“Story” is not merely an organizing logic for films, a framework for decisions around which filmmakers intervene. Rather, story is the formal expression of forces that seek to co-opt practices associated with the struggles against privatization, exploitation, structural racism, environmental destruction, and political violence that so many documentary films seek to address. The logic of story-as-capital dominates all areas of cultural production from advertising to political campaigns, from nonprofits to social media. As a result, a struggle against story can’t remain a struggle against the formal conventions of documentary film. It must extend beyond what we see on our screens to the structures that shape the production, exhibition, and distribution of documentary media more broadly.
Juhasz and Lebow’s community-based manifesto seeks to mobilize collective resistance to the hegemony of story within the world of documentary funders, producers, programmers, and makers.1 Their manifesto offers an aesthetic critique of an industry which trades on its association with progressive and liberal calls for social change.2 But the emergence of “story-as-capital” is part of a broader history in which 1) storytelling as a social practice was divorced from the social movements in which it gained currency as a medium for speaking truth to power and valorizing personal experience, 2) market logics came to dominate the realm of NGOs and nonprofits,3 and 3) the project form came to dominate the discourses of management.4
The concept of the project is ready to hand for documentary filmmakers. We are asked for project descriptions when we apply for funding or submit proposals to speak at conferences like Poetics & Politics. We open a new project when we begin to edit our films. We have a project before we have a title, before production, before picture is locked. Transmedial by definition, the “project form” allows for the possibility of multiple iterations and formats. From this perspective, it is at the project stage that the structuring logics of story and character emerge.
Understood as a starting point for the organization of resources and labor as well as the relations between form and content and between process and product, the project is not just a framework for individual endeavors. It also names an aspiration or proposal for the future. A project is a plan with an ideological and political function, an activity with a definite aim.
Writing in 1971, Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino asserted that the power of documentary film emerged not on account of its radical form, but rather in its opposition to and circulation outside “the System,” its association with anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements.5 With the hegemony of story, documentary film is no longer “the privileged medium” with which to project political commitments.6 As a result, it’s time to re-evaluate our assumptions about the politics of form within the project and projects of documentary media (not just documentary film), especially as they relate to social movements and collective struggle.
2 Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Gregory Elliott (New York: Verso, 2007). Boltanski and Chiapello argue that the “aesthetic” or “artistic critique” that emerges out of the social movements of the 1960s is precisely what is incorporated by industry as it began to organize production around “the project form,” integrating notions of social justice into the logic (and spirit) of capitalism.
3 Sujatha Fernandes, Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190618049.003.0002
5 Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, “Toward a Third Cinema” Cinéaste 4.3 (Winter 1970-71): 6. URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/41685716
6 Thomas Waugh, “Why Documentary Filmmakers Keep Trying to Change the World, or Why People Changing the World Keep Making Documentaries” in “Show Us Life” : Towards a History and Aesthetics of the Committed Documentary (Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1984): xix.