What's a leftist documentarian to do?
Join Pan Left, for starters. Founded in 1994, Pan Left is Tucson's nonprofit video collective whose members produce work on social, environmental and political issues.
Every spring, Pan Left organizes the "Feature This!" showcase of its members' documentaries. This year's festival, which runs May 14-16 at the Screening Room and other locations, is a 10th-anniversary "greatest hits" celebration.
"Actually, we're showing just about every finished piece we've ever done," says Pan Left leader Liz Burden. "We thought it would be good to take a look back and see how far we've come, but I also think the older works still stand up. The technical quality may be a little more naïve in some respects, but the stories still play well when compared to the more recent work."
As the price of digital video cameras and home-computer editing software has dropped in the past 10 years, the technical quality of Pan Left productions has surely risen. But so has the quality of storytelling, says Burden.
"Everybody is paying increasing attention to what makes a good story, and is really working with other members of the collective to get input and feedback as the process of the video unfolds," she says.
"What's stayed consistent over the years is telling interesting stories from the real world, stories that are often downplayed or not played at all in the mainstream media, both locally and from around the country."
As for trends in subject matter, Burden says only "the trend is really toward more diversity in the kinds of stories we tell. I don't know that there are any areas we've stopped doing."
Early productions focused on labor issues and human rights. These remain central concerns of the collective, as demonstrated this year by Immokalee: A Story of Slavery and Freedom, in which director Jeff Imig investigates the efforts of South Florida farm workers to fight exploitation and indentured servitude. Another new video somewhat tied to those themes is ¡Resistencia! Tearing Down Fences, a personal account of director Sonya Diehn's experiences in the anti-globalization movement last fall.
Border issues have been a strong concern among collective members.
"Our very first full-length border piece was Border Crossings in 2000," says Burden, "but before that, Pan Left worked with organizations like Derechos Humanos to go out and bear witness to what was happening with migrants in the custody of the Border Patrol. So the focus was there for several years before this wave of crises started to occur."
Difficulties along a different international border are explored in Los Desplazados/The Displaced: Testimonies From the Panama-Colombia Borderlands. This documentary examines the problems of Colombians fleeing their country's violence and taking refuge in Panama.
Liberals are often criticized for having no sense of humor. That notion may be left in the dust by Pussy: The Racecar No Man Would Drive by Ryn Shane-Armstrong. On the other hand, the video may just reinforce that notion, judging from the synopsis: "Pussy is an eight-cylinder drive through the celebratory potential of appropriated language. Anchored by the story of Tucson art-car enthusiast Heidi MacDonald, Pussy will explore contemporary sexual discourse, artistic expression and the transformative power of taboo slang. Pussy hopes to reveal the curious flexibility of human communication, as well as highlight the empowering possibilities of personal expression."
Entertaining documentary or academic project for a women's studies class? That's up to you to decide. Pussy is one of three videos grouped under the theme of "Delicacies" Saturday afternoon (the others are Mango Erotica and Queer in America).
In all, there will be eight screenings during the three-day festival, each presenting a different set of videos. Opening night offers three new works, including Immokalee, along with food, music and art at Muse, starting at 6:30 p.m. Activities move to the Screening Room Saturday. The theme is "Work and Struggle" at 1 p.m., followed by "Delicacies" at 3 p.m. Seven classic shorts are scheduled for 5 p.m., followed at 7 p.m. by "Movimiento/Movement," videos about movements of people and the movements people build. At 9 p.m. there's a gala party across the street at the Vaudeville Cabaret.
Sunday's full schedule starts at 1 p.m., with two videos paired under the theme "Toward a Queer World." There's a panel on "How to Start a Revolution With Your Video Camera" at 3 p.m., followed at 5 p.m. by a quartet of videos about activism, grouped under the title, "To Save the World." The festival concludes at 7 p.m. with "Stories From the Real World," consisting of Pan Left's very first video and its most recent production.
This is obviously not the sort of material you can see on cautious network TV; that's why Pan Left organizes the festival and is marketing its work to schools, libraries and activist organizations.
"The revolution may not be televised," declares the collective's home page, "but it will be on videotape."