Sometime last year I wrote an article for a new online women’s magazine that was starting up. It never actually started up, and this article has been sitting around since then. So I’m sharing it with you!

Not Just Another Night at the Movies
By Jessica L. Atcheson

Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. Quiet Revolution. Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers. These movies are not playing at a theatre near you. They never did. But they have been shown in community centers, churches, and people’s homes throughout the country. I’ve seen progressive, independent grassroots documentaries in various settings over the past five years: Outfoxed in a community room above a fair-trade store in New Hampshire; Quiet Revolution in the privacy of my own living room; Iraq for Sale in a small independent bookstore in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Documentaries like these are taking a look at a range of compelling issues: politics, war, the media, civil liberties, consumerism, domestic and sexual violence, the environment. It almost hurts how important these issues are. These films are independent, they’re informative, they’re infuriating. They’re on the edge, out of the mainstream, and crucial to our awakening. And when I say awakening, I don’t mean that you necessarily have to agree with them. But they will make you think. And form opinions. And spur you to further research, discussion, and hopefully action. They aim to jolt you out of your day-to-day existence.

I find, though, that each time I see a film like this in a community screening, I hear three comments in particular in the discussion afterward that bewilder or frustrate me: “But it’s not even being shown in the big theaters.” “But I don’t think it was a really great film.” “We’re just preaching to the choir.” So, I want to respond. I think that the first two arguments and criticisms are a convenient way for people to distance themselves from the scary truths about the state of our country and our world. It’s a lot easier and less overwhelming to say, “Well, no one’s going to see it” or “But the camera angles…” than it is to get to the down-and-dirty business of addressing the issues that these documentaries bring to light.

“But it’s not even being shown in the big theaters.”

No, it may not be. But it is being shown in hundreds of homes, community centers, churches, and other venues throughout the country, often for free. This allows a new kind of access and a higher level of participation. These screenings have the potential to create movements. I think that the way these films are distributed and displayed encourages connection and discussion, not just paying your $8 (or $10 or $12) to watch a movie for a couple hours and then walk away. It supports community members that care coming together for discussion—the beginning of grassroots activism that can and will make a difference.

“But I don’t think it was a really great film.”

The editing may not be perfect. They may have spent a minute too long with one interviewee or the transitions may be a bit clumsy. Overlook this. I don’t think that most of these films were made in hopes of winning Oscars or Sundance awards. They are not here to be judged on the merits of picture-perfect filmmaking. Often made on strict deadlines with little budget and with no powerful film industry backing, they exist to make a point and to provide information. It’s one thing if a film is so badly made that you are unable to see or hear the point or look past the deficiencies; I don’t find that to be the case with these documentaries. The nitpicky film criticisms are not useful. We are not here to discuss the merits of Robert Greenwald’s directorial style. We are here to be inspired, to learn, to discuss the issues, and begin taking action.

“We’re just preaching to the choir.”

This one goes for more than just grassroots documentaries; I hear this argument and observation at nearly every grassroots progressive event I attend, and I think it’s defeatist unless coupled with constructive ideas for action. To assume that a gathering of likeminded people is pointless is unhelpful. It’s good to know that you’re not alone, that people share your views and are willing to stand up with you for them. Groups can make things that seem impossible and hopeless when you’re alone take a step toward the possible. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely believe that there comes a point when more discussion amongst the choir has to turn into action or it becomes redundant and pointless. Action is absolutely essential, and because of that, we mustn’t underestimate the importance of energizing people and their beliefs toward action.

Let’s be honest, even if we are preaching to the choir, not everyone in the choir is singing. Though the film (discussion, rally, etc.) may not change any minds, it may galvanize them and spur them to action, give them the tools to reach out to someone whose mind could be changed. If such a gathering inspires a quiet or unsure or lazy member of the choir to finally sing—to speak out, engage other people, take action, then it is valuable. If it gives someone the information they need (or challenges them to actively seek out further information) to intelligently debate a progressive cause with others, then such an event is not unimportant. If it motivates people to discuss with their friends and family and raise awareness, then it is not meritless. If it prompts someone to finally write a letter to the editor of their local paper or to contact their senators or call to encourage others to vote, then it’s not worthless.

If these films push people to organize and resist the dominant paradigm in whatever way they can, then it is not insignificant—in fact, it’s eminently vital. And I hope that’s what they have done, are doing, and will continue to do. You can be part of it: host your own screening, form your own opinion, start your own discussion—and then take action.

Not sure where to start? Here’s a short list of films to check out:
Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers
Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism
The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil
Quiet Revolution (Alliance for Justice)
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
Searching for Angela Shelton
Unconstitutional: The War on Our Civil Liberties
Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price

And looking for even more?
Check out Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Films.
Subscribe to Ironweed, a DVD film club that delivers a monthly selection of socially-conscious independent films straight to your doorstep.

Jessica L. Atcheson is an editor and writer whose work has been published in regional newspapers and online. Currently serving as Associate Editor at large nonprofit in western Massachusetts, she is an avid reader who knits mason-jar cozies for the resistance and is trying to figure out how to live a thoughtful and sustainable life on this planet.