GUEST BLOG by Brian Winston

The Moving Image as an Agent for Social Change

Published September 11, 2014

by Brian Winston


sing film as a tool for public enlightenment has always been a strand of the documentary project. But some have taken that agenda further by more directly and specifically making film and the making of films as clear a species of social activism as any other form of campaigning.

Today’s “citizen journalist”, interactive documentary maker or activist video-blogger stands in an important tradition already half a century old.

New media platforms enable this to happen with a far greater ease, on a far broader geographical basis than ever before. But there is a history here which should not be forgotten.

In the 1960s, for example, at Canada’s National Film Board, excluded social groups – First Nation people, for example – were trained in the use of professional 16mm film equipment.  NFB documentaries directors also gave up their prerogative as “artists” to become advocates deploying their skills to help untrained activists to make their case on film. This – known as the Fogo process after the off-shore islands on which it was pioneered —  became the Board’s Challenge for Change/ Société Nouvelle program. The films produced were targeted less at a general (and largely passive) audience and more at specific groups of change makers, authorities as well as activists.

Image courtesy NFB Challenge for Change playlist

With the introduction of the Sony Portapak home-video recording system, Challenge for Change became a social program distributing equipment to groups all over Canada. NFB personnel became the trainers of documentarists rather than documentarists themselves.

And this process continued into the 1970s in the United States with the growth of cable television and the legally required provision of community TV channels. The documentary filmmaker was transformed into a cable channel programmer.

Today’s “citizen journalist”, interactive documentary maker or activist video-blogger stands in an important tradition already half a century old.

  • Brian Winston
    Brian WinstonDocumentary Scholar and Lincoln Chair, UK

    Brian Winston is The Lincoln Professor. His primary areas of interest are freedom of speech, journalism history, media technology and documentary film, all of which he teaches. He is the founding chair of British Association of Film, Television and Media Studies and has been a governor of the BFI. Winston sits on the editorial board of British Journalism Review. He is a Guest Professor at Beijing Normal University. Prof Winston has been involved with media since he joined Granada UK’s World In Action in 1963.  He has written for magazines and newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic and his television work in documentary was awarded in 1985 with a US prime-time Emmy (for WNET, New York). In 2012, a feature-length documentary on Robert Flaherty – A Boatload of Wild Irishmen – which he wrote and co-produced won a Special Jury prize from the British University Council for Film and Video. Winston was the founding director of the Glasgow (University) Media Group whose pioneering studies of television news, Bad News (1976) and More Bad News ((1980), have been re-issued as a classic of media sociology. He has written 16 other books and contributed over 40 chapters to books across the field of communications. With Media Technology and Society (1998) he established the concepts of ‘supervening social necessity’ and ‘suppression of radical potential’ as factors in technological change. His writing on the documentary includes editing The BFI Documentary Companion (2013). On free expression his last book was A Right to Offend (2012).

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