TAMPA, Florida, Dec 22 2006 (IPS) — From Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” to Barbara Kopple’s “Shut Up and Sing” about the travails of the Dixie Chicks, U.S. audiences flocked to theatres in 2006 to watch films that took on heavy topics like global warming, the meaning of “patriotism” and the war in Iraq.
“People are curious, people know that they are deprived of information and know they are being fed disinformation,” said Fayeque Rahman, who directed the award-winning short film “Necessary Illusions” in 2004.
“Considering this, I think that it is only natural that people will be drawn to products on the market that firstly, fly in the face of conventional formats as placed in the mouth of standardised media, and that secondly, paint a picture of the world that is seemingly real and actually questions the truth about the information or disinformation that is being fed to them,” he told IPS.
“Necessary Illusions” tells the story of a young Canadian architecture student of Iranian origin who attempts to enter the United States to visit his Italian fiance in Los Angeles. He is detained by officials from Homeland Security at an airport in the U.S. – it is never revealed which one – and subjected to a humiliating strip-search. In the end, viewers are left uncertain if he will be admitted to the country or not.
“I based my script on a number of experiences I’ve had whilst entering the U.S. since the atrocities of 9/11 were committed. I also communicated with friends of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds who experienced similar or worse ordeals, and chose to create a dramatic arc out of them through the character of Sharia,” explained Rahman, who lives and works in Toronto, Canada.
While other dramatic feature films like “Blood Diamond” are leading at the box office this month, 2006 also saw a rich crop of politically-minded documentaries in the top 10.
Top-grossing films included Eugene Jarecki’s “Why We Fight”, about the supremacy of the military in U.S. culture and politics, the “U.S. vs. John Lennon”, about the legendary musician’s anti-war activism, and “Who Killed the Electric Car?”, about how auto makers, the oil industry and others conspired to undermine the mass marketing of zero-emissions vehicles.
“Iraq for Sale” and “Iraq in Fragments” also won critical acclaim and were screened in homes and theatres across the country and as far off as South Africa.
But even as more people appear interested in “serious” films, finding financial backers remains difficult.
“If you are a filmmaker trying to cover a politically sensitive subject in the United States, America has suffered such a degradation of our open media system in recent years, such a shift away from the values of a democratic society, that problems arise long before the distribution phase,” Jarecki told IPS earlier this year.
“At the very start, the struggle to get financing for a film like [“Why We Fight”] in the United States would have proved immediately prohibitive. So we moved overseas to the BBC, to Canada, to France and Germany, to countries whose media systems are far more open than ours, and in many ways shame ours,” he said.
Bob Ross, a film critic for the Tampa Tribune, agrees that well-known filmmakers like Barbara Kopple or Michael Moore, who made “Fahrenheit 9/11″,”probably have no trouble getting sponsors, but all other documentary makers certainly do”.
Ross noted that “An Inconvenient Truth”, the third-highest grossing documentary in U.S. history, “is a phenomenon all its own. Very few documentaries have such success, both at the box office and with movie critics, and also are as well made and have such a prominent personality as Al Gore.”
Environmental activists say that such films have led not only to greater public awareness, but to increased activism. Chris Miller of Greenpeace told IPS that more people have contacted representatives at the group’s Project Hotseat, which lobbies the U.S.. Congress to reduce global warming emissions, since the release of “An Inconvenient Truth”.
Yet not everyone sees a clear correlation between the popularity of “message” documentaries and actual involvement in causes.
“Something like that is very hard to prove with concrete evidence,” said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington. “I also doubt if there’s an increase in activism. Again, it’s hard to prove that a film or documentary leads to direct activism. And how do you define activism? Is it writing a check for a cause you believe in, or some other activity?”
Ornstein cited “Shut Up and Sing”, which tells the story of the all-female music group the Dixie Chicks and their renunciation of President George W. Bush during a 2003 concert in London, England.
After the London concert, many country-and-western radio stations in the U.S. refused to broadcast the Dixie Chicks’ songs. As the months passed, public sentiment mounted in support of the trio, and Time magazine named the group one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in its May 2006 issue.
Still, Ornstein said, “I don’t think that ‘Shut Up and Sing’ was as much a documentary about President Bush and his policies in Iraq as it was about people who wanted to hear good music by the Dixie Chicks.”
“The serious documentaries usually attract audiences that already agree with the point of view being expressed, and are happy to see their viewpoints on the big screen,” noted Joe Saltzman, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California.
“What has happened in recent years is the digital revolution making it fairly easy for almost anyone to grab a digital camera and then edit the digital images on a fairly cheap computer programme. This makes it possible to make theatrical documentaries for far less money than ever before,” he said.
Rahman also said that the boom in DVD production has been a good thing for independent filmmakers, especially in light of the relatively scant interest by major studios in financing documentaries.
“The issue for me, therefore, is far more about who monopolises what distribution sector and how one can acquire a film to watch,” he said.
One important source of documentary financing is the U.S. cable networks.
“The best example of this is that HBO (Home Box Office) put up the money this year for Spike Lee’s wonderful documentary about New Orleans coping with the after effects of Hurricane Katrina,” Ross said. “But since that documentary (“When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts”) was first shown on HBO TV, I believe that means that it is ineligible to be nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar.”
Ornstein added that such investigative documentaries have a long and distinguished history in the U.S.
“We need to be careful about describing all of this as a new aspect of American culture,” he said. “The CBS documentary of long ago that talked about migrant workers had a tremendous impact when it was first shown on TV. It put the issue of migrant farm workers rights at the top of the national agenda.”
“Harvest of Shame,” which was first broadcast on Thanksgiving Day in 1960 and narrated by the legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, revealed the sub-human living and working conditions of migrant farm workers in the United States. The documentary had an immediate and powerful effect, spurring new legislation about field labour housing conditions.