A specific ideological understanding and declaration of
solidarity with the goal of radical social-political transformation. “We
realized that the important thing was not the film itself but that which the
film provoked” – Fernado Solanas (1969).1
Social documentaries excel at telling complex societal
problems and deep human stories. Openly addressing societal problems, with the
goal of making audiences aware and motivated for social justice, equality and
democracy. Helping to engage members of the public as citizens rather than
merely media consumers. They have gained in popularity and number in the last
Despite the critical success of many high-profile
documentaries such as Supersize Me or Inconvenient Truth, in general their
social impacts have been hit or miss. “I wish I could say that you make a
movie, and the world changes the next day. But it takes a while for culture to
catch up,” Psihoyos told Motherboard.2
Today’s documentaries practices develop from social trends and technological
The civil rights movement, such as rights for African-Americans
and feminism, ethnic and gender rights, spurred many people to express
themselves through documentary. No matter appears to big to tackle, animal
rights to looking at the state of country, to mention a few issues that have
been accessed by documentary. Most importantly is the impact they leave on
What does drug policy reform in Brazil, immigration rights
in the United States and non-violent resistance in Palestine have in common?
Over the past few years, these movements have all been impacted by powerful
As such social documentaries have become a powerful tool in
combating societal problems. Below are a variety of documentaries focusing on
various ethnic or societal problems and showing their impact and reception.
From this we can have a greater understanding on how documentaries can advocate
for civil rights and societal issues.
The Act of Killing
The “Act of Killing” investigates the individuals who
participated in the Indonesian mass killings of 1965-1966. Just like Peter
Lennon’s Rocky, Road to Dublin, the Act of Killing was also attempted to be
covered up by the government, but their efforts were futile in an age where the
distribution of media is so prominent.
The killer’s re-enactment the murders by juxtaposing killing
and cruelty with dancing and bright colours. It often appears surreal at times
but always keeps this disturbing tone. To be put bluntly the documentary is
about people celebrating the killing of others.
What is most impressive is the influence and impact it left.
Joshua Oppenheimer was clever to get his film out there:
Private invitation only screenings across the
country – Autumn 2012
International Human Rights Day – 50 screenings
in 30 cities held by leaders of Indonesia’s civil society – December 2012
Released in conjunction with the National Human
Rights Commission Indonesia’s report on the atrocities.
Indonesia’s Independence Day – 45 Screenings
announced publicly for the first time.
Available for free download across Indonesia on
September 30th anniversary of start 1965-1966 genocide.
The film was made with clear goals in mind:
To catalyse a fundamental change in how the
1965-1966 genocide is understood in Indonesia.
To generate a nationwide critical discussion
about how the past lives on in the present.
To demand an official apology, a truth commission,
a reconciliation process, and an end to impunity, corruption and the use of
gangsters in business and politics.
The “Act of Killing” went on to receive both recognition and
praise. It was nominated for an Oscar in 2014. Other milestones include:
600 news articles published in Indonesia
100 Festivals in 57 countries
1000 Community Screenings in 118 cities
21 countries have released the film for cinema
29 awards and prizes4
Indonesia stills suffers from censorship and corruption, but
this documentary was a step in the right direction. With the use of the
internet and unlicensed distribution many copies of the Act of Killing have
been viewed by the Indonesian people. “The Act of Killing is” thought to be
ground-breaking in helping Indonesia break its silence about its history. International attention will surely help the
country come to terms with its past, as one woman said: “I hope that
Joshua goes all the way with this film and that the film creates international
attention. Then the government of Indonesia may be forced to deal with human
rights in this country.”5
An example of a documentary advocating for animal rights is
“The Cove” directed by Louie Psihoyos is 2009 documentary film analyses and
questions dolphin hunting in Japan. The dolphins are herded, by small fishing
boat, into a cove where they are killed for their meat. The film brings to
light the atrocities of the dolphin mass killings, urging the audience to call
a halt on the killings and to bring about change to the Japanese fishing
practices. It also educates the public to the risk of mercury poisoning from
dolphin meat. The film highlights the fact that the number of dolphins killed
in the Taiji dolphin drive hunting is several times greater than the number of
whales killed in the Antarctic, and asserts that 23,000 dolphins and porpoises
are killed in Japan every year by the country’s whaling industry.6
Japan’s country-wide dolphin catch is now down to less than
6,000 animals from 23,000 when the film was released, said The Cove’s director,
Louie Psihoyos, in part because of the gruesome images of dying dolphins and
blood-red water that splashed across film screens in the US and elsewhere.7
Louie would later go on to receive the rights to distribute
it throughout Japan, were many citizens are oblivious about the killings in
“Hopefully, they are just as horrified as western
audiences have been,” he said. “Most people there don’t believe it.
They just can’t believe the horror that goes on inside their own borders.”8