This blog is part of the courses on film, art, literature, and media
given by Dr.
Hudson Moura, Toronto, Canada.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Reinforcing National Pride Through Hindi Cinema

Review of chapter 32: "Nationalist Geopolitics and Film Tourism in India’s Hindi Cinema,"  Peter C. PugsleyRoutledge Companion to Cinema and Politics, ed. Yannis Tzioumakis and Claire Molloy.

by Sumaiya Javed

As India competes with other countries on a global platform, its goal is to strengthen the nation’s economy and promote a sense of national pride among its citizens. India continues to leverage the power of Bollywood, its flourishing cinema industry of Hindi films, to promote various geopolitical agendas surrounding nationalism. Bollywood is commonly known for its storytelling through its vibrant musicals that emphasize cultural and traditional values of India. In his article titled “Nationalist Geopolitics and Film Tourism In India’s Hindi Cinema,” Pugsley examines how Bollywood filmmakers are now using film tourism and cine-geographic approaches to satisfy larger political agendas, that aim towards stimulating nationalism among Indians (Pugsley, 2016, p. 398). Through his analysis, Pugsley does a fine job defining Bollywood, provides effective film examples to illustrate cine-geographic approaches used by Bollywood filmmakers, and does well in highlighting the geo-political differences within India. However, he falls short to give substantial evidence to support how Hindi cinema has helped increased film tourism in India in recent years.   
Reinforcing National Pride Through Hindi Cinema: Development
In the first section of the chapter, Pugsley does an effective job in illustrating that Bollywood is a multifaceted industry that does more than merely portray emotions in a melodramatic manner.  Pugsley mentions that Bollywood not only contributes “billions of dollars” to the nation’s economy, but it also plays a huge role in influencing the “public psyche” (Pugsley, 2016, p. 399). Hence, he states that filmmakers can use Bollywood as an “unofficial” (Pugsley, 2016, p. 399) tool to transmit nationalism to the audience by showcasing both urban and rural locations of India through their films. Moreover, Pugsley emphasizes that Bollywood has been useful in exposing Indians to different cine-geographies. For instance, he illustrates that as the socioeconomic standards improved in India during the 1990s, people developed an interest in travelling abroad. Hence, Bollywood films gratified that interest by showing narrative based on the “free-floating Non-resident Indian[s]” (Pugsley, 2016, p. 400) or NRIs who migrated to Western countries. However, Pugsley does not give concrete examples of Bollywood films that helped transmit strong ideological messages and had a significant impact on changing the perspective of audiences. He could have given examples on films prior to the 1990s to illustrate what ideological messages were being sent before the globalization of India

Next, Pugsley illustrates that many Bollywood films use foreign locations not only to offer a visual allurement or an “escape” from the realities of a developing nation, but to spark national pride in the diasporic Indian audience.  He writes about Yash Chopra, an influential filmmaker, who incorporated foreign locations to primarily improve the “glamour quotient” of his films (Pugsley, 2016, p.400). Later, Chopra started using foreign locations to create narratives around migration of Indians to other countries that appealed to both local and diasporic Indian audiences. In reference to Rini Mehta, Pugsley argues that DDLJ (1995) played a pivotal role in exploring conflicts between traditional and modern values and recognizing NRI protagonists as the best representation of Indians (Mehta, 2010, p.1). In addition, Pugsley mentions that seeing familiar locations in Bollywood films offers a sense of pride for diasporic Indian audiences.  Pugsley states that when Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ 1995) released globally in 1995, it “exotically romanticised images of foreign locations” (Pugsley, 2016, p. 401). However, Pugsley fails to mention that Bollywood films also glamorize rural locations in India. For example, Yash Chopra’s DDLJ (1995), romanticises the rural mustard fields of India and sparks nostalgia and attraction for the diasporic Indians towards India (DDLJ, 1995). Furthermore, Pugsley indicates that films such as Delhi 6 (2009) used foreign cities to contrast between Indian cities creating a resemblance that illustrates India’s transformation into modernity (Pugsley, 2016, p.402). In contrast, Pugsley fails to mention that along with indicating the transformation of modernity, the film also focused on showcasing the traditions and cultures still present in Indian cities as they continue to become modern. For instance, it showcases traditional vehicles called rickshaws beside cars and Indian street food sold near fast food restaurants, (Delhi 6, 2009), illustrating the overlap between the modern Western lifestyle and the traditional Indian lifestyle. Additionally, Pugsley reveals that the fascination with the West is not only present in Hindi cinema, but also in other regional cinemas in India. However, he states the impressive imagery of these western locations is also available in the local areas of India. Pugsley’s research on the geographical landscapes of India is done well and he has effectively identified what foreign locations resemble India’s regional locations. For instance, he states that the mountainous regions of the north can be used as replacements for the Swiss Alps, creating the same foreign experience with reduced shooting costs (Pugsley, 2016, p. 402).

Moving on, Pugsley states that recently there has been a shift where many filmmakers are using Indian locations as a setting for their stories, which helps satisfy a geopolitical idea to generate national pride for Indians. Pugsley says this shift to India became more noticeable after the Indian currency weakened, however he does not provide any statistical evidence to illustrate the return to shooting in India was merely on the decreased value of the rupee. Moreover, Pugsley uses Chennai Express (2013) as an example of a recent Bollywood film that features the experience of a North Indian protagonist surrounded in South India, a region that is unfamiliar to him in terms of culture, language and traditions. In contrast, Pugsley lacks to focus on how Chennai Express (2013) generates nationalism among Indians by creating unity among North and South Indians as it focuses more on similarities, instead of differences between people living in different regions (Chennai Express, 2013). Furthermore, Pugsley does well in representing Mumbai as the modern city of India where filmmakers can shoot films, like Inkaar (2013) and Kaanchi: The Unbreakable (2014), to illustrate cosmopolitan stories revealing the “promises” and “ills” of an urbanized city that challenge the long held Indian traditional values (Pugsley, 2016, p. 402).
Furthermore, Pugsley illustrates the geo-cultural differences that exist within rural areas of India. For example, he states that rural India has been illustrated in two contexts in Bollywood. The first context is featured in films like Kaanchi: The Unbreakable (2014), where rural areas are shown to be clean and villagers are innocent and patriotic (Pugsley, 2016, 403). The second context is featured in films like Gulaab Gang (2014) that depicts unpleasant landscapes and shows a patriarchal society encompassing gender differences, which still exists in some rural areas of India (Pugsley, 2016, 403).
Moving on, Pugsley states that in recent times, Bollywood filmmakers are creating stories like 2 States (2014) that illustrate mobility of people within India, which contrasts with films like DDLG (1995) that illustrated mobility of Indians to foreign countries. Pugsley argues that technological developments in India have enabled this kind of movement within different states of the country. However, Pugsley does not elucidate how this mobility can help create a sense of unity or nationalism among the Indians. Instead, Pugsley highlights that 2 States (2014) focuses on the lack of acceptance between people from different states in India.

Lastly, Pugsley focuses on how the “Indian government wants to capitalize on the increased interest in heritage, culture and environmental consciousness in the recent years” (Pugsley, 2016, p. 405) by pushing Indian filmmakers to show local tourist destinations in their films to improve tourism to those regions. In reference to Martin Jones, Pugsley notes that Bollywood films have contributed significantly to the tourism industry in Scotland by showing its local destinations in their movies (Jones, 2006). Although shooting films at home reduces the production costs and enhances investment in India, Pugsley fails to demonstrate if there was in fact an increase of tourism to places captured in movies such as Chennai Express (2013) that showed the natural beauty of Tamil Nadu. 
Lastly, Pugsley concludes by stating that reduced shooting costs at home is not a strong enough incentive to prevent Hindi filmmakers from filming in foreign locations.  Shooting films in foreign locations will continue to occur as India grows on a global level and production houses from different countries collaborate with Bollywood filmmakers to make content that is attractive for a global audience (Pugsley, 2016, p.407) 


Overall, Pugsley explores the significance of cine-geographic approaches in Bollywood films and that it is not only used for aesthetic, but also to capture socioeconomic and political images of India. In addition, he argues that Bollywood is an instrumental medium in showcasing Indian landscapes to reinforce a sense of pride among the Indians, help improve investments and tourism to India in the long run.  He further effectively explains the use of foreign locations in Bollywood films and the increased tourism gained by foreign countries through these on-screen portrayals. In addition, he demonstrates strong knowledge on the geographical differences within India and provides excellent film examples to highlight these differences. To conclude, Pugsley does well in his explanation of Bollywood and Indian nationalism and provides reasonable examples to support his argument, however he fails to effectively showcase evidence of increased tourism in India due to these cine-geographic approaches.

(1)  Pugsley, P. (2016). "Nationalist Geopolitics and Film Tourism In India’s Hindi Cinema," In Y. Tzioumakis, & C. Molloy (Eds.), Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics. (pp. 398-407). Routledge.
(2)  Mehta, R. B. (2010) “Bollywood, Nation, Globalization: An Incomplete Introduction” in Mehta, R. B.  and Pandharipande,  R. V. (eds) Bollywood and Globalization: Indian Popular Cinema, Nation, and Diaspora , London: Anthem Press, (pp. 1–14).
(3)  Martin-Jones, D. (2006) “Kabhi India Kabhie Scotland: Recent Indian Films Shot on Location in Scotland”, South Asian Popular Culture 4:1, (pp. 49–60).
(4)  Chopra,Y. (Producer), & Chopra, A. (Director). (1995). Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayange [Motion Picture]. India: Yash Raj Films.
(5)  Screwvala,R. (Producer), & Mehra, R. (Director). (2009). Delhi 6 [Motion Picture]. India: UTV Motion Pictures
(6)  Khan, G, (Producer), & Shetty, R. (Director). (2013). Chennai Express [Motion Picture]. India: Red Chillies Entertainment.
(7)  Johar, K, (Producer), & Varman, A. (Director). (2014). 2 States [Motion Picture]. India: Dharma Productions
(8)  Sinha, A, (Producer), & Sen, S. (Director). (2014). Gulaab Gang [Motion Picture]. India: Alumbra Entertainment

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Documentary Defined by Interactivity

Review of chapter 40: Interactive Documentary: Film and politics in the digital era," James Lyons. Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics, ed. Yannis Tzioumakis and Claire Molloy.

by Kiersten Depina

Throughout recent decades, society has been advancing technologically at an accelerating rate. While acquiring many new forms of technology, we find ourselves entering into an era of digital landscapes in which social and political ideas originate.   The new technology that is presented changes the different processes and the nature of political and social interaction.  One way in which humankind has been able to portray political ideas and messages is through the medium of documentary film.  As we continue to digitize politics, new forms of documentary are being released that not only increase interactivity and participation from the audiences, but also question the meaning and understanding of ‘documentary’ itself.  In chapter forty of the text, “The Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics,” author James Lyons describes the ways in which documentary adapts to maintain political function as the world digitizes, specifically through digital interactive documentary.

              Lyons begins by discussing the definition of political documentary.  In this introductory section of the article, Lyons demonstrates that the definition of political documentary is very broad, and encompasses a wide variety of different films with different political agendas.  He quotes John Corner, who states that documentary should be “socially useful storytelling” (Lyons, 2016, pg. 492).  In reference to Michael Chanan, he says that documentary has “become more individual and personal” (2016, pg. 492). Drawing upon Debra Zimmerman, she says that if a film causes its audience to perceive an issue differently, than it can be seen as political (2016, pg. 492).

              In addition to the definition of political documentary, he describes the definition of specifically interactive political documentary.  Lyons explains how there is a group of films that sits in between films focused directly on politics and those that include political undertones of everyday life.  He describes how this middle ground is covered a lot in a new wave of digital interactive documentary.  This middle ground includes discussion about control of resources and the exercising of social powers, and more specifically, poverty, racism, the environment, etc.  As a result of the rapidly developing areas of cultural production, many issues related to terminology and classification, are debated.  Lyons quotes both Galloway and Mandy Rose, saying that interactive documentary is “any documentary that uses interactivity as a core part of its delivery mechanism (2016, pg. 493), and that it “opens up to participation...participation in terms of making” (2016, pg. 493).   With the advancements in technology and the increasing digitization of media, many new forms of documentary are being released.  These forms of documentary push the boundaries of traditional forms of cinema, forcing the industry to question what the term “interactive documentary” encompasses.   Lyons points out how Nichols says that the “textual authority shifts towards the social actors recruited” (2016, pg. 493) and their direct contact with the filmmakers.  In contrast, more recent definitions differ from this idea, saying that the ‘social actors’ do not need to have direct encounters with the filmmakers.  Due to the abundance of new digital mediums, interactions are no longer restricted to the filmmakers and their subjects, and interactions no longer have to be direct contact or encounters.  The interactivity of the documentary can also include the actions that the audience or viewers take in response to the documentary.

              Throughout the rest of the article, Lyons references Gaudenzi in order to explain the different types of interactivity that exists under the label of ‘interactive documentary’.  Gaudenzi’s work focuses on the ways in which participants interact with and encounter the documentary.  Lyons describes how Gaudenzi categorizes these interactions into “four dominant understandings of interactivity” (2016, pg. 493) and that each “create a different dynamic with the user, the author, the artifact, and its context” (2016, pg. 493), as well as raise specific issues pertaining to documentary politics.  These four modes include: hypertext, conversational, experiential and participative.

              In the first mode that Lyons discusses, he claims that it is arguably the most prominent, and is titled ‘hypertext’.  This mode is described as a documentary based on a series of selections created from options that are generated by a database.  This type of documentary is often found on the Internet – as it is designed for that specific platform – and is referred to as a webdoc.  Lyons gives an example of a webdoc: Journey To The End Of Coal (2008).  This webdoc addresses the viewer in the first person, and simulates an investigative journalistic environment.  The viewer makes choices from a list of selections, leading from one webpage to another, with each webpage containing text, photos, and short video interviews.  This type of narrative scheme differs from a traditional film, by allowing the viewer to view the documentary under a time scheme that is not restricted.  Lyons once again references Gaudenzi as he notes that this particular structure puts control in the hands of the audience, as they are given the opportunity to visit different sites found within the webdocs database.

              Although the first mode provides the audience with a more investigative approach to the documentary, Lyons describes how this interactive option distracts users from questioning the argument that is presented in the content they are viewing.  He is correct in saying that the choices are a form of distraction, as they lead the viewer to feel as if they are in complete control of the narrative.  In reality, the viewer has no control of the content, but rather a control over their individual view of the static content.  In contrast to Lyons idea, the film immerses the viewer in not only a full screen investigative environment but provides the opportunity to go back and view the documentary multiple times, each time selecting different options.  Although the underlying argument of the documentary stays the same, each time the documentary is viewed, a new narrative is formed based on the selections.  Through the presentation of multiple narratives, the audience is forced to question the argument as a result of questioning their own choices and decisions.  In this instance the audience is not distracted, but forced to construct a deeper understanding.

              The second interactive mode that Lyons discusses is referred to by Gaudenzi as ‘conversational’.  He explains how this mode has a goal of creating 3D interactive worlds that viewers can navigate seamlessly.  Two examples that Lyons provides of conversational interactive documentaries include Unconstitutional (2004) and Project Syria (2014).  In Unconstitutional (2004), the documentary focus was on Guantanamo Bay and the detainees held in the prison camp. Using the website Second-Life, the world takes the viewer’s avatar through the experience of being incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay, through 3D simulation and point-and-click option selection.  Lyons quotes digital artist Peggy Weil as she comments on the purpose of the project: “we do not torture your avatar, so rather than a torture chamber, we elected to build a contemplation chamber, a series of spaces to contemplate the practices going on in Guantanamo” (2016, pg. 493).  These spaces include real footage, news stories, photos, audio recordings, poems from detainees, and interrogation transcripts read by actors. 

              Another example that Lyons describes is the documentary Project Syria.  The project uses a 3D system to simulate a rocket shell attack in the streets of Aleppo, Syria, and being transported to a Syrian refugee camp in Iraq.  The audio and visuals were rendered using real video and photos, and Lyons discusses how this provides the audience with a personal experience of the event rather than receiving information from a secondary source.

              A question that Lyons poses in response to these documentaries is the political effectiveness of the works.  The main positive aspect of these simulation and virtual reality systems is that it creates new political dialogue that stems more from experience and virtual immersion rather than being based on the experiences and stories of others.  In contrast, Project Syria was shown at the 2014 World Economic Forum, in order to compel leaders to act.  Lyons explains that due to the project’s limited circulation, the producers can only hope that the project receives attention from the right individuals.  Being only accessible by a small portion of people limits its political effectiveness and opportunity to provoke action.  One idea that Lyon does not address however is the opportunity for virtual reality documentaries to be formatted for widespread accessibility.  The first project, Unconstitutional, was released on a website that is accessible to anyone with access to the Internet.  Documentaries like Project Syria that are only available as an installation, might be able to be reworked in the future, to be viewed from home on more modern devices such as the new Sony PlayStation VR.

              Another question that Lyons poses is a documentary’s ability to provoke its audience to act in response to their individual experiences.  He explains how, due to the growth of locative technologies, many different innovative projects have utilized these technologies to document events and issues occurring around the globe in specific settings.  These projects are labeled ‘experiential’ and are the third mode of interactive documentary.  Lyons provides a few examples of this type of documentary.   The first example is Eyes on the Prize (1987-1990).  The documentary was created by students who documented social justice problems in their neighborhood and tagged these narratives to their location using Google Earth.  Handheld GPS devices geo-tagged the stories so that individuals who were in those specific locations could play them back.  A second example is Coffee Deposits: Topologies of Chance (2010).  This documentary was situated in Istanbul, and attempted to chart the lives of everyday people in the city through “in-situ coffee shop encounters” (Lyons, 2016, p. 497).  Lyons describes how this particular project was halted when it was confronted with how Islamic politics impacted certain people in the city – a mobile encounter with a transsexual person revealed a story of harassment and discrimination, relating to the use of laws to take LGBT individuals into police custody. 

              Both of these examples demonstrate what Lyons describes as how “eliciting participant testimony can lead in unexpected geographic and discursive directions” (Lyons 2016, p. 497) and how these documentaries can evolve into works of “foregrounding issues of political and social justice” (2016, p. 497).  Coffee Deposits in particular, resulted in the dialogue of an extremely political happening in the city, and due to the controversy, forced the project to shut down.  Both of these projects give voices to those who would otherwise not have one, and as a result, many different narratives can emerge.  These examples in particular demonstrate Lyons earlier reference to Chanan, when saying that filmmakers are trying to make work that shows the “politics of identity” (2016, pg. 492).  Another example is the Quipu Project (2014 –) that aimed to share stories of indigenous women affected by the sterilization policy in Peru in the late 90s.  This project uses a toll-free telephone number to allow women to record personal testimonies, and then uploads these testimonies to their project website.    The importance of the project is that it gives a voice to those who were previously unable to communicate their experience with the rest of the world.  In the words of co-director Rosemarie Lerner, “for the first time they can actually become part of a wider dialogue” (2016, pg. 497).  Lyons states that the point of this particular documentary is not to recreate the event, but to “make conditions for the story to emerge” (2016, pg. 497), and that the documentary addresses the underlying conditions of isolation and disempowerment. What Lyons does not mention is that not only does this documentary allow for the story to emerge, but it also allows for multiple narratives that can be perceived as both separate and as a whole. The director is no longer the sole voice of the project, and many different people are given the opportunity to become directors of their own narratives.

              Another important point about the Quipu project is that it is through the participation of the women that this documentary exists; and it is through this form of documentary that new forms of collaboration can occur.  This leads into the final category of interactivity that Lyons discusses: the ‘participative’ mode.  Lyons explains that the participants contributing to the creation of a project can be viewed as both the creation of the content and to connect with others who share their experiences.  The example he gives of this particular mode is 18 Days in Egypt (2011 –), which described on their website is an “interactive, crowd-sourced documentary project about the ongoing Egyptian revolution” (Lyons, 2016, p. 498).  The project focuses on the protesters of the Egyptian uprising in 2011, by aggregating their social media content through the hashtag #18DaysinEgypt.  Lyons describes how an interactive platform called GroupStream was launched in 2012 “crowd-source, contextualize, and archive photographs, texts, tweets and video clips” (Lyons, 2016, p. 498).  Lyons argues that this documentary contrasts other forms of documentary as it is “designed to collate and document participatory experiences through an open and evolving database of user-generated content” (Lyons, 2016, p. 498), and that this form of documentary is a response to the original political catalyst using an interactive format.

              Lyons is correct in saying that this form of documentary contrasts other forms of documentary, due to it being open and continuously evolving.  What Lyons does not discuss is that unlike other forms of interactive documentary, the content does not go through a secondary source before being released.  The uploaded content is directly inputted into the database by the creator and is not edited or censored in anyway.  Even if the content is not directly featured on their website, the hashtag #18DaysinEgypt is still sorting the content into the same database and exists for the world to see.  This once again disrupts the definition of documentary, as the project itself can be perceived at its core as simply a hashtag.  In this way, new forms of interactive participatory documentary changes its ‘social actors’ into directors and narrative creators.

              In conclusion, the majority of the article provides a brief glance into the ever-expanding world of interactive documentary.  The article provides an in depth look at each of the four modes of interactivity in a simple and accurate way, and describes the spectrum of interactive documentaries in an unbiased manner.  Lyons arguments are based upon information gathered from those working in the documentary industry, but do not expand on the impact of the projects he describes.  He remains very neutral on the subject of interactive documentary as he mainly explains the different kinds, but where he interjects with personal opinion, he briefly argues his points leaving them to exist more as shallow facts.

              One overarching argument that Lyon presents is that none of the documentaries that he presents in the article allow for the audience the input of information as well as input structural ideas.  This argument can be combatted due to the structure of the 18 Days in Egypt documentary.  All of interactive political documentary arguably relies on the relationship between the audience and filmmaker, as they would not exist without that relationship.  The relationship determines how the documentary is structured, for example, the entire 18 Days in Egypt documentary is created and structured based on the content of what the participants submit. 

              Overall, interactive digital documentary breaks the mold of what a documentary is traditionally understood to be.  Documentary adapts to the changing digital landscapes in society by incorporating different digital platforms and mediums, in order to find new ways of storytelling. This type of documentary focuses predominantly on the relationship between the audience and the creators, and blurs the line between consumer and producer.

Lyons, J. (2016). Interactive Documentary: Film and politics in the digital era. In Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics (pp. 491-499). Routledge.

Unmet Expectations

Chapter 36: "Twenty-First Century Political Documentary in The United States," Betsy A. McLane. Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics, ed. by Yannis Tzioumakis and Claire Molloy

by Alexander Cybulsky

Betsy A. McLane (2016), author of “A New History of Documentary Film”, introduces her article on twenty-first century, American political documentary film as “a cumulative examination of specific trends in cultural norms, problems, political affairs, and experiences” (p. 447). However, rather than providing the reader with an examination of the genre, as promised, McLane (2016) offers more of a summary of specific filmmakers and their works, which she, admittedly through her own personal judgement, deems to have had “significant influences on American democratic processes” (p. 447). Although informative, the article unfortunately fails in analyzing the common themes and connections in political documentary films of this period. By the end of the chapter, the reader’s understanding of twenty-first century political documentary in the United States as a genre or subset of film is not any greater than before having read this work.  The chapter’s introduction identifies some common attributes of twenty-first century documentaries such as “a cynicism and a sense of apocalypse” and the fact that solutions to the problems presented in these films “often seem unreachable and the optimism for creating a better world that characterized earlier documentaries has dimmed” (McLane, 2016, p. 448). However, the socio-economic, political, or historic factors that are responsible for such shifts in the nation’s “mood” are never addressed despite McLane (2016) stating in her introduction that “this chapter considers the ways in which technologies, economic factors and artistic choices reveal how … documentarians see their country…” (p. 448). Due to the lack of a clear intended audience, the absence of original idea and critical analysis, and the failure to identify and explain overarching themes, the chapter is not a successful overview of twenty-first century, political documentaries in the United States.

McLane begins the article in a logical manner by establishing criteria as to what constitutes a political documentary and which films she will focus on in her work. However, the body of the work does not follow suit with the same concise organization. McLane introduces significant filmmakers and proceeds to summarize film after film, by providing a brief rundown of film style, and focusing on net proceeds and marketing methods and challenges. In her summary, McLane touches upon concepts such as “documentary ethics” without providing any form of explanation on the topic, which suggests the article may be intended for a reader with an extensive knowledge on the subject of documentary film. However, one could also argue that such a reader would already be familiar with the films McLane discusses and would find the rushed and repetitive summaries uninteresting. Furthermore, a person well versed in the subject may be less inclined to read the article as it does not assume a position or present any new information on the topic of twenty-first century political documentaries. The lack of original idea in the work becomes especially clear through an examination of McLane’s sources. Much of the cited works are articles from newspapers and magazine such as the Hollywood Reporter, The Guardian, Variety, and The New York Times. Rather than presenting her readers with original thoughts and supporting them with facts from primary sources, McLane provides a summary backed up by opinion pieces. To a reader less familiar with political documentary, the chapter does not prove any more useful as it fails to explain or elaborate on important concepts and does not identify any thematic commonalities. The recurring summaries and lack of original idea and supporting factual evidence fail to captivate a novice reader. Without having seen a filmmaker’s work, statements such as “technically and artistically well crafted, these films look and sound good on the big screen” do not carry much weight (McLane, 2016, p.450). McLane’s oversight of writing without an intended audience in mind, makes the chapter less successful as neither a novice nor an expert would find the work particularly stimulating or thoroughly interesting.

In her topic summaries of various films, McLane (2016) makes statements such as “the … administration covered up the truth of what had happened” and “…deals with government secrets and the way that information is disseminated and distorted…” (p. 450 & 451). However, the author essentially fails to identify government secrets as an overarching theme in twenty-first century, political documentary in the United States. McLane (2016) also comments on individuals who were “…intent on breaking walls of secrecy around what they perceived as unjust …”, but falls through on introducing the reader to the concept of a whistleblower – an individual who reports insider knowledge of illegal or unethical activities occurring in an organization; an important term in the context of twenty-first century politics (p. 451). Here especially, the author misses the opportunity to elaborate on how twenty-first century technologies and socioeconomic factors influence the relationship between the United States government and its citizens. Modern technologies give the individual a voice, and stories, which could not have been told and shared in previous centuries can now be shared with thousands of people instantaneously. The digital age facilitates journalism to act as the fourth branch of government more than ever before, holding public officials accountable and informing citizens of prominent issues; a notion coined as the Fourth Estate by Edmund Burke, a British parliament member in the seventeen hundreds (Crichton, Christel, Shidham, Valderrama, & Karmel). It seems that instances of governmental institutions depriving the country’s citizens of their basic human right to the freedom of information are the stories twenty-first century political documentary filmmakers are keen on telling (Norris, 2008). As McLane has mentioned, the early twenty-first century has been considered the “Golden Age” of political and social-feature length documentaries, but the author never explains how modern journalism and technology are the causes to this phenomenon. Rather than providing summary, McLane’s knowledge on the topic would have been particularly useful here in explaining why documentary filmmakers have collectively undertook bringing awareness to these issues through their works.

Another aspect of contemporary American political documentaries that McLane (2016) points out but does not follow up on is the fact that a majority are made from a left-leaning perspective and that “…politically conservative documentaries have not tended to attract significant attention or feature in major film festivals” (p.454). Rather than providing an explanation for this important characteristic of twenty-firm century political documentary, McLane (2016) goes on to introduce “one conservative film that did get a large amount of attention…” (p. 454). Although relevant, the reader is not any more informed on the topic and left wondering what is the reasoning behind the facts presented. Jim Hubbard, a film and festival director, has speculated that there seems to be “a huge disconnect between conservatives and film” and “conservatives tend to shun the arts (Anderson, 2006). Filmmaker Michael Wilson holds that “film, to a large degree, has long been considered in the realm of liberal thought” and “the conservative movement has been about talk radio, maybe books” (Anderson, 2006). Whether these explanations are entirely accurate or not, the presentation of facts without any kind of support or explanation results in confusion and frustration for the reader who wishes to understand the topic put forward. It seems that McLane’s focus is on introducing works that she herself finds interesting or significant and is less concerned with informing the reader on the topic or presenting new knowledge.

In a sense, McLane (2016) sets up the reader for disappointment by promising one thing in the introduction and delivering another in the body of the work. The chapter does not read as a “cumulative examination of specific trends” (p. 447).  In fact, “technology”, a topic promised to be “considered” in the introduction, does not get mentioned again until the chapter’s conclusion. McLane’s conclusion does not serve as a conclusion at all, but rather presents new information that seems out of place. McLane begins the subsection by providing a brief historic summary of the last 120 years of documentary making – information that would have likely proved to be more useful near the beginning. The conclusion then goes on to discuss the popularity of documentary in contrast to other types of film. However, the ineffectiveness of the conclusion is not surprising as no original or structured thoughts were presented for the author to conclude. The majority of McLane’s chapter was a summary of information without much critical connection. The reader becomes aware of specific filmmakers and important works. Unfortunately, this awareness does not translate into useful knowledge on the topic of contemporary American political documentary. McLane’s failure to consider who the intended audience for her work should be, to provide original thought and critical analysis, and to establish and analyze common themes and connections in the genre make her chapter an unsuccessful overview of twenty-first century, political documentaries in the United States.


Anderson, J. (2006, July 15). An Uprising on the Right in a World That Leans Left. Retrieved March 12, 2017, from

Crichton, D., Christel, B., Shidham, A., Valderrama, A., & Karmel, J. (n.d.). Journalism in The Digital Age. Retrieved March 12, 2017, from

McLane, B. A. (2016). Twenty-First Century Political Documentary in The United States. In Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics (pp. 447-457). New York, New York: Routledge.

Norris, P. (2008). Driving democracy: do power-sharing institutions work? Cambridge: Cambridge university press.