The Department of Film, Television, and Media hosted a Critical Conversation on documentary on November 14, 2019. As usual, this edition of the series featured a documentary filmmaker and a scholar. The filmmaker was Rayka Zehtabchi, a recent graduate of the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts and winner of the 2019 Academic Award for Short Documentary. Her interlocutor was Joshua Glick, Assistant Professor of English and Film & Media Studies at Hendrix College and currently a Fellow in the Open Documentary Lab at MIT. It was a very interesting combination, as both are committed to the social documentary. Zehtabchi is making them, and Glick is writing about them (he recent published Los Angeles Documentary and the Production of Public History, 1958–1977 through the University of California Press).
Glick began the conversation by explaining some of the history of political nonfiction. He offered a three-tiered framework for thinking about the documentary. One was the advocacy-oriented social documentary coming out of grass-roots movements and activism. Another is an auteur-based documentary that is funded by legacy institutions
(Sundance, ITVS, etc.) and is one of the mainstays of the international film festival circuit, independent theater scene and the educational market. The final is an emerging online documentary that explores the possibilities of interactivity, network narrative, and documentary photography.
After Glick laid this groundwork, Zehtabchi described her entry into the world of documentary. Although she has made a film about the Special Olympics (entitled Special O, which can be seen here), Zehtabchi concentrated on the production and exhibition of Period. End of Sentence (the trailer is online).
This is her Oscar-winning short describing a group of rural women whose lives transform with through a low-tech sanitary pad-making machine. Zehtabchi described the production process, starting with an invitation to shoot the film for a crowdfunding project based in a Los Angeles area high school. Being an Iranian-American refugee, she was well aware of the pitfalls of white savior narratives and concentrated wholly on the lives of the girls and women of this village near New Delhi.
During the Question and Answer period, Zehtabchi and Glick talked at length about the crucial link between filmmakers and audiences for the social documentary. Zehtabchi described the outsized importance small film festival showings can have as a first step to a larger audience. In the example of Period. End of Sentence, the Cleveland International Film Festival qualified her for the Academy Awards, which in turn led to global distribution by Netflix. While gave the film a global platform, which leveraged the purchase of more machines for more villages and even other countries, Zehtabchi and Glick also described the downsides and disappointments of OTT streaming. These included losing control over the film’s rights, and a lack of access to the audience data collected by the corporation. The evening’s conversation made it clear that online crowdfunding and streaming platforms constituted a new era in the social documentary.
above text contributed by Professor Markus Nornes
photo credit, Mary Lou Chlipala