Where Daily News Coverage Fails, Art Steps In

Today’s post is a follow-up to yesterday’s essay, Why Follow the News?. Together they look at how we make sense of our world — the challenges of staying informed and engaged, and the need for different forms of storytelling to help us make sense of things.

A still from the documentary CITIZENFOUR about Edward Snowden

How much can any one person truly process about our complex and often disturbing world?

And how much should we process, if we want to be, on the one hand, engaged citizens, and on the other hand  sane? 

I found myself wrestling with these questions recently after seeing two works of art back-to-back that explored, on the surface, news stories in recent years about Edward Snowden and Wikileaks; go a little deeper, though, and both pieces are actually about individual responsibility in this global village of ours.

What responsibility does a government employee have to follow his morality, even if it means breaking the law? What responsibility does a filmmaker or journalist have to report news, even if it means risking personal safety? What responsibility do you or I have to make sense of the news, even if it’s so much easier to look away? 

What responsibility do we have to witness each other?

Like I said, two works of art, seen in quick succession, prompted these questions. The first was CITIZENFOUR, a new documentary by Laura Poitras about Edward Snowden’s decision to leak thousands of classified NSA documents. The second: The Source, an oratorio by Ted Hearne about Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks. (If you aren’t sure exactly what constitutes an “oratorio”  I wasn’t  Hearne offers the following explanation in an NPR interview: “So instead of an opera where one story is being told continuously, the oratorio has movements that can relate to each other side-to-side.” Got it.)

In both pieces, the storytelling is phenomenally crafted. Here are excerpts from each work’s New York Times review:

CITIZENFOUR: It’s a tense and frightening thriller that blends the brisk globe-trotting of the “Bourne” movies with the spooky, atmospheric effects of a Japanese horror film. And it is also a primal political fable for the digital age, a real-time tableau of the confrontation between the individual and the state. (Read the full New York Times review.)

THE SOURCE: “The Source” prompts dinner-table debates and lingers in the mind. It offers a fresh model of how opera and music theater can successfully tackle contemporary issues: not with documentary realism — television and film have that covered — but with ambiguity, obliquity, even sheer confusion…Free of characters, costumes and plot, “The Source” ends up being a more powerful meditation on our recent history than many more specific, conventional works have been. Its lack of clarity is its greatest strength. (Read the full New York Times review.)

Both of these pieces feel designed to further a conversation about what a major news story means to us as a country and what we’re going to do about it. Where daily news coverage leaves me overwhelmed or empty-feeling, these works of art leave me feeling energized and nourished.

Promotional art for The Source Feeling overwhelmed in the face of a deluge of information is something Hearne and his collaborators play with in The Source. The audience sits surrounded by four screens showing video footage of dozens of different people’s faces as they watch brutal footage of a U.S. airstrike on Baghdad (released as part of Wikileaks). It’s not clear until the end of the piece what, exactly, they’re watching — and then the audience sees the footage, and I couldn’t help but feel self-conscious not only of my face as I watched (and as I looked away — it was too much), but of how I watch, and how I look away, on a grander scale. 

But The Source and CITIZENFOUR pulled me in. They engaged me. Watching them, I felt activated.

The content of CITIZENFOUR and The Source is depressing. But as long as there are passionate people like Poitras and Hearne making smart, earnest, creative, provocative and passionate pieces about the critical issues facing humanity, there is hope, no matter how bleak the subjects of their work may seem.

Watch the CITIZENFOUR trailer and find out when it’s playing near you.

Listen to audio samples from The Source and stay tuned for an interview with Ted Hearne here on my blog in the next week or so, where I talk to him about how he feeds his creativity, especially now that he’s a dad.

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