Documentary Film Distribution

The media landscape has certainly changed in the last few years. A dramatic example of this is the way non-fiction films are distributed. Ten years ago there were only a few places where independent producers might sell their documentaries. Today there are many more outlets. What are these new opportunities? Describe at least three case studies of non-fiction films that have profited from these new avenues of distribution.

Changes in the media landscape in the past decade or so have vastly increased opportunities for independent documentary filmmakers to secure distribution. The ever-growing number of film festivals and markets have widened the playing field for those seeking the traditional distribution model, while the Internet and grass roots marketing have made the potential for successful self-distribution a reality.
For many years film festivals have played an essential role in the distribution of independent films and more specifically documentary films. It is with the help of these festivals that audiences are exposed to more documentary films. Film festivals in the past have been successful in introducing and distributing foreign films but it wasn’t until the past few years that documentaries have become some of the most talked about and successful films.
A film festival is an established venue that organizes screening and prizes. The festivals main objective is to introduce movies of a certain kind to an audience. Attendees include, but our not limited to, distribution executives, critics, journalists and the general public. With distribution of a film being critical to its success, film festivals have proved to be a great resource for up and coming filmmakers. With specific calls for entries, low entry fees, rules, and publicized results, festivals are a hotbed for independent filmmakers seeking distribution and provide an environment ripe with opportunities. A win of any kind at a festival gives filmmakers the stamp of approval and bragging rights that sometimes lead to wide distribution of the film.
While the world’s first major film festival was held in Venice in 1932, the Edinburgh International Film Festival in Scotland was established in 1947 and is the longest continually running film festival in the world. Other notable festivals are Berlin, Cannes, Sundance, Tribeca and Toronto.
Toronto is internationally renowned for the Toronto International Film Festival. After beginning in 1976, it is now the major North American film festival and the most widely attended worldwide, while Toronto’s Hot Docs is the leading North American documentary film festival. The largest festival, in terms of the number of features shown, is the Seattle International Film Festival, screening 270 features, and approximately 150 short films.”
During festivals, territorial deal making occurs which offers the potential for more distribution opportunities. If a film is hot, a bidding war will most likely ensue, increasing the demand for the film and filmmaker. Independent distributors who are looking to acquire certain films for their home territory are anxious to buy.
Distributors use film festivals as an opportunity to acquire films, mostly through negative pickup deals, to announce deals to the press and industry and to enter into partnerships, all of which would benefit a documentary film if picked up. Theatrical distributors range from divisions of large studios like Miramax, Fox Searchlight and Paramount classics to stand-alone companies like Newmarket, Strand and Lions Gate.
One of the most recent success stories resulting from a film festival was Taxi to the Dark Side, directed by Alex Gibney of Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room. The controversial film tells the story of a taxi driver who dies in custody after being tortured by the American military. The film also examines U.S. torture policy. Although there have been a slew of war docs that have already come out in the past 3 to 4 years, Taxi to the Dark Side has had relative success.
Taxi to the Dark Side won big at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival. According to a New York Times article, 34 films that premiered in 2007 received distribution, which was roughly twice as many as the year before. After the win at Tribeca, the movie received theatrical and video distribution from Think Films. After its theatrical success, the film was nominated and won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature during the 2007 Academy Awards. The film did run into a road block when, after purchasing the television distribution rights, Discovery Communications’ Investigation Discovery channel decided it was going to postpone airing in it on television. Some have speculated that this was due to the fact that the Presidential election is approaching. However, with the Oscar win and critical acclaim, HBO Network stepped in and purchased the television distribution rights.
In addition, Taxi to the Dark Side is part of the Why Democracy? series. The series consists of ten documentary films from around the world questioning and examining contemporary democracy. The Why Democracy? series, which took almost four years to make, was launched in November 2004 at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. The series was sold to over 40 broadcasters. As part of the series Taxi to the Dark Side was broadcast in no less than 35 different countries around the world in October of 2007.
As film festivals and distributors continue to provide opportunities for documentary films, and if the audience’s interest and consumption continues to increase, documentary films will maintain a prominent place in the film market and arena. David Straus and Joe Neulight created in 2000 to aid filmmakers in applying for film festivals. Instead of filling out multiple applications, all filmmakers need to do is fill out one online form, upload their film’s press kit, and they are then able to submit their work to hundreds of film festivals. Since their company acquired Film Finders and Rightsline, now makes it even easier for independent filmmakers to find a distributor or self-distribute. By adding the benefits of Film Finders, the site helps buyers and sellers identify films, where they are playing, and which rights are obtainable. With the features of Rightsline, Straus and Neulight have created an “eBay for films,” by giving independent filmmakers the ability to direct buyers who might want to help promote or distribute their film to their particular sites, as well as helping create a financial transaction between the two parties.
One independent documentary has definitely found success with The Tribe. Independent filmmakers, Chris Mais and Tiffany Shlain created, according to the film’s site “An unorthodox, unauthorized history of the Jewish people and the Barbie doll.” They used Withoutabox to secure placement for the documentary at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006, at which it received the 2006 Indiewire’s Sundance Critic’s Choice award.
They now use the site’s services to promote upcoming screenings of their film, as well as use the new “Audience” feature, which facilitates a relationship between filmmakers and their fan bases. This feature is used on The Tribe’s own Web site, under its “Share Thoughts” page, where users, be they the press, film professors, Jewish educators, or fans, can rate and review the documentary. Also on the page is a link directing users to “The Tribe Curriculum,” the documentary’s own wiki-style page. The page is where educators, community leaders, and the general public can contribute and share thoughts and ideas about The Tribe with people across the world. With all of these features, independent documentary filmmakers, like Mais and Shlain, can have their films widely penetrate the distribution market, as well as have audiences be involved with their films just as much as their big-budget counterparts.
One documentary filmmaker in particular is known for having been among the first producers to harness the power of the Internet as a distribution tool. Robert Greenwald is a pioneer when it comes to do-it-yourself distribution. In 2003 he promoted his film, Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War, through his own Web site and through left-wing political outlets such as AlterNet, The Nation Institute, and He managed to sell 100,000 copies through streaming video online. The film was then picked up for DVD distribution by the Disinformation Company and sold over 120,000 DVDs. By June of 2004, Greenwald had secured cable TV and theatrical distribution deals through the Sundance Channel and Cinema Libre respectively. The film grossed over $80,000 within the first two weeks of limited release, according to Variety, which is impressive considering that theatrical release was not even part of Greenwald’s initial distribution plan.
His goal for his politically-charged documentaries is to get the word out by any means necessary, which is why he once again employed grass-roots marketing to self-distribute Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism in 2004. The film criticizes the Fox News Channel for biased, right-leaning reporting, and Greenwald started out with regional screenings for members of the media. The film was also shown throughout the country at 3,000 house screening parties facilitated by, which had over 2 million members at the time. According to Variety, the organization also placed a full-page ad in the New York Times to promote the film that declared, “The Communists had Pravda (a newspaper run by the Communist Party of the former Soviet Union). Republicans have Fox.”
The Disinformation Company quickly picked up Outfoxed for DVD release and it became number one on’s bestseller list within one week of its release on July 13th, surpassing pre-orders for the widescreen DVD of The Star Wars Trilogy and The Passion of the Christ. Within three weeks, over 100,000 units had been sold. This success led to a theatrical distribution deal with Cinema Libre, which released Outfoxed on August 13th in five theaters in Los Angeles and New York, resulting in over $78,000 in ticket sales that weekend. The film’s theatrical release generated a total gross of $405,900 and is Cinema Libre’s highest-grossing film to date.
Documentaries, by their very nature, usually appeal to a very specific audience and are therefore particularly suited for non-theatrical distribution strategies. Robert Greenwald set himself apart by finding innovative ways to reach his target audience through partnerships with grass-roots organizations that support the message his films promote. would not even have been a potential partner just over a decade ago, since it was not founded until September of 1998, but now the existence of this organization and others like it, as well as outlets such as Netflix, Withoutabox, film festivals such as Tribeca and markets such as MipDoc, have provided distribution options that were previously unheard of. The sky is the limit for independent documentary filmmakers seeking the exposure they need and deserve.

-Contributed by Nadine, Charla, and Billy-

Screenplay Structure

8.  Screenwriter William Goldman, a two-time Academy Award winner, has long preached that “screenplays are structure.” What is he talking about? 

A) If he’s referring to a particular story-telling model, describe that in detail.

B) If there are multiple models, what are the most influential ones and how do they differ?

C) And how has story structure evolved through the centuries?

Use examples from the 2008 Oscar nominees to illustrate your points.


When William Goldman says that “screenplays are structure” he is talking about how a story is actually put together.  A story may have excellent dialogue, and loveable characters, but if the structure is not fully developed then you may as well forget it. The structure of any story focuses on how beat by beat and scene by scene it is ultimately laid out.  A story can use any type of story-telling model, but focusing on the structure or the foundation of the story is vital. Goldman believes that screenwriting is a lot like carpentry.  If you put together some wood, nails, and glue to build a bookcase, you better have established a sound foundation.  If not, you have might have created something really beautiful, but it won’t work as a bookcase.  As a screenwriter you must first decide what the proper structure should be for the particular screenplay you are writing. To do this you have to know the spine.

Goldman believes that it is absolutely crucial to know the spine of your story above anything else.  A spine can be rather simple such as “boy meets girl, loses girl, finds her again,” or something much more complex.  That spine is then developed further, taking a broad idea and digging deeper into the story scene by scene. After finding exactly what the spine of your story is, a writer must protect it at all costs.  It is easy to lose focus of what is really important in a story when you’re 80 pages in.  Goldman insists that strictly sticking to the ultimate spine of a story will drive that script to success. Without a well-developed spine, a screenplay is pretty much doomed.

-Contributed by Mackenzie G.-





Part B

The most influential story structure models include Aristotle’s Three Acts, Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, Field’s Paradigm, and Daniels’ Sequence.


The basic “Three Act” model of a screenplay starts with establishing the setting and characters (Beginning).  At the end of this first act, the introduction of a problem (or inciting incident) makes the story progress to the rising action (The middle or “Second Act”).  During this part of the story, the protagonist attempts to solve the conflict created by the inciting incident.  The second act ends with a climax in which the tension of the rising action reaches its greatest intensity.  Here, the protagonist either wins or loses against the problems he/she faces.  The third act, or denoumenet, is spent showing what has happened to the characters since the climax and ties up all the story’s remaining loose ends.  Though it is part of a larger trilogy of films, The Bourne Ultimatum follows this basic structure.  The inciting incident in the story is when Jason Bourne finds himself tracked by the CIA again after attempting to gain knowledge of a top-secret operation he was once a part of.  The climax arrives when Bourne confronts the members of the CIA he once served under as part of the operation.  Finally, the denoumenet shows Bourne surviving the encounter and escaping.


Joseph Campbell’s concept of the Hero’s Journey involves a more complicated story structure.  Studying many ancient myths, Campbell constructed the idea of a universal “monomyth” with several common structural features.  The monomyth starts with a “Call to Adventure” – an event that entices the hero to leave all that is familiar to them.  In the film “Across the Universe,” this happens when Jude leaves for the United States in search of his biological father.  The hero then encounters a “Road of Trials” – a series of challenges to which the hero either defeats or succumbs.  For example, Jude’s relationship with Lucy weakens throughout the story.  He later attempts to save her from policemen at an anti-war protest gone violent only to get arrested and deported back to England – separated from her.  The hero’s victory or failure of navigating the Road of Trials leaves him/her with a “boon” or vital new knowledge about the world, leaving the hero a stronger and wiser person than he/she was before the “Call to Adventure.”  Finally, the hero returns to the life they left behind with this new boon.  The hero then has the chance to apply this new boon to the original world from the beginning of the story.  This happens when Jude legally moves to the States and reconciles with Lucy.


The Paradigm – as developed by Syd Field – took Aristotle’s Three Acts and divided the middle into two sub-acts – Act 2a and Act 2b.  In addition, it introduced the concept of plot points – important moments that occur around the same time in almost all good screenplays.  These include the opening image at the start of the screenplay (an image believed to sum up the film in one shot) and “pinches” (Scenes occurring halfway through Acts 2a and 2b designed to remind the viewer of the story’s main conflicts).  No Country for Old Men has a great opening image of the desert in Texas, setting the grim, desolate, isolated tone that the story takes.  Two “pinches” that occur in Act 2a and Act 2b also remind us that the hero – Llewelyn Moss – is constantly being pursued by the ruthless antagonist – Anton Chigurh.  The first “pinch” occurs when Chigurh nearly catches up to Moss at a motel.  The second “pinch” comes when Chigurh attempts to call Carson Wells only to find Chigurh on the other end of the line, threatening the life of his wife.


Frank Daniel’s Sequence Structure is based off of early film reels only having 10 minutes of film on them.  This limiting factor influenced a style of screenplay structure that still holds up to this very day.  Each 10 minute “sequence” of film was effectively a miniature version of a movie with its own three act structure.  Sequences 1-2 can then come together to form the film’s overaching beginning, 3-6 become the middle, and 7-8 are the end.  In the film adaption of Sweeney Todd, one of the two sequences at the start of the film tells its own self-contained story.  A corrupt judge lusts after Todd’s wife, trumps up false charges against him, rapes his wife, then “adopts” the child.  Though a tragic story, it has its own beginning, middle, and end.

-Contributed by Nick R.-

Part C

 Philosopher Aristotle had his own views on story-telling and story structure, which he exercised in his poems.  He believed that stories should explore choices and moral decisions.  “The development of a fable should arise out of the fable itself, and not depend on machinery.”  He believed that characters are not as important as the story.  One thing that he did think about the protagonist is that he should be flawed.  “In a proper tragedy, the protagonist recognizes that his own error has caused his downfall.”  He was big on writing the plot believing that that characters follow the actions.

                Lagos Egri( 1888-1967), author of “The Art of Dramatic Writing”,  had a different perspective.  He preached that characters were the driving force behind a good story.   He believed that stories were based on human psychology.  “You must have a premise- a premise that which will lead you unmistakably to the goal your play hopes to reach…The premise should be a conviction of your own, so that you may prove it wholeheartedly.”  He thought it was important to focus on character transitions.: define goals, values, and a plan.  Egri believed that actions followed character decisions.

                These two had differing views and Hollywood has seen both.  The only similarity was that the story always had a three-act structure: 1st Act , 2nd, and 3rd Act which were previously described.  Early films were were silent.  The audience did not get a chance to learn the characters on a deep level.  As a result the stories were centered on the plot and actions.  The story structure was very basic.  Once the “silents” became the “talkies”,  plots could no longer be simplistic.  Actors had to talk, which meant that the characters needed to appeal to the audience.   Authors such as William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, and John Steinbeck were drafted by the studios to write screenplays.    In most novels, the reader gets connected to the book characters and studio execs knew that these authors could translate that to the screen.  This was the beginning of character driven plots. 

                For the most part, story structure in Hollywood has remained faithful to the 3-Act structure.  However, there are small differences  in the story nowadays.  Loglines for story’s are not even the same.  Most stories have a one-sentence logline, which tells what the story is about.  However, in 1937, screenwriter Francis Marion was quoted, “If you cannot state the gist of a play in three lines, it lacks backbone.”  Nowadays three lines is considered to be too long.

                Plots and characters are no longer simplistic.  The characters and the plots are now much more dynamic and interesting than those in earlier days.  There is still some debate over if plot-driven is better than character driven.  For the most part, current screenwriters use both the plot and the characters to drive the story.

-Contributed by Ashleigh-

Tell Me what you think

This is an experiment…

1. Review the theoretical underpinnings of persuasive messages in relation to specific audiences, taking into account at least three of the following constructs: agenda setting, diffusion of innovation, central and peripheral processing, cognitive dissonance, source credibility, reasoned action, two-step flow, selectivity, expectancy-value and fear appeals.  As a writer/producer, which basic model would you use in developing political advertising for your candidate targeted at the general public.  Justify your selection.


2. The media landscape has certainly changed in the last few years. A dramatic example of this is the way non-fiction films are distributed.  Ten years ago there were only a few places where independent producers might sell their documentaries. Today there are many more outlets.  What are these new opportunities? Describe at least three case studies of non-fiction films that have profited from these new avenues of distribution.


3. Programming is what attracts audiences to television but advertising is the primary means of revenue generation for most networks and stations.  In a situation when 1) specific broadcast programming is attacked for containing too much “skin and sin” by traditional family values groups, 2) advertisers are inundated with thousands of email, letters and telephone calls to stop buying commercial time by concerned family group followers and 3) some advertisers withdraw, is this a triumph for the television audience, a chilling effect on broadcast TV creativity, or a step towards censorship and bland programming?   Assume each of these perspectives and cite evidence from previous program histories to explicate how these electronic media issues evolved, were resolved and continue to coexist.


4. In November 2007, the Writers Guild of America went on strike after its members and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers failed to negotiate a deal.  What are (were) the issues at stake in this conflict?  Trace the history of this conflict between these two groups and the consequent effects on television viewing audiences and new programming development.  How will this strike inform the future of new media and old media, and how will it affect you as someone who will be working in the industry as a) a writer, and b) a studio or network executive?


5.  In the coming years Cable TV will face very real competition from the telephone companies for customers. Give the competitive advantages of each industry and the efforts both have made in Congress and at the FCC to deal with perceived inequities in the competitive landscape.


6. The utilization of new and different media platforms — web streaming, mobiphones and the like — to deliver television programming has given rise to “anytime, anywhere, media measurement.” This system purports to track in-home and out-of-home viewing, Internet and phone TV usage, as well as traditional television viewing.  In addition, commercial ratings or audience viewership levels during the commercial breaks are now available to advertisers.

A)    What improvements does this system of audience measurement represent over the traditional ratings system?  

B)    How would producers, programmers and advertisers benefit from the new audience measurements?

C)    What are some of the concerns critics have raised and how can these be addressed?


7.  “American TV is dangerous to our children’s health.”   Scientific studies have shown that children who spend the most time with television are also those who are more likely to be overweight.  Children who watch television violence are more likely to behave in harmful ways towards others and become less empathetic.  You are testifying on behalf of television writers and producers before a congressional subcommittee intent on refining policy to protect the health of our nation’s children.  How would you address these findings in the face of existing legislation and offer solutions to parents, assurances to policy makers as well as a sound bite for the next news cycle?


8.  Screenwriter William Goldman, a two-time Academy Award winner, has long preached that “screenplays are structure.” What is he talking about? 

A) If he’s referring to a particular story-telling model, describe that in detail.

B) If there are multiple models, what are the most influential ones and how do they differ?

C) And how has story structure evolved through the centuries?

Use examples from the 2008 Oscar nominees to illustrate your points.


9.  Think about this: Today you can watch movies on your video iPod.  You can also watch TV on your cell phone.  Through global marketing you can catch the release of the latest big studio film in Shanghai, China the same day as in Syracuse, New York (probably a few days earlier).  The social media network, Facebook on which you used to post pictures for your friends is now valued at $15 billion. 


During your year at Newhouse, the media environment will continue to change dramatically. These changes may come from some new technology or an economic or policy shift. For example, if you’re reading the papers and the trades, you know that ABC News and Facebook have teamed up to develop a new tool to facilitate political debate coverage and interactivity on the social networking site;  the major TV networks continue to offer streaming video of their programs, and advertisers are using “skins,” “overlays” or “bugs” to promote their products and services online.


If you’re bright, flexible and entrepreneurial, you’ll find ways to make your career in any number of these future transformations. Even better, you should be smart enough to anticipate and take advantage of such changes before they (or you) are history. This is your chance to begin the birth of a future transformation that will bear your name.


Write a proposal for your new concept. What is it? What makes it unique? How does it take advantage of existing or new technologies, economies and/or policies? Specify what research you will do to determine if there is an audience and market. What legal and regulatory issues will you have to be aware of? Who are the people or institutions you need to convince this is the greatest thing since the iPod? Who are the people or institutions you don’t want to know about your idea until it’s a reality and why? Describe how this concept will ripple through the media environment or how it might have an impact on only a specialized niche.


An important part of your answer will be a personal inventory assessment: what talents, skills, knowledge, etc. that you possess make it possible for you to actuate this concept? Be realistic; if you’re not Steve Wozniak, recognize that and plan to hire him as a consultant. But if your idea is “television for housebound cats”, be-up front about your special understanding of the feline spirit.


10. In the book “The World is Flat” by Thomas Friedman, referring to a program called “Higglytown Heroes” being produced for the Disney Channel by Wild Brain, an animation studio in San Francisco, Wild Brain CEO Scott Hyten remarked about how the all-American show was being produced by an all-world supply chain —  The recording session is located near the artist, usually in New York or L.A., the design and direction is done in San Francisco, the writers network in from their homes (Florida, London, New York, Chicago, L.A., and San Francisco), and the animation of the characters is done in Bangalore 

(India).  These interactive recording/writing/animation sessions allow us to record an artist for an entire show in less than half a day, including unlimited takes and rewrites.

            Given the increasing trend in production toward on-line collaboration using work flow software, discuss the impact of such a trend on established television production methods and financing.








The answers will come after a time.


“Do the right thing” & Criminal theory

          “I want my money Sal”                  

To examine the causes of crime using the film “Do The Right Thing”, it is important to first identify the crimes in question.  The four crimes in the film are Sal’s destruction of Radio Raheem’s radio, the following assault by Raheem, his death at the hands of the police, and the destruction of Sal’s by the community.  These crimes can be explained structurally by using Merton’s anomie theory by contrasting the goals of the four entities that commit the crimes.  The backbone of Robert Merton’s Anomie theory is that our society has one culturally approved goal of economic success, which cannot be achieved by most people.  Americans are led to believe that the American dream is out there for everyone and indeed we are granted the rights of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  The problem with this happiness is that it is equated with money, which sets the tone for the film with Mookie counting his money.

 No one in the United States is telling our children that there is no chance at all they will grow up to be president. Unfortunately, the facts are such that if you are born in poverty you will most likely die in poverty and the same goes for people born rich.  This creates a part of society who has the same “American dream” as everyone but cannot achieve this dream through any legitimate means.  The American cultural norms are so different from the reality of street life in east Brooklyn that the effect is the humiliation of this community.  The structure of society will never let them succeed and this is known and understood by the residents. For example, the perceived reason for the lack of black owned businesses in the neighborhood is because “We black”.  This large-scale structural deprivation of dignity leads to violence as the limits of respect are pushed.

          Sal, Radio Raheem, and the police are all in different modes of adaptation, showing that everyone in this community feels the pressures of the conflicting American ideologies.  Sal is the conformist because he is using legitimate goals and means to make the money that he thinks will make him happy.  Nonetheless, he still recognizes the restrictions placed on the rest of the neighborhood and shows charity throughout the film.  While there is no hard evidence that Radio Raheem is a criminal, his alpha-male status in the neighborhood and the fact that he does not seem to have a job leads me to this conclusion.  He is the innovator who uses different means to achieve his status goal: the loudest radio on the block.  The patrolmen are Ritualists, meaning they have rejected the goals of police in society; “To protect and serve” but have retained the legitimate means at their disposal to achieve their goals, namly violence.  These different ways of living transform into a mutual lack of respect on all sides though the police and Sal at least have a working relationship. These strong tensions between significant parts of the community explode into violence and the neighborhood responds in kind due to identification with Raheem as a fellow marginalized individual.

          Katz’s Social psychological theory can be also be used to explain the criminal actions of Sal, Radio Raheem and the local police mainly by showing that these three characters were responding to a disrespect shown to them.   The discussion of “righteous slaughter” is relevant to the crimes in this film because they all involve interior rationalizations for the crime.

          Katz discusses the interior rationalizations of murder and assault in some detail. Shame and humiliation are deeply felt by most people and in situations where this mental pain is felt it can transform into rage.  Someone imposing their will on another person, relieving them of their dignity, and having the victim of the shame commit the crime, exemplifies this explanation. The sense of worthlessness and humiliation would fit with Katz and this data except in this case there is a long period of building shame before it overflows.  When this shame does transform into rage, it requires a transcendence on the part of the perpetrator.  The transcendence is a transformation of one’s mental state in order to rationalize the crime.

          There are many examples of how important respect is in this neighborhood and this sets the stage for the involvement of the whole block in the destruction of Sal’s.  Radio Raheem is the top dog on the block and he walks around all day to maintain this status.  He does this by looking mean and making sure that his radio is completely overwhelming.  Sal maintains his respect by having a successful business and not tolerating any dissent in his store.  The police are feared and hated by the community, which is tantamount to the greatest level of respect from a civilian.  The community, on the other hand, has to deal with the constant disrespect shown to them by the police and the contradictory societal structure.  It is for this reason that the community so quickly projects this shame-induced rage onto Sal’s pizzeria.  Sal is the first one to have his dignity and respect challenged and so projects his shame onto someone for whom respect is his only currency.  Radio Raheem, for the first time, has to turn his radio down in order to buy pizza and this later leads to an attempt to regain his status by entering the store with no intention of lowering the volume.  This places Sal and Raheem in a situation where their respect is openly challenged.  As each player in the unfolding drama projects their shame onto someone else by means of violence, a chain reaction of transcendence is created. Raheem attacks Sal with noise, Sal attacks Raheem through his radio, Raheem responds with violence and the police respond in kind to maintain their power in the neighborhood.  The neighborhood responds to the shame of having a resident killed by the hated police by projecting their rage onto the only entity they can connect with authority.

          Anomie theory does a fine job of explaining the positions of the people in the neighborhood, as well as the reasons for tensions between the conformists, innovators and ritualists.  The different modes of adaptation show how the characters have decided to deal with the realities of the American dream.  The disadvantages of this theory have to do with a lack of explanations concerning class struggle solutions and why they have failed in east Brooklyn.  The idea of financial success as the ultimate goal is accepted but exactly why the people cannot rise above the street is not specifically shown.  Crimes of passion are not accounted for and there is a tacit assumption that crimes are done for money or lack thereof.

          The other main problem with this theory is that a real solution to this problem of weakened norms cannot be effective without the destruction of a cultural ideology, not an easy task.  The other solution would something like increasing the welfare state or education, neither of which is economically feasible. Anomie explains the class deficit in America but is not effective in explaining individual motivations.

          Katz’s theory concerning projections of shame and crimes of passion is effective for explaining some of the individual motivations behind the crimes but does not fully explain why the community would destroy a pizzeria they had grown up with and liked.  There is little discussion of the mob mentality.  The lashing out against any non-black businesses because of the police actions is not accounted for.  For example, why would they spare the Korean Grocery, which the community had actively disliked as supposed to Sal’s, which was respected?  The theory can explain the murder of Raheem because his actions could be conceived internally as an insult to white businesses in black neighborhoods but then why didn’t the black cop intercede?  The theory also omits a discussion of repressed memories as a cause of violent crime.  Attacks on one’s dignity and respect are often forgotten but build up inside a person and explode only when their personal capacity for disrespect has been reached.

          The theories of Katz and Merton are the most effective in explaining this crime both because they compliment each others strengths and weaknesses as well as the fact that anomie explains the explosive environment and Katz can explain the reason for the specific explosion.


PBS “The Donner Party”

                         The Donner Party


Structure: The structure is chronological, starting with the preparation and departure to the arrival of the survivors in California.  The documentary uses three main devices for telling the story. These are a narrator, historians, and readings of primary sources. The visual elements include old maps, photographs and shots of the wilderness.  The primary sources are mostly letters or diaries written by the members of the party.


            The main argument of the documentary is the tendency of Americans during this time of westward expansion to pursue the dream of prosperity often disregarding common sense.  Manifest destiny became a race, with many overextending themselves and taking shortcuts.  The Donner party decided to take a shortcut against the advice of others who had been there and suffered the consequences of cutting corners.


            The supporting points are generally made by historians who have written a book on the Donner party.  These are examples of how this group of immigrants made several fatal decisions during the course of the journey in their rush to California.


            The film begins with a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville with a quote that supports the main argument, that Americans chase prosperity with great intensity until death eventually halts them in their tracks.

            We start with a description of the beginning of the westward expansion which began in the 1840s.  Motivated by disease in the east and the promise of prosperity in the west, more than half a million people started along the trails to California. Among these were the Donner party who above all others retains a grisly legendary status.  This is followed by a segment supporting the main point.  Interviews clips with two historians speculate as to the motivations that lead to the party’s downfall, ambition and greed among them.

            We now turn to Lansford Hastings who will be one of the main characters in the narrative. He made the maps the that the Donner party follows, despite the fact that Hastings had never been on his own trail and was completely ignorant of the inherent dangers it contained.  He sees prosperity for himself in “aiding” the immigrants in their journeys.  There are also reactions to Hastings from historians who see him as highly driven but also very irresponsible.

            The next segment is the introduction of the Donner party.  Despite already having achieved prosperity in Illinois the Donner and Reed families decide to go west for the land rush in California.  James Reed is the originator of the trip and the description also includes that of the extravagant two story wagon of the Reed family.  This is supported by primary source quotes.  The narrator advances the story to independence, Missouri where the party resupplies and Lansford Hastings decides to see what his trail looks like.  The trail coming out of independence is very hard for the Donner party with mud, rain and the first death, Sarah Keyes.  Alternating between the narrator and primary source quotes, the party reaches the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

            Here the Donner party gets some good advice and decides to ignore it.  Primary and secondary sources show that the party got advice from an experienced mountain man telling them not to take the route Hastings had mapped out because it would be impossible and longer than the normal wagon trails. Here we have the second sequence supporting the main argument. Historians analyze why James Reed decided not to take the advice, “He was an intelligent man, decisive. I don’t know. It’s always, I guess, our insatiable desire to take a shortcut in life, thinking it’ll get us there, and invariably it doesn’t.”

            Summer finds the Donner party heading to Fort Bridger where Hastings has promised to personally lead wagon trains through his shortcut. When the party arrives, however, Hastings has already left with another group.  James Reed reasons that the shortcut will save hundreds of miles and so they will be able to make the trip in only seven weeks. They elect George Donner as the captain of the wagon train and take Hastings cutoff where the traveling is smooth for about a week until they reach an impasse. Hastings has left and note and later advises them to find a different route through the mountains.

            With James Reed at the lead, the party leaves the trail and goes into the mostly uncharted wilderness.  This is a third segment that supports the main argument. When the party reaches this impasse and learns there is no real trail through the mountains, they decide to improvise instead of going back to fort Bridger and taking the normal route.  Looking back it seems ridiculous that an inexperienced group of settlers would head into unmapped woods hoping to find a quick route to California.  This was the point of no return.

            It took a month to get across the first mountains and to the shore of the Great Salt Lake and it was supposed to take a week to go this distance.  Still following the notes left by Hastings the party slowly went on until they reach the salt plains. Another member dies of consumption.  Contemporary historians call the attempt to cross the salt desert, “foolishness”. Hastings had underestimated the distance across by about half and without enough supplies oxen became heat crazy and many were lost, which meant the abandoning of several wagons.  The misery of the situation is described by primary sources.  Hastings arrives in California but the Donner party still has a long way to go.

            Fall finds the party with tempers wearing thin and James Reed kills John Snyder and is banished.  The Reed family continues with no sign of the patriarch.  The Donner party finally reaches the beginning of the sierras and receives some supplies as well as two Indian guides.  Just a few days away from crossing the mountain pass, it starts to snow and the settlers are completely stuck on the shores of the lake.  James Reed survives until Sutter’s fort and finds that his family is stuck in the snow covered mountains.  He is unable to raise a rescue party because everyone is fighting the Mexicans in California.

            The settlers build a winter camp and much of the information from this point is from the diary of Irishman Patrick Breen.  The snow continues and the pioneers watch for a relief effort and eat their livestock.  The snow becomes hopelessly deep, animals are lost and a third member of the party dies of malnutrition.  “The Forlorn Hope” describes fifteen men and women who decided to make another effort at escape.  Five people died quickly and the remaining ten committed the first act of cannibalism.  Several people had died back at the lake but six members of the forlorn hope made it out of the mountains and were fed.

            With the war in California over, two rescue teams were assembled with James Reed leading the second.  The first relief party reached the lake in mid February and found most people dead or dying.  Leaving a few supplies with the people remaining at the lake, the first party heads back and encounters James Reed on the way. The second relief party finds the camp alive only by eating the flesh of the dead.  The third relief party found only seven people left alive and the fourth and final rescue effort found one man alive, delirious and surrounded by human bones stripped of meat.  About half of the Donner party survived and most of them went on to lead normal lives in California.  When gold was discovered the rush to the west became a flood and what is now known as the Donner Pass became a tourist attraction.  It had taken one year for the Donner party to travel from Illinois to California in search of prosperity.
















This is the first sequence that supports the main point, a historian commenting on Hastings view of the American dream, “It’s all mixed up with the romance and the so-called ‘heroism’ of the westward migration and the big American dream. The American dream has some nightmares attached to it and this is one of the ways the American dream could go. The American dream probably resulted in for most of the people who followed it like a marsh light in disaster.”


This is the second segment that supports the main argument. The Donner party gets some good advice and decides to ignore it.  Primary and secondary sources show that the party got advice from an experienced mountain man telling them not to take the route Hastings had mapped out because it would be impossible and longer than the normal wagon trails. Historians analyze why James Reed decided not to take the advice, “He was an intelligent man, decisive. I don’t know. It’s always, I guess, our insatiable desire to take a shortcut in life, thinking it’ll get us there, and invariably it doesn’t.”


This is a third segment that supports the main argument. When the party reaches this impasse and learns there is no real trail through the mountains, they decide to improvise instead of going back to fort Bridger and taking the normal route.  Looking back it seems ridiculous that an inexperienced group of settlers would head into unmapped woods hoping to find a quick route to California. 


Unzipped (1994)

The journey starts with a depressed fashion designer whose last show did not go over well but he is plunging forward with the next one. Judging from the cover and synopsis of Unzipped, it might be a film only suited to high fashion aficionados. Fashion and modeling no doubt attract a small devout following but do not seem to have such a general appeal. The film worked very well, however, in that the subject was engaging and interesting and the clothing was a motivating undercurrent. One of the main reasons the way Mizrahi is shown works is because he is not exactly what is expected. We have a stereotypical image of a male fashion designer and he would fit the mold perfectly but only at first. As the film progresses, we see him as a dedicated artist and not as a prissy prima donna. Despite the effeminate mannerisms and frilly surroundings, it becomes clear that this is hard work and he has a very difficult job to do. This realization generates an amount of respect for him because he doesn’t cry or break down and bemoan the circumstances. He works through problems that would drive me to violence and that is quite admirable.

            While some of the shakier handheld segments cry out for Dramamine, the film has a lot of interesting and innovative techniques. One technique that works well was the idea of the character narrating his actions. Having a voice over while we watch Mizrahi silently go about his designing works much better than watching and hearing him talk at the same time.  It is also very amusing to see how the models give the camera a dirty look when it is turned on them.

Some of the more interesting scenes and the ones that make Mizrahi genuinely likeable are the intimate ones that only came about because of the closeness between the director and Mizrahi. Scenes like dinner in a small Paris café give us a much more personal connection. One scene where he is sitting in bed watching Nanook is emblematic of how he was portrayed overall. He hasn’t gotten out of bed but seems perfectly comfortable there, smoking and taking notes on the hundred year old documentary Nanook of the North. That film eventually inspired the guiding design principle behind the show.

            This documentary tackles a subject that usually appeals to a very specific audience and makes it accessible for a more general audience.  The style of visual storytelling is certainly a large factor in making the film compelling but the real success comes in the character development. We see a disparate designer the day after a failed show and after going through thousands of cigarettes and fabric swatches, he emerges triumphant with a new, unique style and a successful show as well.





Nanook of the North (1922)

For the most part I found this documentary to be very interesting. There were parts where I was bored by the pace and the blankness of the snow. The thing I liked best was the contrast between what the Eskimos looked like when walking around and the closer shots. In much of the film, they look like wooly cavemen who are scratching out a miserable existence with Stone Age tools. When we get a close up of Nanook and his family, however the whole feeling changes. I stopped thinking that they would be much happier if they had a house and a fireplace and saw that they were content and certainly didn’t look like they were terribly unhappy with their lives.  One thing I kept thinking was how valuable the film is as a way to look into the past, much farther back than 1913.  It seems to me that we could have been looking at our distant ancestors during the ice age and it gave me a real respect for people who survive only by hunting in sub-zero temperatures.


Leila Khaled: Hijacker (2006)

Leila Khaled: Hijacker is a documentary that looks at the life of one of the most infamous Palestinian activists and examines the difference between terrorist and freedom fighter.  While this semantic debate is a strong undercurrent throughout the film, the main emphasis is on two women separated by a generation and upbringing. The filmmaker Lina Makboul is a significant on-screen character who finds her teenage idol and tries to get her to open up. The film follows this timeline in the present as well as tracing the activities of Leila Khalid almost four decades ago. These alternating narratives compliment each other very well mainly because of the rapport between the two women created by belief in a common cause. Makboul is also a Palestinian but unlike Khaled, she grew up in a very different place in a very different time.

The film follows Khaled through her two hijackings, arrest, and release into exile. Archival footage is used very effectively to give viewers the historical context that is often absent from popular knowledge. Interviews with the victims of the hijackings include pilots and passengers and do not seem to bring up particularly painful memories.  The Israeli pilot is certainly more hostile towards Khaled but both passengers and pilots seem to have put the incidents far in the past and outside of the current political climate. Indeed, much of the positive coverage of Khaled seems to be dependant on the fact that no one was hurt as a result of her actions.

Present day Leila Khalid is shown as a wife and mother who, while still active in protesting the Israeli occupation of Palestine, leads a normal life albeit in exile. Interviews with Khaled are very personal, often including the director in conversation. Beyond supporting a free and independent Palestine and condemning the attacks of 9/11, Khalid does not venture her political views as much as we would like to hear. It is clear that she supports the right of people to defend themselves violently if necessary and that she believes herself to be a freedom fighter and not a terrorist. However, what she might support to get her homeland back remains off the record. History is written by the victors to be sure, but a terrorist is someone who uses the threat of violence against civilians in an effort to accomplish a goal.  Leila Khalid was a terrorist but that category also has to include Nelson Mandela and the Israeli government

Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire (2004)

One would not think that the story of an elderly Canadian man could also be a profound and emotional telling of the Rwandan genocide. Media coverage (pointedly after the fact) of the genocide and the conditions that led to it has been abundant but in Shake Hands with the Devil, we are presented with a totally unique victim of the atrocities. Romeo Dallaire is an injured soul and the film takes us on a journey to see the devils that tore apart a country and the mind of a UN general.

The mass killings, rotting bodies, and demonic men with machetes tell a gruesome and horrible tale that turns the stomach and hurts the mind. The genocide evokes emotions such as sadness and confusion. Anger, however, is the emotion most strongly connected with the UN, the catholic church, and the world community at large. Dallaire expresses his frustration and anger at the UN for abandoning the country despite having relevant information, the church for not trying to prevent genocide, and the world for simply ignoring the situation. Former General Dallaire gives a speech on the tenth anniversary of the genocide where he bluntly tells survivors that what happened happened because the world does not care about a small African nation with no resources. The token western representatives present do not seem pleased.

Ultimately the story is about one man who watched a disaster unfold with his hands tied and was changed to the point where alcoholism and suicide were his natural escapes.  Ten years later, as the former general tours the country; we can see the nightmares in his eyes. His pain is vivid at times as he recalls the paradise he entered and the hell he left. At other times we can see that healing has taken place such as during a reunion with his soldiers. He is excited to meet survivors whose very existence lifts Dallaire’s spirit because he can share some of the pain with someone. We see that he is trying to accept his role and as hard as that must be, he has taken a huge step by returning to the scene. The general is able to laugh and smile even when recalling overwhelming situations and seems to have finally made some peace with the rolling green hills of Rwanda.