Actors or Subjects?

One thing that I have consistently struggled with when watching works of visual anthropology is how you can delineate between when the people you are filming are being treated (and behave) as actors or subjects, and perhaps which is more appropriate for the medium.  Early documentaries a anthropological documentaries had a tendency to reenact what the film maker felt were genuine cultural practices from the ethnic group they were filming. The major problem with this is that by having the people being filmed reenacting their own cultural practices corrupts how they would naturally perform those practices as they may seek to “put on a performance” for the camera. This also opens up avenues for the film maker to exaggerate and focus on certain customs and traits of cultural groups, unwittingly or perhaps consciously blowing them up for the benefit of the filmmaker and the film. Visual Anthropologists rebelled against this in the late 60’s by adopting long unedited shots and little to no presence of the film makers in the film. This helped add more genuine qualities to documentaries, but the presence of the camera still effects the behavior those being filmed and so this method must still be scrutinized and analyzed otherwise we may become to confident in it’s ability to communicate genuine depictions of human behavior. Another unfortunate product of this transition is the palatability of films to the general public. By treating those being filmed more as subjects as opposed to actors the films become much better tools for academic analysis but at the same time the films become less accessible and so somewhat limit their impact on the general public. So what is preferable, to accept that to some degree anyone being filmed and is aware of the camera is an actor, or to focus instead on capturing as realistic as possible a depiction of those being filmed by treating them as subjects?

Wasteland

Vik Muniz’s work in Brazil is inspiring in the social activist work documenting his efforts entitled “Wasteland.” Muniz himself is well versed in the poverty he captures in his art; he was born in one of the many slums in Rio De Janero and made it to America with less then 3 dollars to his name. Working in a department store, Muniz found he had a pashion for collecting the refuse that people threw out and making art with it. This unique approach to art got Muniz an immense popularity and following that rocketed him to high status in many art circles. Muniz took this fame with him to the trash heaps back in his native Brazil in an attempt to docuemnet the troubles faced by the residents there. I cannot say much on Wasteland past this point that wouldn’t spoil the amazing film, but I will leave this post with a great picture that shows the impressive scope of the social activist art that Muniz undertook. I highly encourage that anyone reading this post go and see this amazing film.

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Jared Callahan and Compassionate Filmmaking

Jared Callahan has the sort of personality that captures the entire room the moment he enters. He seems to actually listen to your voice and opinions, and makes you feel important when you talk to him. This in itself is not a unique trait, but what is is that his mannerisms come across in his films. I found his short films especially to be compassionate and inquisitive, despite their brevity, and reflective of who he is as a film maker.

What stood out from meeting Jared was his desire to portray his subjects as lovable people. As a person who primarily deals with narrative film, I find this to be difficult because I spend so much time creating flawed characters who are interesting, and taking already flawed people and making them lovable is a totally different approach. In consideration of how to do this, I’ve been thinking about a phrase he tossed out: creative audacity. As filmmakers we need to have the creative audacity to dare to tell stories with sensitivity and capture the humanity of our subjects, rather than focus on the “otherness” that makes them compelling to research. How to be responsible to our subjects while still telling a story that is interesting to an audience is an issue I’m still struggling with, but I appreciate Callahan’s approach of making a story about a person who is or who does something, rather than something that is being done by a person.

Pressure to Please Our Parents

American Moderate was an eye opening film for me because I did not expect to connect with Liz as much as I did. Although, my parents and I do not have big discussions about politics, we do however; disagree on many other important things. Our opinions on romantic relationships, career and education differ mainly because of our different upbringings. My parents lived through communist and post-communism Albania, while I have lived in New York City for most of my life. Although, I often believe I am capable of “doing my own thing”, the older I have gotten and the further away from home I am, I have come to realize that I am heavily influenced by their beliefs and what they think of me and my actions.

Liz is growing up in the age of social media and is influenced by many more different people and in many more different ways than her parents. I too am growing up in the social media age and am surrounded by a number of different beliefs and ways of living than my parents have in their entire lives. Even knowing this, I did not expect Liz to be concerned about the fact that she held different beliefs from her family, because my impression of most American youth is that they adopt the attitude of “doing my own thing”.

Screencap of "American Moderate" by Jared Callahan.

Screencap of “American Moderate” by Jared Callahan.

Falling in Love with Film

What makes us fall in love with a film?

I found myself asking this question as I walked out of class after meeting Jared Callahan last week. While his three shorts we watched, Janey Makes a Play, American Moderate, and The Many Friends of Sommer Caffarella were all beautiful, well-constructed, and heartwarming pieces of film, none of them immediately struck me as impactful. Not in the way that Homemade or The Burning had – in a way that made me feel moved to action or residually haunted by problems that seemed so grand that they couldn’t filter through the sieve of my attention span. After watching Jared’s films I felt intrigued and impressed, but beyond that they left nothing but a warm aura of an impression.

And then we met Jared. From reading the other posts of my classmates, I know I’m not the only one who felt drawn into his charismatic responses to questions and his infectious enthusiasm. Within minutes of first hearing him speak about his filmmaking history and process, I wanted to see every film he’d ever made and ever film he would ever make. Forgetting the slow lulls in Janey Makes a Play that I had noted the night before, I found myself retrospectively enchanted with all of Jared’s films. I wanted to watch them again, I wanted to tell other people about them, and I wanted everyone to know how great this person and his artwork appeared to me. Suddenly, I felt a certain type of love for these pieces of work and their creator.

While I reacted with cynicism towards other guests we have brought into the class, I found for the first time that meeting Jared made me like his films more. That his approach, one he described as centered on a goal of “having [viewers] fall in love with [the subjects of his films],” made me feel more accepting of the films we had watched and less critical of their agendas. Jared’s films suddenly seemed an extension of himself, someone I found compassionate and charming, making his camera’s gaze seem comparably kind. Knowing and liking Jared made me feel like I knew and liked his film. Like I really, truly loved his films that night before I had felt somewhat ambivalently about.

As I’ve thought about the way meeting Jared tinted my perceptions of his films, I’ve begun to wonder if more important than the question of what makes us love certain films is if in doing so we come to love the people who create them. American Moderate, my favorite of the three pieces, portrays a set of characters who I would imagine I’d find it hard and disagreeable to interact with in person. Liz and her community are different from me – they have different views, different life experiences, and different values in many ways – but through Jared’s vision of them I found them understandable if not even endearing. However, I am unsure if the feeling of warmth that I feel towards Liz is truly directed at her: if I love Liz or if I love the way Jared loves Liz. If I love the subjects of his film or if I love his outlook on them. And if the two are divorceable in the first place.

In class we spoke at length about the ability to like films without liking their filmmakers, alluding to immoral or unpleasant filmmakers, authors, and others. It seemed like many of us thought that while in some capacities knowing an author, or actor, or director may be a “bad” person makes us look at their work more critically – in documentary film, several of us could find examples of films we loved despite their grating subjects. While I wasn’t uniquely drawn to Liz or Janey, meeting Jared made me feel drawn to the way he understood them. Piecing through this experience, I’ve begun to wonder if what makes us love documentaries – something unique from loving fictitious creators – is loving the way they see things.

The things I found enticing about Janey Makes a Play and Jared’s other works were not their stories or even their subjects, and in some sense, I believe that contrary to his objective, what Jared made us love was not these people but rather his relationships to them. Janey Makes a Play is only exciting because of the admiration that Jared expresses when he speaks about his grandmother. The Many Friends of Sommer Caffarella is heartwarming because of the kindness with which we see Jared interact with Sommer and the palpable intimacy and love in their relationship. Liz, a girl from a background that has led her to have beliefs I fundamentally disagree with, is relatable because Jared chose to make her so, omitting intentionally incriminating footage of her and her family saying racist or offensive things. In all of these instances what draws me to these people are never the people themselves but Jared’s choice to portray them in a certain light – I am drawn to his perspective and his mission as a filmmaker.

I believe that this relationship – not just between the viewer and the filmmaker – but between the viewer and the filmmaker’s perspective and intent is integral to the way we consume and relate to documentary film. Thinking back to other guests we had in the class, the significance of this relationship became more apparent. I didn’t dislike Danielle as a person; I disliked the way she related to a family she saw struggling and the way she chose to represent them. While these are examples are anecdotal, they speak to what I believe is a critical component of what makes us love film: an ability to find in film a perspective that appeals to us and resembles our own, people who look through similar lenses and interpret things in similar frameworks. Just like how we find ourselves in characters, in fiction, and in people, we find ourselves equally in the resonance between our own outlook and those of others’. I love Jared’s approach to film because it seems grounded in a set of principles that are agreeable with my own. Even if we can divorce people from their work and their character from the quality of their creations, it is perhaps in the inextricable influence of an artist’s perspective that we find ourselves falling in love with work – with the idea that the frameworks through which we interpret, imagine, and observe the world are shared and given some weight of truth.

Jared Callahan’s Work

janey-laughs-on-jared

Once Jared told us that Janey was actually his grandmother that just completely changed everything. The fact that he knew her just shed light on so many of my questions such as how he was able to incorporate such raw footage from her wedding and past pictures. The use of her own proper archived videos and pictures, made it way more real and you could really connect with her. I also really liked the fact that he focused on the history and nature of the town Rio Vista along with the community and their struggle, as it really completes the picture. I also could really relate with the point he was trying to relate through Janey makes a play about Ageism in the US and it really gets you to think about your own life and what your doing with it. This especially hit hard at the end when the 16 year-old girl dies yet the 95 year old still lives.

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It was clear from all three clips that the relationship with the subjects is strongly based on trust. This is especially relevant for the short clip American moderate as he could have thrashed the family but instead portrayed them as balanced and not homophobic or racist. Also, the way it was filmed also made us as the viewer really follow her journey of struggle and indecision.

His “compassionate” style of filming really makes the films more about the people and their stories as opposed to getting a real point across although the point is also conveyed in the end. He thus addresses big issues by letting the audience fall in love with the characters. His job as a storyteller is to make the audience fall in love with the characters and I feel like her really did a great job capturing that, although to a certain extent it seemed like he just really focused on the positive and completely omitted the negative. This just made the documentaries a little to idealistic if I may and a bit too fake as there is more to these people’s stories than just happiness, we all struggle and seeing the struggle can allow the viewer to connect at an even deeper level.

Fan-girling

Honestly, I want to use this post to fan-girl over Jared Callahan for a quick second. He was, by far, the best guest that we’ve had in class this semester – and I don’t mean this out of disrespect for any of our others guests, because they were all awesome, but Jared just went above and beyond. His enthusiasm and energy was vibrant and contagious. Honestly, I enjoyed his films but I loved them even more after hearing him talk about them and his passion for helping individual people and allowing the world to look at someone specifically and view their story while he tries to make you “fall in love” with them.

Jared’s enthusiastic personality about his work and what he does was just so refreshing and inspiring. I think I talked about this a little bit in a previous post but this semester has really opened up my eyes. I’ve never known what I wanted to do with my life and finally I’m starting to see a clearer path or at least a direction that I would like to pursue. I’ve never even thought about doing documentaries before but this class in particular has provided me with a newfound interest in social practice art and specifically in documentaries. Honestly, Jared is someone I can see myself wanting to be like – he is just so passionate about what he does and expresses that through his words, actions, and films. I just want to find my passion and I want to be able to discover myself and the complexities of the world in which I live in.

I’ve never been a super materialistic individual but this course has made me even less of one. Everyone talks about how important it is to have a good job and make a good living and be able to provide for yourself and your family. While I don’t disagree with that statement, I do disagree with the extent to which people take it. I’m never going to be the person that needs the latest iPhone or next model of sports car; that’s just not who I am. I’ve come to realize that all I really want to do in my life is make a difference, and maybe that’s an idealistic way to think, maybe I should be focused on making a living and being able to send my kids to college but at the end of the day, I just don’t believe that. Is it important to make enough money to live comfortably? Yeah I would say so. Is it important to save for your kids’ future and your own future? Yes of course. But is it really important to make more money than you need, buy things out of desire, and spend money like it’s your job? To that I’d say no.

I know that this post is kind of all over the place but I just needed to express how much I love this class and am so grateful for the opportunities, insight, and perspective that it has given me.

Jared Callahan

Truthfully, I fell in love with Jared’s documentaries as well as his personality. I admired his strong enthusiasm, open curiosity, and the positive energy he presented when visiting our class. You could tell he truly has a passion for filmmaking, and he had a genuine interest in our own creative ideas and endeavors. He also displayed an admiration for his films’ subjects and a desire to convey simply who they are as people rather than primarily focus on a certain issue. I felt this was different from what we’ve experienced with previous films and filmmakers in this class, particularly Imba Means Sing and Homemade. For Jared, from what I understand, his main mission is to make the audience fall in love with the character(s), and then by doing so, he can shed light on a certain issue. From my personal experience watching his films, I felt this was an effective approach. In Jared’s own words, “by understanding the subject(s), you understand the concept.” This also tied into his last piece of advice given to us at the end of class, which was to “tell a big story through a small window.” Jared found this to be an important concept in filmmaking and storytelling, offering this message to us as we embark upon our own film projects. That being said, I also appreciated Jared’s advice on filmmaking itself. He tapped into what’s important in making/directing a film and delved into the creative process, giving us insight and advice on how to go about our own projects. There was something about the way Jared explained ideas and concepts that really made me feel exposed to the mind of a creative filmmaker. Other points of advice he mentioned were to tap into how films affect a wider audience, to spend time in the messiness of things, and to always have multiple ways to write ideas. I think Jared’s visit, at least for me, helped inspire the importance of creativity and how we can develop and grow as artists and creative thinkers.

Scaaaarrry Post!

A question I would like to pose: can a critique be positive?

In the films we watched there were notable connections from the personal to the political. The way in which you learned about social structures, stigma, and prejudice by being confronted with a living moving image of someone, is brilliant. It’s a sure way to start knocking away at the rigid categories we allow to blind us to the complex realities. Tying personal narratives to larger patterns is pretty cool. I think the play about Sommer perhaps does the best job of this even though it is the shortest film at just over 9 minutes.

I am glad that it is becoming more difficult for me to critique some of the films that we are screening. It means that I have to think more and pushes me to challenge the way I view films and by extension the world.

Janey Makes a Play

Disclaimer: My memory may be lacking when it comes to Janey Makes a Play since I watched 3 other films right before it, so if I’ve forgotten things which may at least partially counter any of these points, please feel free to make them known.

It would have been fantastic to see real conflicts among the troupe that put on the play or even the broader community. As much of a family as everyone seemed in the play, I am almost certain there are at least some conflicts sometimes, but these don’t seem to be shown much. Depicting such clashes would have complexified the people and, depending on their responses, deepened our sense of the bonds between them. Perhaps this may be why I personally felt some distance from the characters in this film and the story portrayed, despite the fact that I thought what they were doing was very cool.

While the debut of the play is certainly an example of conflict and a source of tension, it appears to be framed moreso as a common goal in which everyone is united against rather than provoking conflicts within the group and a plurality of directions in which to go.

I am also extremely curious to see how the group fares after Janey passes away. I think this could the basis of a film in itself. Will they be able to survive the absence of the charismatic energetic mover? Will they grow together in new ways or decay and splinter into many directions? Perhaps sending some toward new avenues and other not so much.

The juxtaposition between the alienating structural pressures like unemployment and other financial burdens with the sense of community and performance nicely demonstrate how our society isn’t necessarily based on what is really fulfilling for us. I kind of wish it dug more into this and how such things might be challenged.

If it is the job of the filmmaker to hone their techniques in crafting a story, then perhaps it is the duty of the viewer (and critic, if we like) to dissect what is presented and go even beyond that vision.

It may be that the way we see art is more of a reflection of ourselves than what is presented. So if we cultivate observation and openness to uncertainty, then we could also bring this investigative practice and awareness to our viewings of film and other forms of art too.

Yet if this reflective/reflexive form of critique can tell us about the social impact of film: that is, how it’s perceived and what consequences are tied with that, (more complex than determined in a linear fixed way) then that seems pretty useful! It can allow us to look more deeply and clearly at our own patterns of creating and consuming media.

I would really like to learn more about the creation of the community theater, of this new setting (Sarason 1972). How did this group figure out how to act (haha) when it first formed? How has it changed and how is it still evolving? How did other institutions and organizations respond to the community theater? Were there any conflicts? We’re told that the first 7 years sold out all of their shows and that there seems to be a rather good relation with the school and students, but there’s much more that must have happened than just that.

It seems like there is a rather zoomed in picture that maybe leaves certain more complex details out. Then again, certain conditions drove Janey to create the group. If part of the goal is to show that such different relations are possible and desirable, then showing the tougher times within the community is just as important as the good times.

American Moderate

I had some thoughts about this film too. The character here does feel a bit more real and I did experience more of a connection to her. It’s definitely useful for challenging some of our ideas and stereotypes about people belonging to certain social groups, including American political parties. It’s even good for questioning our own identities and self-inscribed categories. I enjoyed the part about feminism and also when Liz says “But…I’m a republican, I know I am…I’ve always been…”

However, I felt there were a few missing points that could have complemented the film wonderfully. The first is that it appears rather self-contained and does not locate itself within an ongoing historical context. I think this is actually a bias very present within our generation as well as our world’s media production. It would have been really helpful to bring up similar decisions which people have faced in the past within various cultures and social structures. Mentioning the past(s) while acknowledging their complexity seems doable to me.

I think the inclusion of similar instances from the past would have framed the individual indecisiveness and uncertainty in a very nice way and allowed viewers to possibly begin taking a more critical view at and start questioning our political institutions, society and culture. To start asking questions like: why have we been divided into two groups? Were things always this way? How did they get this way and who benefits from and works to maintain it? I understand this may be beyond the scope of the film and the maker’s intent, but these are the kinds of new avenues that begin to open up when we take a longer view of the issues affecting us today. If you think about it, doesn’t majoritarian democracy inherently foster social relations rooted in antagonism and domination (“winner” take all!) over compassionate understanding and collaboration?

Which brings me to my next point: beyond voting.

People may challenge their perceptions of one another but I do not think this is enough. Small steps toward breaking down prejudices are certainly necessary, crucial even, but they do not go far enough on their own because they don’t have to change our fundamental social relations. We also need to challenge the systems that manufacture and thrive on these types of divisions. The fact is that people gain and maintain power through these divisions. Those who command the majority of the planet’s wealth and resources were never voted in, and they’ll never be voted out either. Whether it’s by pitting megacorp employees against those subservient to ultracorp, people living in other countries, or even each other, the divisions perpetuate the hierarchy.

As Ken Knabb points out:

“The side that takes the initiative usually wins because it defines the terms of the struggle. If we accept the system’s own terms and confine ourselves to defensively reacting to each new mess produced by it, we will never overcome it. We have to keep resisting particular evils, but we also have to recognize that the system will keep generating new evils until we put an end to it.

By all means vote if you feel like it. But don’t stop there. Real social change requires participation, not representation.”

I truly wish that a question had been raised at the electoral system and voting itself. And whether there is legitimate social activity beyond this and who decides that.

Why do we vote for these teams? And why do we vote for others to make whatever decisions they like and think it represents us? And why do we want someone else to represent us or think we need it?

Heh, it sort of makes me think about films. Do we really think they can or do represent reality? Perhaps by seeing them as representations and stories we can better pick them apart and be less attached to them. Then we might even enjoy them more, without becoming stuck as easily in the narratives and assumptions they (re)produce with us. Which means we can participate in the creation of our own lives and worlds.

Can love of a character cause us to challenge these ideas? Can empathy for another portrayed in film enable us to reevaluate assumptions?

Maybe, but the conclusions we leave with can vary as much as our assumptions going in. If we bounce our assumptions off of what we view and project our existential experiences onto others, we can easily view someone like Liz and feel validated in our uncertainties or become more open to and aware of the lives of others. However, in neither case does this necessarily result in us going deeper and questioning where these realities stem from and how they are formed. It can become a way of seeing how others do not really know either, and stopping there. It can also serve as a way of thinking that we just need to try to make our decisions well without questioning the context and strategy laid out for us. Thus, the dominant answers, the narratives which we swim in, continue as if they were natural laws, eternal and immutable.

I do not think we can present a story without our own influence. The only thing that varies is the nature of that influence. Whether we contribute questions or hold off on them, select dialogue, framings and frames, cuts and edits, audio or silence, or present some things or leave things out, these are all a part of the web that our creation contributes to and is made up of, which it impacts and is also shaped by and perceived through. This social fabric woven by so many different forces.

Whether we like it or not, what we leave out, neglect to mention, contributes to the context and content of what we put forth. If we do not challenge what people bring to bear, what they carry along with them, then we cannot entirely say “well, they just see their reflections” as if it were the only possible result. Without challenging the lens people bring how can we expect things not to be refracted through those lens? Film is sort of like substituting one lens (of the camera and creator) for that created by any other source that inevitably filters information. So can we shatter one lens without simply replacing it with another? Or rather, can we change the relationship one has with their lens—the ways we look at and with them?

Positive vision is needed, but that almost never means going along with all of the already accepted ideas, assumptions and norms. We must be inspired by the opportunities for change and visions of where to go. This means seeing the problems for what they are, openness to complexity and discomfort, and a willingness to do everything to change them! It means to critique and go beyond, to use strategy and determination together.

References

Knabb, K. (2016, October 26). Beyond Voting. Retrieved October 31, 2016, from http://www.bopsecrets.org/recent/beyond-voting.htm

Sarason, S. B. (1972). The creation of settings and the future societies. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

On Food Inc. and Individual Accountability for Change

In the 2008 documentary Food Inc., director and producer Robert Kenner explores the workings of the United States’ domestic industrial agriculture sector in order to uncloak the intricacies of one of the most secrecy-shrouded industries in the United States. Combining heart wrenching, vérité footage of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) with interviews from nutrition, environment, and agriculture experts, and narration from Michael Pollan, a leading author on food sustainability, Food Inc. is emotionally riveting and scientifically grounded. One of the highest budget and best received films of its kind, Food Inc. stands out in a sea of consciousness-raising documentaries about different parts of American agribusiness as a film-festival and box office success and a true inspiration for change in the diets of Americans everywhere.

Food Inc. is broken into three parts: one that explores animal confinement and the inhumane practices used to raise meat and dairy animals en masse, a second that documents the environmental and economic damage inflicted by subsidizing commodity crops like corn and soy for animal feed, and a final segment that investigates the legal and political apparatuses that enable the industry to grow unchecked by public or political restraint and oversight. It is in its detailed and broad-reaching perspective that Food Inc. finds its voice; its exposé is well-rounded, supported by data and expert testimony, and thorough in its review. It is both academically diligent and emotionally charged. Food Inc. is in every sense an excellent documentary.

Yet, like so many documentaries, Food Inc. falls prey to the perils of consciousness-raising as a political strategy, which becomes particularly apparent in the film’s exploration into agribusiness as an industry that thrives off of its ability to displace the burden of choice and responsibility onto consumers. As Food Inc. dives deeper and deeper into the multifaceted and well-crafted social and political contraptions that enable agribusiness to succeed, industry experts and interviewed farmers alike explain that the agriculture industry’s control over American diets is cemented by its ability to displace blame and shield itself from criticism. By promoting social messaging through advertising and the manipulation of federal and state laws and guidelines, the agriculture industry has created a trap for consumers. Government policies constantly lessen and deny the industry’s responsibility for the obesity epidemic and climate change while increasing costs and burdens on consumers through taxes and misdirected subsidies. With the additional promotion of salient social narratives that fault individuals for not making healthier choices, the food industry derives much of its power from its ability to constrict individuals’ choices by making unhealthy food the most cost competitive option and then blame those individuals for making “bad” decisions. It is in this process of shifting blame onto consumers that agribusiness turns critical eyes away from its practices and towards the dietary habits of the public, suggesting that things would be better and the world would be healthier and safer if only people chose differently.

These narratives that fault consumers for mass environmental and health-related damage are toxic. Not only do they place the social burden of public health and environmental crises on low income and minority populations who are the least likely to be able to afford to use their limited purchasing power to “make healthy choices” in revolt against agribusiness, they also divert attention from the unsustainable and inhuman practices of the ever-growing agriculture industry itself. It is at the ends of such conclusions, that Food Inc.’s consumer focused approach to change seems misplaced. After a 94 minute testament to the danger inherent in investing the power of social change into a constricted and largely uninformed public (despite the film’s attempt to shed light on the secrecy that surrounds factory farming), Food Inc.’s final call for people to “vote three times a day” to change the system by making different consumption choices rings out uncannily similar to agribusinesses direction for consumers to do the same. Food Inc., ironically, pushes viewers further into the trap laid by factory farming in directing them to assert more agency of their choices, all the while acknowledging that those choices are limited and predetermined by agribusiness. Food Inc.’s call to action is nothing more than an impetus for grassroots efforts to work harder for demand-side reform of the food market, a market so large and politically protected that demand seems to have little to do with it.

While this dilemma is easily identified in Food Inc. and its associated impact campaign, similar complications in documentary’s efficacy as a tool for social change writ large are intrinsic to the medium’s form. Documentary can be powerful, moving, informative, and stimulating. But its power cannot stretch beyond its ability to move audiences. And while a vast, public audience may be a filmmaker’s dream and a necessary ingredient for broader change, it is ultimately insufficient if documentary cannot direct that audience’s efforts towards the heart of problems. While film may motivate people to act, to act in what way is an often unanswered or poorly answered question. In the case of Food Inc., the film paints the picture of a problem fraught with political protection, yet fails to answer the questions it raises about how to change the subsidy system, alter laws that restrict people from reporting on factory farm practices, or lower the costs of organic and sustainable foods. Food Inc. settles for the “do what you can with what you have” approach that agriculture relies – the very structure of demotivating the public that many exploitative and oversized industries like fossil fuel markets and pharmaceutical practices rely on.

While Food Inc. is an important contribution to the discussion about how to reform the food supply chain, it must be taken in critically, and with a cautious refusal to simplify the solution to a growingly complex problem down to “making better choices.” Until governments and markets start demanding differently subsidy and regulatory frameworks, agriculture corporations will maintain a monopoly over political power, even while consumers fight them with the full might of their spending power. Thus, in light of Food Inc., the public should reconsider not what the film demands of them, but what they should demand of those with agency over the supply chain. It is not enough to just ask the right questions to viewers. In response to Food Inc. and other documentaries that encourage us to change, we should ask ourselves the important question of what is within our power to affect and what is not. And with the knowledge that many decisions have been removed from our hands, we should be motivated to ask the right questions of the right people, forcing accountability onto those who should bear it, refusing to accept blame for a problem individuals alone did not cause.