In 'docu-ganda' films, balance is not the objective
In "An Inconvenient Truth," now playing in theaters, former Vice President Al Gore asserts that global warming may soon eliminate one of the world's great natural vistas: the snows of Africa's Mt. Kilimanjaro.Skip to next paragraph
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In the forthcoming film "Who Killed the Electric Car?" celebrities such as Mel Gibson and Ed Begley Jr. lament the "murder" of General Motor's EV1 electric car and the loss of California's "most radical smog-fighting mandate since the catalytic converter."
These two follow in the footsteps of other recent movies in the same nonfiction genre: last year's "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price," "Sir! No Sir!" (about the G.I. antiwar movement during Vietnam), "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," and 2003's "Super Size Me" (about obesity and fast food).
All deliver on the promise to tell an "untold" story, but is theirs the full story? Or even the true story?
Don't count on it, say media experts. The days when "documentary" reliably meant "inform the audience" - rather than "influence the audience" - are no more. The makers of such films today see their cinematic contributions as an antidote to media consolidation that, they say, restricts topics and voices to the bland and the commercial. As such, they feel little or no obligation to heed documentary-film traditions like point-by-point rebuttal or formal reality checks.
"We need to clarify that this new wave of 'documentaries' are not, in fact, documentaries," says Christopher Ian Bennett of New School Media, a communications and public-relations firm in Vancouver. "They fail to meet the Oxford Dictionary definition, in that they editorialize, and opine far too much. They are entertaining.... But they can be dangerous if viewers take everything they are saying as the whole truth."
The films' benefit is that they foster public discussion, whether via outrage or applause, say Mr. Bennett and others. "These op-ed documentaries are catalysts for the great public debates - whether it's the war in Iraq, global warming, or the downfall of Enron," he says.
In America, documentaries grew up in the early days of TV, nurtured by journalistic doctrines of fairness - and federal licensing requirements concerning equal time, say TV historians.
The new, one-point-of-view documentary made its first commercially successful debut in 1989, when Michael Moore's "Roger & Me" explored the effects of General Motors Corp. on Flint, Mich. Since then, Mr. Moore has been turning out personal-viewpoint books and films that continue to produce accolades from liberals and clenched fists from conservatives. "Fahrenheit 9/11," about the Bush administration's march to war after the 9/11 attacks, is the largest-grossing documentary film of all time.
Moore's success, followed by the growth of independent theaters and the development of alternative means of film distribution such as the Internet and DVD, has led to a groundswell of similar films. Media observers generally welcome the new diversity of viewpoint, even as they urge viewers to beware.
Directors, for their part, are attracted by the opportunity to get their messages out without having to persuade the media gatekeepers - a handful of Hollywood studios, and cable and TV network brass - that their movies are worth doing.