Book Reviews Media and Reviews Winter 2021

Book Review: Radical Documentary and Global Crisis

Radical Documentary and Global Crisis feels both like a much-needed acknowledgment of the significant work so many activist filmmakers have put forth in the modern age and at the same time, a call for more activist, “radical” filmmaking in the years to come.

By Michael T. Barry Jr.

Early in his work, Radical Documentary and Global Crisis, Dr. Ryan Watson includes a quote from Edward Said in his discussion on what he means by “radical” documentary filmmaking. Late in his career, Said argued, “Humanism is the only….resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.”[1] As Watson masterfully demonstrates, it is this “humanism” which underpins all “radical” documentary filmmaking. “Radical” documentaries are at their core “an appeal to a universal ideal of the human.”[2] They are “militant evidence to improve the material conditions of life for those in situations of great struggle and peril.”[3] In other words, they are tools through which individuals can reclaim their humanity in the face of dehumanizing conditions—a tool to fight for human rights, dignity, and respect.

As Watson points out, this humanist spirit and the desire to utilize film to improve the human condition are not necessarily modern phenomena. There exists a tradition of “radical” documentary filmmaking in the twentieth century in the likes of Dziga Vertov, Jean Vigo, Joris Ivens, and Martha Rosler. Yet, there is something unique or “new” about the modern, post-September 11th “radical” documentary. Herein lies one of the greatest successes of Watson’s work—his ability to encapsulate and define what it means to be a modern, post-September 11th “radical” filmmaker.

As a documentary filmmaker myself, this is something I had personally spent a lot of time thinking about, but never found the right or precise words to define. In this sense, I was both excited and a bit envious, when I witnessed how clearly and accurately Watson captured this moment. In one of my favorite sentences I have read in a long time, Watson states, “This (modern “radical” documentary) is the new international avant-garde, less concerned with theory and aesthetics and more concerned with deploying documentary evidence militantly in the service of recognition, survival, and radical change.”[4]

When I read this sentence, I was immediately reminded of the handful of occasions when I would be at a film screening and an audience member would ask me a very specific theoretical question or critique a very minute aesthetic in the film. Although happy to answer the question, in all of these instances I wondered if the audience member somehow missed the point or the objective of the film—not to necessarily make some sort of technical or theoretical advancement, but to tangibly improve the daily lives of the human beings featured in the film.

Watson’s work has precisely illuminated this desire of the modern “radical” documentary filmmaker. He has also encapsulated its elements. The modern “radical” documentary filmmaker is “open to experimentation” and employs “collective bottom-up filmmaking.”[5] In a time where “cameras are everywhere,” it is a democratized “dynamic…collective…open-space” where more and more individuals can participate in the process of grassroots filmmaking, whether that means creating films of their own or contributing their evidence and experiences to the projects of others. Watson points out an important distinction theorized by Helen De Michel and Patricia Zimmermann, the “radical” documentary filmmaker is more of a “context provider than a content provider, creating scenarios that facilitate dialogue, participation, collaboration, shared experience, and interconnections across boundaries.”[6] In other words, the boundaries between artist, amateur, and activist are eliminated or at the least, blurred.

Image 1:  Radical Documentary and Global Crisis by Dr. Ryan Watson was released on October 5, 2021.

In order to demonstrate the unique work of modern “radical” documentary filmmakers, Watson provides extensive evidence and analysis on films concerning some of the most significant human rights crises of the twenty-first century. In this regard, Watson’s work is both interdisciplinary and international. This is no easy task. Watson could have made his life much easier and simply focused on the film theory of “radical” documentary in the United States or the West. Thankfully, he did not, as this international, interdisciplinary approach adds so much more to our understanding of what it means to be a “radical” filmmaker across borders and in a truly democratized, decentralized media. To make this just a book for niche, Western film theorists would go against the whole premise and spirit of the “radical” filmmaker outlined in this text.

Instead, Watson incorporates conflicts in the Middle East like the Syrian War, the Iraq War, and ongoing persecution of Palestinians in Israel. He also examines human rights abuses in Africa like child solider conscription in Congo. Meanwhile, he draws parallels to modern abuses in the United States like mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex. While covering this breadth of international topics, Watson employs “human rights theory and practice, law, media studies, political theory, philosophy, critical theory, and journal(ism).”[7] In this sense, Watson is successful in his goal of fostering “fresh thinking” and expanding the dialogue to include not just “academics and researchers,” but also “artists, coders and technologists, journalists, community groups, lawyers, collectives, activists, and amateurs.”[8]

Image 2: Dr. Ryan Watson is an Assistant Professor of Fine Arts and Misericordia University in Dallas, Pennsylvania.

Watson is able to cover such a diversity of topics and approaches by consistently reiterating the core questions of Radical Documentary and Global Crisis. Amongst these various contexts, Watson asks important questions like, “Can images made by amateurs and activists on the ground exert any force in a world saturated by and indifferent to them?” and “in the face of so much violence and violent images…can everyday people assert their values, voices, and agencies?”[9] And most critically, “Can documentary media actually do anything to change the material conditions of ordinary people, engender justice, or catalyze radical actions and movements?”[10]

Ending on a refreshingly optimistic note, Watson argues, “The answer is yes to all. We can act as humans and intervene in the regimes of violence that surround us to assert our values, voices, and agency, producing and deploying militant evidence in spaces of global crises.”[11] In this sense, Radical Documentary and Global Crisis feels both like a much-needed acknowledgment of the significant work so many activist filmmakers have put forth in the modern age and at the same time, a call for more activist, “radical” filmmaking in the coming years as generations will continue to have more and more access to potentially liberating force of documentary film.

[1] Ryan Watson, Radical Documentary and Global Crisis (Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 2021) 13.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Watson, Radical Documentary and Global Crisis, 5.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Watson, Radical Documentary and Global Crisis, 21.

[7] Watson, Radical Documentary and Global Crisis, 26.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Watson, Radical Documentary and Global Crisis, 169-170.

[10] Watson, Radical Documentary and Global Crisis, 213.

[11] Ibid.

Michael T. Barry Jr., Editor, is a doctoral candidate in history at American University in Washington, DC. Michael is also a documentary filmmaker, specializing in oral history. His films “U Street Contested” and “The Universal Soldier: Vietnam” have won and been nominated for numerous awards, as they have screened at film festivals and historic venues across the country. He teaches American history at Montgomery College in Maryland. Follow him on Twitter at @MTBarryJr.

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