Reel Life Stories: Documentary Film and Video Collections
in the UC Berkeley Library's Media Resources Center

Bay Area Documentary Filmmakers

| Peter Adair | Les Blank | Loni Ding | Jon Else | Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

| Connie Field | Deborah Hoffmann | Bill Jersey | Spencer Nakasako | Steven Okazaki |

| Emiko Omori | Lourdes Portillo | Frances Reid | Marlon Riggs | Trinh Minh-ha |

Independent Television Services

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Declarations of Independents:
Independent Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area

The independent documentary collection of Berkeley's Media Resources Center is widely acknowledged to be among the most comprehensive in the country. But, one might ask, what exactly is independent documentary film? More specifically, what is this type of filmmaking independent of, and why is that independence important for a university and for a democratic society in general? Basically, the "independence" in "independent documentary" indicates a detachment from the mass media marketplace: many of these films are made to question the status quo, not to reflect it. They are designed not to satisfy media consumers or follow the whims of mass culture, but instead to encourage participation in civil society; not to generate profit, but to foster social change. Independent documentary works often represent an oasis of social engagement in the vast wasteland of commercial distractions.

Of course, in America you pay a high price for rejecting the marketplace. These films sometimes take five years or more to fund and make, scraped together from desultory foundation grants, government funds, and private gifts; the tab for more than a few has been put on the filmmaker's credit card, or financed by a second mortgage on the filmmakers' house. Financial independence raises a fundamental question: if such independent productions are not accountable to the marketplace, to whom are they accountable? Too often these works respond sycophantically to foundation fads or simply to the filmmakers' own personal idiosyncrasy. Just because a film is not produced to make money doesn't mean it will be of real use for in the process of social change.

Since so much independent production is motivated by a desire for social change, it should come as no great surprise that the movement, as we now know it, is an outgrowth of the social ferment of the 1960s. Many "indies" started their careers as activists using film merely as a tool for a particular political agenda. My own corporation, California Newsreel, for example, now celebrating its 35th anniversary, started out making counter-newsreels for the counterculture, from the perspective of the other side of police lines. Given the emphasis of independent productions on social dissent and innovation, it has only been natural for the Bay Area has become a center of independent production. Many of the artists highlighted in this exhibit have found in the Bay Area a supportive and stimulating environment.

Independent production, fragile but tenacious, may offer the last and best hope against the globalization of communications now underway. Uncompromising, opinionated, quirky, sometimes even over-zealous, independents will continue to provide students, faculties and the general public with an alternative to an increasingly homogenized, commercialized cultural ecology. The great value of independent documentary is precisely that it shows us our world not as objective, but as susceptible to a variety of points of view and personal perspectives.

Larry Daressa California Newsreel

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Last updated 5/5/03.