While documentary filmmaking has caused ripples and made strides in a broad array of arenas of emphasis, the filmmaking style has found an understandably welcome place among topics concerning politics and the nation state. Bill Nichols describes documentary in this realm as becoming a tangible, recognizable expression that links audiences to the values and beliefs that belong to a certain community or people. Such films can form a variety of motives, whether it be contesting a nation state, explaining the world to its audience, promoting understanding for a problem or cause, inciting improvement, or so much more (Nichols 159-193). Ultimately, documentary film within the context of political and nation state concerns achieves remarkable progress toward increasing awareness, asking important questions of society, and promoting change.
Perhaps more than any other genre or style of cinema, documentary films find themselves invested with the ability to raise awareness in many different forms. Nichols, in his inspiring book Introduction to Documentary, notes that documentaries assist in giving viewers insight into a world they are likely unfamiliar with. Documentaries are celebrated for raising awareness about various causes, conditions, people, problems, and infinitely more. Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber’s documentary Peace Officer (2015) is a powerful example, with its commentary on the militarization of police in Utah. The film is driven mainly by the narrative of a man whose personal ties to the police community give the additional weight to his concern therein. Peace Officers till approaches the discussion by presenting and drawing from all sides of the debate equally, leaving audiences to asses their own positions. Jesse Moss’ The Overnighters (2014) is another example that exposes a complex issue, depicting the challenging reality of many struggling individuals often ignored in society. Documentary film raises awareness and exposes concerns worthy of interest.
Documentary films likewise play a crucial role in an approach of introspection for audiences. Such films explore a wide array of topics, often exploring those who are oppressed and the voices of marginalized groups. They direct our attention to issues, inviting us to understand the world being presented. And above all else, they leave us with the question of what our involvement is within. This forward questioning of documentaries plays a powerful role in a willing audience member’s experience (Nichols 159-193). Edward Murrow’s Harvest of Shame(1960) asks audiences about their privilege and place in a society where some enjoy wealth and advantage while others experience poverty and want. The film, released on Thanksgiving Day, is a powerful inquiry for United States society, both on a general and individual level. Documentary films question audiences, asking them pointedly what will eachof us do? How will each of us contribute?
Such questions are pivotal precursors to documentary’s role in promoting change. When Nanfu Wang campus, she expressed her desire to make films that would inspire change. This is am aspiration shared by many documentarians. Nichols called it the cinema of empowerment, where radical and necessary change is intensely sought after. Many of the films present a problem and subsequently offer a solution. Insightfully, Nichols stated further:
We need explanations to get things done. If we know what causes [an issue] we can then take measures to address [it]. We need understanding, with its qualities of empathy and insight, to grasp the implications and consequences of what we do. Actions rely on values, and values are subject to question. Lives are at stake. Understanding, like critical perspective, leavens explanations, policies, solutions. Social actors are not pawns but people (Nichols 159-193).
Peace Officerleaves audiences better informed and ultimately moved toward wanting to change a system where lives are at stake. The Overnighters prompts viewers to change the way they see those struggling with homelessness. These films and many more inspire us to become present, aware, actively involved citizens in public discourse and politics as we work toward improving our world one issue at a time.
Documentaries, within politics and the nation-state, have come to play a significant role in the empowering, influential medium of film. Though the genre, filmmakers can raise awareness, question a society member’s role, and promote important change. Such documentaries are remarkable in their impact as they seek to reveal issues that warrant change.
Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington Ind: Indiana University Press, 2001. Print.