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2004: Year of the Documentary (& Hopefully, Political Reform)

Rmcz3k | 08.07.2004 19:51 | Culture | World

(mini reviews of "The Corporation" "Control Room" "Orwell Rolls in His Grave" and "Uncovered")

Perhaps because of tumultous events of recent history, ever-increasing speed of information technology, corporatization of mass media, or a combination of these and other factors, 2004 is a historic year for documentary filmmaking by any standard.

As a first shot across the bow, Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me created a buzz at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Though not heavily publicized, the film accumulated numerous rave reviews leading to so much positive word of mouth it went on to become the fourth largest grossing documentary film of all time. However, it may have also been boosted by free publicity through news stories about McDonald's phasing out its "supersize" option in March and introducing "Go Active" adult Happy Meals in April (just prior to the nationwide release of Super Size Me in May) all the while declaring the decisions had nothing to do with Spurlock's film.

Even before its release, Fahrenheit 9/11 (and Michael Moore) became the center of controversy in newsrooms and chatrooms across the country. Perhaps reflecting the polarization of the current American political climate, people debated and argued about merits and flaws of Moore and his film, whether Disney was practicing censorship for refusing to distribute it, if the MPAA's R rating was given for political reasons, or if Moore was exploiting such controversies for personal gain. As is common for corporations to do when covering their behinds, anonymous individuals even hired a PR firm to create a pseudo-grassroots organization in an attempt to discourage people from seeing the film.

Demonstrating how this type of strategy can backfire spectacularly, Fahrenheit 9/11 became the highest grossing documentary of all time on its opening weekend alone, and had the second largest per theater average for a film that opened in wide-release. Also surprisingly, it received generally (or grudgingly) positive reviews even among corporate media outlets slammed in the film.

One of F9/11's strengths and weaknesses was the vast range of information it presented. Even at two and a half hours, although a commendable effort, there's no way any film could have said all that needed to be said about corporate/military control of news content, the election theft of 2000, oddities surrounding the official 9/11 story, hidden agendas behind the Patriot Act and the war on terror, and the many reasons why the invasion of Iraq was a huge mistake. Fortunately for those hungry for more information on some of the topics touched on in Moore's film, a number of other great relevant films released this year can help fill in the gaps.

Prior to the release of F9/11, the record for highest grossing documentary film in Canada had recently been broken by The Corporation. Directed by Jennifer Abbot and Mark Achbar, the film is not a one-sided attack on corporations, but a fascinating overview of what a corporation is, the origins of the corporation, the many problems caused by corporations on a local and global scale, and ways the corporate model might be changed for the better. Featured throughout the film are illuminating interviews with Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Michael Moore and Ray Anderson (CEO of a billion dollar company who displays remarkable candor acknowledging his past mistakes his epiphany that gave him the determination to correct them). Despite the mind-blowingly awful corporate crimes it reveals, the film doesn't lose sight of contradictions and ironies of the system (throwing in jokes about itself being a corporation). As co-director Jennifer Abbot said, "There are some big problems here. It's not your fault though you might be implicated. You know it. We know it. What are we going to do about it?"

Control Room is the newest film from Egyptian-American director Jehune Noujaim (who previously co-directed and was released in May near the same time The Corporation opened in America. It's a revealing behind-the-scenes look at Al-Jazeera and CENTCOM (Central Command), the strategic and media PR center of American military operations in Iraq. Though the film contains fascinating footage of the Al-Jazeera news rooms during crucial moments of the war such as the initial bombings and the takeover of Baghdad, at it's heart are three central characters who befriended the filmmakers during the film shoot. Hassan Ibrahim (Al-Jazeera journalist), Samir Khadir (Al-Jazeera producer) and Capt. Josh Rushing (U.S. Press Officer for CENTCOM). Though this film, like Al-Jazeera, has been criticized for its lack of objectivity, one of the central themes of the film is that total objectivity in news is an illusion. What western media can learn from Al-Jazeera and this film is the importance of giving a voice to a number of different points of view,

Robert Kane Pappas' Orwell Rolls In His Grave was twenty years in the making but it couldn't have been released at a more approprate time in American history. Similar to how Moore's film alluded to Ray Bradbury's cautionary tale, Pappas' film draws frightening comparisons between America today and George Orwell's prophetic novel "1984". In fine detail, the film examines corporate domination of modern American politics and global mass media. As two major examples, the documentary revisits the 1980 and 2000 U.S. presidential races, revealing damning evidence of big media collusion with Republican dirty tricksters leading to the election of Reagan and Bush, subsequent legislation leading to further deregulation, increased profits for big media and other corporations...and the cycle of corruption continues to this day. Along with many eerily topical quotes from Orwell, the film is punctuated with informative and revelatory interviews with Rep. Bernie Sanders, Charles Lewis (director of the Center for Public Integrity), media scholars and authors Robert McChesney and Mark Crispin Miller, former member of British Parliament Tony Benn, investigative journalist Greg Palast and (once again) Michael Moore. While Orwell Rolls In His Grave is an important reminder that 1984 is no longer a date in the future, presenting much information that is frightening and depressing, in an odd way it also leaves one inspired and uplifted because a film such as this can still be made and seen (at least for the few able to catch it at film festivals or have seen it on video). Being informed of the nature of current problems can be upsetting, but is also essential to prevent a further descent to a completely "Orwellian" situation.

Though actually completed in 2003, I'm including this title because it had not been widely screened or available on DVD until 2004. Shortly after the release of the excellent documentary about the 2000 election, Unprecedented, producer Robert Greenwald quickly went on to produce and direct a film about the invasion of Iraq. The finished product, Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War is a particularly powerful anti-war document because of it's sense of immediacy and numerous interviews with ex-government officials. Among the many speaking out against the war are former ambassador Joe Wilson, former weapons inspectors Scott Ritter and David Albright, former Director of the CIA Stansfield Turner and former CIA operatives Robert Baer and Milt Bearden, among many others. If even ex-CIA agents are against the war, you know it's really bad. Greenwald is reportedly now working on Unconstitutional (about post 9/11 attacks on civil liberties) which is scheduled for a late 2004 release.

Liberty Bound and Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear & the Selling of American Empire are two more films that just recently came out. I have not had a chance to see either of them yet, but judging from their respective websites, both sound like they have much to offer for those who love independant documentaries and/or those seeking the truth. There's a famous quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson, "An informed citizenry is the bulwark of a democracy". With the help of many independant filmmakers, journalists, activists and others, in 2004 we all have a much needed opportunity to reinforce the bulwark.