Telling It Slant

Leadership, Justice, and the Art of Film

Cara Mertes

Art is not magic; most artists are not all that different from other people. However, many of them developed a skill or asset that most of us haven’t: a fascination for the undercurrent in our society, in our social encounters, in our practices, in our organizations.
 —  Jaap Warmenhoven, Stanford Social Innovation Review

It has always been clear to me that artists develop skills to see the world differently, in ways that are crucial to living a life with dignity and justice, yet in the United States, these efforts are so often undervalued and misunderstood as to be virtually invisible in our day-to-day lives, except in specific settings and contexts like theaters, cinemas, and museums. Artists lead with their imaginations, their moral conscience, their humor, and their empathy. But to live an artist’s life is a risky, thankless, and often economically suicidal decision in market-driven societies that prioritize hierarchy, measurement, competition, scale, and access to wealth and power. Artists are often seen as outsiders to truly relevant power relations, even as they challenge those structures as inspiration for their work. They are singled out as geniuses, rebels, and prophets. They are somehow different from ordinary people, and thus even as artists are celebrated, ironically they are seen as separate from, rather than central to, the more mundane daily workings of society.

Darren Walker, Ford Foundation’s president, commented on the phenomenon of marginalization when he recently wrote, “all of the inequalities that jeopardize our society’s wellness follow from this single manipulation — the idea that every element of our lives must be defined in relation to capital. No place is this distortion more palpable, problematic, and pernicious than in the arts. Our society’s undervaluing of the arts and overvaluing of the market reflects and reinforces a perversion of justice — indeed, a pervasive injustice. And this injustice goes by the name of inequality.”

At Ford Foundation, our work at JustFilms strives to disrupt and transform the conditions that propel inequality by supporting creative film and digital storytelling rooted in social justice issues, as well as enabling the organizations focused on supporting the field of independent film. Crucially, we see these artists as leaders in community; documentarians are some of the most profoundly socially engaged artists today. Their work bridges both creativity and free expression. It requires the deep, long-term commitment of community members, who help cocreate the story through their participation. It not only reveals new truths about lived realities. Film as an art form offers the power to imagine new futures. Nonfiction film can diagnose problems, invite poetic connections, and inspire solutions. It has the unique capacity to be both informational and transformational in its effect. In eliciting from us wonder, anger, joy, sadness, empathy, and even awe, films are a powerful catalytic vehicle for change.

My interest in contemporary nonfiction film, and artistic practice more broadly, has always been leavened by the question of social impact rather than the marketplace. Documentary filmmaking is not an engine of economic return, but it is an engine of social return, and it draws artists and others to it that are interested in doing something that might matter in the world — something that makes our lives better. This, for me, is impact at its most fundamental.

Yet many artists that we work with refuse to lay claim to particular kinds of impact — for them, such a conversation is an affront to the primacy of the imagination, the unpredictable and the unforeseen in their filmmaking practice. Others embrace the idea that storytelling is so fundamental to the human condition that leaving out the discussion of audience and impact willfully omits half of the task of art making as a holistic practice. I propose that thinking of art and its impact as oppositional obscures a deeper truth.

When an artist has to choose one over the other to claim a certain identity, as many in the independent film field in particular are discussing now, my urge is to reframe the question, asking instead, if we think of artists as leaders, in our communities and beyond, what is artists’ accountability to their subjects, to their audiences, and to their own practice? This question changes the commonsense calculus, and instead of seeming to burden the creative act unnecessarily with misplaced demands about social impact, it suggests that impact is, at a fundamental level, inseparable from the act of creativity. Creativity and its effect in the world are bound together.

Recasting art and impact as being interdependent rather than at odds may seem like a sleight of hand to those who believe there are hard lines between creative practice and its effects in the world. And funders and artists alike have seen too often where a focus on outcomes has tilted funding flows for cultural work toward an emphasis on deliverables. Funders in the arts must be vigilant in this regard: we must not succumb to judging the metrics of the soul with measurements developed for tangible products and projects, like urban development, legal regimes, and health outcomes.

At JustFilms, we are trying to develop a more layered understanding of film and social change in order to mold our funding strategies accordingly. We want our funding to strike a balance between the creative dynamism of unpredictable outcomes, and the discipline and rigor of the demands of the art form and its potential in society to enable progress. And this requires a faith in people — the people who make art, the people who are the subjects and cocreators, and the people who are moved by their experience of the art.

This is particularly relevant in the independent film community today, as funders and others increasingly demand a rationale for what a particular film or creative visual media will achieve in the world as the condition of supporting it. But the creative process is not meant to be predictable. And thinking of artists, in this case, filmmakers, as leaders, is a great social leveler. When artists are seen as architects of cultural experiences where any person, no matter their lived reality, can access the power of creative expression, new pathways for understanding how art and impact are linked are opened.

Cinema as an art form is remarkable in that it is not only the end product, a film, that propels new thinking and potentially change. Participants in the collaborative act of storytelling itself also experience transformations, just by bearing witness to their own story. Subjects of long-form films often become more self-aware, more articulate about their issues, more able to speak about matters of concern in their lives, because of the process of participating in a storytelling process. This is impact at multiple levels.

Thus film, as both process and product, is uniquely suited to the needs of the emerging twenty-first-century world. It creates a common language, social cohesion, and new understandings and exercises our empathic abilities, which are necessary for societies to function more productively for more people. Seeing artists as leaders and trusting them to lead us to value our most human of capacities are the final hurdles. This approach, in turn, could open new dialogue among funders about the role that artists can play in our communities across sectors like health, urban planning, education, and economic development. It is a moment when we can choose to value the transformative power of creativity and weave it into the political, social, and economic foundations of our societies to form a more durable and aspirational social compact.

It is striking that in the past twenty years several converging trends have started to become the backdrop of daily life, leading to a global emergence of independent documentary film as a socially engaged practice. These trends include the shift from the industrial era to a new networked information age; the widening inequality gap; the launch of an unending and borderless “war on terror” by the West; the increasing accessibility of new forms of digital technology; rapid demographic shifts informed by the movement of hundreds of millions of people because of conflict, genocide, economic need, natural disasters, and lack of resources; and the reality of climate change.

All of these are global phenomena, and for the first time in history, people across the world have the ability to transcend boundaries and borders and see world events and realities in immediate terms. The speed of technological change has increased exponentially, and access to the new technologies has disrupted and reorganized every aspect of life. Add to this the fact that ours is a world driven by visual media, and it is perhaps less of a surprise that film, and in particular nonfiction film, has emerged as an effective social justice tool and strategy in such an era of inequality, increasingly centralized power and wealth, and rapid change. The stories rooted in these trends are the ones that independent documentary filmmakers are tackling.

All of this has conspired to make artist-driven documentary a focal point for many storytellers, a growing list of funders, and diverse audiences.

I see these artists as a growing cadre of cultural leaders who are equipped to bring new truths to light and to provide a platform for the voices of people who do not have other pathways to power. Socially engaged documentary is “of, by, and for community.” It requires artists with a strong commitment to a community, its inhabitants, its challenges, and its triumphs. It speaks to a kind of storytelling that prizes the craft of filmic storytelling and also evokes new leadership for subjects and artists as they jointly participate in the act of storytelling from their different perspectives. And it is even possible that the film will simply reveal the contradictions of underlying structures of power and belief that result in greater suffering for those who are less able to access the forms of power that structure their daily lives. Their participation in the making and viewing of these films can lead to new futures.

These people who agree to have their stories told are what might be called the irrefutable witnesses. These people have chosen to step in front of a camera and entrust their story to someone else, and they often become future change agents. When they then step out from the screen and speak to audiences in person about their experiences, the effect is visceral. Work by artists like Joshua Oppenheimer, Dawn Porter, Laura Poitras, Stanley Nelson, Lynette Wallworth, Marc Silver, Michael Premo, Marta Cunningham, Grace Lee, and Nancy Schwartzman are all recent examples of the incredible diversity in form and approach that this kind of filmmaking and interactive storytelling can take.

Janet Brown writes in the fall 2015 issue of the GIA Reader, “It is… feeling like we are on the brink of tremendous opportunity to make the arts more relevant by strategically raising up the artist as the real community asset that those of us supporting the arts have always known them to be… We can sense an opportunity for change across the arts and culture sector.”

I agree, and I suggest that film artists as well as artists in other genres can be seen, through a social justice lens, as the tremendous community assets they are. Independent film is contextual, accountable, and relevant to citizenship. Historically, independent film movements gather momentum when access to new technology increases, sociopolitical realities create urgent demands for justice, high achievements in artistry evolve, and audiences want access to these stories. This is such a moment, and we as funders can work in partnership to support artists as key leaders in the creation of more just and durable communities.