Documentary or propaganda?

The Monitor's critic explains how he evaluates films that have political agendas.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

Lately I've been hearing from readers who complain I'm not tough enough on political documentaries such as "Fahrenheit 9/11," "Bush's Brain," and "The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill Clinton."

One e-mailer writes, "I've seen both ["Uncovered: The War on Iraq" and "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism"] and am glad I did. They are interesting and, I think, worth the look - as much as studies in propaganda-light as for what they portray." But, the reader asks, "Subject matter aside, why would the Monitor support such self-servingly one-sided pieces, and allow them to be reviewed on the movie pages?"

It's a fair question, and I'm glad to give my answer - which, like the reviews I write, reflects my own subjective opinions.

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A theme for many readers is that such movies aren't "documentaries" but "propaganda," not caring about objective truth. Like the readers who've written to me, I take the meanings of words seriously, so I frequently refresh my memory with dictionary visits. My latest one confirms that "documentary" means "being or consisting of documents," as in "documentary evidence," while "propaganda" is intended "to further one's cause or damage an opposing cause."

It seems to me that all these movies are both. They're documentaries as long as they display real people, places, and events. They're propaganda as long as they are motivated by an ideology or agenda.

I'm one who believes there's no such thing as purely "objective" reporting - on screen, in print, or anywhere else. We all carry perspectives and assumptions in our imperfect human minds, and if some of these seem self-evident or unquestionable, it may be because we don't happen to know anyone who thinks otherwise.

The label "documentary film" was devised in the 1920s by filmmaker John Grierson, who defined it as "the creative treatment of actuality." Even the inventor of the term realized documentaries always blend the "actual" with the "creative," which is inevitably open to interpretation and dispute. And creativity has surged through documentaries since the days of silent film, when Robert Flaherty built a bogus igloo for the real-life hero of "Nanook of the North" because the real thing was too dark indoors for the camera to photograph. So much for the ideal of "pure" reality on the movie screen.

No wonder a growing number of filmmakers reject the term "documentary," preferring "nonfiction film." Everyone knows a book can be slanted and still appear on a bookstore's nonfiction shelves - as tomes by leftists like Michael Moore and rightists like Ann Coulter regularly do.

I try to keep my political ideas out of my reviews, but writing criticism is a form of commentary, and there's no way a reviewer can present "objective" opinions.

When writing about political documentaries, I assume there's an agenda present in all of them - and a key criterion for the movie's quality is that the agenda is right upfront, so we can agree or disagree as we choose. Movies as opposite as Mr. Moore's recent "Fahrenheit 9/11" and Leni Riefenstahl's infamous Nazi film "Triumph of the Will" meet this test.

Beyond this, I often give thumbs-up reviews to documentaries not because I necessarily agree with them, but because they're about something real - as opposed to most Hollywood products, which avoid controversial issues so they'll sell as many tickets as possible. I also weigh how well the filmmaker has executed his craft.

Film remains the greatest medium for vividly reflecting the world we live in, and if I have a bias, it's in favor of movies that use this capacity to the fullest. Last year I gave positive reviews to personal documentaries such as "Capturing the Friedmans," about a dysfunctional family, and "Love and Diane," about domestic poverty. Lately, political docs have given me food for thought.

I'll always have regard for movies that make me think - even if they provoke and anger at the same time.

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