November 27, 2007
I recently attended the festival screening of my friend, Ellen Spiro’s amazing documentary, “Body of War,” which she shot and directed with Phil Donahue (yes that Phil Donahue). It was a beautifully made, inspiring, and tear-provoking portrait of one man seriously injured in the Iraq war who returned home to the country he served to become a vocal activist against the war. It is also, explicitly, a film about Heroism, as this young man’s efforts are paralleled across the film by those of Senator Robert Byrd, one of the few politicians in Washington who had the courage (or heroism) to speak up, and vote against this illicit War.
Ellen and I come from the same school of political documentary: we both began in AIDS activist video, and moved into “queer” media quickly thereafter. Although, outside my participation in “The Watermelon Woman,” it would be important to note that Ellen has had a much more successful career, at least if you note the prestigious venues, awards, and airings of her documentaries (all of which have ended on PBS or HBO, I think).
Thus, when I sat in a theater, moved by her filmmaking, and the man’s story it so clearly told, while surrounded by a diverse audience equally aroused, I thought a lot about political filmmaking tactics, and what her film is doing, mine (SCALE) is not, and what that means for documentary and (anti-war) activism.
Baldly stated: her film uses heroism to its greatest advantage while mine deconstructs it. And please do understand me. I LIKE her film; more than that, I’d warrant her film is ultimately more effective for activism–or at least that’s what I’d like to consider here–because it uses tried and true structures, narratives, and feelings to move people. The film is melodramatic (it relies on issues turned into big emotions), simple (it reduces large and complex politics issues to the lived experiences of one person), and believes in the hero (the regular or regal man whose courage creates change). Meanwhile, by comparison, SCALE is distancing (its focus on the media and its own processes as media remind you that the characters are constructions of the filmmaker, also a character), complex (it refuses to come down on what it believes are the correct tactics for the left and instead considers the range of tactics and disagreements about tactics evidenced along Antonia’s tour), and is uncertain about the effects of heroism (or celebrity) on the individual or the movement. Ellen’s film leaves you weeping and inspired, while I imagine, mine leaves you thinking and riled.
And here I am, yet again on these pages, looking at tactics and individuals (on the left; of activism) that are in seeming opposition to each other, even as the cause remains the same, and the goals, and even the analysis. Yet we can not agree, at this time, on what is to be done. Should our films be didactic and emotional, or erudite and intellectual? What is the happy medium, or should we be making them all, letting them speak to each other, and speaking our opposition in the many languages we speak, and the many structures that can hold it?