SOC’s great film program often has AU students creating their own documentaries and heading out into the local community to capture a slice of life (take the Community Documentary class!). We love that AU students get to collaborate with DC to tell their stories, but there’s a potentially fraught dynamic with having college students marching into town to film a struggling neighborhood for class project.
Filmmaker Edward Martinez addresses this in a new article, “Navigating the River: The Hidden Colonialism of Documentary.” Martinez found himself falling into the usual traps of making a socially unconscious, potentially exploitative documentary – specifically, reducing its subjects to just standing in for their achievements rather than being actual human beings. This was never their intention, but the tropes of documentaries can encourage filmmakers to create that sort of accidentally condescending film that reinforces power imbalances. To make the problem clearer, Martinez asks “Have you ever seen a documentary about rich white people made by poor black people?”
These are problems that clearly don’t only affect student films, but out friends in SOC would do well to learn from Martinez’s example of a time his crew attempted to film without permission. What started a confrontation (and borderline assault) with a member of the public eventually turned into an opportunity to have a genuine conversation. Don’t be the person using someone else’s community to set up their tripod.