Guerrilla TV – The ground-breaking documentaries of Vice.com
Reports from the Unknown – The ground-breaking documentaries of Vice.com
The documentary format has undergone vast changes since the dawn of the digital age. What was once the domain of only national television companies with huge budgets is now open to any group of individuals with the most basic of equipment who have a genuine interest in any particular topic or issue.
In the past such endeavours would have been condemned to the family VHS box for later viewing yet, due to the rise and rise of video sharing platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo the most amateur of productions can now achieve audiences in the tens of millions.
Perhaps the best example of this ‘guerrilla’ way of doing things can be found on the ever-popular magazine site Vice.com. Canadian in origin, formed by 3 friends using community funding from the government, it has grown into one of the biggest online youth magazines in the world, with regional editions being updated daily in close to 30 nations including Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Russia and S. Africa
The site is unrivalled in its diversity of content (from fashion to football) yet one of its most successful and popular ventures has been that of the ‘travel documentary’, for want of a better phrase. Whilst the term may make one think of videos like THIS, the Vice approach to travel documentaries is different in entirety. Whilst there are too many to list here (and I would greatly recommend spending a day delving into their back catalogue, I’d like to provide 3 examples of their bravest, most ground-breaking attempts, all of which should help to explain why the site has just been given the go ahead for a primetime TV series all of their own, as they seek to show viewers parts of the world where no major TV crew would dare to venture…
Aside from the occasional state-sanctioned news clip, it is practically unheard of for a news team to successfully return from the dictatorship of N Korea with sufficient footage to create a documentary. One of the shows founders, Shane Smith, took great risks when he decided to fly across the Chinese border into Pyongyang, armed only with a small low quality handheld and a stack of memory sticks.
Without efforts such as these it is unlikely that a lot of what Vice subsequently documented would ever reach the world outside of the isolated nation state. The doc itself is around an hour long and includes highlights such as 18.00 where Shane encounters the owner of a rural tea shop who has to keep her shop open all day every day even though he was the first visitor in a number of months. The immersionalist approach to video journalism championed by Vice is evident in this particular episode and you end the video feeling as if you yourself had experience a tiny snippet of life from the country of the world which the West knows the least about.
Fortunately for Shane, but also for the 400,000 people who have since viewed the documentary he successfully made it out of N Korea, memory cards intact!
The 2009 Vice doc “The Slaves of Dubai” demonstrates their persistence in pursuing stories that many major news outlets would find too controversial to give primetime attention. In assistance with the BBC documentary maker Ben Anderson they travel to the lesser-known side of the Gulf state city, where the thousands of workers who construct the logic-defying skyscrapers live in squalid conditions on palpable wages, effectively bonded into many generations of slave labour.
The doc describes how large companies working in and around Dubai send representatives to India and Pakistan to look for potential employees. False promises of short term small debt and long term huge profits lure thousands of men, both young and old, to the urban desert. Once there the debts they have to pay off are too large, their passports are taken and they are effectively slaves to the state of Dubai, forced to work for decades until their supposed ‘debt’ has been paid off.
Vice uncovers the despicable underside of a city that defines the term “glossed over”. The majority of the millions of annual visitors to the Gulf nation never see this side, and the majority of us would not be aware of the real goings on, were it not for docs like this. The video is testament to Vice’s ability to transmit difficult ideas and controversial topics in a short and succinct. What could easily have been fleshed out into a 3 hour 3 part documentary is condensed into a 15 minute summary that perfectly sums up the present situation
Perhaps the most shocking of all the documentaries of Vice, Shane Smith travels to Jordan to attend the largest arms trade show in the world – the “Special Operations Forces Exhibition Conference” hosted by none other than the King of Jordan himself. What is most shocking about this episode is not the content itself (which is in fact pretty mind blowing stuff) but the fact that there has never been a documentary of its kind, focusing on such an undeniably important issue. Usually shrouded in secrecy (arms companies aren’t keen to receive media attention) Smith uncovers an orgy of weapon buying that forms part of the close to half a trillion dollar annual arms industry – or in his words “The Business of War.”
Smith finds a market dominated by the dollar as 16 out of the 20 companies present are American based. He records the testimony of a serving US soldier who explains how at Sofex money is the only language that matters and any political complications or trade embargos are easily dodged through tactics that redefine the phrase “parts sold separately”. Nations such as Iran, which understandably have a hard time buying weapons in the modern world buy their attack helicopters in parts, so that nations like the US and Russia can maintain innocence in a trade where everyone has blood on their hands.
What is perhaps most disturbing about the arms fair is that next to the American multinationals are Chinese based companies such as Norinco selling weapons that are later used against the US military by Iraqi insurgents. Whilst such a situation may seem unfathomable it is further evidence that if one has the money then one can buy the guns, regardless of any wider considerations.
Without sites like Vice we would be stuck with the information that major outlets consider to be of interest, and such content suffers from the political and financial agenda of the multinational companies that produce and publish the material. Using guerrilla tactics and often staring fear directly in the face the documentary makers at Vice are doing an essential duty for the global village – shining a light on areas which would otherwise remain in darkness.