A perfect storm of issue films
'Fahrenheit 9/11' is at the forefront of a slew of political documentaries.
Here's a free sample of dialogue from "Fahrenheit 9/11," the new Michael Moore documentary: "Governor Bush, it's Michael Moore," says the filmmaker. "Behave yourself, will you?" answers George W. Bush, the Texas governor soon to become the American president. "Go find real work!"
That exchange - though it took place long before Sept. 11 - shows how Mr. Moore could raise hackles even then by simply approaching one of the men of power he's made it his business to question.
Moore has been doing "real work" for years, first attracting attention worldwide in 1989 with "Roger & Me," a crusading documentary about big business and joblessness. It sparked plenty of controversy, but not as instantly as "Fahrenheit 9/11," a polemical film against Bush's domestic and foreign policy since the terrorist attacks.
The film, which won the highest prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival - and was promptly disavowed by Walt Disney Pictures, which forbade its Miramax subsidiary to release the picture - opens next Friday, thanks to Lions Gate Films.
For months "Fahrenheit 9/11" has been a subject of heated discussions in op-eds and talkshows, but it isn't the only documentary (a term that applies here in its broadest sense) to tap into today's political anxieties. Several other "impressionistic" documentaries, all with a dissident touch, are in theaters or on their way. They include "Control Room," about the Al Jazeera TV network; "The Corporation," a look at corporate policies and everyday American life; and "The Hunting of the President," which asks whether there was a vast conspiracy - or a series of little ones - to destroy the Clinton administration.
Nonfiction films have been growing in popularity of late, but this season's batch is joining a chorus of already raised voices. Some observers see a renewed interest in political ferment in today's media, extending from bestselling books on the Bush administration by journalist Bob Woodward, to the strongest flood of protest songs in 30 years, to the rise of talk radio on both the left and the right.
"Popular culture is embracing politics in a way it hasn't since the 1960s," says Joel Bakan, cowriter of "The Corporation" and author of the Free Press book on which that movie is based.
More of what one newspaper labels "docs populi" are imminent. (As with most films labeled "documentaries," filmmaker objectivity isn't necessarily implied.)
"The Yes Men" depicts pranks by an anticorporate group. "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster" touches on the rock band's lawsuit against Napster musicsharing. "Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train" profiles a renowned historian and peace activist. "Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War," opening in theaters in August, has already sold a reported 100,000 video copies on the Web.
Some of these movies are debuting at the annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival, celebrating its 15th anniversary of political programming this month at the Lincoln Center here. And expect even more activist fare in cinemas if any of these films approaches the unprecedented $21.5 million take of Moore's 2002 movie, "Bowling for Columbine," or the $6.2 million gross of current release "Super Size Me," in which a filmmaker eats nothing but McDonald's products for a month to see if his McDiet will make him fatter. (It does.)
Perhaps it's not surprising that there's a hunger for movies with a strong point of view, given the huge sales of books by Ann Coulter, Al Franken, and other politically passionate pundits. Michael Moore's most recent book, "Stupid White Men," has been a bestseller for more than two years.
Some say the current spate of political culture stems from nothing more complicated than the fact that a highly polarized United States is heading toward another hotly contested election. If so, or if other considerations intervene, it may not last.
"Corporation" codirector Mark Achbar says it's a temporary blip rather than a long-term trend.
Then again, multiple factors may underlie the surge in political pop culture. "The ownership of mass media by giant conglomerates makes independent film one of the few places where criticism of corporate chicanery can reach a large audience," says Kevin Lally, editor of Film Journal International. "And remember Michael Moore has been doing this sort of thing for 15 years, surely influencing younger filmmakers - particularly with 'Bowling for Columbine,' one of the most successful documentaries ever made."
It's not just documentary filmmakers willing to take jabs at the administration. John Sayles, a director who has made movies such as "Lone Star" and "The Secret of Roan Inish," recently finished filming "Silver City," a movie that reportedly criticizes the Bush administration.
Why are so many filmmakers so eager to take on the establishment these days? One reason is George W. Bush himself, Mr. Lally says. "The aggressively pro-big-business stance of the current administration has spurred a lot of righteous anger," he asserts, "especially in the creative community."
Moore also points a finger at President Bush, as in a widely reported Cannes press conference after the "Fahrenheit 9/11" première. "I wanted to say something [in this film] about post-9/11 in America," he said, "We have a president asleep at the wheel."
Mr. Bakan is another who feels Bush policies have propelled dissident documentaries for the past few years. "He has done a service for political authors and nonfiction filmmakers," says the "Corporation" cowriter.
"I remember that [a Marxist theoretician] used to talk about heightening the contradictions of capitalism," he says. "I think [Bush] has done a good job of that, and has created a market of critical people. They have a thirst for political stuff."
Bakan started writing "The Corporation" in the mid '90s, when he decided that "globalization, deregulation, privatization, [and] relaxation of merger and acquisition laws" were leading to "our democratic institutions being subsumed to the corporate agenda."
The movie is catching on, he says, because people increasingly sense that the the world is facing real problems. Yet when they watch the news and read the paper, they don't have a sense of why it's happening the way it is happening. Documentaries try to make sense of the big picture, he says, and viewers welcome the engagement such films provide even if they don't always agree with a film's conclusions.
Does this mean a mere movie can actually affect the way Americans think? Documentarymakers certainly think so.
"It definitely can," Moore told me in one of the interviews I've done with him over the years, asserting that "Roger & Me" had "tremendous impact on ... the way people thought about corporations." People are "much smarter ... than you'd think," says the "Fahrenheit 9/11" director.
Mr. Achbar, whose political documentary "Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media" won numerous prizes in 1992, agrees.
"Dissident documentary-film culture ... is kind of like jello," he says. "The more you try to suppress it and push it down ... the more it's gonna ooze out between your fingers. "There's no stopping it." he adds. "There's so little of this kind of analysis in the mainstream that when it does become available, people pounce on it!"