Chicago-based Kartemquin Films recently found out that the state of Illinois denied the organization a sales tax exemption for the third time. Never mind that Kartemquin holds 501(c)3 (in other words, “nonprofit”) status, but the real kicker was the reason for the denial.

According to the Twitter account, Kartemquin was denied because of its “making and selling of propaganda DVDs.” While the announcement was followed with some good old-fashioned sarcasm, many reacted with disbelief at the state’s reasoning.

“Propaganda” is a dirty word. It evokes the work of Leni Riefenstahl and her Triumph of the Will and the works of Frank Capra and the Why We Fight series. Michael Moore frequently gets filed under this term by his detractors. Still others might cite Waiting for “Superman.”

The term often is used to describe any documentary that presents a strong argument viewers don’t agree with. Josh Fox’s Gasland has been called “propaganda” by natural gas industry supporters. An Inconvenient Truth draws the same label from climate change questioners. Like calling a documentary “fiction” because it fails to tell the viewers’ expected “truth,” the term “propaganda” is meant as a deep insult, a means of denigrating the credibility of the work without necessarily qualifying why.

Some believe propaganda has no place within documentary. Part of that perception, I believe, comes from the dominance and prestige associated with the “news documentary” type. The news-driven documentary connects with the journalistic ideas of objectivity and attempts a balanced representation of issues while maintaining some critical distance from them.

But why the resistance? In general, propaganda makes us uneasy. We don’t want to be persuaded, or at least not persuaded overtly. Just think how quickly people hang up the phone on telemarketers, change the channel during live network television when the commercials come on, or the desperate panic to shut down those stupid pop-up windows online. We want our media to reinforce our values, not challenge them, as an entire body of scholarship centering on media uses and gratifications tell us.

Further, the historical connections between documentary and propaganda also might be part of this resistance, particularly in that the enemy’s leaflets and posters are considered propaganda while the hero’s materials are considered part of the spirit of patriotism. Leni Riefenstahl did consider patriotism when she made Triumph of the Will, after all. It just depends on which side you’re on, really.

Either way, calling Kartemquin’s documentaries “propaganda” is definitely meant as an insult, but it is an insult that misses the point of the organization’s work. Kartemquin’s documentaries tell issue-centered stories without the issues overtaking the stories. The people in their documentaries are key — who can forget William Gates and Arthur Agee of Hoop Dreams or Ameena Matthews of The Interrupters? We learn about the realities of Chicago and the issues through the people living them, not the other way around.

Propaganda starts from a position of power and imposes it. Kartemquin’s body of work empowers people and shares it.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh is a documentary blogger and mass media professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Follow her on Twitter @documentarysite.