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Documentary Stories for Change: Viewing and Producing Immigrant Narratives as Social Documents

From: The Velvet Light Trap
Number 60, Fall 2007
pp. 25-36 | 10.1353/vlt.2007.0018

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This analysis focuses on the politics of representation involved in the production of a community campaign around the public television documentary The New Americans (2004). The New Americans is a seven-hour miniseries that aired on PBS 29–31 March 2004. Created by Kartemquin Films, the same filmmakers who produced Hoop Dreams (1995), the series traces the lives of immigrants from five countries over three years as they prepare to leave their home countries and make new lives in the United States. Although most PBS viewers encountered the series for the first time when it aired, a coalition of grassroots immigrant advocacy groups, service providers, educators, and strategic communication specialists developed a more long-term, intimate relationship with the television series. For more than two years prior to the broadcast, Active Voice, a San Francisco–based organization dedicated to using documentary film as a catalyst to social change, had been working with the filmmakers and community stakeholders to create a campaign to improve the lives of immigrants. This case study considers the institutionally and socially situated context of narrowcast documentary reception and production (Dornfeld; Wong; Henderson). As such, it investigates the textual and social practices through which a coalition of stakeholders used a major television broadcast documentary to produce narrowcast videos tailored to particular audience groups for intended outcomes.

My access to Active Voice during sixteen months of the campaign production provided an opportunity to explore the intersection of community organizing, documentary production, and reception. I conducted ethnographic fieldwork at the Active Voice headquarters in San Francisco from the fall of 2002 through the spring of 2004. This research included interviews with Active Voice staff and their Bay Area and Central Valley partners as well as participant observation at campaign-planning meetings and screening events. This essay considers this ethnographic data as well as textual analysis of the dominant meanings of a preview reel, discussion guides, and campaign brochures that Active Voice used in shaping the issues of The New Americans Community Campaign. These campaign materials were central, consistent frames of reference and sets of signifiers for the Active Voice staff and community partners as they engaged in retelling immigrant stories for the campaign. I consider these texts as important sites of negotiation for staff and community members, whose situated social, political, and institutional concerns, as audience members as well as campaign producers, came into play as they imagined a broad audience and the potential of the documentary narrative to improve the lives of immigrants.

Woven throughout this essay is also an examination of the documentary's role in revealing truths while also developing explicit narrative strategies designed to capture the imagination of viewers. I am particularly interested in how campaign producers, public television as an institution, and the documentary text of The New Americans preview reel negotiate this tension within the social documentary tradition. According to Linda Williams, "[S]ome form of truth is the always receding goal of documentary film. But the truth figured by documentary cannot be a simple unmasking or reflection. It is a careful construction, an intervention in the politics and semiotics of representation" (72). This essay considers The New Americans Community Campaign as such an intervention. It contributes to ongoing debates about documentary realism by exploring the particular ways objective and subjective textual strategies are at once mutually sustaining and conflicting.

I begin by locating The New Americans within the tradition of social reform and educational documentaries as well as public television's historical role as a venue for documentary storytelling.

The Tradition of Social Documentary

Documentary scholar William Stott defines a social document as one that combines truth telling with human-interest storytelling: "These intermediate documents increase our knowledge of public facts, but sharpen it with feeling; put us in touch with the perennial human spirit, but show it struggling in a particular social context at a specific historical moment. They sensitize our intellect (or educate our emotions) about actual life. They are social documents" (18). The articulation of documentary with emotion and advocacy, on the one hand, and an attempt at objective truth telling, on the other, shapes its relationship to media institutions. In programming decisions, television producers often confront the competing...



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