Written by: Maddy Pattison-Sharp, currently a second year at King’s College London studying International Relations. Her specific interests are diverse and varied but she has a particular interest in IR through the use of the arts as well as topics such as post-colonialism and human rights.
“Solutions to our most critical problems are not to be found in institutional hierarchy or traditional policy and enforcement models, but rather in collective action, dispersed innovation, and shared responsibility” (Friedenwald-Fishman, 2011)
Throughout history, the arts have been a tool for the voiceless or oppressed to have their voice heard. Traditional media has been used in this way to some effect, however the evolution of new forms of media, and in particular documentaries, have arguably become a much more effective tool in order to highlight social issues. Let’s take a look at this came about.
One of the foremost historical cases of this traditional media usage is ‘agitprop’ used originally by the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic in order to promote their ideology to the masses through the medium of stage plays, pamphlets, motion pictures conveying an overtly political message. This was later adopted by highly politicized left-wing theatre in the 1920s. Whilst this movement used non-traditional methods to promote strictly political objectives, more recent waves have recognized the power of media in the support of wider issues of gender, ethnic, sexual and socio-economic oppression.
Feminist art movements in the late 60s highlighted gender inequalities and forged the way for these issues to be addressed within the political framework. Their goal as stated by Suzanne Lacy was – and still is – to “influence cultural attitudes and transform stereotypes” (Lacy, 2010). Traditional art forms were however still the default, and it could be argued that even the ground-breaking seminal literature of Kate Millett’s, ‘Sexual Politics’ (1969) and Germaine Greer’s, The Female Eunuch (1970) were received in the main by an educated, middle-class, adult audience. Was this in part preaching to the eager-to-be-converted population? The iconic publication, Spare Rib Magazine (1972-1993), used a different form of media to increase accessibility for a wider target market. They further raised the movements’ profile by harnessing the emerging emancipation of the sexual revolution of the 1960’s pioneers of ‘second wave feminism’ from across the Atlantic. Their complete library was an access for a new generation (and is now online). It could be argued women’s theatre during the ‘second wave’ actually took this accessibility, education and empowerment one stage further with companies like ‘Monstrous Regiment’ and ‘The Women’s Theatre Group’, eschewing the male dominance of conventional middle-class and conservative theatre by creating new works by women, for women played out in schools and community centres.
Whilst these literary and artistic movements in general have been and continue to be an invaluable tool to highlight social issues and force change, it is always a frustratingly slower journey to translate this into significant and lasting political change. These movements continue to evolve, develop and take new forms, especially with the innovations in social media.
A case in point is perhaps surprisingly Mexican TV stations, who have created an initiative through telenovelas (limited run drama series) in order to promote social change in relation to issues including gender inequality. The use of this popular medium as an educational tool taps into mass-market appeal and thereby has potential to be particularly effective by reaching large audience and broad demographics including many families: a group notoriously difficult to target collectively. This talks directly to those who may feel disenfranchised and powerless by reflecting issues that directly affect them or to which they have hitherto never had access.
The profile and widening participation of those who watch documentary films make them a crucial means for social change due to knowledge sharing, resulting more often than not in increased empowerment. A key organisation and example of this is ‘Ambulante’ a “non-profit organization that focuses on supporting and promoting documentary film as a tool for social and cultural transformation”. Founded in Mexico, this institution’s vision is ‘to construct together a more critical, empathetic, open and engaged society.’ The encouragement of debate within Mexico and subsequently abroad of documentary subjects creates a platform for further dialogue. An initiative of the organisation is ‘Ambulante beyond’ which concentrates on marginalised communities. Freed from the constraints of what they call conventional storytelling models, it enables a different narrative perspective providing different unique, cultural perspectives.
And indeed, Mexico is an often-cited example for the issue of gender inequality. This inequality persists in many forms, including high levels of domestic violence and femicide as well as lack of women’s political participation and crucially representation. This is compounded by issues of marginalisation within Mexico, with many indigenous groups facing both economic, racial & economic discrimination. Coverage of these inequalities within Mexico, this has stemmed from the traditional political and media hierarchy i.e. a ‘top-down’ view of these complex issues. Whilst it is crucial that it ultimately enters into the political arena to formulate the policy, there is an argument that coverage of these issues should also – and maybe more importantly – be derived through a bottom-up approach at the grassroots level. Without this localised perspective, a vast amount of stakeholders remain disengaged and ill-informed, even though these decisions affect them the most.
In order to create real change, or at the very least bring to light social issues especially within marginalized communities, breaking through the usually impenetrable political and media barriers, organisations like Ambulante bring us one step closer to achieving this.
If you are interested in Ambulante, make sure to also have a look at Refugio:
Refugio (2015) is a powerful short documentary that has been made through Ambulante, and follows the story of indigenous Guatemalan ex-refugees and their displaced lives in Mexico. Emphasis is placed on the trauma of the Guatemalan genocide but the emphasis is placed on the reconstruction of the main characters lives and additionally brings to light a unique and previously unknown family story. If you don’t speak Spanish, you can switch the website language to English!
(Trailer link: http://ambulante.com.mx/en/more/documentary/refugio-1)
Andaló, P. Love, Tears, Betrayal …and Health Messages, 2003
“Agit-Prop”. Tate.org.uk. N.p., 2016. Web. 26 Oct. 2016, http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/glossary/a/agit-prop
Eric Friedenwald-Fishman, No art? No social change. No innovation economy – May. 26, 2011 https://ssir.org/articles/entry/no_art_no_social_change._no_innovation_economy
“Feminist Theatre – Drama Online”. Dramaonlinelibrary.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 26 Oct. 2016, http://www.dramaonlinelibrary.com/genres/feminist-theatre-iid-2485
Greer, G. The Female Eunuch, 1970 Paladin
Lacy, S. Leaving Art: Writings on Performance, Politics, and Publics, 1974–2007
Millett, K. Sexual Politics, 1970 Rupert Hart-Davis
“Spare Rib Magazine Goes Online For The First Time”. The British Library. N.p., 2016. Web. 26 Oct. 2016, https://www.bl.uk/press-releases/2015/may/spare-rib-magazine-goes-online-for-the-first-time
“What Kate Did”. New Republic. N.p., 2016. Web. 26 Oct. 2016, https://newrepublic.com/article/131897/kate