• David Fresko

The first session of Indiana University’s 2016/2017 Sawyer Seminar, “Documentary and the Legacies of Colonialism: Images, Institutions, and Economies,” explored documentary media’s vexed relationship to Europe’s colonial project. Nonfiction film and photography helped consolidate European authority over its colonial holdings. Such media also facilitated the creation of political consciousness for liberation movements and newly independent nations. The use of travelling film units in the U.S. South and English East Africa and state-run film institutions in India and Mozambique demonstrated how documentary media functioned as an ideological support for the creation of collective belonging at the colonial/anti-colonial nexus. Far from simply recording historical change, documentary media intervened into the very means by which reality was transformed. In so doing, filmmakers and activists—both for and against the state—not only negotiated the entwined processes of subjection and racialization, they also exposed, at times unwittingly, the abuse and oppression at the heart of Europe’s colonial enterprise.

Such themes were extended during the Sawyer Seminar’s second session, “Capturing the Imagination: Independence and the Claim to Rights,” which was organized by Christiana Ochoa (Professor of Law and Associate Director of the Center for Documentary Research and Practice) and took place at the IU Cinema on October 20 and 21. From neocolonial privations and human rights abuses in Tanzania and Sudan and the humanitarian nightmares currently unfolding across the Middle East to the ongoing struggle for black emancipation in the United States, “Capturing the Imagination” asked how documentary media shape political discourse, historical memories, and activist possibilities for human and civil rights struggles within and beyond the borders of the nation-state.

Expansive in its scope, the conference considered how the theme of human rights figured in a range of non-fiction forms, including historical documentaries, essay films, civil rights photography, contemporary digital activism, and even Hollywood features. As Ochoa’s opening remarks emphasized, documentary media intersect with human rights advocacy’s evidentiary demands because of their ability to evidence abuse by transforming it into images and sounds. Under ideal circumstances, such media possess the potential to publicize human rights violations and thus capture the political imaginations of activists and audiences alike. While visual publicity doubtlessly occupies a central place in struggles against inequity, depravity, and deprivation, conference participants nonetheless approached this topic with a healthy dose of skepticism, mindfully critiquing the self-evident use-value of images and sounds and evincing a subtle consciousness about the virtues and limitations of technological mediation.

Speakers consisted of Regina Austin (William A. Schnader Professor Law, University of Pennsylvania Law School), Mark Gibney (Carol G. Belk Distinguished Professor in Humanities, University of North Carolina, Asheville), Raymond Arsenault (John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History, University of South Florida, St. Petersburg), Tanya Karanasios (Deputy Program Director, WITNESS), and the filmmaker Hubert Sauper, who screened two works: Darwin’s Nightmare (2004) and We Come as Friends (2014). Stanley Nelson’s Freedom Riders (2011), based on Arsenault’s book of the same name, was also screened. Scholars from Indiana University including Joshua Malitsky (Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies and Director of the Center for Documentary Research and Practice), Timothy Waters (Professor of Law and Associate Director of the Center for Constitutional Democracy), Cara Caddoo (Assistant Professor History), and Alex Lichtenstein (Professor of History), among others, participated.

(Image by Cecil Stoughton, White House Press Office)

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