Field of Vision is a filmmaker-driven documentary initiative that commissions and creates original short-form nonfiction films about developing and ongoing stories from around the globe. Last month, Committee member and PhD Student Jeanna Sybert attended a screening of six short documentaries as part of a showcase cohosted with the Center for Media at Risk and Scribe Video Center. Read her reflections on the films below.
Oftentimes, the shortest stories can elicit the most enduring impact. In partnership with the Lightbox Film Center, the Center for Media @ Risk cohosted “Field of Vision: Documentary Shorts” on September 24, 2019. The showcase – featuring five films commissioned by Field of Vision and one produced by Philadelphia-based activists Stadium Stompers – foregrounded some of the most pressing local, national and global issues of our time. Using the medium of documentary short film, these works addressed a host of topics, ranging from gerrymandering or Confederate monuments to the court system at Guantanamo Bay.
Grappling with a diverse, complex set of real-world issues is not new for Field of Vision, which defines itself as a filmmaker-driven documentary unit that “tells the stories of our world from new perspectives.” According to June Jennings, Impact and Partnership Manager at Field of Vision and representative at the September showcase, the initiative prides itself on centering the filmmaker.
“I think what makes Field of Vision special is that we put filmmakers first. I’ve always appreciated that in addition to funding individual projects, we also support filmmakers through our fellows program and other initiatives.”
This support for filmmakers can be seen in projects like “Nuuca,” which tells the story of Indigenous women facing sexual violence in their communities after an oil boom drew industry workers to North Dakota. While Field of Vision originally contacted Director Michelle Latimer to produce a short film on the Standing Rock movement, Latimer, who is Métis/Algonquin, advocated instead for “Nuuca,” which was ultimately produced.
“We tend to follow the filmmaker’s instincts.”
What comes from this approach is a vast array of projects that direct attention to issues often at the margins of public discourse. Bringing such matters to light in an accessible, consumable form, Field of Vision has become as a critical information resource in a moment plagued by obscurity and uncertainty.
The Field of Vision films screened at the showcase exemplified what the documentary medium can do for non-fiction storytelling and investigative journalism. Documentary shorts in particular usually have a shorter production timeline, offering filmmakers the chance to comment on contemporary cultural and political challenges. For audiences, who can view the films on Field of Vision’s website, documentary shorts like this are uniquely positioned for easy consumption and wide circulation, making them useful tools for attention-grabbing in an often distracted society.
“I don’t think there are any major disadvantages to making documentary shorts, […] it’s definitely difficult to create something that is journalistically sound, aesthetically interesting and feels like it’s right on time,” says Jennings. “I think it’s important that a documentary short, particularly one that will exist in the online space, feels both timely—that it can have something valuable to say about the current moment—and timeless, meaning that it can be watched months or years after its debut or after the news cycle has changed, and the work still feels relevant or impactful in some way.”
This was certainly the case for “Nuuca,” “Dancing with Le Pen,” “Crooked Lines,” “Graven Image,” and “The Trial” – the five documentary shorts shown at the Lightbox Film Center. According to Jennings, the films were grouped into this lineup because they all spoke to pressing issues yet used strikingly different approaches and styles.
The timeliness Jennings spoke of connected these five films, moving the audience through culturally salient concerns related to the #MeToo movement, the rise of the global right, the fight against gerrymandering, controversies around Confederate monuments and the forthcoming trial for those charged with the 9/11 attacks. At the same time, as Jennings asserted, the subjects of these films and their unifying interrogation of social and political power are timeless. Whether by showing people fighting systems of oppression or by using documentary film to speak truth to these forces, an unmasking of power is what ultimately situates these works beyond just one moment in time and space.
The current political moment is marked with instability, skepticism and doubt about our collective future. Renewed phenomena like “fake news,” whose reach and effectiveness have been transformed by the internet, damage shared notions of truth and further sow social discord.
For proclaimed purveyors of truth, like journalists or documentarians, the ground on which claims are asserted has, at best, shifted and, at worst, completely collapsed.
However, in the midst of all this, Field of Vision, according to Jennings, has carried on relatively unscathed.
“I think as an organization we’ve always given as much consideration to the journalistic rigor of a given project as we do its artistic merit, so I’d say our approach hasn’t changed much since the advent of “fake news.” In addition to addressing types of issues in our development process, we also offer research, fact-checking, and legal assistance to ensure that the films we fund and eventually put out into the world are accurate.”
It is this dedication to a rigorous intellectual process that seems to uncover and foreground what Hannah Arendt called the “stubborn thereness” of facts. Paradoxically, despite their outward fragility when powerful actors contest them, facts are amazingly resilient to manipulation and distortion.
In a time when facts seem especially fragile, then, one strategy is to carry on as truth-seekers, assuming the accompanying costs of failure and impacts of victory. For Field of Vision, this commitment to accurate storytelling through the documentary short has in many ways distinguished the organization from its peer media makers.
Upholding this commitment, however, is not easy – but nonetheless worth the struggle. “I wouldn’t say there are disadvantages, just that it’s a difficult thing to do,” says Jennings. “And I’m lucky to be surrounded by people who succeed at doing it every day.”
Arendt, H. (1968). Between past and future: Eight exercises in political thought. New York, NY: Viking Press.
Jeanna Sybert is a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication. She is interested in the ways visual artifacts and trends in the media can rhetorically impact publics in the contemporary political moment. Primarily, she is concerned with the changing ways politicized images, especially in the U.S., circulate throughout the digital public sphere, and how these images can be appropriated, repurposed, or perverted in ways that then shape public attitudes. Sybert researches topics within the areas of critical journalism studies, visual rhetoric, and political communication. Within this realm, she largely focuses on instances of distant suffering, war, political violence, and trauma. Before joining the Annenberg community, Sybert received her B.A. in Communication & Rhetoric and Political Science from the University of Pittsburgh. As an undergraduate, she completed a senior thesis that examined how U.S. news outlets leveraged abject horror throughout the coverage of Omran Daqneesh and its possible impact on American public perception about the Syrian Civil War. Find her on Twitter @Jeanna_Sybert