As much as I want to be hopeful, and as much as I sometimes need a good cry, it’s hard to watch as many documentaries as I do and not end up a callous and detached misanthrope at the end of the day. Really, I do not wish to be a cynic, but faced with so much harsh reality and so many reminders of mankind at its worst, one either develops a hard and generally hopeless heart or winds up a terribly depressed human being. On top of all the evils and injustices we see in nonfiction films, though, we now are also seeing an increase in “party pooper docs,” which is a childish term I have for those investigative films that expose the few seemingly positive things in this world as frauds.
Two such films open this Friday. The better known, as it’s directed by the prominently established and highly acclaimed Canadian filmmaker Lea Pool, is Pink Ribbons, Inc. This documentary based on Samantha King’s nonfiction book of the same name looks into the negative side of philanthropy with specific focus on the iconic campaigns for breast cancer awareness and charities.
The other is U.N. Me, a film by newcomers Matthew Groff and Ami Horowitz, the latter an investment banker-turned-Michael Moore disciple who, on screen of course, investigates incompetence and corruption in the United Nations. Neither film is especially well-crafted, but the provocative deviation each takes from the usual documentary angle on aid organizations and human rights issues is worth a look.
U.N. Me is actually quite relevant this week, because of the controversial suggestion that Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe would be appointed as a U.N. ambassador of tourism. Even though there doesn’t appear to be truth to the news, the very idea of a widely condemned dictator who is banned from international travel being given such a position is in line with the sort of ridiculous hypocrisies Groff and Horowitz unveil in their film.
A similarly outrageous role given to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by the U.N. is called out by Horowitz during the course of the documentary, which also highlights peacekeeper misconduct in Côte d'Ivoire, the U.N.'s refusal to define and therefore properly address terrorism post-9/11, alleged scams in the name of humanitarianism and, worst of all, a failure to actually curb genocides and holocausts, as was one of the main reasons for its being founded after World War II.
That the U.N. hasn’t received a major uncovering like this before and even the fact that this film hasn’t gotten a lot of mainstream attention may have to do with how unpopular it is to go up against a huge international organization that is primarily favored and appreciated as a force for world peace. Horowitz has told me that his film is not respected within the documentary community, and I have also read claim that Fox refused to distribute the documentary over concerns that doing so would be like declaring war on the U.N.
There’s also the possibility that people dislike the film for ignoring all the good the organization does. Or, maybe because Horowitz comes off as a deceptive jokester, sometimes more manipulative than Moore and Sacha Baron Cohen put together and arguably unethical as far as journalism goes, so he doesn’t always warrant a serious response from his audience so much as he seems to be out for a very uncomfortable laugh at how mad the world is. Satirical mockery and investigative reporting is a tricky mix, and this film doesn’t achieve a good enough balance to make the tone entirely work.
Pink Ribbons, Inc. takes a more formal documentary route and may achieve greater success as a result. But a lot of people will still surely be turned off by the notion that there is no value in merely providing hope and support for breast cancer survivors and people who’ve lost a loved one to the disease. There is a lot of stock footage of charitable runs, walks, marches and other events in which participants are represented as being a part of the problem, which really mainly has to do with corporate exploitation through merchandising, cross-promotion, misleading marketing and other practices that profit through a bare association with the pink ribbon symbol.
There are also the always complicated presumptions made about industries and companies that are as much responsible for the cause as the solution with an issue like this (for instance, manufacturers of potentially carcinogenic beauty products also being major sponsors of cancer charities), as well as why less money is put towards prevention than treatment (cures aren't as lucrative), whether it’s a capitalist conspiracy or simply business as usual.
Raining on the parade of optimistic humanitarian types, many of whom are really good people rather than the guilty conscience “liberal communist” variety and certainly a very large part of the documentary audience either way, is obviously a great means with which to get your film seen by as few people as possible. As much as I’ve tried, I don’t believe I’ve been able to turn many readers on to much better “party pooper” docs like Ondi Timoner’s moderate climate change doc Cool It and Laura Israel’s wind energy expose Windfall. Part of this may be their relationship to “response docs,” which tend to consist of badly made Conservative films aimed at debunking “left wing propaganda” works like Fahrenheit 9/11 and GasLand.
The irony for U.N. Me may in fact be how apolitical it is as far as Right or Left is concerned (the doc’s crew is intentionally of mixed political affiliations), because it ends up ignored by almost everyone except maybe conspiracy theory enthusiasts, as if it were as out there as the "9/11 was an inside job" doc Loose Change. But we do need the documentaries that reach beyond safe and common boundaries of critical thinking, even if they seem absurdly contrarian and especially if they offer difficult and unpopular ideas. I have to admit, though, that looking at all things from all available -- especially extreme -- angles can cause you to feel more jaded than enlightened.
I know that the real point of Pink Ribbons, Inc. and U.N. Me and Cool It and Windfall is for us to be made aware of some important things needing repair (or reform) in otherwise positive endeavors, be they searching for cures or policing human rights violations or environmentalist solutions. But they can unfortunately also cloud our brains and hearts with overwhelming uncertainty, if not total despondency and distrust in everything. Like the organizations Pink Ribbons, Inc. and U.N. Me target, the films themselves might just be doing more harm than good.
While some of this Friday’s new theatrical releases for documentary may be a tough sell (though I hear the also-opening 5 Broken Cameras is excellent and not at all a party pooper), my recommendation this week is for a very satisfying documentary that doesn’t hit theaters until June 8: Paul Williams Still Alive. Directed awkwardly in the first-person investigative style by Stephen Kessler (Vegas Vacation), it begins as a frustrating stalkumentary focused on the titular songwriter and TV personality who disappeared from stardom as a result of substance abuses. But thanks to Williams, who almost deserves a co-directing credit for steering the project on the right course, it ends up a very endearing portrait as well as an amusing real-life take on the buddy comedy genre. If you like Muppets (Williams wrote “Rainbow Connection,” among other hits) and the subject-takeover structure of Exit Through the Gift Shop, you’ll love this very unconventional entry into the music bio category of documentaries.
As for new DVD releases, I do have a soft spot for the similarly amateur-ish yet ultimately enjoyable stalkumentary Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston, which hit home video this week, but my top pick this week is another music bio: Susanne Rostock’s Sing Your Song. This profile of singer and activist Harry Belafonte is a more traditional sort than the Paul Williams doc, but it’s also one of the most positive films I’ve seen in a while. Maybe it’s just after watching stuff like Pink Ribbons, Inc. and U.N. Me I really needed some hopefulness, or maybe it’s just that Belafonte is the real deal, an optimistic and inspiring hero whose life story and career narrative is also a journey of civil and human rights struggles and accomplishments. I think that if Belafonte weren’t prominently featured and telling his own tale it might seem too much of a panegyric puff piece (a la Marley), but there’s a reason he’s captivated audiences for half a century. Just try and turn him off before the whole film is through. You can’t.
I'll be back with another Doc Talk column in two weeks. Until then you can follow me on Twitter @thefilmcynic and at the DOC Channel Blog.