There is no doubt that documentaries can be influential. Cinema has been used for propaganda since the beginning, and many of those early films are classifiable as works of documentary. They helped shape the world in their own way, and more recent films like Super Size Me, The Thin Blue Line, Bowling for Columbine, and Dear Zachary have led to changes in corporate policies or legal matters. But there is no proof to the power of cinema on a direct and individual basis.
Propaganda is usually only effective in circumstances where it builds upon pre-existing or brewing interests. Relative to them are those modern films presenting arguments that “preach to the choir.” Yet even those specific titles I mention above are not so much significant for how they change viewers’ minds as they were instrumental in either scaring PR teams or providing evidence to a judge or politician – although Canada’s Zachary Bill probably would have happened even without the film’s existence.
Call me the worst kind of skeptic, but I’m not one for being convinced by anything, let alone documentaries. They may tell or show me something I didn’t already know, whether it’s the daily routines of Eskimos or bible salesmen or theories about global warming. And sometimes I’ll believe what I’ve heard or seen to be true, while other times I’ll watch something as out there as Loose Change or Collapse and think, “hmm, maybe…”
I enjoy documentaries for the stories and characters and occasionally the unknown worlds it introduces me to. But while these elements and their whole can often affect me emotionally, intellectually and spiritually, it’s not too often I walk away from a documentary thinking differently about an issue than when I started the film.
That’s why I’m such a big fan of Marshall Curry’s latest, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front. The doc focuses on Daniel McGowan, an anti-deforestation activist labeled a domestic terrorist for the acts of arson he committed while a member of the environmentalist group ELF. Curry’s primary objective is to get us to accept McGowan’s case as different from the majority of terrorism cases, which tend to involve physical harm to people, and see the motivation for activists to be more violent today than they were in the past.
I don’t know about the latter part. Consider me still a dreamer of the MLK variety. But I have to admit that my mind was at least very close to completely swayed with the terrorism distinction stuff. I still heartily disagree with McGowan, who as a documentary protagonist is one of my least favorites in a long time. And I still find him quite guilty. But maybe not deserving of a mandatory life sentence and legal categorization equated with Al Qaeda.
The part of the film that did it for me comes near the end, so I don’t really want to say what happens or what is said that changed my mind. Also, it’s been many months since I saw the film. Between then and now I’ve watched the other acclaimed new domestic terrorism doc, Better This World, which made me even moreangry with but also moresympathetic of these kinds of guys for beingsimply young, idealistic and plenty naïve. Putting them away for most or all of their lives seems more than a little unfair. Then again, all I potentially need is for another doc that comes down hard on guys like McGowan to bring me back to my initial senses.
I’m curious what docs have impacted or affected other individuals directly, namely our readers. To get you started, I asked some friends in the documentary community and film blogosophere to offer up the title of the first film that significantly changed their minds about a subject or issue. Here are their answers:
Charlotte Cook of The Documentary Blog: “Fourteen Days in May by Paul Hamann is a film the truly cemented my views on the Death Penalty. It follows the fourteen days before Edward Earl Johnson's execution in Mississippi in 1987. Although there are other excellent films that touch on this area, like The Thin Blue Line, Fourteen Days in May uses observational footage within death row and follows not only Edward but the prison wardens, guards and other death row inmates - something I've never seen in such depth in any other film. It showed me how deeply flawed the capital punishment system is, before you even get to the ethics. The film led me to three years of research about the capital punishment system and to making my first film about the Huntsville Unit in Texas, which is home to their execution chamber. Werner Herzog's film about the same subject comes out soon.”
Dustin Rowles of Pajiba: “After Fast Food Nation (the book), it felt like there were scads of food-related issue documentaries. And I watched them all, because I thought if I saw enough of them, got disgusted and outraged enough, that I could become a vegetarian, because I'd always aspired to better skin, cheaper food, and more regular bowel movements. Unfortunately, most of the food docs just made me want to be less like the smug filmmakers often behind those docs. Plus, outrage doesn't stand a chance against a steak burrito. Ironically, it was Tapped, a documentary on bottled water that came out a few years ago that actually did manage to change my mind about something that many of us see as healthy. It's not that bottled water is unhealthy, per se; it's that it's just water, no different than the tap. And the people who are bottling it for the most part, are evil a**hole corporations. And those bottles are an environmental catastrophe. I haven't had bottled water since."
Merrill Sterritt, Development Director for Film Presence: “Although not my favorite film by any means, The Business of Being Born made me think very differently about the systemized way we deal with pregnancy and birth in this country. It also dramatically changed the way I will make my own choices when I decide to have a child. I was frankly pretty surprised it had such an effect on me!”
Filmmaker Robert Greene, who directed the new wrestling doc Fake It So Real: “I actually find that most issue films change my mind the other way. And by that I mean I often begin agreeing with the filmmaker and then get so pissed off by the sloppy, biased, terrible filmmaking that I end up questioning the nature of the argument too much to support the film's stance or ‘take action’ (as I'm often prompted to do). Fahrenheit 9/11 had me convinced Bush was going to get re-elected and Sicko had me questioning the French ‘nanny-state.’ Outside of King Moore, there are literally hundreds of smaller examples. I think issue films don't always do their ‘issues’ justice. I liked Hot Coffee a great deal as an advocacy film, but could we not have one person even allow that there are some frivolous lawsuits, even in a throwaway line?”
Opening in theaters over the next few weeks are some popular films from Sundance and SXSW, including If a Tree Falls. One is Buck, the extremely accessible film about “Horse Whisperer” Buck Brannaman, who has some great advice not just for horse owners, but for all human beings. It’s a bit overlong and overstated but I admit I was blown away at moments and I do believe it will be a huge hit.
Page One: Inside the New York Times has fortunately lost the misleading “AYear” part of its subtitle. It’s also quite entertaining but not nearly as substantial or timely as it’s being made out to be. I’ve seen far more penetrating and revealing docs about newsrooms and journalists, though it’s true that media reporter David Carr is more entertaining than most people on screen, real or fictional, you’ll see all year.
Maybe not as entertaining as Conan O’Brien, who gets a sharp and satirical behind-the-scenes look into his post-NBC, pre-TBS road show. Never mind that you can see him at home nightly for free. You must see Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop as soon as possible. I promise that you’ll laugh so hard you’ll need to see it at least a second time.
Off the major festival radar are two other films to consider. The Irish dance doc Jig is surprisingly fresh in its approach to the conventions of competition docs. Not quite the Spellbound of jig so much as its own identity. Then there’s General Orders No. 9, the trailer for which has recently excitingly circulated through the mainstream movie blogs to great wonder. I personally haven’t seen it yet, but I’m one of those many who can’t wait to gaze at the gorgeous, poetic, “Malick-like” essay on the South.
As for new DVD releases, I want to recommend Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders, a riveting non-fiction medical story with real doctors merely working to care for people in war-torn Africa, not be heroes or angels trying to make a difference. It’s not the humanitarian cause-focused doc I expected, but instead it’s an intense, observational and gorgeously shot drama unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Rent it.