In “An Inconvenient Truth,” now playing in theaters, former Vice President Al Gore asserts that global warming may soon eliminate one of the world’s great natural vistas: the snows of Africa’s Mt. Kilimanjaro.
In the forthcoming film “Who Killed the Electric Car?” celebrities such as Mel Gibson and Ed Begley Jr. lament the “murder” of General Motor’s EV1 electric car and the loss of California’s “most radical smog-fighting mandate since the catalytic converter.”
These two follow in the footsteps of other recent movies in the same nonfiction genre: last year’s “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price,” “Sir! No Sir!” (about the G.I. antiwar movement during Vietnam), “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” and 2003’s “Super Size Me” (about obesity and fast food).
All deliver on the promise to tell an “untold” story, but is theirs the full story? Or even the true story?
Don’t count on it, say media experts. The days when “documentary” reliably meant “inform the audience” – rather than “influence the audience” – are no more. The makers of such films today see their cinematic contributions as an antidote to media consolidation that, they say, restricts topics and voices to the bland and the commercial. As such, they feel little or no obligation to heed documentary-film traditions like point-by-point rebuttal or formal reality checks.
“We need to clarify that this new wave of ‘documentaries’ are not, in fact, documentaries,” says Christopher Ian Bennett of New School Media, a communications and public-relations firm in Vancouver. “They fail to meet the Oxford Dictionary definition, in that they editorialize, and opine far too much. They are entertaining…. But they can be dangerous if viewers take everything they are saying as the whole truth.”
The films’ benefit is that they foster public discussion, whether via outrage or applause, say Mr. Bennett and others. “These op-ed documentaries are catalysts for the great public debates – whether it’s the war in Iraq, global warming, or the downfall of Enron,” he says.
In America, documentaries grew up in the early days of TV, nurtured by journalistic doctrines of fairness – and federal licensing requirements concerning equal time, say TV historians.
The new, one-point-of-view documentary made its first commercially successful debut in 1989, when Michael Moore’s “Roger & Me” explored the effects of General Motors Corp. on Flint, Mich. Since then, Mr. Moore has been turning out personal-viewpoint books and films that continue to produce accolades from liberals and clenched fists from conservatives. “Fahrenheit 9/11,” about the Bush administration’s march to war after the 9/11 attacks, is the largest-grossing documentary film of all time.
Moore’s success, followed by the growth of independent theaters and the development of alternative means of film distribution such as the Internet and DVD, has led to a groundswell of similar films. Media observers generally welcome the new diversity of viewpoint, even as they urge viewers to beware.
Directors, for their part, are attracted by the opportunity to get their messages out without having to persuade the media gatekeepers – a handful of Hollywood studios, and cable and TV network brass – that their movies are worth doing.
“This is a revolution – that anyone can make a movie and spread the word about something they believe deeply in, and find an audience that cuts across politics,” says Robert Greenwald, director of “Wal-Mart” and 2004’s “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism.” Before the December release of “Wal-Mart” – about the effects of company policies on employees and communities – Mr. Greenwald set up a situs and hired an organizer to contact church, educational, and civic groups willing to sponsor the showing of his film in their homes, churches, and schools. By the time it opened, 150 such groups had arranged 7,500 screenings, reaching 750,000 viewers.
At his website, Media visitors can log on to host a screening, or find one. “We’re a movement using film to change the world,” say site directions. “Get involved by hosting a screening or attending one near you. And bring your friends!” Two future Greenwald films deal with soon-to-retire Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas (“The Big Guy: Tom DeLay’s Stolen Congress”) and the war in Iraq (“Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers”).
Does he feel the need to present more than one side of an issue? “Is it my job to tell the story that everyone is already getting over and over 24/7? I don’t think so,” says Greenwald. “In a democratic system you want to hear something that hasn’t been told.”
Others concur. “There is no such thing as objectivity,” says David Zeiger, director of “Sir! No Sir!” “The idea of presenting one point of view that absolutely has to give equal time to another point of view is spurious. If you make a film with both sides, you are going to make a boring film. The [film] medium is not the same as journalism.”
One problem with such “docu-ganda,” say some media experts, is that the films risk limiting their audiences to those who agree with their premises.
“One concern I have about such films is that they are merely preaching to the choir. You’re not going to have a fellow with an NRA [National Rifle Association] bumper sticker walking into [Moore’s] ‘Bowling for Columbine,'” says Matt Felling of the nonpartisan Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, which studies news and entertainment media. “[Former US Sen.] Pat Moynihan was famous for saying, ‘Everybody is entitled to their own opinions, but they’re not entitled to their own facts,’ ” says Mr. Felling.
A case in point is Don Richardson, who drove an hour to see a recent showing of “An Inconvenient Truth” in Los Angeles. His own community is too conservative for any theater chain to show it, says the retired railroad worker. “None of my Republican neighbors want to see it.”
All this demands a higher media literacy from filmgoers, say Felling and others. But the ability to discern what is fact, what is varnish, and what is debatable is largely untaught, and viewers are often complacent, they say.
The advent of such films does not mean that people shouldn’t see them, but rather that viewers should practice critical thinking, say experts. “The danger of the advocacy documentary is that things might be being kept from you …,” says Peter Lehman of the Center for Film and Media Research at Arizona State University, Tempe. But he adds that it is legitmate for a filmmaker to acknowledge that his film is not neutral. “It’s a different mission,” he says.