The After-Life of Documentary: The Impact of You Are on Indian Land

Faye Ginsburg

Documentary realism aligns itself with an epistephilia, so to speak, a pleasure in knowing, that marks out a distinctive form of social engagement. The engagement stems from the rhetorical force of an argument about the very world we inhabit. We are moved to confront a topic, issue, situation or event that bears the mark of the historically real. In igniting our interest, a documentary has a less incendiary effect on our erotic fantasies and sense of sexual identity, but a stronger effect on our social imagination and sense of cultural identity. 1

George Stoney's documentaries have moved generations of audiences, students, and communities because of their consistent, clear-eyed engagement with representing what Bill Nichols calls "the historically real." But the attraction to his work has always been based on more than the insights he offers by moving from worldly stories to their screen representations. Stoney's work always takes the next step in an expanding spiral of social imagination, moving from the documentary text back into the world, to see what it might accomplish, imagining how the "rhetorical force" of the stories he tells can enter back into history. Never satisfied with only engendering epistephilia--a pleasure in knowing that Nichols argues is the attraction of documentary for its audiences--Stoney's concern has always been to see how his work can create new dialogues and possibilities for change in circumstances shaped by injustice and inequality, far beyond the frame of the film and its screening. Indeed, it is hard to think of Stoney's "work" as ever being confined to a film text itself, as he carefully steers his documentaries back out into the world, to see what kinds of action they might instigate to remediate conditions addressed in the text.

This kind of media practice depends on yet another trademark of Stoney's work, one that is not always visible in the text itself: the involvement of the subjects of his film in its production and distribution is the trademark of all his work, a commitment that became particularly clear when he moved to Canada in 1968 to direct the newly instituted Challenge for Change/Societé Nouvelle program in Canada. Indeed, he was the perfect person to step into that position, as few in documentary were as clear (and as legendary) as Stoney was about the importance of people being in control of the media being made about them. In his words: "People should do their own filming, or at least feel they control the content. I've spent much of my life making films about teachers or preachers that these people ought to have made themselves." 2

His film, You Are on Indian Land, the landmark documentary he produced for Challenge for Change during the two years he ran that groundbreaking Canadian program, is exemplary of the approach that Stoney developed and refined over the course of his career, reaching extraordinary catalytic potential in The Uprising of '34. Remarkably, the production and circulation of Uprising woke a southern community from its amnesia about its own violent past, when mill owners attacked their own workers who had dared to try and unionize, and helped bring about self-conscious processes of reconciliation in the present that were long overdue. But this did not happen by accident, or because of a single, hopeful television screening. The confrontation with their own repressed past was created through a long, careful process of community screenings that George and his colleague, filmmaker Judith Helfand, orchestrated as carefully as the shooting of the film itself.

The roots of that method were firmly planted thirty years earlier, when Stoney used his position as Executive Producer of Challenge for Change to push the National Film Board of Canada to make good on their call to "promote citizen participation in the solution of social problems," insisting that under his leadership, "a program entitled Challenge for Change is to be more than a public relations gimmick to make the establishment seem more in tune with the times." 3

The initial model for Challenge for Change had been an unprecedented effort to use media in a process of community redefinition that came to be known as the Fogo Island experiment, the first big project to be done for the Challenge program by Colin Low, on a remote island off of Newfoundland where the decline of the fishing industry had created a community--over three hundred years in residence--almost entirely dependent on welfare services. While the government was hoping that the filming process might persuade people to move, the films in fact became a vehicle for dialogue between a community unwilling to be relocated and government officials. Through the film-dialogue, the Islanders successfully persuaded the government to underwrite a boat-building cooperative, and then a high school. Within ten years, Fogo became a model of successful community revitalization. 4

The process was deployed again, successfully, when filmmakers entered into a conflict over the management of Arctic caribou herds between Inuit hunters and government game managers, providing a critical juxtaposition of their different modes of understanding, ultimately strengthening the legitimacy of traditional knowledge systems. 5 The "Fogo model" was then generalized. As Stoney described it: "We wanted to film ordinary people and get them to state their positions. Then we wanted them to reexamine their positions as they play the films back, so strengthening themselves in talking with officials.... You usually go through this and then the officials and the people get together." 6

When Stoney came on board, the program was supported by the Film Board and eight government departments as a creative way to rethink public dilemmas in housing, health, welfare, education, and Indian affairs. As is the case any time such ideas become bureaucratized, their rules created their own problems. The Department of Indian Affairs, for example, required that all members of their crew come from different tribal backgrounds in order to be representative, then subjected a group that had never worked together to arduous training that was more than many of them could handle. 7

Mike Mitchell, a young Mohawk leader, was the exception, in part due to the fact that he could commute to Montreal from the St. Regis Reserve on Cornwall Island in the St. Lawrence River, remaining rooted in the ongoing life of his community. A social drama was escalating over the fact that native people were being charged duty for bringing groceries and other everyday goods across the U.S.-Canada border contained in the boundary of their reserve, despite the 1794 Jay Treaty guaranteeing them duty-free passage. Prior to departing with a delegation to Ottawa to protest the violation of the treaty, Mike Mitchell contacted George to explain his involvement: "If we don't get satisfaction, which I doubt, we're coming back and we're going to block the international bridge.... If we block the bridge I want a film crew down there." 8

Unsurprisingly, government officials in Ottawa took little notice of the delegation, and a protest was mobilized to block the international bridge, with Mitchell anticipating the participation by Challenge for Change in his orchestration of the event. George managed to get a crew down to film the face-off and arrest of Indian leaders that occurred, and sent it off to the labs to be synched. In keeping with the strategy of using film as a tool for community building, the protestors asked for footage right away, as tension was building between those who had been arrested on the front lines, and those who came along after them. They managed to get the film out of the lab and into the community, showing it all over the reserve. Stoney then insisted on showing it to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and other white officials, in keeping with the Fogo Island protocol.

While Stoney suffered some criticism for his involvement in the protest, the resulting film was an extraordinary document, allowing the audience to watch the building tension between local police and protestors in the midst of a freezing snowstorm. The film reveals a process in which the Mohawk activists become evermore committed to insisting on their own rights, eventually getting arrested. It ends with a vague promise on the part of a government spokesperson to try and find a solution. After the fact, the film enabled the protestors to finally get the hearing they had petitioned for in Ottawa 9

The immediate concern at the time was to bring the native point of view to the fore and to shift coverage of political events from a focus on violent confrontation with the forces of the state by shifting the frame, showing instead the long processes of negotiation that lead up to certain violent actions. Of equal importance was the use of the footage as the events were unfolding, to provide an opportunity for reflection on the situation, on the part of the protestors as well as the police who were confronting them. As Alan Rosenthal commented in assessing the significance of You are on Indian Land: "[This is] at the core of Stoney's thinking: that film should be used by different social groups to examine their stands, their actions, and their images. This kind of film making, according to Stoney, is as necessary as ordinary film making for the general public." 10

This steadfast refusal to engage film and video as mass media, by insisting first and foremost that they circulate locally, back into the communities which they are documenting, as vehicles for collective self-examination is central to Stoney's distinctive approach. While his method continues to be a minority position in terms of the circulation of work, the steady growth of media makers in minority communities (heretofore the objects rather than the subjects of the documentary gaze) is part of a trajectory strongly associated with Stoney's visionary (yet profoundly practical) method.

The Ongoing Challenge

Taking a longer view, You Are on Indian Land signaled a crucial shift in assumptions about who should be behind the documentary camera, one that has had a lasting effect on First Nations film and video production in Canada. Stoney's strong support at the time for the training and equipping of Canada's first Native film crew, under the leadership of Mohawk activist Mike Mitchell, was a catalytic message to Canada's First Nations communities, underscoring their concern to represent themselves both politically and in the media.

How significant is this film now, thirty-five years later, for Canada's indigenous Canadian film and video makers? Did the film, in addition to its impact on events at the time, have a lasting effect on them? When I made a query about this to Carol Geddes, the aboriginal filmmaker who headed Studio One, the Film Board's First Nations film unit, she was unambiguous.

I am a huge fan of the Challenge for Change program and wish it existed yet. [You Are on Indian Land] and others acted as catalysts in the community for development. The most fascinating thing about these warriors is how they improvised their political lives through urgent necessity and their experiences of both heady victory and deep despair in those days of the creation of what seemed like almost daily political milestones... 11

It is significant that the timing of the film coincided with the first wave of the modern movement for Aboriginal political rights in Canada and clearly helped to make those efforts visible. The year that You Are on Indian Land came out, Geddes writes, was

only five years after Canada recognized Aboriginals as persons and as Canadian citizens. Harold Cardinal wrote his landmark book, The Unjust Society, in 1969, the first public recording of note to address aboriginal issues in Canada. It followed the tremendous and exciting promise of the election of Pierre Eliot Trudeau in 1968 and the stunned disappointment of Aboriginals about the "new" assimilationist Indian policy that began Trudeau's era in Canadian politics, a policy authored by his ambitious young Indian Affairs Minister, Jean Chrétien. As offensive as this "policy of termination" was, it was to provide an incredible impetus to the very Indian people it was meant to eliminate... 12

As testimony to the ongoing power of the counter-discursive work that the filming of the Mohawk protests represented, Geddes is planning to use excerpts from You Are on Indian Land for her current film project, All Our Roads Were Red, which examines the beginnings of the Aboriginal political movement in Canada. The legacy of You Are on Indian Land was not only in the impact of the documentary process at the time. It catalyzed people--then and now--to think about their history and about their need to represent their claims and to take up cameras themselves in order to tell stories that can make a difference. This is the kind of outcome for his work that George Stoney intended.

Faye Ginsburg is David B. Kriser Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Media, Culture and History at New York University.


1. Bill Nichols, Representing Reality (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 178.

2. George Stoney, "You Are on Indian Land," in The Documentary Conscience: A Casebook in Film Making, Alan Rosenthal (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 346.

3. Erik Barnouw, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 248.

4. Dorothy Hénaut, "Visual Stories from the Dawn of Time," Visual Anthropology Review 7, no. 2 (1991): 86.

5. J. Stephen Lansing, "The Decolonization of Ethnographic Film," Society for Visual Anthropology (1990): 14.

6. Stoney, 349.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Barnouw, 259.

10. Stoney, 347.

11. Carol Geddes, letter to author, 23 January 2001.

12. Ibid.

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