Move Over Mainstream Movies, Here Comes Community Media

By Nancy J. McCann, January 24, 2020
Professor co-curates a traveling exhibition of documentaries on political and social change.

It’s awards season — in case you haven’t noticed — when America takes a look at the movies of the past year, the blockbusters made with big budgets and the indie films created with much less. Hollywood buzz abounds around the nominations for best actor, best film, best director, best score and more. Who’s in? Who got snubbed? Who will win?

Amid all the tinsel town excitement is another form of cinematic art, garnering much less red-carpet hype, but perhaps far more valuable than all the nominated films’ budgets combined: community media.

Ithaca College’s own professor of screen studies, Patricia Zimmermann pulled together thematic programs of 41 short documentaries produced by 36 community entities from across the United States by over 90 makers called, “We Tell: Fifty Years of Participatory Community Media.” Programmed and curated collaboratively, Zimmermann and Louis Massiah of Scribe Video Center in Philadelphia have created a national traveling exhibition, chronicling the hidden histories of place-based documentaries that arise from specific locales, communities, and needs for social and political change. The project was supported by major grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Just Films/Ford Foundation and the Independence Public Media Foundation.

“It’s the first national touring exhibition of participatory community media ever, so it is historically important as an intervention into the histories of documentary.”

Patricia Zimmermann, professor of screen studies

The “We Tell” website describes participatory community media as a unique form of documentary produced in collaboration with communities and subjects. As a production strategy, think of these works as focusing on the micro rather than the macro. They view local, national and international issues through the lens of the people who experience them. These works see documentary practice as a way to generate dialogue and galvanize community connections across production, distribution and exhibition.

“The assembled films represent a ‘people’s history,’ exploring the last 50 years of American social movements, political struggles and cultural awakenings. Looking at this collection of videos and films in context with each other we gain a new understanding of the complexity and commonality of communities across the United States and Puerto Rico and the momentum that is shaping the present moment,” Massiah said.

Thematic Programs

The works featured in “We Tell” are less than 60 minutes each and organized into six thematic programs exploring issues that have emerged across 50 years of participatory community media.

  • Body Publics focuses on controversial issues surrounding public health and sexualities. These works unpack how access or lack of access to various forms of healthcare affect people from many different ethnicities and identities.
  • Collaborative Knowledges deals with inter-generational dialogues. These videos unearth lost knowledge and histories, elaborate shared experiences, and document the traditions and practices of storytelling.
  • Environments of Race and Place zeros in on issues surrounding immigration, migration and racial identity unique to particular environments.
  • States of Violence approaches the political environment of the American criminal justice system from the perspective of those affected by domestic violence, incarceration and policing — and by the international issues of war.
  • Turf explores the politics of housing, displacement, gentrification, homelessness and the significance of urban space from democratic participation. These videos reveal that cities have transformed into battlegrounds between communities and those in power who would take land and space to expand their economic and political authority.
  • Wages of Work spotlights lives from across the United States operating under various constraints as they try to make a living.

“We had an initial set of 15 sites for the national tour,” Zimmermann said, “and that has now expanded to over 20. It’s the first national touring exhibition of participatory community media ever, so it is historically important as an intervention into the histories of documentary.”

“We Tell” has screened at such prestigious venues as The National Gallery of Art, Hallwalls (Buffalo), Anthology Film Archives, Appalshop, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Museum, Rice University, Echo Park Film Center (Los Angeles), with upcoming exhibitions at the University of Chicago, MIT, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Skidmore College and more.

The “We Tell” tour runs through 2020. Click here for screening venues and dates.