Who can forget the scenes of General Motors shutting doors in Michael Moore's face in "Roger and Me," as More and his camera searched for the GM executive who shut down the factory in Moore's home town of Flint. Michigan? Henry Kissinger fled in fear of an insistent camera in "The Trials of Henry Kissinger," Eugene Jarecki's documentary that revisited Kissinger's biography by visiting the countries that suffered when Kissinger called the shots in Washington. Then there's Morgan Spurlock, putting his body on the line as he experimented with the All-McDonalds diet in "Super-Size Me," a film in which the hamburger giant was conspicuously absent.
Documentaries and other political films are scaring the politicians and business leaders here and there, although these films aren't changing the world, at least not yet. But they are transforming the profile of the film business. When a movie like "Super-Size Me," which cost all of $70,000 to make, earns more than $30 million at the box office, the business people notice. "Fahrenheit 9/11" and other openly political films have turned out to be more than the unexplainable underground hits. And the money to make more ambitious views of society and the world has followed. "Syriana," "Good Night and Good Luck," and Al Gore's documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth" - all produced by Participant Films -- are just a few of the examples.
Like everything in the movies, the audience is a crucial part of the equation. Filmmakers are, among other things, responding to demand for information. On television, you're less likely than ever to see long-format coverage of war or the latest hurricane, at least on the news programs. It isn't that the public doesn't want to see these things, but that devoting an hour to them doesn't fit the current parameters of the news business. Now that technology enables filmmakers to make films faster than ever before (and cheaper), documentarians have rushed into the gap, filming conflicts that divide American, like James Longley's heartbreakingly beautiful "Iraq in Fragments," or they've gone back into history, with Erroll Morris dissection of the tragic US folly in folly in Vietnam, 'The Fog of War," which won the Oscar for best documentary in 2002.
The films are part of two broader trends. Non-fiction has emerged as a storytelling field that has all the emotional powerful of fiction. At the same time, the public still looks to drama and fiction to explore the mysteries of events and characters in the present and the past. Why not make it entertaining at the same time, and profitable? George Bernard Shaw said that conflict was at the heart of drama. He didn't have to remind anyone that a good story sells. Participant Productions, formed by Jeff Skoll in 2004, has committed major budgets to making films on social and political issues -- "that will inspire audiences to get involved in the issues htat affect us all." If these films are successful, they can expect to have company.
This is not unprecedented. The cinematic experience wasn't always just about escapism.
From the early days of silent film through the 1950's, newsreels were shown before a feature was screened. For a few years in the early 1930's, before the Motion Picture Production Code was imposed by the film studios to censor out sex and politics, films about corrupt businessmen and crippling effects of the Great Depression were a Hollywood staple. "Problem" movies like "Gentlemen's Agreement" in the late 1940's and early 1950's dealt with the problems of racism, anti-Semitism, and the enduring psychological effects of war. By the 1960's, the major US television networks were making hour-long 35 millimeter documentaries on social unrest, youth rebellion and the Vietnam War. Some of those were made by veterans like Albert Maysles ("Gimme Shelter," "Grey Gardens") and D. A. Pennebaker ("Don't Look Back," "Monterrey Pop"), who also worked independently on features when the network money wasn't there.
The most influential documentary of the 1970's was probably "Hearts and Minds," a look at the failure of a decade of US military involvement in Vietnam. It was directed by Peter Davis, a former CBS News producer. Soon after the documentary premiered in 1974, we started seeing features about the war like "Coming Home" and "The Deerhunter." ("Platoon," by Oliver Stone, who along with Robert Altman leaps into politcial stories more than any Hollywood director on that level, would come a decade later, in 1986.). "Hearts and Minds" was released again in 2004 by Rialto Pictures, in a campaign that drew parallels between Iraq and Vietnam. (Rialto also re-released "The Battle of Algiers," the French classic about the Algerian war which drew the same parallels.) "Hearts and Minds" will play again this season in Israel, at the Haifa International Film Festival, in the largest Israeli city to feel the brunt of recent fighting. If cinema can be used as a tool to teach history, this is one of the most effective tools in the box.
In the 1980's two directors showed the way: John Sayles and Erroll Morris. Sayles made his reputation overnight with "The Return of the Secaucus 7," a 1980 no-budget self-financed ensemble drama about a group of politically-engaged students who meet up again ten years later. Sayles weighed the delicate mix of the political and the personal in his characters, inspiring the derivative "The Big Chill" with big stars on the same topic soon afterward. A gifted screenwriter, he remains an influence among filmmakers, even though his public may not be as faithful to Sayles as he is to his principles. Sayles's last film, "Silver City," was a political allegory about a grammatically-challenged political candidate, the son of powerful parents (inspired by George W. Bush), in a state where corruption and immigration were crucial issues. It was one of the best American films of 2004, an election year. Too bad the audience didn't agree.
Erroll Morris was making small documentaries in the 1980's until one of those films broke the mold. "The Thin Blue Line" told the story of a man framed for a murder in Texas that he never committed. The look of the film was as sober and minimalist as its message. So was the music by the composer Philip Glass. Morris's reconstruction of a murder was praised by the critics and drew a larger audience than anyone expected to a new twist on the classic tale of a man wrongly punished. And the audience wanted more.
If Morris's sophisticated, cinematic documentaries pointed to one new direction, Michael Moore's first person films offered another. Moore's personal journeys were more witty than didactic, which helped then connect with the youthful public that commercial films tend to target. Their influence has been as large as their audience. Morgan Spurlock took on McDonalds in 2002, offering his own body as proof that fast food wasn't as compatible with health as one might think. More recently, Kirby Dick took on the Motion Picture Association of American in "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," hiring investigators to reveal the identities of the people in the largely-secret ratings system run by the major studios.
The box-office success of these - and the willingness of cable networks like HBO and Showtime to air them - points to an evolution of the audience and the film business. Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center," a sentimental and conservative tribute to police and firefighters who responded to the 9/11 attacks, also indicates that not all the films will be coming from the Left. Yet not everything has changed. To some extent, the process still involves making your own movies, and taking your own risks with your own money. These sorts of films tend to be on the small side. Take "Gunner Palace," the 2005 documentary by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein which raced to keep up with a single US National Guard unit searching around Baghdad for suspected insurgents and bombing materials. Self-financed, and shot by Tucker while he was "embedded" in that unit, it is one of the best films that has come out of the war in Iraq. Tucker clearly has the trust of the soldiers who show a side of the army that wonlt make it into the recruiting brochures, yet his reporting has the accuracy ad vividness that you find only in the best journalism. After winning the critics over, "Gunner Palace did respectably at the box office.
Tucker's next project was also in Iraq and also self-financed. This time he looked at the war from the perspective of an innocent man who was imprisoned under Saddam Hussein and then spent months in detention when the American-led Coalition took over. Yunis Khatayer Abbas, a photographer, cameraman and journalist, was seized with his brothers in a raid that Tucker filmed in "Gunner Palace." It wasn't until two years after that filing that Tucker learned that Yunis had been accused by US military interrogators of making bombs as part of an alleged plot to kill Tony Blair. He spent nine months in US jails, including Abu Ghraib, before he was released and told there were no charges against him. In rudimentary English, Yunis discusses his confinement and the absurdity of the original charges. A witty, articulate, dignified man, he personalizes the Iraqi side of the current war, just as the young soldiers in "Gunner Palace" personalized the American side.
War for Yunis is a "Catch 22," where nothing adds up. Yet now, with added footage from a US soldier who befriended the Iraqi man in prison and corroborates much of his testimony, The Prisoner," which was first made a 54-minute documentary for television, will become a feature to be distributed by a new arm of NetFlix. The pre-eminent video rental company sees what producers and distributors like HBO, ThinkFilm (a major distributor of documentaries) and Participant Films have already recognized: that there is a market for films that go beyond what conventional journalism is bringing us, and that film can be as current as journalism. And there's more to come. Participant is funding a documentary by Erroll Morris on Abu Ghraib, reportedly focusing on the grotesque photographs that US soldiers took of the prisoners there.
The Iraq war is just one subject generating a serious cinematic response. The border between the US and its neighbors is another. Documentaries such as "De Nadie" (Sundance 2006) and "Letters from the Other Side" (Slamdance 2006) examine the long trek to El Norte that divides families for years. Dramatic features like "Lone Star" by John Sayles (1996) and "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," directed by Tommy Lee Jones (2005), are among the first in what promises to be a rich vein of storytelling. "Maria Full of Grace," a thriller about smuggling and immigration shot in Spanish by Josh Marston and funded by HBO, shows another direction for filmmakers, working on challenging subjects, who don't want to be limited by working in English.
Is the trend toward addressing serious political issues on the screen just a trend? The box office will determine how broad this new direction becomes. For better or worse, world events will ensure that filmmakers won't run out of new stories.
David D'Arcy is the host, writer and co-producer of "Independent Minds," the award-winning public radio series on trends in contemporary film. He covered the cultural scene for National Public Radio for two decades. He has also worked as a reporter and critic for BBC Radio and television, and for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, covering stories in North America, Latin America, Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.. His articles and reviews have appeared in the Economist, Vanity Fair, the Wall Street Journal, Metropolis and many other publications. He is a correspondent for The Art Newspaper, a monthly published in London, and he is a contributing editor at Art & Auction, which covers the international art market. He is also a contributor to The Architects' Newspaper, which has become the news bible for anyone in architecture and design. Mr. D'Arcy is known for his live interviews of filmmakers at festivals around the world. His current writing on film can be read daily on GreenCine.com