Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Peter Wintonick, director of Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, was recently in South Africa as part of the TriContinental film festival.
We spoke to him about the role of documentary, and the way new media has shifted the focus away from big media corporations. Are the messages contained in his award-winning documentary still relevant nearly 20 years later?
What are you doing here is South Africa?
I am here to get reacquainted with the country. I have been here four times. Every few years I come here to feel the waters, figure out which way the communication winds are blowing.
This time I am here for the TriContinental film festival. Many of my films are played here, at various festivals. I’m here really to learn from African filmmakers. We don’t really get exposed to much African film in Europe and North America because of distribution problems. There are a lot of filmmakers here, and it’s a good opportunity to meet them.
Has anything surprised you?
There’s a continuum of African cinema that I’ve seen. South Africa is privileged by economy and a system of production that is the maybe the highest in Africa, and that is certainly true when it comes to documentary expression.
I work with a number of funds in Europe that help fund African and South American and Asian film, so I get to see a lot of it. I find that in a lot of these developing industries, when it comes to documentaries, there’s a lack of exposure to the documentary “canon”, all those classic films. They don’t understand the history of documentary. On any kind of technical level there’s no excuse, technology is ubiquitous and available to everyone, but there are big problems when it comes to funding and distribution. But with YouTube and the web, this shouldn’t be a problem either. There shouldn’t be that many impediments to expressing your own version of the truth.
You mention a lack of exposure to the “canon”. Expand on that, and how it affects the content of the films?
For me documentary is an art form now, so perhaps the problem in African cinema over the decades I’ve been watching has been that is has been laden with this idea that documentary has to be good for you — it’s a prescriptive thing and we, as filmmakers, are the doctors. We tell people what’s good for them. They are considered to be educational.
I think the idea of documentary is transforming all over the world. It is becoming more engaging and we are using the techniques of fiction. It can deliver humour and pleasure.
I’m waiting to see the African expression of that. To discard the necessity for films to be about things, but to be about the form of things.
I don’t like the word “documentary”. I like to talk about “doc-media”, where a lot of it has moved into the web space.
So films here are seen as more educational than an art form?
Yes. It’s a generalisation; there are beautiful films made all over Africa. The problem with African cinema is that is so often is not African cinema — it is about white people coming here and making films about Africa. It’s the colonial idea. I think we’ve jettisoned that, I hope.
The documentary culture us starting to emerge, I think. There is more funding and collaboration. And filmmakers can start thinking about African associations of documentary filmmakers that can align themselves with documentary impulses that are emerging elsewhere in the world.
I think it’s the growing art form. And there is hybridisation of the forms — doc-comedies, web docs, animated documentaries — so we may think we’re talking about the truth and all those ethical things documentaries used to talk about, but we’re transforming the idea of pursuit of truth into all these other platforms. We aren’t making films for one screen anymore.
And it makes possible the fact that anyone can really be a filmmaker.
Is there truth in the idea that documentaries are made by a certain type of person for a certain type of audience — usually a liberal audience? Is it preaching to the converted?
Documentary has been predetermined as being earnest and boring, and they have in the past been created and produced by a middle class elite who trying to consider what the working class is doing. We defined documentary as what middle class people does to screw over the working class in the privileged way of art making. But I think it’s changing. The liberal elite have been speaking to themselves. But I think this is changing.
The user generated movement on the internet has proclaimed a new kind of mass media possibility for authorship. People are making the films. I went to interview the president of Sony who in 1985 invented the handicam, a product invented for Japanese tourists, and they had no idea that in ten years’ time human rights activists and documentary filmmakers would be using the same technology.
It’s created what I call a documocracy — there’s no necessity to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to make films, as long as they resonate.
And there is a younger generation emerging who are now filmmakers across many mediums.
So it’s not just preaching to the converted any more. There is a grass roots movement. And it is difficult for us, the priesthood, the older generation, to deprogramme ourselves and embrace this new world. It’s not new media, it’s now media. We don’t have to wait to anymore?
So where does this leave the traditional documentary film? Is there still a place for it, when anyone is capable of recording the world around them?
Well in the 16th century when they invented the pencil, it didn’t preclude the fact that there would be great novels while some people could barely scratch their name on a piece of paper.
So everybody is a filmmaker by chance, or luck, or inspiration. But there is still a place for elevated art, long term thinking and production. It’s easy to reach two or three million people with YouTube these days, but if you really want to profoundly change society then I think well considered essays, embedded in documentary that is entertaining, will be seriously considered by audiences as well as agenda-setting decision makers.
Does that not create a hierarchy, when it comes to access to means and how “important” the ideas behind those productions are? Because I have more money, and better production values, my ideas are more important?
It’s not a financial consideration. It’s about how seriously you want to take your own work. Anyone can declare themselves a filmmaker, but who wants to spend 35 years, as I have, focussing on the art?
What do you have to hit on, as a filmmaker, to make sure that your film is being watched 20 years on, as is the case with Manufacturing Consent?
I dropped out of journalism school. And I have been taking revenge on journalism for 30 years. I only make films about the media. I think it’s the most important thing. It’s everywhere. It’s like the air we breathe. It’s in our DNA. And it’s my first responsibility as a filmmaker to understand the medium I work with. I need to examine the propaganda system, and how it affected me.
I also think that there’s big public distrust of the media, of big corporation and conglomerations, and that’s maybe why a film like this has remained popular.
We might have made it at the time of the first US invasions of Iraq by King George I, but there have been subsequent invasions by King George II and others. It continues. So the lessons stay the same.
With that in mind, do you think that there is some sort of confirmation bias, that some people are watching the film and enjoying it because it confirms what they already know? Or are there people who are really learning something new?
There have been many people who have come up to me and said, ‘I had no idea, this film has changed my life’. Which is always an embarrassing thing to hear, because I think to myself, well, you must not have had a life before.
But when I was a young kid I was inspired seeing activists arrested for what they believed in. And these ways of understanding and changing the world certainly inspired me as a filmmaker.
So with this film, there may be some who have their suspicions confirmed, but for some it really is new information.
How critical are people when it comes to documentaries? If they are accepting whatever big media feeds them, do you think they see documentaries as subjective?
I think that media literacy is something that has to be learnt. There has to be distrust. We look at something like Facebook, but it is another way of feeding information through a corporation to advertisers.
Have you seen a shift in the way people approach big media has shifted since you made Manufacturing Consent?
When we made the film there were six corporations that owned 50% of the media. Now there are four. The need to be sceptical never changes. I don’t know if those things are taught very well. We are taught to consume. We think we are being non-conformist when we join social media and Twitter and tweet, but we don’t apply the same sceptical analysis to those kinds of media even though they deserve it. Facebook is a giant corporation as much as Rupert Murdoch’s is a giant corporation, and their operating principles are not about ethics.