2004 has been a year of "shoot fast, get the DVD out faster" for political documentaries. But how many of these films will stand the test of time? Political documentaries often don't age particularly well, even if they can continue to serve as historical documents. "Of those that I have seen, I can say this - many are called, but few are chosen," says film critic B. Ruby Rich. "It's great that folks have stepped up to the plate, but that doesn't necessarily make them great filmmakers. Many of the docs feel like articles or op-eds that have been dressed up to look like documentary features; but they aren't, and are mostly too long, too slow, too static. They really make Michael Moore look good."
Bill Banning, owner of the San Francisco theater The Roxie, estimates that he has already viewed 25 of the recent political documentaries, with about 15 of them screening at the theater. Banning says one of the best he'd seen was The World According to Bush [Le Monde selon Bush], the in-depth exploration of the Bush administration's worldview, now available to US audiences for the first time. The point of view taken in the film is made clearest when interviewee Norman Mailer states that Bush is "the worst president in US history."
Fahrenheit 9/11 goes to school.
Slanted much? Sure, but why should any documentary filmmaker worry about after the wild success of the openly slanted Fahrenheit 9/11? With production costs down and box office returns up, it's never been a better time for political docs. Even better, truly independent filmmaking is unencumbered by corporate apron strings, making the shoot-from-the-hip documentary a viable medium - some say the last - for registering dissent.
Thanks should also go to television news for the great flourishing in documentary this year. Critics like Michael Fox argue that today's moviegoers get their real news from documentaries, as networks are increasingly perceived as purveyors of fluff and spin. With the exception of a few programs (Bill Moyer's NOW and Frontline, for example, both PBS programs), television's abandonment of investigative journalism explains the "torrent" of politically-themed documentaries turning up in theaters. It doesn't hurt that theater owners now see that booking political documentaries can actually bring in crowds.
In the wake of Fahrenheit 9/11, an impressive number of titles intent on swaying the 2004 election appeared in the long run-up to November 2: Bush's Brain, Robert Greenwald's Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War, Jeremy Earp and Sut Jhally's Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear & the Selling of American Empire and There's Something About W. Uncovered and Hijacking Catastrophe mount carefully researched cases that would seem to validate Mailer's assertion about President Bush's place in history. Uncovered presents interviews with the US intelligence community who go on record with their criticisms of Bush's misbegotten hunt for Saddam. Catastrophe convincingly proposes that the administration leveraged 9/11 to push through its own legislation and further the neoconservative agenda. Bush's Brain is more than just a profile of the puppetmaster Karl Rove; tracking the career that landed Rove in the White House as chief political strategist, filmmakers Michael Paradies Shoob and Joseph Mealey help explain the unlikely rise and confounding durability of the Bush presidency.
Senator Kerry has been the subject of both positive (Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, Brothers in Arms) and negative (Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal) character studies. A short portion of the latter aired on some Sinclair Broadcasting stations on the eve of the election (after Sinclair had originally intended to air the entire program without rebuttal; controversy, threats of a boycott, and most persuasively, the plunging value of shares in the company ultimately led Sinclair to air a mere five-minute segment). Going Upriver is an account of Kerry's Vietnam experiences and anti-war activities and Brothers in Arms is a portrait of the Swift Boat crew commanded by Kerry in Vietnam (you can read more about the latter in Jonathan Marlow's interview with writer/filmmaker Paul Alexander).
The media and the election
Deep investigations of mainstream media and its flaws can be found in films like Control Room, Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, The Hunting of the President and Persons of Interest. Control Room examines the journalistic practices of the Arabic television network Al-Jazeera both before and during the US invasion of Iraq. The film shows Al-Jazeera journalists as understanding the ethos of a free press better than we do, while also providing some of the first footage of the American military's behavior in Baghdad made available to the American public. Then there's The Ground Truth: The Human Cost of War, an unforgettable view of US soldiers' perspectives on the war in Iraq and their treatment after they come home.
But recent political documentaries have addressed subjects other than life during wartime. A smattering of films about civil liberties, voting rights and the electoral process swiftly hit screens and the DVD shelves just in time for the election. Brought to us by the "un"-stoppable Greenwald, the dogged producer of Outfoxed and Uncovered, Unconstitutional: The War on Our Civil Liberties chronicles the post-9/11 erosion of civil liberties under the Patriot Act. It's a story of the infringement, curtailment and undermining of our constitutional rights, a reminder of what America has stood for in the past, and a prognosis of America's future direction.
Narrated by Danny Glover, Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election chronicles the infamous, "hanging chad" debacle in Florida. The film reveals a corrupted state system in which voter purges, electoral injustices and suspicious irregularities clinch the election for George W. Bush. Another angle on that presidential campaign: Alexandra Pelosi (daughter of House minority leader Nancy Pelosi) covered the Bush campaign during the 2000 election in her video diary, Journeys with George; this year, she followed up with a less engaging sequel, Diary of a Political Tourist.
Staffers presents another angle on the inner workings of campaigns and has been compared with D.A. Pennebaker's 1992 documentary The War Room. Speaking of which, to time with the election, the Independent Film Channel screened The War Room following the TV premiere of David O. Russell's anti-war film Soldiers Pay, which was intended to be an extra for the DVD re-release of Three Kings until Warner Brothers declined to release it.
On the right...
Post-Fahrenheit 9/11, we now see a spate of documentaries showing "the other side." Impact: The Passion of the Christ, a documentary by Tim Chey, made its debut in Dallas last month as part of American Film Renaissance, the nation's first conservative film festival, self-billed as "doing film the right way." While hoping "they don't get better at it," Ruby Rich admitted, "it's an intriguing development. And certainly proves my point that film festivals sustain community!" Considering the overall quality of the films screened at the festival, it does seem that progressives still tend to do documentary film best. At the same time, though, these films have received less media attention - for now.
In addition to the films Hannah Eaves considers in her article, "Righteous," The Siege of Western Civilization outlines the triple menace of gay marriage, declining birth rates in developed nations and the creeping influence of Islam in the West. The slightly paranoid Innocents Betrayed, by Aaron Zelman, warns that gun-control laws are "a government mechanism to make citizens defenseless." Zelman uses archival footage to suggest that gun control is responsible for, among other things, the massacre of Native Americans, the rise of Stalinism, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, the Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda. For starters.
Red state, blue state
On either side of the red state/blue state division, the torrent of political documentaries is not likely to return to its former trickle any time soon - the 2004 election is bound to give filmmakers more grist for the mill. And those behind the American Film Renaissance give no indication of achieving the delicate balance between entertainment and education. This is where the old hands in progressive filmmaking have the advantage. For instance, The Political Dr. Seuss (2004) profiles the career of the cartoonist Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, whose true genius lies in the fact that few realized he was being political at all. To wit, many readers didn't know that "The Sneetches" was inspired by the author's opposition to anti-Semitism. Heeding the wisdom that humor is the best way to people's hearts and minds, D.A. Pennebaker is in production on a documentary about humorist, author and Air America talk radio host Al Franken. And the tireless Michael Moore is working on another documentary on the US health care system, aptly titled Sicko.
As for why this trend is taking off this year, critic Rich notes, "It's the censorship, stupid. If diverse points of view could make it onto television, we wouldn't be seeing this. But I'm glad we are."
A few other important political docs to seek out:
- The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power (2004).
- The Oil Factor: Behind the War on Terror.
- Last Man Standing.
- Voices of Iraq: From the People, By the People.
- WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception: Danny Schechter's critique of U.S. networks coverage/promotion of the war in Iraq.
- War Feels Like War.
- The Yes Men (2004).