In “What Gives Documentary Films a Voice of Their Own?“, Nichols (2001) writes that “the voice of documentary … is the means by which this particular point of view or perspective becomes known to us” (p. 43). This point of view in Agents of Change, a documentary by Abby Ginzberg and Frank Dawson focusing on the lives of black and African American students on two college campuses in the 60s, is a call for social justice that uses historical contextualization for modern day issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement. The documentary addresses the key figures through interview and archival footage and pictures, recording their accounts with historical evidence of protest and action on the campuses of San Francisco State and Cornell.
Video courtesy of archive.org
From the high-energy, stylized choices of the documentarian — from the music (such as “say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud!”) to the language used in interviews (“it was a season of awakening”) — the documentary also heavily relies on the evocative: these elements work together to create a sense of unity and strength. This unity and strength coincides with the credibility of its subjects, those who actually experienced it and now share their memory of what happened.
Speaking of memory, this element of filmmaking is something on which both Ginzberg and Dawson are heavily reliant. As these agents of change share their stories, they are shadowed by their former selves: literally, pictures of their younger selves are placed in the background as recall to how history has shaped who they are today. This echoes the documentary’s sentiments of looking in the past to assess the change necessary for today and style (a juxtaposition of yesterday and today).
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org