29 June, 2010

Do Documentaries Really Matter?

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

After the intense (and enjoyable) experience of sitting through at least 15 documentary feature films over 4 days at the just concluded AFI-Discovery Channel Documentary Festival, the question organically arose: do documentaries really matter? As someone who trained in documentary filmmaking techniques (and who made a few, best to be forgotten non-fiction nothings) and an admirer of the stamina, grit and determination of the documentary filmmaker, my answer appeared more hopeful than determined. Yes, I hope that documentaries that shed light on complex subjects do other words, that they stimulate discussion, galvanize debate and incite passion in a world overloaded with trivia and unnecessary information generated by the insatiable hunger of the media beast.

To mention a few memorable films of the past few years that seemed to have made that difference.....did AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH light a fire under the dual threat of global warming and climate change? If it brought the issue to the forefront (and renewed the political career of its champion Al Gore) and created a tipping towards a more expansive energy policy, then it fulfilled its function. Even though the US Congress is still bitterly divided about whether the science holds up and a bill making its way through the legislature is becoming alarmingly watered down by special interests, the prescience of the documentary was an early alarm signal that has definitely influenced global (if not yet American) policy, made all the more pressing by the horrific oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. In years to come, the film will be honored as a first shot heard across the planet that changes minds and hearts.

Michael Moore's films, in particular FAHRENHEIT 911, SICKO and CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY, were also prescient wake-up calls in the areas of the deceptions of politics, the inequities of the health care system and the rampaging corporations that brought the world to the brink of economic disaster. While Moore may have been a little too in love with his own image on the big screen, the truth is that these films did get the conversation going about these critical topics and laid the groundwork for the substantial reforms brought into the system by the Obama administration. As documentary film's court jester and man-of-the-people populist, Michael Moore has served as a necessary balance to the rantings of the far-right populism of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.

This year's Oscar winner for Best Documentary, THE COVE, a harrowing tale film about dolphin hunting in Japan, is in the news again, with Japanese distributors (apparently under pressure from the Japanese government) refusing the give the film a theatrical slot. In a country that shudders at disharmony and remains wary of the far right's violent history, the nationalistic activists who have organized a boycott of the film have, temporarily at least, won out, frightening theater owners into canceling a planned distribution of the film. Not only depicting dolphin hunting in a cruel light, the film also warns about high levels of mercury in fish, a disturbing disclosure in the sea-food loving nation. However, despite these early setbacks, active debate is now ocurring about the practice of dolphin hunting and the safety of the sushi diet that Japanese depend upon. There is no question that the impact of the film goes far behind the question of whether it will find proper has generated debate in a society obsessed with concensus.

The film COUNTDOWN TO ZERO, produced by Lawrence Bender and directed by Lucy Walker, arrives next month in theaters, with the task of informing people about the pending disasters if nuclear proliferation continues unabated. The idea of a terrorist group getting hold of nuclear weapons has long been a noirish nightmare, and the possibilities of this ocurring in the post-Cold War age is made horrifically clear. The film is poised to be one of the more controversial documentaries of the year and should put the subject of nuclear policy on the agenda of both the US and international political establishment.

And what about films that premiered at the Silverdocs Festival.....will they follow these trend-setters and end up molding governmental policy? Of course, it is a little too early to say. However, the initial public response to RESTREPO, a you-are-there portrait of the fog of war in Afghanistan co-directed by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, is actively stirring debate about the war in Afghanistan and whether it is winnable. Another war story, THE TILLMAN STORY, detailing the tragic death of former NFL football star Pat Tillman by "friendly fire" in the early days of the Afghanistan war (and the military's campaign to cover it up) are reflected in the recent uproar over the published interview of Afghan War honcho Stanley McCristal, detailing a rift between senior military command and the office of the Commander In Chief, President Obama. Both these films will certainly be touchstones for a debate about the future course of a war that many are beginning to believe is not winnable.

Other films at this year's Festival also add mightily to the debate: BUDRUS and MY SO CALLED ENEMY to the Middle East conflict; THE ARRIVALS to growing European resistance to the wave of immigration; BARBERSHOP PUNK to the legalities of internet censorship; HOLYWARS to the culture wars of religious fundamentalism; ON COAL RIVER to the on-going safety concerns in the coal industry; PRESUMED GUILTY to the shortcomings of the American justice system; and Oliver Stone's SOUTH OF THE BORDER to international relations with the new leftist governments emerging in South America. Should any one film have the burden of generating debate and influencing public policy? Probably not, but they undoubtedly do, which is why they need to have a wide platform.

Just listing the above titles seems to answer my original question. Do documentaries still matter? HELL YES.....

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