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Guest Blogger Jacob Levy: The Social Power of Documentary

Interning at the Arkansas PBS station AETN gave me the opportunity to learn about the art and economics of documentary media. Over the course of the summer, I increasingly thought about the value of documentary to educate local as well as national audiences on a range of pressing issues. I wanted to get an academic perspective on documentary to share with the AETN audience, so I interviewed one of my film professors at Hendrix College.

Can you tell our readers who you are and what you teach?

My name is Joshua Glick, and I'm an assistant professor of English and film studies. At Hendrix, I teach a variety of cinema and media courses, as well as classes on American cultural history from the 19th to the 21st century. My research tends to focus on global documentary film, television, and web-based media; race and popular culture; broadcast communications; and American social history. I’m excited that my book, “Los Angeles Documentary and the Production of Public History, 1958-1977,” will be coming out this January.

Can you describe the documentary class you recently taught at Hendrix?

I recently taught a course titled “Contemporary Documentary Media.” We analyzed how new technologies along with changes in national politics and cultural trends have influenced the landscape of documentary and vice versa. Throughout the semester, we explored key institutions and individuals creating documentaries today. We looked at episodes from nonfiction series produced by CNN and VICE, short audio-visual pieces and VR productions by the New York Times, online programs by “FRONTLINE,” interactive documentaries by the Brooklyn-based media collective UnionDocs, historical compilation films by Oliver Stone and feature-length community films by the Washington D.C.-based studio Meridian Hill Pictures. Because the material we cover is so recent, we did not use one academic textbook. We examined scholarly articles, reviews, white papers published by foundations, mission statements from advocacy organizations, interviews with documentarians and articles from the industry trade press. I enjoyed learning a tremendous amount from the students, who are often much more familiar with using social media and hand-held technologies than I am. They are also eager to share new films and programs that I need to see!

What educational benefits do you see in documentary as an art form?

I see documentary as a powerful social art form. In my classes, we discuss how documentaries do not just magically appear in the public sphere. They are created by individuals or groups of people, at times with the support of multiple institutions and organizations. This act of creation can involve shooting footage; editing; digging for archival maps, photographs and documents; interviewing; and synthesizing different kinds of film into a narrative. In turn, documentaries can serve a valuable function, but they can also distort, degrade and bolster stereotypes. It all depends on who is making the film, how they are making it and what their goals are. At their most progressive, documentaries can help people to empathize with individuals and groups whose experiences might be very different from their own; increase awareness regarding an injustice; mobilize people to participate in a social movement; give marginalized individuals the opportunity to have their voices heard; and help to build and strengthen resistant communities.

This fall, AETN will be showing the newest documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, which will be about the Vietnam War. What do you think students can gain from watching a documentary about this kind of subject matter?

A lot of time has passed since the Vietnam War, and I believe that there is an opportunity to educate a new generation about the war and its consequences. Additionally, those directly involved in Vietnam are getting older, so it is crucial to record their personal stories. As I think about my hopes for the upcoming film, I recall what director Peter Davis said about the goals for his incredibly moving and insightful Vietnam documentary, “Hearts and Minds” (1974). Davis aimed to address why the United States took military action in Vietnam, what the United States did there over a period of years and what those experiences did to the individuals who served, as well as the nation more generally.

I would hope that “The Vietnam War” engages those questions, perhaps from a broader geopolitical perspective. Doing so would involve looking critically at the ideological Cold War motivations for the U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia, investigating the grassroots effort to stop the war and exploring the horrific, long-term consequences of the conflict, both for the Americans and the Vietnamese. I would not want viewers to comprehend the war in vague and abstract terms. We need to move beyond using phrases like, " … it was a tragedy," when describing the Vietnam War. We also need to move beyond the idea that documentaries can constitute “non-biased” accounts of historical phenomena. Documentaries can and should advance a point of view. I'm also hoping that Burns and Novick investigate how films, photographs, news broadcasts and memoirs have shaped our collective understanding of Vietnam.

Jacob Levy is a junior at Hendrix College, a DJ at KHDX 93.1, an artist and a poet.  He loves learning and helping people find new ways to connect to the human experience through art. He was very happy to intern in the AETN marketing and outreach department during the summer of 2017.