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Can Documentary Make a Difference? The Center for Social Media Is Certain of It

By Tom White

Pat Aufderheide, director of Center for Social Media at American University School of Communication

The Center for Social Media was launched last fall at the American University School of Communication in Washington, DC, which is, of course, a hotbed for political discourse, social activism, public sector policy making—and documentary making. With PBS, Discovery Networks, National Geographic and C-Span all clustered in the general area of the Potomac, along with such major distributors/producers as Devillier Donegan Enterprises, the Beltway affords abundant opportunities for media making. But it’s not just the producers and broadcasters here; nonprofit and non-governmental organizations and educational institutions enable independent producers to explore a number of different issues.

“It’s certainly a wonderful environment,” says Professor Pat Aufderheide, the Director of the Center for Social Media. “There’s a lot of interest in documentaries of all kinds here because of PBS, Discovery and National Geographic. There are so many independent producers here who work both on subjects that are dear to their heart and on commercial or contract work for a whole variety of organizations, ranging from political parties to major development banks. So it’s an environment in which many producers, students and potential funders are all interested in the same questions: What are current strategies? What are current styles? Who are current filmmakers? How are they using the films that they make?”

Over the past year, the Center for Social Media has served as a forum for exploring the role documentaries can play in effecting social change. The center has presented workshops, panels and screenings and has hosted such filmmakers as Tod Lending (Legacy), Sandi DuBowski (Trembling Before G-D), William Greaves (Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey) and Calvin Skaggs and Ali Pomeroy (Local News), all of whom discussed their work and how they made it connect with audiences.

With the help of an advisory board made up of some of the leading exponents of social activist mediamaking--filmmaker Barbara Kopple, Sally Jo Fifer of ITVS, Julia Pimsleur of, Ellen Schneider of the Television Race Initiative and American Documentary, Chon Noeriega of the Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA, to name a few—Aufderheide will be looking to conduct research on the nature of this field, primarily in the United States. It will eventually map the field of social action media, documenting the players, their activities and projects, and the kinds of media being made.

“What we want to end up with is an extended report and a publication that provides an overview of this field that is right now poorly defined, but includes social documentary, distributed networking of alternative journalism, off-broadcast and organizing videos, some kinds of training audio-visual work, some kinds of streamed media and what is also considered outreach and community off-broadcast use of media,” says Aufderheide. “We want to see this work not only as production, but also as a process of expression, so that it goes from pre-production into community uses. And we want to map the different activities along the way and see work across platforms, so that it’s not a question of film or video or streamed media or Internet or distributed networking; it’s a question of using audio-visual materials for social action.”

The term “outreach” was once the generally accepted rubric when discussing activities developed and carried out in conjunction with media making. But given the range of possibilities in reaching communities and creating dialogue across cultures, that term may be outdated. “The strategy to make social action media useful in a range of nonbroadcast contexts has moved out far beyond what we have traditionally meant by outreach,” Aufderheide notes. “In a simpler era, you had public television sending cards out to community organizations in town telling them that something was of interest to their membership. I think you’ve got a real range of strategies now, where coordinators of non-broadcast community-use media work in an ongoing relationship with major organizations. They associate with movements and causes—for instance, Judith Helfand and Robert West in Working Films working directly with community organizations on environmental toxic issues and using [Helfand’s film] Blue Vinyl for that purpose. I think the problem with outreach is that it’s a term that doesn’t showcase the real exciting range of what’s being done now. Even within stations, the people who are the community liaisons or outreach coordinators really are striving towards having an ongoing partnership/relationship with many different kinds of community organizations—not in terms of events or particular programs, but in terms of being a continuous resource.”

As the center’s plans for documenting the wealth of social active media making move forward over the next year, Aufderheide sees the center’s strength not only as a convening center but also as a catalyst for consolidation, or at least, common ground. “I’m really excited about being given the challenge to do this research,” she maintains. “I keep thinking there are some common themes to the efforts that people are doing, and it would be so nice to get out of the ad hoc and the enthusiastic, well-intentioned [work] and really move it towards people seeing themselves as part of a much larger universe of activity.”


Thomas White is editor of International Documentary.