Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

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“Poverty Porn” and a Proposal That Could End It Once And For All

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Rich Hill, a documentary by Tracy Droz Tragos & Andrew Droz Palermo, played at the 2014 Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto.

Once upon a time, documentary filmmakers went to impoverished places in America and around the world, and did so because they wanted to change the world, bring attention to the disadvantaged and to ultimately help them. They made what we’d called social issue films.

This breed still exists and their documentaries keep coming at a rapid clip. At the Hot Docs Film Festival, which ends this weekend, I saw a particularly good one, Homestretch, about the homeless youth in Chicago.

But nowadays there’s a new breed of filmmaker who goes to similar impoverished peoples or down-and-dirty places to make art. These filmmakers are storytellers first. There’s a spectrum in terms of the quality of these films—I’ve questioned some of them, like last year’s Oxyana, and I like to champion others: I just saw a particularly good one, Rich Hill, at Hot Docs.

Rich Hill tells the story of several young boys who are living in deep poverty in Missouri. The film itself doesn’t pose any solutions to their plight, but the filmmakers have set up a page that allows audiences to support similar kids in need. It’s a beautifully shot documentary, and the characters are quite engaging. There’s a lot of buzz around the movie in doc circles, and it’s warranted. But it doesn’t feel like a social cause film. I wasn’t even aware of the web page until I’d looked it up.

Also at Hot Docs is the film Pine Ridge, for which Swedish director Anna Eborn went to the bleak Lakota Indian reservation to depict the desolate youth there. I liked it very much. It doesn’t have a website as Rich Hill does. It is impressionistic. You get a vivid sense of what life is like for these kids. But it is apolitical.

Both films bring to mind the notion of “poverty porn” that has been bandied about for years. This pejorative term is used to describe any sort of representation of the poor that takes on an almost fetishistic quality, wherein the audience savors how miserable people can get. This can happen even with the best intentions, like those extended commercials for charities in which barefoot children from a third world country stare into the camera.

Does this apply to films like Rich Hill and Pine Ridge? I don’t think so. But it’s a question that I’ve heard others raise about these two films. Which brings me to that old saying about pornography, “You know it when you see it.” But if that is true, then the label only applies relative to the person doing the seeing. To my eyes, Rich Hill and Pine Ridge are ultimately respectful and compassionate depictions of their subjects, but other audience members can (and have indicated to me that they do) see them differently.

There’s an inescapable potential for exploitation whenever a documentary is made — the filmmakers are using their subjects to tell a story, after all — and all the more so when people of a privileged position enter a needy community, with or without the promise of something in return to those people. But if the film is just for the audience’s aesthetic appreciation, or entertainment, then it raises the issue even more.

There’s a new strain of filmmaker-without-a-cause. They’re out there in droves, and their films will be coming down the film festival circuit pike for years to come. They are filmmakers first, storytellers second, maybe artists third, and then only somewhere under those layers are they willing take on the role of socially concerned citizens.

I’ve heard directors say that making a film based on doing good doesn’t lead to good filmmaking. To them I’d suggest watching The Great Invisible, Margaret Brown’s documentary about the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster. Brown goes into the poor communities around the Gulf and represents their plight. And even though it’s a cause film, it’s also beautifully shot, well edited and artful.

But to be fair, this new strain of filmmaker might not want to make that sort of film. And these films — Tchoupitoulas, by the Ross brothers, is another one — are often pushing new boundaries of what an artful documentary can be. There’s plenty of interesting stuff there, and they’re not going away. Nor should they. Rich Hill is very engaging cinematically. So is Pine Ridge. But is Rich Hill the more ethical film because the directors are planning a social impact campaign? Should we draw a line, as a filmmaker recently suggested to me, with films presenting subjects fairly and completely on one side and subjects presented unfairly or incompletely on the other? The conundrum remains.

So here’s my proposition: Some foundation or non-profit should create a fund that supports communities in parallel with the creation of documentary art. The fund shouldn’t help the actual subjects of the film, because that would encourage performance on their part and people might fall over themselves to make it into the documentary with the promise of financial reward – that’s reality TV – but this would take filmmakers off the ethical hook and allow them to maintain their artistic standards.

You could call this a “poverty porn clean-up crew.” That was how one foundation representative described my idea after laughing darkly at the prospect of filmmakers heightened their representations of bleakness in order to win funding.

The rep had a point — it could become an escalating Cold War of ever-starker representations of the poor — but that’s a very cynical view, one that I don’t share.

The Good Pitch already covers a lot of this ground. It matches up NGOs and non-profits with documentary filmmakers to help mutually interested causes. But what I’m suggesting here is different because it’s for the filmmakers without a cause. Good Pitch films are generally social-issue films. What I’m proposing would support films to be recognized first for aesthetic quality and creative integrity.

We know audiences appreciate the beautiful depictions, however compassionate, of people less privileged than they are. So maybe this is a silly and impractical proposition. But it’s one, I think, that helps illuminate the sticky situation we’re in.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
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  • Craig Saddlemire

    Hi Tom,

    I really appreciate this article. I think it raises some important questions about who has the privilege to watch or be watched in documentary production, and who has the agency to produce knowledge or have knowledge projected onto them. In addition, I think there is – all too often – the tendency for discussions about the impact of documentary to exist in the product, rather than the process of the production. There seem to be two general measurements for the impact of a documentary: its aesthetic impact or social impact. Those two impacts are usually focused on the outside audience, that are assumed to be separate from the subject. I’m interested in the overlap of these two seemingly distinct groups, and the question of how one might measure documentary by the forms of relation generated in the practice, rather than represented in the product. I’m pasting here a link to a recent documentary project in which I’m trying to address those questions (http://householdmovie.org/) as well as a critical paper that analyzes these ideas through case-study of the work (http://www.roundpointmovies.org/assets/saddlemire-process-paper.pdf)

    Thanks again for the thought-provoking writing.
    Craig

  • Tracy Droz Tragos

    I so much appreciate the thoughtfulness of this article – and indeed, as one of the filmmakers of RICH HILL, we are in the midst of executing on just such a proposal. Many organizations and
    influencers with whom we are aligning have told us straight up that they appreciate that our film does not have a specific “ask,” and that we might ultimately be more effective – however these things get measured – because of that. Happy that there is this conversation. Tracy

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  • WesleyDumont

    I’d add The Last Train Home to the movie that made me think of this – when I found out that it was shot on a camera that typically doesn’t yield beautiful images, I was amazed (DVX100). And the storytelling is masterful.

  • henri

    At the end of the day those people (Rich Hill, …) are trying to reach hollywood or work for TV. They want to be looked as artists, their trailer is like any actual hollywood fiction movie’s trailer or an advertising campaign to raise funds. They just want to look beautiful, called creative, make the audience feeling emotional and have enough money to go to rest on sun resort holidays twice a year. They all give the same treatment to the picture. Fashionable. “Beautiful poors, we have a message for you.” Do they have to thank back them then ? Do they not have one (or many) message(s) as they would need a journalist ? They want to be loved and admired by everybody and they don’t explore anything. Just about pleasing the ego, being right. No open questions, no thoughts about human nature. Who do they critic ? It is like going to the church : we are all guilty of our human nature, we have to give money to the filmmakers (when it’s not NGO or governments), and listen to what they say. Sad. Talking like a left side politician with the brush of Monet. Maybe it would be more interesting not to always want to dictate to people what they should think or how they should look at things in terms of moral. I guess those filmmakers are ironic enough to pretend that they don’t do that. Life is hard and if they were about to change something, they wouldn’t be screening in all festivals hold by governments … They are not the impressionists of our time : they are the established ! They are not the nouvelle vague of our days : they are raising funds ! Playing with guilty religion culture to become famous. I think we are to be more exigent than nostalgics. It is not as binary as it is described in this article : the good and the bad, the rich and the poor.

  • A.G. Vermouth

    I appreciate your perspective and the question you’ve posed. However, I’d go so far as to say the “social issue” docs you speak of are most often closer to being “poverty porn,” and “art docs” like “Rich Hill” and “Pine Ridge” actually end up being less exploitative of their subjects, as those subjects’ stories are not manipulated with a paternalistic POV.

    Having produced both “art” docs and series of grant-funded films for large poverty NGOs, I’d have to say your definition of “poverty porn” here is a bit misplaced. In my experience, “poverty porn” is just as you’ve described above in your sixth paragraph: those docs that feature the barefoot children of the developing world, usually unsmiling with bloated bellies, tears in their eyes, and a VO that puts whatever English words into their mouths that a producer deems appropriate…. usually to sell an audience on donating money to a cause. THAT’s “poverty porn” in my book, and it’s a long-running trend I, for one, have tried to reverse in my filmmaking by instead using the genuine voices of the subjects to tell their own stories.

    Looking at the list of favorite docs in your bio, I’d have to say only two of the five are “social issue” docs. The other three are “art” or “biographical,” and as such strike me as apolitical. The other two, though very well crafted, were the ones that raised my ire at the exploitation of their subjects, and manipulated viewers to indignant or maudlin tears. In fact, I think Andrew Jarecki probably became more obsessed with Jesse Friedman’s cause after having to defend accusations that his film misrepresented the facts in order to further his cause. I happen to think Jesse Friedman is innocent, and that the Nassau County employees in the film display a willfully ignorant mob mentality, but isn’t that just the film guiding my perceptions? And should it be my place as a viewer to judge a situation from one particular POV—that of a filmmaker WITH a cause? Me? I’d rather look at honest art.

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