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Richard Clark, Jon Stewart, and Air America are about to get some company in the media assault on George W. Bush. From Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911, an incendiary attack on U.S. foreign policy and the Bush-bin Laden connection (premiering in Cannes this week and, as of press time, blocked for release by Disney), to the moveon.org-co-produced Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War (opening during the Republican National Convention), politically charged documentaries are showing up in theaters and on television over the next several months. Along with anti-corporate works such as The Corporation, Super Size Me, The Yes Men, and Go Further, an unprecedented surge of activist documentaries is poised to join the election-year debate.
“There seems to be a groundswell of activists who are willing to challenge the information we’ve been force-fed,” says Eamonn Bowles, a New York-based distributor (Magnolia Films) who launches the documentary invasion next week with Jehane Noujaim’s Control Room, an inquiry into the media coverage of the current Iraq war as related by Al Jazeera journalists. “Not too long ago, it seemed obvious to me that Bush would get re-elected easily,” continues Bowles, “but there really has been this incredible mobilization of the dissatisfied exercising their voice.”
“This presidency has galvanized many who are lethargic on the left, and I include myself,” echoes Lawrence Konner, a Hollywood screenwriter (Mona Lisa Smile) who founded an organization called the Documentary Campaign in late 2002. Aimed at producing nonfiction work that advocates social and economic justice, the company’s first feature, Persons of Interest, co-directed by Alison Maclean (Jesus’ Son) and Tobias Perse, looks into the Justice Department’s post-9-11 detentions. “I feel like more of an activist on this issue than a filmmaker,” says Perse. “You have an administration that has this idea of unilateral force, both in the world and domestically. And this film helps to question that policy.”
Acquired by First Run/Icarus (sister company First Run Features will distribute the left-wing portrait Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train this summer), Persons of Interest will also be broadcast on the Sundance Channel. “We’re trying to figure out how the film can be used on a grassroots political level,” says Maclean. Adds Perse, “This film is designed to open up a conversation that was short-circuited within a month of 9-11.”
The film medium, say documentarians, can be very useful as a political weapon, tapping into the emotions of voters that stories in print can’t deliver. Konner cites Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine as “a great model. Moore makes movies that are politically progressive, cinematically exciting, and get people emotionally involved as much as they are intellectually involved,” he says. “People hear the information all the time, but it doesn’t always get through.”
The record-setting $21.5 million box-office gross of Columbine also supplied a financial precedent for distributors that once winced at the thought of releasing documentaries on a wide scale. “[Columbine] broke down a lot of barriers for docs,” says Eamonn Bowles. “But it also identified a strong presence of the ‘skeptic’ audience, the folks who don’t buy the party line.”
Still, Moore’s success hasn’t shielded him from alleged attempts at corporate and government sabotage. Disney is trying to block its subsidiary Miramax from distributing Fahrenheit 911, because the movie is “against the interests” of the conglomerate’s tax status and family-friendly image, according to statements reported in The New York Times last week. “This struggle has been a lesson in just how difficult it is in this country to create a piece of art that might upset those in charge,” Michael Moore countered on his website the day after the story broke.
Morgan Spurlock’s Michael Moore-esque Super Size Me, which follows the deleterious effects of the filmmaker’s 30-day McDonald’s binge, is proving how effective Moore’s populist style can be. Long before opening in theaters last weekend (with box grosses of over $500,000), the documentary made headlines when McDonald’s declared it was eliminating the Super Size option (while denying that Spurlock’s film had anything to do with the decision). “The movie is definitely shaking the trees,” says Spurlock. “There need to be movies that are not beholden to anyone, whether it’s a media corporation or a government agency . . . to get ideas out that are getting buried in today’s society.”
Robert Greenwald, who made the Abbie Hoffman drama Steal This Movie!, felt an urgency to finish Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War while the Bush administration’s push to war was left unquestioned by the mainstream media. (Completed in November 2003, the movie has sold nearly 100,000 copies online; an expanded 90-minute version will be released in theaters this August.) “Part of the power of the movie and the hunger for the film is that we were in the middle of something,” he says. “And here was a tool that was more user-friendly than a book, and it had this extraordinary relevance, because the story, up until recently, hadn’t been available.”
Indeed, these documentaries of dissent indict the media’s passivity as much as the right wing. “The press offers this monolithic point of view,” complains Control Room‘s Noujaim. “The situation that we’re living in is really complex and volatile, so it’s difficult to get a ‘truth’ out of one channel or one station or one voice. It’s important that U.S. citizens have a better understanding of why things are happening and who are the people behind it, rather than just what’s on the news.”
Henry Thomason and Nickolas Perry’s The Hunting of the President, an adaptation of the bestseller by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, suggests that an extreme “right-wing cabal” conspired with decidedly un-independent counsel Kenneth Starr to unseat President Clinton. But the film’s other main target is, says Thomason, “the good old liberal press,” which published stories based on unreliable sources or no sources at all, and jumped on Monica-gate for the salacious headlines. With the documentary circulating in theaters this June, Thomason hopes the film “can sway a reporter or two to be really fair and balanced,” he says, “and not be bullied by the extreme right and their network of AM radio and e-mail.”
Other filmmakers have a more pointed goal. Michael Shoob, co-director with Joseph Mealey of Bush’s Brain, an investigation into the “dirty tricks” of Republican puppet-master and alleged “co-president” Karl Rove, says, “Obviously, we wanted to push this information in an election year.”
But can docs really rock the vote? “Sometimes films influence events beyond their origin. Sometimes they don’t,” says nonfiction veteran George Butler (Pumping Iron), who is currently rushing to complete Tour of Duty, a biographical portrait of his longtime friend John Kerry. “Sometimes you make a film like The China Syndrome, which causes all kinds of changes in the nuclear industry, or a film like Pumping Iron, which causes 100,000 gyms to open up in America and eventually makes Arnold [Schwarzenegger] the governor of California.”
“If I didn’t think documentaries had an impact, I don’t think we would make them,” says Mark Achbar, co-director of the Noam Chomsky cult film Manufacturing Consent and of this year’s festival hit The Corporation, an investigation into globalization and corporate power that has won audience awards at film festivals around the world and opens at Film Forum this June. “The people are speaking,” says Achbar. “Membership in activist groups is shooting up because people come out of [The Corporation] informed, engaged, enraged, and ready to put thought into action. There’s no question that it has an impact. It’s absolutely record-setting in Canada. We even knocked Lord of the Rings off a couple screens.”