Do you mind if I ask a question?

Was the documentary community guilty of focusing on identity politics too much and thereby (in a small way) contributing to a blind spot in not telling the stories of middle-of-the-road, dispossessed white America, which helped Donald Trump’s alt-right base sweep him and us into the mess we’re now in?

There has been a lot of thinking about the culturally liberal, politically progressive bubbles of America and how many of us feel blindsided by this strange new country we now live in. I, for one, had been lulled into complacency, cheering on progress for LGBTQ rights and women — heck, we were about to have the first female president — and every day, there was something new on TV, indicating a more tolerant, pluralistic society. The documentary genre was a vital (if small) part of that new progress. Not to say I was deluded into thinking we had reached the promised land or that we were without problems, but it felt like we were moving forward, getting somewhere. Now, not so much.

So, as a journalist who covers documentary, I began thinking about whether the documentary world had missed the ball in a similar way that the New York Times along with the rest of the so-called “liberal media” did. Going forward, should things change about how and which documentaries get made?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, so I went to three of the brightest bulbs in docs — Shane Smith, Hot Docs programming director, Deirdre Haj, director at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, and filmmaker Dawn Porter (Gideon’s Army, Trapped) — to see if they could shed light on the subject.

Before I go further, I’ll clarify that I do believe that, in addition to a variety of more substantial factors (like Russian espionage, for one), identity politics did in some way contribute to sinking Hillary Clinton. When she campaigned, she would call out for women’s, LGBTQ, and other minority groups’ rights, thereby creating an impression that she was championing people based on their ethnic, gender or sexual orientation. That mirrored an increasing tendency in the relatively progressive culture, which is all great, but it left millions of white Americans feeling alienated. So I’m wondering, is documentary falling into a similar trap?

I’ll start with the festival directors’ responses, then post Porter’s tour-de-force remarks tomorrow.

For Haj, this subject “has been profoundly on my mind for a long time, but put sharply in focus after the election.” Haj descends from two very different parts of the country: her father is from Long Island, New York, and her mother from a small town in Arkansas. Her concerns are that, “We have been shouting in a drum, and I was complicit.”

Haj, Full Frame’s director since 2010, now meets with a committee of North Carolina community and cultural leaders from the festival’s advisory board to reach out to the small town, traditionally conservative parts of the state (where many on the board are from).

“If I believe in the power of documentary to bring people and communities together, then I have only been doing half of my job,” she says. The festival has been a roaring success serving out-of-staters and the Triangle, which includes the festival’s home, Durham, and the adjoining college towns. But what about the rest of North Carolina?

“I want to go out to those communities and listen to what they have to say,” says Haj, who wants to treat them to the festival atmosphere, including good food and films that won’t necessarily be alienating.

Haj is aware of the irony that the festival may show films about the military and the effects of being in protracted conflict, but it hasn’t made a concerted effort to reach out to soldiers training and stationed in nearby Fort Bragg. She wants to get them in on the conversation. Perhaps those outside the Triangle don’t feel as if the arts and documentary belong to them. “We can find a common ground,” she shares.

All of which is not to say that Haj isn’t markedly proud of the festival’s emphasis on diversity. “Full Frame is completely invested in our community, and programs like our School of Doc follow the Center for Documentary Studies initiatives in diversifying the documentary pipeline. But this has nagged me for a while,” she says.

Shane Smith, who is programming Hot Docs for a second year, emailed me a reply, which I include below with some light editing for clarity.


I think stories have steered the course of the documentary community, not identity politics. Doc filmmakers shine a light into the darkest corners of our world. They’re probably more aware than most of the political divide and the socio-economic challenges in the US.

Many of the films we’ve championed over the years at Hot Docs have identified, if not predicted, this new reality. We’ve shown the films about life in the rural South, about life in inner cities, about corruption in the heartland, about the militarization of police forces, about forced relocation of communities, about racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, hate crimes, the financial crisis, economic disparity and the impact on working class families. Those stories are being told, they’re being shown, and audiences are asking, “What can I do?” The will is there, the work is there, but is the follow-through there? What is the responsibility of the doc maker (and doc programmer) beyond bringing the issue to light, sharing the story and sparking the conversation? Personally, I often leave a film inspired by the issue and fired up to do something about it. Then life gets in the way, the inspiration fades, the fire dims, distraction displaces action.

Therein lies part of the problem — and the opportunity. The films are being made, [but] how do we get them seen outside of our “bubble”? How do we get the disenfranchised to watch those docs that might help expand their perspectives? What distribution, marketing and outreach can we come up with to reach the audiences that would most benefit from seeing these films? Impact producing has been incredibly successful in bringing films on specific topics to greater attention. Is there an opportunity here to expand that model to focus on the disenfranchised? To bring docs to those dispossessed communities and audiences? To build bridges and find common ground? There’s an opportunity and an audience here.

This political climate chills us all, and we’ve already seen an urgent recommitment to activism and action, led in many places by the documentary community (Hell, I marched for the first time in 20 years in the Women’s March). This is a wake-up call, and the documentary community is responding. But it’s hard to point the finger at identity politics when there are so many factors at play, including fake news, alternative facts, and fictitious narratives empowering specific community’s agendas and beliefs. I don’t think the role of the filmmaker has changed, but the way documentary films are contextualized, seen and discussed is perhaps something for us all to consider.

Both responses are thoughtful and spot-on, I think. Tomorrow, I’ll post a filmmaker’s perspective from Dawn Porter.

Get more documentary film news and features: Subscribe to POV’s documentary blog, like POV on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @povdocs.

Published by

Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen