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A perfect storm of issue films

'Fahrenheit 9/11' is at the forefront of a slew of political documentaries.

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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.

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"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!"