committed to testing the viability of documentary film as an instrument of conflict mediation.2 The setting was California’s Central Valley, specifically the town of Farmersville. Farmersville was quickly developing a Mexican American majority, and the racial division between the town’s populace and its white power structure was a source of animosity and hostility. The farmworker jobs of retired Okies who still lived in Farmersville were now the jobs of Mexican Americans, whose working conditions were becoming increasingly chemical-intensive and damaging to their health. In response to such conditions, Filipino American and Mexican American farmworkers were organizing themselves and standing up for better working conditions all across the state. Within this context, The Farmersville Project—sponsored by the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) and directed by the National Film Board of Canada’s (NFB) Julian Biggs and Colin Low—yielded thirty-four short documentaries about race relations, farmworkers, and poverty in order to energize new lines of communication in an already polarized town. [End Page 220]
The Farmersville Project was one of several instances in which the OEO embraced a new participatory documentary approach—one originally developed in Canada—to mitigate entrenched racial and class-based hostilities occurring on the ground. Largely ignored by historians, this documentary experiment and others like it—such as The Hartford Project (US, 1969)—were the result of collaboration between the United States and Canada in the late 1960s. In 1967, the NFB sponsored what became known as The Newfoundland Project: an experiment in participatory filmmaking conducted by Colin Low of NFB and Donald Snowden of Memorial University. Low arrived in Fogo Island, Newfoundland, with the expectation that he would produce a traditional documentary about the resistance of Fogo Islanders to a government policy of resettlement. Instead, he wound up producing twenty-seven short topical films designed to promote a civil and reconciliatory discourse.3 With the support of community development officer Fred Earle, the films were screened locally as well as to outside policymakers in order to open up new lines of dialogue on a contentious issue. This film practice has been characterized as “participatory,” in large part because the filmmakers embraced a “feedback” approach as part of the production and exhibition of these films. The Newfoundland Project, for instance, promoted feedback from the community by allowing those featured in the films to give input during the editing process.4 In a similar vein, post-screening discussions by audience members were viewed as a central component of this approach. The crisis on Fogo Island eventually reached a resolution, and the perception of success of the “Fogo process”—as this participatory documentary approach came to be called—traversed the border and drew the attention of the Public Affairs Office at the OEO.5
The embrace of a participatory documentary mode—a more modest and less confident documentary film endeavor—paralleled cracks in managerial liberalism in the 1960s. The OEO’s crisis mentality of 1968—a product of external social forces and internal institutional pressures in light of the presidential election—found a synchronous avenue of expression in new participatory documentary practices. The agency sought new ways to access the thorny issue of race and poverty, to address as well as call out subjects caught up in untenable socioeconomic circumstances. Vérité modes of production resonated with the needs of a state agency willing to think outside the box.6 The politics of visibility were changing and called for greater subjective expressivity, unsettling the authority of a transcendent voiceover. The OEO’s use of the Fogo process in 1968 presents us with an opportunity to explore political and aesthetic breaking...