The ‘Yes Men’ Talk Video, Activism, and Climate Change

As they release their third feature film, The Yes Men Are Revolting, we talk with the devious duo about how they use film for activism and their current focus on climate change.

Creating a Movement to Just Say No to the War on Drugs

Eugene Jarecki’s documentary takes on the US’ war on drugs, calling for a shift in public perception and policy around drug use. This is the final in our interview series with the 2014 BritDoc Impact Award winners.

The WITNESS Blog: A Look Back at 2014 and Look Ahead to 2015

In 2014 we contextualized dozens of citizen videos on human rights; shared resources for using video for change, archiving video and interviewing survivors of sexual violence; interviewed filmmakers, activists and journalists; advocated for better use of technology to aid those using video for change; celebrated stories of courage, and much more.

Video Evidence from Sri Lanka’s No Fire Zones Spurs UN Investigation

Filmmaker Callum Macrae discusses his documentary looking into and calling for a UN investigation of human rights abuses committed toward the end of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war.

The Blackfish Effect – How Film Can Impact Big Business

Interview with Britdoc Impact Award winner, filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite, about the social change influence her documentary, “Blackfish,” has had on big business and in legal courtrooms.

An Interview with Pamela Yates About the Impact of “Granito”

Part of a series featuring the 2014 BritDoc Impact Award winners, we interview Pamela Yates about Granito which investigates how archival footage was used as evidence to bring an indictment against a former Guatemalan dictator.

Marshaling Social Media to Tell Stories of Death Row Innocence

Too many cooks spoil the broth? Not anymore, says One for Ten producer Laura Shacham. She’s hitting the social media superhighway to bring hundreds of voices to the stories of death row exonerees.

Watching, Documenting, or Participating: A Documentarian’s Ethical Dilemmas

When is it okay to watch? When is it okay to shout with the crowd? Filmmaker Chris Kelly explains his bright line between observing and participating. Do you agree? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

New Documentary Film Aims to Prevent Another Genocide

Michael Kleiman and Michael Pertnoy co-directed The Last Survivor. To find a screening of the film near you or to host a screening of your own, visit the website for more information.

Three Must-See Documentaries Suggested by Abigail E. Disney

This post is part of our occasional series in which winners of the WITNESS Award (which we present at Silverdocs) discuss their top 3 picks from among social justice/human rights documentaries of the year.

Archival access: ethics, rights, obligations

Access is a primary archival value, driven by many things: legal or organizational mandates, copyright, available technology and resources, a deep-seated belief that access to information is the foundation of a free and educated society, and, in fact, a right. With human rights materials the challenges are particularly acute, sometimes pitting personal safety, security and privacy against advocacy goals and the right to know. At WITNESS we are particularly focused on this question at the moment, as we contemplate broader online access, the ethics of video remix, expectations of openness underpinning archival and human rights values, and active engagement in the online sphere.

Selectivity, rigorous understanding of safety and security implications, good documentation, informed consent, sensitivity to the variety of cultural and personal norms regarding privacy; these are key. Within these parameters we provide access to others selectively, based on purpose and ability to pay. This is good as far as it goes, but what if any are our broader obligations? to the subjects depicted? the creators? to researchers, human rights defenders, legal entities, journalists and issue-oriented documentarians, both now and in the unknown future? There is an increasing articulation of the obligation of states and governments to preserve and provide access to guarantee accountability, the rights of citizens, of collective memory and a knowledge of the past. As archivists of private NGOs do we have the same obligations, if not from a legal standpoint from a moral and ethical one?

I am still working my way through Rand Jimerson’s excellent Archives Power: Memory, Accountability and Social Justice (2009: SAA). It is a wide-ranging book encompassing the history of archival theory and practice in societal terms, addressing the relationship of archives and documents to memory, justice, accountability, diversity, and societal power.

Jimerson, a strong proponent of what Verne Harris has deemed “archives for justice,” acknowledges that private archives – those of corporations, or organizations such as WITNESS for that matter – are not legally or perhaps ethically under the same obligations as those with public access mandates; archivists working in private entities may thus be harder pressed to justify access to outside researchers, or the inclusion of diverse voices. But, he asserts, all archivists should be broadening their conceptions of professional ethics to encompass and be informed by values of social justice, accountability, and public responsibility, even when their options to contribute may be limited.

And here from a different perspective, that of documentary filmmaking and media literacy, some thoughts on the ethics and pragmatics of archival access. Rick Prelinger had this to say on his blog back in June (and worth reading the entire post + comments):

“Let’s put original, unedited archival material out in the world in such a way that it competes with documentaries. This isn’t going to kill our stock footage income, because producers and directors always feel they can improve on reality by imposing structures of their design, and they’ll still come around. But it will insure that audiences can see original documents without the imposition of artificial layers of narrativity. (Plus, I have always wondered how archives can ethically let historical mediamakers use clips without making the original works from which the clips come available to anyone who wants to see the complete continuity. When someone cites a passage of text or a still image, there’s a powerful implication that someone can check the citation themselves. We don’t make this easy.)”

Sheila Curran Bernard, filmmaker and author of Documentary Storytelling and Archival Storytelling, and a consultant on the Center for Social Media’s new report on ethics in documentary filmmaking, commented in response:

“I think the lack of resources for quality storytelling stems from a greater problem: weak documentary literacy. To explain: Most people can walk into a bookstore and distinguish between the quality, purpose, rigor, and craft of books and other print materials. Readers can differentiate between a Pulitzer Prize-winning history and an illustrated Time-Life offering on the same topic, and between The New Yorker and National Enquirer. They understand that both Sean Smith (Britney: The Unauthorized Biography…) and David McCullough (John Adams) have used the tools of storytelling, but quite differently.”

“Anecdotally, documentary film viewers are not as discerning. They recognize common storytelling devices – interviews, narration, recreations – but not key differences in how and why (and how effectively) these devices are created and employed. Archival use is accepted as a documentary convention, but how materials are used, whether specifically or generically, whether it’s been manipulated, etc., is too rarely part of the discussion. This lack of literacy is especially significant when it involves educators, gatekeepers, policymakers, philanthropists, and even film subjects. If people don’t understand the differences, they’re not likely to support projects that take greater financial, creative, or programming risks – and so we get more of the same: faster and cheaper. It’s as if the bookstore is filling with works about celebrities and haunted houses, but new and innovative works of creative nonfiction, well-crafted historical narratives, rigorous and up-to-date science or public policy materials, are appearing with less and less frequency.

Not only would be terrific to “put original, unedited archival material out in the world” – it would also be a chance to compare the story and storytelling choices made by media makers in days past.”

My vacation

I’m back from a road trip with family through PA, WV, VA and KY (really not the summer to do this, although gas was a lot cheaper down south). Along with some hiking and biking and fabulous roadside dioramas, I had the pleasure of making a short visit to Appalshop, the legendary arts, media and cultural center in Whitesburg, KY. My fellow archivist here at WITNESS, Chad Hunter, spent two years at Appalshop (and continues as a staff archivist, remotely); I got to see the great vault he was largely responsible for having installed (and in which my kids had no end of fun, crushing each other between the moving shelves.) I got a tour from Caroline Rubens, who took over from Chad about a year or so ago. The archive houses somewhere around 13,000 items, including multiple formats of film, video, audio, and photographs, all depicting myriad aspects of life in the region over the past half-century or so. And I met Elizabeth Barret, the Archive’s director, and a filmmaker responsible for (among others) Stranger with a Camera.

I had seen this remarkable film when it first aired on POV some years ago; I watched it again right before our trip. The film explores the relationship between camera-wielders – filmmakers, journalists, photographers – and their subjects, within the context of the 1967 murder of Hugh O’Connor, a Canadian filmmaker. O’Connor and his team had obtained permission from a miner to film him on his front porch; the owner of the property, a local man named Hobart Ison, got wind of their presence, arrived at the scene and shot O’Connor dead, despite the fact that the crew was retreating. The murder occurred in the wake of Harry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands, and subsequent intense focus by news media, VISTA volunteers and others, depicting the Appalachian region as the epitome of desperate rural US poverty. A considerable portion of the population felt belittled and humiliated by such scrutiny, and therefore sympathetic to Ison.

Of course this resonates. Because at WITNESS we facilitate the documentation of human rights transgressions, the stories of victims or abuses, marginalized individuals and communities. Regardless of intentions or means, there is a power relationship implicit in the wielding of a camera, the control of how and when and to whom images are disseminated.

As archivists in guardianship of the unedited, raw – in every sense – material, we are constantly wrestling with when, how and in what manner to allow access. We believe we are ethical and judicious in our decisions but it can be a source of anxiety. Several years ago I was on a panel with an archivist of materials depicting Aboriginal peoples; she believed that the images showing colonial-era subjugation and abuse of native people should suppressed, accessible only through permission of the group’s descendants. She had seen such images misappropriated, used for nefarious purposes, and identified with the humiliation and impotence of the subjects. I found this quite moving but also not tenable; it is easier to manipulate the truth when information is suppressed. But it’s important to be reminded of what it’s like to be on the other side of the camera.

Do see Stranger with a Camera.

–Grace Lile


Last night we went to a screening of “Blogumentary“, by Chuck Olsen. Shot between the years of 2002 to 2004, it provides a great overview of the blogosphere, its impact on society and the colorful people who inhibit this world.

A few things that I really stayed with me as I walked home were the words “We are the media” which were emblazoned into my brained (helped by the large red letters and unconventional font use). We are taking back the power. I think this raises an issue that keeps coming up over and over again in these gatherings. If ‘we’ are the media…who is ‘we’ The blogosphere seem to be dominated by a particular segment of society. Yes we are hearing more voices, but whose voice is it that we are really hearing? If you look at the list of people interviewed for the film, you will get a sense of what I mean…or simply try walking into a gathering of these ‘bloggers’ and look around.