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mediawar vs. mediaware
An opinionated reflection on documentary, democracy, war and technology

by Peter Wintonick

"Like the illusionism to which it owes a great debt, techno-scientific development has become the art of the false in the service of the art of the lie - a series of manipulations of appearances, tricks and, in some cases, a tissue of absurdities."
- Paul Virilio, Ground Zero (2002)

This essay is a colliding collage of ideas and mediated meditations brought on by the EndGame in the EndTime. This is a dream about the reality of illusion and the world wide web of deceit brought on by the ongoing imperial media war. This is cinemanic expression brought forward by a search for answers in the digital domain. This is an argument for the fusion of nu-technology and documental democracy which must emerge, in the (un)civil(ized) wars to come, as a call to arm ourselves with new pacifist weapons for "intellectual self-defence", as Noam Chomsky would call it. This is an attempt to pour our work and activism as documentary-makers into the forge of human service, to melt down the division between hardtool-ware and softcode-ware - to pound them into the ploughshares of new media-ware. In other words, let us become our own media masters, let us re-appropriate our own media away from megamedia fakirs, consumption slave artists, and mass media mind colonizers. Let us Robin Hoodwink them, transforming our artwork into real media for real masses.

For this is documentary.

Like all artists, documentarians owe it to the future of our profession to speak out against injustice wherever it may lie. And "lie" is the operative word of this age. I feel that an atheistic anarchist's sense of moral responsibility is forever necessary, especially in these times of "war and cholera". Because I am a failed journalism student, most of my life's work, including films like Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (which I did with Mark Achbar in 1992), is my own small revenge on journalism. In essence, I make media about media. Perhaps, because I lack imagination. Perhaps, because I believe my own profession is vital, and that we creators of media owe it to ourselves to reflect upon the mass media which envelops us all.

Let's start with a little history lesson and a few cinematic tricks. This is a cinematrix, after all.

Filmmakers, new media artists, and propagandists (as Eric Barnouw once brilliantly pointed out in his 1981 book, The Magician and the Cinema) owe their livelihoods to magicians. 19th century vaudevillians (and vaud-villains) first introduced us to the art of magic as media. If we examine the "real" visual history of the projected image, we discover how magicians and the techniques they've used through the ages (misdirection, optical illusion, deception, showmanship, and spectacle) have passed their meta-knowledge across generations of entertainment history, news, and now government policy. Their legacy is our profession.

As heirs to the traditions of magic, we media-magicians have occupied powerful and crucial positions. Mystification is our business, much like those priests and priestesses of antiquity who depended on their superior knowledge of hydraulics and chemistry to invoke respect from the masses. Their temples were virtual funhouses, replete with doors that opened on command, and hidden sound-rooms that allowed the voices of the gods to resound simultaneously from different corners of the chamber. This was wondrous magic indeed - but these were also wondrous feats of engineering. Some magicians - in the old days - claimed outright to have occult, superhuman, or even religious powers. Many people took magicians at their word, and that gave them great influence.

One only has to look into the recent dark past of the current war on terrorism to find the latest incarnation of such mesmeric magic: lies, half-truths, and outright deception shot out from the Cyclops Eye - the One-Eyed Media (that is, unified media-propagandist corporations converged with the presidential seal of approval at thirty frames per second) - and delivered to us in the form of a reality-based TV game show, and as equally compliant Web sites with all their attendant fancy graphicism.

Sometimes time doesn't change. In effect, the magician has turned into an industry: a high-tech media industry.

Documentary as Lie
Viewers beware! Beginning with US inventor and cinematic pioneer Thomas Edison's staging of a prize fight championship in 1894, a new kind of film form was developing. A new kind of journalism known as the "newsreel", "actualité", or what John Grierson in Canada would later dub "documentary" emerged. The Lumière brothers in France produced short films that recorded real events and newsworthy people, bringing images from around the world to audiences around the world. Eager audiences witnessed extraordinary things: the crowning of a new Tsar of Russia; a pack train in the Chilcoot Pass; children tobogganing down Montreal's mountain; an elephant procession in Phnom Penh. There were high hopes for film as a source of information. In his 1898 pamphlet A New Source of History, Polish cameraman Boleslaw Matuszewski said that newsreels were exactly that: "a new source of history" that "would be able to shut the mouth of the liar". Because they were produced by a machine, newsreels could not lie. But would that ever be true?

The Big Lies coming at us in 2003 have their roots in the earliest Lumière film, which is an auspicious illustration of documentary cinema's very first Big Lie. The film Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory was purportedly a true actualité: a genuine recording of unaltered, "natural" reality. In fact, there was more than one version of this first "documentary" film. During the first take the Lumières realized that their subjects were too scruffily dressed. They made them all go home to change before re-filming them. It is that second version which has become known as one of the first documentaries ever made.

One could go on: for example, The Coronation of Edward VII was one of French magician-turned-filmmaker Georges Méliès' more popular films. But it is also an early example of dramatic re-enactment as real event. The British denied Méliès access to the real coronation ceremony inside Westminster Abbey. So instead he retired to his studio and created his own version of the coronation using look-alikes. Behind the stand-ins stood the grand celebrities - the peers of the realm - literally and minutely painted into a background canvas in their proper positions, presumably watching the ceremony with bated breath. Méliès called it an "authentic reconstitution". In the audience's mind - then as now - there was unquestioning acceptance.

And so on... The rest, as they say, is history.

Since 1895, there has been a singularly harmonic convergence of documentary technology with that which is being documented - the subject and the subject matter. Over the years, documentary process has transmigrated across the vast expanse of cinema verité, and submerged itself in the "current" era as the "cyberdoc" revolution. Yet upon reviewing the full breadth of non-fiction history, from that first great Canadian "documentary" - Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922) - through decades of videoverité and docudrama, one arrives at a point where one can project that "Reality", through its current erosion by the now dominant televisual theocracy, is finally finding itself subsumed and erased by the machine itself. In other words, the only real thing left is the Machine, the observation post, the surveillance device. The tools of the ultimate documentary now lie in the security apparatus of the supra-power. We are all being watched. Monitored. Profiled. Checked. Tested for Patriotic Zeal. We are alone. We are not alone.

But all machines need robots to service them. Which is where we come in. Many mainstream journalists and documentarians presently find themselves working as unquestioning stenographers to the Great State Wish. Our role has devolved to that of cheerleaders hailing triumphant progress in megaphonic monotones, the critical mind eroded into the compliant goals of the permanent warstate.

As documentary mediamakers, journalistas, and digiphiles, let us admit the conceit of our documentary deceit. We must take responsibility for the fact that we are using aesthetic apparatuses that have been constructed to take willing advantage of unwilling human weaknesses. We are using tools that persuade audiences to believe in our power to persuade. This is a cautionary tale. We are tricksters with technologies so powerful that our magic precursors would have cut us in half just to own a piece of the action.

Mediawar vs. Mediaware
We are now - have always been, and always will be -- at war. It is a war for human minds, and their active wills. Independent thinkers, documentary filmmakers, and digital media artists are the fool-soldiers of this mediawar. We are testing-firing mediaware technology, measuring its impact on the documentary form. There is no doubt that the impact is profound, and that the new tools have given us new ways to re-balance the scales of justice. We are living in an era where anyone, anywhere in the world, can realistically become a totally equipped, professional backpack filmmaker, all for a few thousand dollars. We can organize research, pitches, and proposals through e-conferencing, Google engines, and electronic mail. We can shoot with small and discrete digicams and record perfect sound. And we can edit, post-effect, package, market, and distribute our digidocs, dv-docs, microdocs and mainstream television docs, all with a few quick flicks of a keyboard.

Over the past two decades, broadcast video migrated downstream from electronic news gatherers and TV studios, and upstream from amateur camcorders and home computing, to arrive in the spawning grounds of documentary filmmakers. Cinema artists and filmmakers - out of both economic necessity and wild imagination - have been early adapters of technological advances. But for documentarians, and for video activists who work with human rights subjects, it has never only been about the technology. Hardware and software are important enablers, the means and ends to creative expression. But documentary expressionism is more about political commitment, structuring reality, community support, obsession, education, art, stories, characters, and connections. Above all, it's about playing with passion. This is documentary.

This is Mediaware: fusing hard technology with enabling mindtools to honestly revel in and reveal real intention. This is also mediaware-ness, as in popular education and tactical interventionist insurgent media; digiliteracy as opposed to digerati.

No More Mediawar
If we want to study the differences in the mediawar versus mediaware dialectic, one only has to look to the Iraq-attack in the spring of 2003. For all intents and cross-purposes, this was a media war - one which demonstrated the brutality of aggressive power, mindless acquiescence, and media subservience. Embedded journalists were only the most visible you-are-there-in-real-time part of it. This was about the construction of truth through false evidence and exaggerated justification. This was about the triumph of willful purpose, the conquest of the popular mind with hidden fear, and Orwellian divisionism on a transcontinental scale.

Of course, there were doggedly earnest efforts to document the suffering and the horror on all sides of all the questions. Many free range documentarians, Web bloggers, mainstream journalists (like Robert Fisk, Noam Chomsky and Edward Said), poets, writers, human rights workers, and independent media activists brought aspects of a different truth to light, effectively doing the work of the fourth estate. As megamedia becomes catatonic and solidified, nothing is served - especially not the informed consent of a democratic citizenry. Documentarians are telling it like it is, though, and they always will.

What we have learned is that we will all be part of "the coalition of the willing" until we rise up to say, "No more mediawar."

Reinventing the Digital Dream
What role can documentarians play in using new mediaware to make future mediawars obsolete? Well, we may be in the middle of a revolution and not even know it. Think back to the indelible TV images from the World Trade Centre megabombings on September 11, 2001. The ones we remember were all amateur images from amateur cameras. From Rodney King to Osama Bin Laden, handicams just aren't for weddings and family vacations anymore.

During the past two years, Czech-Canadian filmmaker Katerina Cizek and I traversed the world, interviewing passionate mediactivists engaged in the front lines of a new digital revolution. Our resulting documentary, Seeing is Believing: Human Rights, Handicams and the News, explores the socio-political uses of camcorders and new technologies. Digital documentary and videoactivism are transforming journalism, human rights work, and international law. Around the globe in recent times, handicams and new technologies have become the eyes of the world when no one else is watching. In fact, as British filmmaker Leslie Woodhead points out in our film, camcorders may presently be causing the greatest upheaval since the industrial revolution.

In Seeing is Believing, Alex Magno, a Manila-based professor of political science, notes that "in the last two decades, most political upheavals have had some distinct link to communications technology. The Iranian Revolution was closely linked to the audiocassette; the People Power uprising in the Philippines became known as the "Xerox Revolution"; the democratic uprising in Tiananmen Square was the "Fax Revolution", because the rest of the world was better informed through the fax machine than the immediate neighbourhood. The overthrow of the Philippine's Estrada government in 2001 represented a convergence between electronic mail and the cell phone's ability at Short Text Messaging (SMS). SMS enabled hundreds of thousands of people to instantly gather at Manila's main EDSA square and occupy it for four days until the president finally got the message and resigned. Every person with a cell phone became both a receiver and a transmitter of information.

As we have come to learn, all inventions are meant to be re-invented. It is in the re-engineering and re-imagining of new technologies by activists and artists of various persuasions that these technologies are given meaning beyond the pop-cult universe. Today, the rapid development of new information and communication technologies is enabling individual and collective rights to evolve: freedom of opinion, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and the right to information. Mediactivists around the world are working with digicams in the front-line trenches: defending individual rights, defining the collective rights of the communities they represent, and protecting and extending the rights of all of us. The digital documentary revolution is about the power of audiences to become producers (i.e. producer-users), instead of passive receivers.

The digital dream becomes a practical reality.

Peter Wintonick has been a producer, director and editor of independent film, video and new-media for over twenty-five years. His films include Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (with Mark Achbar, 1992), and Cinema Verité: Defining the Movement, 1999). His latest film is Seeing is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights, and the News (co-directed with Katerina Cizek; 2002).

Links :
Seeing is Believing

Manufacturing Consent
http://www.zeitgeistfilms.com/catalogue/manufacturingconsent/manuconsent.html (link no longer active)

Cinema Verité

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