Encyclopedia of Politics, the Media, and Popular Culture. Editor: Brian Cogan & Tony Kelso. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2009.
Documentary films have typically not sparked as much interest as their fictional, usually Hollywood, counterparts. Yet even if they only rarely attract the large audiences that highly publicized fictional movies regularly draw, many documentaries still reside in the realm of popular culture. Moreover, because they commonly take on political themes, documentary films especially deserve attention in any examination of the intersection of politics, media, and popular culture.
Defining the Documentary Form
Defining what constitutes a documentary is not a completely simple task. Over the years, scholars and creators of documentary films have debated exactly what distinguishes them from fictional movies—their conclusions have changed over time. The British documentary filmmaker and theorist John Grierson, who is widely considered one of the main founders of the form, is generally credited with actually coining the term. To him, the documentary involves, “the creative treatment of actuality” (Grierson 1966). Similarly, current scholar Michael Renov states it entails “the more or less artful reshaping of the historical world” (1993, 11). Often a documentary film is interchangeably referred to as a nonfiction film. Yet the line between fiction and nonfiction is inevitably a blurry one. Like Hollywood directors, documentary filmmakers sometimes stage reenactments, rehearse actions, add lighting to scenes, and score their movies with music that was obviously not playing at the moment of filming. Furthermore, creators of nonfiction films must choose what to include in—and consequently exclude from—the frame, decide on camera angles and lenses, and edit shots just as any maker of fictional movies does. Thus the form cannot possibly mirror real life in an unadulterated fashion. Another area that is debated is the extent to which the people in documentaries go about their business as they would if they were not being filmed. In other words, do they consciously (or even unconsciously) modify their behavior and “perform” for the camera? The persons who appear in documentaries are expected to “be themselves” and serve as social actors rather than professional actors. But knowing they are being watched likely has an influence on how these “real people” conduct their affairs.
Despite these overlapping tendencies, there are still key differences between nonfiction and fiction films. Bill Nichols, an authority on documentaries, for instance, contends that documentaries “address the world in which we live rather than a world imagined by the filmmaker” (2001, xi). In addition, generally much more so than the creators of fiction movies, documentarians seek to give the impression of authenticity. Rather than entirely fabricate a world for their audiences, makers of nonfiction films select portions of actual lived experience from their original context and arrange them in ways to make an argument. The documentary, therefore, “is not a reproduction of reality. It is a representation of the world we already occupy. It stands for a particular view of the world, one we may never have encountered before even if the aspects of the world that is represented are familiar to us” (Nichols 2001, 20). Although documentaries are sometimes perceived by the public as “objective,” in effect, subjectivity inevitably enters the picture. The very process of making choices—subject, shot selection, and the like—guarantees that the outlook presented will reflect the stance of the film’s creator. Nichols explains that fiction films ask their audiences to suspend disbelief, while documentaries hope to inspire belief, to convince their audiences to accept their filmmakers’ interpretations of events as true. Accordingly, the author claims that documentaries correspond with the rhetorical tradition. In both cases, the filmmaker or orator uses certain tools of persuasion to structure a communicative act as a means of advancing a position and influencing an audience. Thus metaphorically, a documentary is a type of visual essay. It sometimes entertains its viewers but it is designed to do more than that. Not surprisingly, then, documentaries frequently carry political implications.
Nonfiction films can be assigned to various subgenres. For instance, many documentaries emphasize clear-cut scientific, nature, and educational issues. What is commonly called the social documentary is the nonfiction form most often associated with political themes. This type of documentary, too, can be divided into subgenres. In his definitive history of the documentary, Erik Barnouw (1993) divides documentaries up into the functions its practitioners fulfill, including the prophet, the explorer, the advocate, the poet, the chronicler, the observer, the catalyst, and so on. Other scholars have devised somewhat different genre categories for nonfiction films. Direct cinema, cinéma vérité, experimental, and further designations have been used to classify documentaries in an attempt to facilitate a better understanding of their purposes and how they communicate meaning. Regardless of how they are defined, each subgenre has included films that are loaded with political import.
Yet trying to discern exactly what constitutes a political documentary is itself problematic. Some theorists would maintain that every product of the mass media has political connotations. Yet such a conclusion yields an analysis of the intersection of politics and documentaries essentially meaningless. The field can be narrowed by focusing on forms that are directly political, such as nonfiction films that either function as government propaganda or deliver alternative perspectives on the status quo. Documentaries that revolve around “identity politics”—issues involving gender, race, sexual orientation, and other defining characteristics—are generally overtly political as well.
The Origins of the Documentary
Many scholars trace the documentary’s roots to the early films, or actualités, of the Frenchman Louis Lumière in the late nineteenth century. For example, the film Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory displays, as the title indicates, people simply exiting their place of employment. Such films seem to faithfully document everyday events as they happened (although, even here, it appears as though scenes were sometimes rehearsed). Yet a documentary tradition that went beyond merely recording either mundane activities (such as a train arriving at a station) or sensational events (such as a circus performance) to acquire a “voice,” or a manner of expressing a point of view or argument, did not transpire until the 1920s. During that decade, more sophisticated documentaries emerged in the Soviet Union, France, Germany, Holland, England, and North America. The leading Soviet documentarians of the period, such as Esfir Shub, Dziga Vertov, and Sergei Eisenstein, were particularly influential on their counterparts in the United States, as well as government officials interested in using documentaries to further political policies. But the non-fiction feature that film historians generally point to as the one that gave birth to a full-fledged documentary form in the United States is Nanook of the North (1922). Produced by Robert Flaherty, who is universally regarded as one of the documentary’s “founding fathers,” it depicts an Inuit family’s struggle to survive in the bitter conditions of the Arctic.
A Brief History of the Political Documentary in the United States
In 1896, the film William McKinley at Home showed the candidate for president in the midst of his political campaign. Soon after, President McKinley’s Inaugural Address presented the newly elected president giving his speech—yet his actual words were not heard because the arrival of sync sound was still decades away. Similar to the primitive actualités, these short pieces merely recorded McKinley engaged in political activity without providing a clear stance on the events.
The U.S. government produced several rudimentary propaganda films as early as 1911. In one, farmers in the East were encouraged to move to the newly developed territories in the West. Once the country joined forces with its World War I allies in 1917, propaganda films promoting support for American involvement and hatred of the enemy were released, including Pershing’s Crusaders, America’s Answer, and Prom Forest to France.
Although Nanook of the North is widely heralded as the first great American documentary film, it does not explicitly forward a political argument. Vaguely anthropological, still, the feature has political implications, even if they were not broadly recognized by its large and receptive audience when it was first screened. Despite Flaherty’s sympathetic portrayal of Nanook and his family, the filmmaker’s work presents their daily life—at least subtly—through a colonialist lens. Nanook of the North is also significant in that it established right from the start the blurry boundaries between fiction and nonfiction film. Flaherty requested that his social actors reenact routines—sometimes even activities they had long abandoned for newer practices.
The 1930s: Documentaries Become Institutionalized
As the nation entered the Great Depression, a number of filmmakers from the left end of the political spectrum began producing numerous documentaries that delivered sharp critiques of the capitalist enterprise and other aspects of U.S. society. In 1930, the Workers’ Film and Photo League (later the word “Workers” was dropped from its title) was formed to train photographers and documentarians, with the goal of producing films from a Marxist perspective. Part of the group’s mission was to expose images and issues that were generally not covered by the standard news services. Although audiences for these films were usually smaller than those enjoyed by Hollywood, figures from the realm of popular culture, including such luminaries as the actor and eventual screen director Elia Kazan, as well as actors Burgess Meredith and James Cagney, sometimes participated in their creation. In 1934, three key figures of the Film and Photo League (FPL) left the organization to establish Nykino. Its first well-promoted film poked fun at turning to religion for feelings of hope regarding an afterlife rather than considering the hunger that already exists in life on earth.
In contrast to the FPL and Nykino was the more politically centrist or possibly right-leaning series The March of Time(MOT). Sponsored by Time-Life-Fortune, Inc., and backed by the corporation’s head, Henry Luce, the MOT released a new film each month. These short movies covered current affairs in a journalistic fashion and played before the feature selections at popular movie theaters.
Meanwhile, various government agencies were producing and disseminating documentaries as well. Rexford Guy Tugwell, who had been appointed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to head up the Resettlement Administration (RA), turned to the documentary as a tactic for championing FDR’s New Deal initiatives. Tugwell hired Pare Lorentz, who would become the force behind several notable government-supported documentaries. Eventually, though, partly because of resistance from Republicans and corporate leaders who were hostile to the New Deal, filmmaking efforts such as Lorentz’s would come to a halt as financial support dwindled.
Other private and corporate concerns also released documentaries that provided commentary on the matters perplexing the nation during the 1930s. For instance, The Spanish Earth, an antifascist perspective on the Spanish civil war, was produced by the Contemporary Film Historians, Inc., whose members included the playwright Lillian Hellman and the novelist Ernest Hemingway, who wrote and narrated the film. The conflict was revisited years later in the film The Good Fight (1984), directed by Mary Dore, Noel Buckner, and Sam Sills, and narrated by Studs Terkel. Frontier Films, which succeeded Nykino, created a variety of documentaries, several of which dealt with labor unrest from a left-wing point of view. Elia Kazan directed People of the Cumberland, a film that featured the trials of coal miners in Appala-chia and their efforts at organized resistance to exploitative practices. The actor Paul Robeson narrated Native Land, which examined workers’ rights and unions. The City dealt with urban planning and received much attention at the New York World’s Fair of 1939. Although well-known personalities contributed to these and other like-minded films, most of the time these documentaries suffered from poor funding and distribution and, consequently, were not screened by the kind of sizable crowds associated with popular culture. Often, they were screened in art house theaters by especially politically engaged audiences. Probably, then, these left of center, nongovernmental, nonfiction films had minimal impact on the general population. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, support for critical documentaries diminished; in their place arose ones that promoted national unity in the cause of defeating the Axis powers.
The 1940s: Entering World War II
Both British and Canadian documentaries were distributed in the United States before the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor, which might have contributed to boosting sympathy for the Allied cause even before direct U.S. involvement. Once President Roosevelt had committed troops, documentarians from all three English-speaking nations exchanged footage, and audiences in all three countries were able to see one another’s films centered on the war. Not only did documentary filmmakers in the United States work on behalf of the military effort, but fiction movie producers joined the cause as well. Together, they served the function of gaining popular support for U.S. involvement. Along the way, documentaries received far more screenings than they had during the 1930s.
Some of the nonfiction war materials produced simply consisted of training films. These straightforward explanations of various military techniques were not documentaries per se, in the sense defined above, because they did not advance arguments. Yet they were an important part of the war filmmaking venture nonetheless.
Other films created throughout the war period would qualify as full-fledged documentaries. Propaganda films in particular were backed by the government to influence citizen attitudes and heighten troop morale. Probably the most notable propaganda movies made in this vein are the seven that comprise the Why We Fight series, which were designed to turn over 9 million American citizens into soldiers and other military workers. The famous Hollywood director Frank Capra, a lieutenant in the war, was in charge of production.
A number of Hollywood veterans besides Capra also played a major role in producing propaganda films and other types of war documentaries, including John Ford and John Huston. Some of these movies featured actual or reenacted battle scenes. Ford, for example, personally filmed action for The Battle of Midway (1942) and was seriously wounded in the process. Yet his bravery led to special recognition when his film won an Academy Award. Ford also used miniatures and special effects to recreate the attack on Pearl Harbor in his film December 7th (1943).
Huston’s The Battle of San Pietro (1945) is considered by many to be the best American wartime documentary ever crafted. The director also wrote and narrated the film. In the movie, American and German forces in Italy fight ferociously for control of the Liri Valley. Yet by picturing the excruciating costs of war, including shots of civilian casualties, it did not operate as sheer propaganda.
Shortly after the United States entered the war, the Roosevelt administration established the Office of War Information (OWI), which was given the task of coordinating all of the government information provided to the media, as well as charged with producing its own materials to educate and persuade the public.
Postwar Documentaries before Television
While scores of nonfiction films were disseminated and more people than ever before had viewed this form of motion picture during the war, documentaries did not build on that momentum and gain widespread popularity immediately afterward. Following World War II, less funding was available for documentaries, fewer filmmakers participated in the genre, and, accordingly, fewer of these films were created and distributed. The Hollywood professionals who had made documentaries on behalf of the nation returned to business as usual, once more supplying fictional entertainment for moviegoers. Nonfiction education and training films flourished while documentaries with a strong voice and artistic vision found far fewer outlets. Commercial theaters typically shunned them, relegating them to classrooms, corporate boardrooms, and similar venues.
Moreover, resistance to the New Deal had pressured the government to pull back on releasing documentaries that endorsed domestic policies. And with the war behind them, Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) and other officials had little need to sponsor the kind of output they had financially backed when the conflict was still in motion. The OWI was totally abolished; meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture still engaged in production, albeit on a smaller scale, and the International Motion Picture Division of the Department of State continued to ship propaganda films abroad. Private industries sometimes provided funding, but generally with the intention of enhancing company profits rather than showing concern for the common good. Nonprofit associations, other interest groups, and independent social documentarians (especially on the left), in contrast, were often hesitant to boldly take a critical stance toward issues, in part, because McCarthyism was on the rise. Makers of controversial films risked being accused of Communist sympathy, which could result in the loss of their careers. The late 1940s, in general, reflected neither the hardships of the Great Depression nor the turmoil and threat of fascism of World War II. It appeared that the motivation to express strong political statements through film had diminished. In the midst of the Cold War climate, documentaries, by and large, were usually tamer than many of their antecedents had been. Nonfiction films as a whole, then, lost their edge and sense of creativity. Still, one contentious area that did make its way into documentary production involved race relations. For example, Frank Sinatra sang in The House I Live In (1945), a theatrical short that spoke out against anti-Semitism. Yet the overall impact of films of this nature before the Civil Rights Movement took hold was likely dubious.
Television: A New Channel for Documentaries
If the immediate postwar years were a time of lull for documentaries, the rise of television in the 1950s became a period in which nonfiction films proliferated like never before. (For a discussion of politics and nondocumentary forms of television entertainment, see Chapter 4.) Although the technology for television had existed well in advance of the war, the medium was not heavily marketed until after its conclusion, which coincided with a renewed emphasis on the consumer economy. By 1950, there were roughly 4 million sets in U.S. homes. The next year, TV was available from coast to coast. Also in 1951, as The March of Time came to a close, a new CBS series was beamed through the airwaves. See It Now, a spin-off of the radio show Hear It Now, helped newsman Edward R. Murrow gain even greater fame. The other major networks also broadcast informational shows, mostly as a means of satisfying their licensing requirements to serve the public interest. In 1953, National Educational Television (which would later become the Public Broadcasting Service [PBS]) was born. As a noncommercial network partly funded by the government, it offered many opportunities for documentarians to put their work on the air.
See It Now is generally considered to be television’s first regular television documentary series. Yet as it took up more and more controversial issues, advertisers increasingly withdrew support. Eventually the weekly show was reduced to an occasional special, and then supplanted by CBS Reports. Murrow’s role was decreased, although he still anchored Harvest of Shame, a critically acclaimed installment of the program.
In 1960, NBC launched White Paper, a documentary series that applied many of the same conventions of CBS’s public affairs programming. While covering a variety of pressing stories of the day, such as the Bay of Pigs invasion and the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, it generally stayed clear of inciting the kind of heated reactions its CBS rival sparked. For its part, ABC introduced a number of one-hour documentaries under the title, Close-Up! One of them, “Yanki No” (1960), dealt with anti-Americanism in Latin America. Another noteworthy film in the series, “The Children Were Watching” (1960), portrayed white segregationists and a family whose daughter hoped to be the first to attend a formerly all-white school. Racial themes were also evident in “Walk in My Shoes” (1961), which depicted life in Jim Crow America from an African American point of view.
Later, CBS inaugurated 60 Minutes, one of the news magazine format’s—if not television’s in general—most successful ventures. Started in 1968, the investigative journalism vehicle achieved such success that spin-offs, such as ABC’s 20/20and Dateline NBC, eventually followed. These types of public affairs shows have almost completely replaced long-form documentaries on commercial broadcast television. At the same time, however, the broadcast medium has brought nonfiction works to more people than movie theaters ever did.
Direct Cinema and Cinéma Vérité
By the late 1950s, film technologies were becoming lighter, more mobile, and more flexible, thus offering filmmakers opportunities to establish new techniques. Out of these developments emerged two related documentary methods. Cinéma vérité (film truth) was mostly of French invention, thanks largely to the work of Jean Rouch. In the United States, an approach to recording situations in everyday life became known as “direct cinema.” Perhaps the main difference between them has to do with the extent to which the documentarians intervene in what they are filming. The artist engaged in cinéma vérité directly participates in the action, sometimes even functioning as a provocateur, hoping to trigger reactions that reveal a deeper truth about the situation captured for the screen. On the other hand, the direct cinema director attempts to remove himself or herself from the scene and act as an objective observer, an uninvolved bystander. Direct cinema, then, often requires very long takes, as the documentarían waits for something to unfold that can hold an audience’s attention. Cinéma vérité deliberately tries to present moments that would have never happened without the presence of a camera. Direct cinema, conversely, intends to show behavior that supposedly would have occurred even if the film crew were absent. One of the early major documentaries to become associated with the practices of direct cinema is Primary (1960), produced by Drew Associates. The film was also the first of its kind to comprehensively cover a political campaign while providing a behind-the-scenes perspective.
Today, the two labels (cinéma vérité and direct cinema) are often used interchangeably although this undercuts their original point of difference. Debate has centered on whether a filmmaker can ever achieve pure objectivity or if a camera (unless it is hidden) can actually serve as a “fly on the wall.” Rouch and his fellow practitioners of cinéma vérité dismissed the notion of objectivity and instead sought to take a strong point of view toward the subjects they filmed. Both styles, however, usually gain political import by focusing more on individuals that relate to larger social issues than on broad concerns in the abstract. Generally, too, they take the shape of a narrative more than a film essay composed of shots from diverse sources that are edited in a way to advance a particular argument.
The 1960s and 1970s: Documenting a Time of Political Unrest
In the late 1960s and the 1970s, funding came from many supporters and thus a considerable amount of notable documentaries were produced. Emile de Antonio resurrected the left-wing tradition, creating scathing critiques of elements of American life. (He sometimes referred to his work as “the theater of fact.”) His first successful film, Point of Order (1963), received a considerable run in movie theaters. It revisited the 1954 Army-Senator Joseph McCarthy hearings and debunked the politician’s tactics. In 1971, the director released Mulhouse: A White Comedy, which levied attacks against the character and activities of Richard Nixon the year before he was reelected as president. He also produced a documentary in 1975 about the radical group the Weather Underground.
Reflecting the controversies surrounding the U.S. military endeavors in Southeast Asia, a number of documentaries about Vietnam were also created during this period, most of them challenging the government’s line on the intervention. De Antonio delivered one himself, in a highly critical history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In the Year of the Pig (1968) portrays a number of haunting images, including scenes of American soldiers burning villages and terrifying women and children. On the other hand, Why Vietnam? (1965), produced by the Department of Defense and distributed to schools, presented a pro-war point of view.
As the disconnection between the government’s official version of the war and the media’s firsthand view of it became more pronounced, dissenting voices increasingly surfaced. Letters from Vietnam (1965), created by Drew Associates and aired on ABC TV, however, does not take a hostile stance per se yet poses questions about U.S. involvement. The film’s scenes are scored with excerpts from audiotape letters that a helicopter pilot had sent to his daughter back home. Through them, the soldier reveals the harsh realities of war, including the conditions faced by child victims. A few years afterward, Joseph Strick won an Academy Award for best short documentary for his film, Interviews with My Lai Veterans (1970). In the piece, former soldiers, seemingly still numb from their participation in the war, disclose stories about the massacre that U.S. troops committed in the Vietnam village identified in the film’s title.
One of the most famous Vietnam films of the period, an Oscar winner for Best Documentary, is Peter Davis’s Hearts and Minds (1974), which paints a history of the conflict and explores the damage done on all sides. The film was rereleased in 2004, probably because distributors felt it contained parallels between U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the twenty-first-century occupation of Iraq.
Ultimately, many government officials at least partially blamed the media for the nation’s Vietnam defeat because of the critical standpoint some television and documentaries presented. A number of patriotic thinkers have continued this line of argument until the present day. Others counter that the media should not be used as a scapegoat and that America’s failure in Vietnam was a result of an array of complicated factors.
Meanwhile, the Newsreel Collective, later named Third World Newsreel, produced and disseminated, often to college campuses, dozens of short pieces of agitprop on additional matters. Founded in 1967 in New York, the organization moved to other cities across the country. It took on a number of contentious topics, including student protests at Columbia University, the plight of working-class women, and a variety of issues faced by people of color. Over time, Third World Newsreel has expanded its operations and continues to distribute films today about many marginalized peoples.
Frederick Wiseman was a foremost contributor to the direct cinema tradition. Many of his films, such as The Titicut Follies (1967), which examines a hospital for the criminally insane, and Law and Order (1969), about the work of the Kansas City Police Department, following the conventions of the form, do not convey a bold viewpoint yet are certainly capable of triggering political thoughts in viewers, depending on the predispositions they bring to the documentaries.
Other Documentaries with Political Implications. As the women’s movement gained steam in the 1970s, not surprisingly, documentaries with feminist themes or implications also surfaced. Before the decade, relatively few women had directed documentaries. By the close of the 1970s, many women had produced films on a range of personal and political topics. Barbara Kopple gained considerable recognition throughout the decade, especially for her Academy Award-winning documentary, Harlan County, USA (1976), which offers a sympathetic view of Kentucky coal miners who were locked in a bitter strike. Later, Elizabeth Barrett also turned her lens on coal mining, but her film, Coal Mining Women (1982), specifically emphasizes women who were working in a predominantly male world. Connie Field looked at women in the labor pool as well, yet within a different context. The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1980) is an historical examination of the women who toiled in the factories when there was a shortage of male workers during World War II. In 1972, the distribution company Women Make Movies was launched, designed to “address the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of women in the media industry” (quoted from the Women Make Movies Web site, http://www.wmm.com/about/general_info.shtml ). Most of the feminist films of the decade, however, never achieved popular status and had to settle for play outside the theatrical market. Still, Women Make Movies remains active today, funding films produced by women and helping to ensure they gain exhibition.
Other documentaries also highlighted the cause of labor in general. In The Wob-blies (1978), for example, Deborah Shaffer and Stewart Bird show the organizing activities of the Industrial Workers of the World (nicknamed the Wobblies) throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Additional themes that grew out of the 1960s social movements, including racial equality, gay rights, and environmentalism, received treatment as well.
In addition, the 1972 political party conventions were covered by a group of alternative filmmakers known as “Top Value Television,” or TVTV. Taking a guerrilla approach to events, they offered a very different perspective of the rallies than that communicated through conventional media.
Yet no documentary achieved more success in the decade than Woodstock (1970), which presents an elaborate collage of the rock concert by the same name. Not overtly political, the film is yet significant for its depiction of hippie culture, which indeed signified, at least in part, collective resistance to certain events and dominant ideas in the U.S. society at large. In 1973, another concert documentary was created for a primarily African American audience. Mel Stuart’s Wattstax captures the spirit of a performance that symbolized, in a sense, the Black version of Woodstock.
The 1980s: Video Makes Its Entrance
For years, documentary filmmakers had relied on 16mm film, a lighter and easier format to use than the wider 35mm version preferred by Hollywood. Entering the 1980s, videotape production was becoming more popular. Cheaper and simpler to employ than any kind of film, it enabled many more people to participate in documentary production at a variety of levels, from crudely amateur to highly professional. Still, hoping to secure profits in a satiated environment proved difficult. Yet the growth of cable and satellite television supplied additional venues for reaching audiences. HBO, in particular, telecast a number of significant documentaries and continues to do so until this day. A&E, The History Channel, The Learning Channel, The Discovery Channel, and others have relied extensively on nonfiction films to fulfill their programming requirements. Yet only rarely have any of these commercial cable offerings (as opposed to a premium venue such as HBO) provoked considerable political debate or controversy, which has usually been the case with the advertising-driven medium of television at large. Many of the documentaries on these channels consist of titillating or human interest material, or straightforward accounts of scientific developments, activities in nature, and similar fare. Films such as Justiceville (1987), about a group of homeless activists in Los Angeles, were broadcast on The Discovery Channel only in its early days and are in no way typical of programming trends in general. Many of the nonfiction films on these cable stations follow predictable formulas and serve to satisfy the needs of corporate sponsors.
Not that every documentary film made in the period was devoid of impact or political reference. For instance, Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (1988), which challenges the conviction of a man serving a life sentence for the murder of a police officer, was screened in many theaters and actually contributed to the release of the wrongfully incarcerated man.
A serious film about the nuclear age, If You Love This Planet received an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short. Although it was produced by a Canadian organization, it received attention in the United States. The U.S. Department of Labor, under the Ronald Reagan administration, classified the film as “political propaganda” and required copies exhibited in the United States to carry a warning label that identified it as such.
Charles Guggenheim, a renowned documentarían, created several films of political consequence. Note from Little Rock, an Academy Award winner, recounts the events of the Arkansas school integration crisis. Guggenheim had earlier acquired an Academy Award for Robert Kennedy Remembered, a biography he completed just weeks after the presidential candidate’s assassination. Later, he received two more Academy Awards, including one in 1995 for A Time for Justice, a documentary that explores the Civil Rights Movement.
Several additional important political nonfiction films were released during the 1980s. Some of them explored the dubious involvement of the United States in Central American insurgencies and counterinsurgencies. Pamela Yates and David Goodman won an Academy Award for their documentary, Witness to War: Dr. Charlie Clements (1985), about a Vietnam veteran working in El Salvador to heal wounded rebel soldiers. Barbara Trent, the head of the Empowerment Project, produced Destination (1986) and Coverup: Behind the Iran Contra Affair (1988), and later received an Academy Award for The Panama Deception (1992), which delivers a scathing critique of U.S. policies in that nation. Today, Trent continues to create documentaries, some of which express an antiglobalization perspective. Robert Richter, in the 1990s, carried on the motif of unsavory U.S. intervention in Latin American conditions. Both School of Assassins(1994) and Father Roy: Inside the School of Assassins (1997) expose the training of eventual Latin American human rights abusers by U.S. personnel at the Army’s School of the Americas in Georgia. The actress Susan Sarandon narrated each film. Meanwhile, Yates turned her attention to poverty in the United States in the 1990s with a trilogy of films.
Some Vietnam documentaries continued to emerge, perhaps reflecting the war’s lingering influence on the national consciousness (a tendency that still seems active, given that, even in the twenty-first century, a few nonfiction films on the Vietnam era have been produced—see below). For example, calling to mind the film Letters from Vietnam, Bill Couturiè created Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (1988). This time, the correspondence of several soldiers is heard, their words read by a group of well-known actors. Produced for HBO, the feature resulted in an Emmy Award for Couturiè. Several films returned to even earlier wars. For instance, The Day after Trinity (1980) profiles J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the major forces behind the creation of the atomic bomb that was used to decimate Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, during World War II. The Atomic Café (1982), made by Kevin Rafferty, Pierce Rafferty, and Jayne Loader, is a satirical commentary on U.S. propaganda films that had sought to incite fear in the population about the threat of a Soviet-led nuclear holocaust; the documentary enjoyed a successful run in numerous theaters. Another documentary on the birth of the atomic era, Robert Stone’s Radio Bikini (1987), shows U.S. authorities permanently evacuating the residents of Bikini Atoll to conduct bombing tests, as well as the nation’s own soldiers, who were provided neither protection nor information on the harm that nuclear fallout would cause, innocently watching the explosions in the distance.
Documentaries tackling racial and ethnic controversies emerged as well. In 1979, eight black producers formed the National Black Programming Consortium in response to the lack of African American shows on PBS. Henry Hampton, who in 1968 had established Blackside, Inc., the largest African American-owned film outfit at the time, served as executive producer of the PBS series Eyes on the Prize. The episodes comprehensively cover the history of race relations in the United States; some of them, after receiving funding to clear up copyright problems with archival footage, have been recently rebroadcast on PBS. Marlon Riggs also made several films on African American themes and sometimes sparked controversy when his work aired on PBS. Ethnic Notions: Black People in White Minds (1987) uncovers media stereotypes of African Americans, a subject he revisited in 1989 with Color Adjustment. Asian Americans produced documentaries that treated identity politics as well. One of the most highly regarded Asian American nonfiction films of the period is Christine Choy and Renee Tajima’s Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1988). The feature investigates the murder of Chin, who was beaten to death outside a fast-food restaurant after his bachelor party in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, a city where many residents were feeling resentment over the Japanese encroachment on Detroit’s automotive manufacturing dominance. It appears his attackers assumed that Chin, a Chinese American, was Japanese. Over the years, the PBS Minority Consortium has supported works by Native Americans and Latinos as well.
Following the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City, which marked a turning point in the gay rights movement, more homosexual filmmakers used documentary to make their voices heard. Nearing the 1980s, the Mariposa Film Group released the pioneering film, Word Is Out: Some Stories of Our Lives (1978). In 1984, Robert Rosenberg, John Scagliotti, and Greta Schiller chronicled the history of gay culture, persecution, and resistance in the United States in Before Stonewall. Also in 1984, The Times of Harvey Milk, by Rob Epstein and Richard Schmiechen, received significant attention. The documentary centers on the career of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to win an election for public office in California. Roughly a year after his term had begun, he and the mayor of San Francisco were murdered by another council member. Later, Rob Epstein joined Bill Couturiè and Jeffrey Friedman to make Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989), a documentary that attempted to raise consciousness about the AIDS epidemic, which had hit the gay population especially hard. Made for HBO and narrated by Dustin Hoffman, the program drew a sizable audience. Documentaries and experimental cinematic pieces on lesbian-feminist issues also came to the fore through the efforts of Barbara Hammer, a pioneer in the area who has produced dozens of films since the 1970s.
Meanwhile, Marlon Riggs did not produce documentaries only about the black experience per se. A gay man, he generated controversy with his frank and sexually charged portrayals of urban, African American gay men in Tongues Untied (1988). In response to the film’s scheduled appearance on PBS, some politicians debated the merits of the government funding work they perceived as obscene. Amidst the verbal storm, a few public stations backed out of running the show, although most PBS outlets broadcast it as planned. Yet the contentiousness surrounding the documentary might have had an influence on the eventual National Endowment for the Arts decision to no longer provide financial support for individual artists, including filmmakers.
The nature of the relationship between documentaries and television in general reached a turning point when, in 1984, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) relaxed its guidelines regarding broadcasters’ requirement to serve the public interest. TV executives, forever nervous about risky programming, therefore, had less motivation to devote significant airtime to nonfiction films on controversial matters. Just four years earlier, CBS had suffered attack for its telecasting of The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception, which alleged that General William C. Westmoreland had deliberately misled the government, the public, and the military itself about the size and strength of the Vietnamese forces. The outcry culminated in Westmoreland filing a suit against CBS (he later dropped it). But the legal proceedings revealed that CBS had indeed engaged in some dubious practices in making the documentary. With commercial networks pulling back on hard-edged investigative reports, PBS became of even greater importance to documentarians wishing to exhibit their work on the small screen.
Documentaries in the 1990s and into the Twenty-First Century
As the number of potential outlets for exhibiting documentaries has increasingly multiplied, the line between fiction and nonfiction, many film scholars contend, has grown even blurrier. Furthermore, with more time to fill on ever more cable and satellite stations that include nonfiction formats, the quality of many documentaries has arguably declined. Networks eager to promote themselves, satisfy their advertisers, decrease costs, and meet tight deadlines are sometimes compelled to make compromises, even to the point of occasionally misrepresenting facts. At the same time, documentarians working for television (premium channels like HBO perhaps being an exception) do not usually enjoy the same degree of autonomy or film rights as their independent counterparts, resulting in formulaic products that meet the needs of network executives. Broadcast television networks, anxious about losing audiences to cable, are typically still more risk averse than they were in the past; consequently, challenging documentaries almost never receive the play they did during the medium’s early days. On the flip side, however, because of the expansion of available high-quality, lightweight, low-cost, digital video equipment, documentary filmmaking, like other media production, has become noticeably democratized. More aspiring artists than ever can participate in creating nonfiction films—or any other kind of visual material that interests them.
Yet public television, with far fewer pressures from advertisers, has remained a fruitful venue for documentaries. In 1988, Congress committed funds toward an independent PBS operation. Some of that money found its way to the establishment of the Independent Television and Video Service (ITVS), whose very mission involves tackling matters that commercial stations generally will not touch, and ensuring that more voices are heard and underserved audiences are addressed. Much of ITVS’s production has consisted of documentaries, which often appear in one of two series—P.O.V. or Independent Lens. Another PBS feature, Frontline, has won many awards and, for years, has represented the nation’s only TV public affairs documentary series to be regularly broadcast. Launched in 1983, the program has televised over 500 episodes, covering many political and social justice issues along the way. The criminal justice system, in particular, has received considerable attention, often at the hands of producer Ofra Bikel, who has been with the show since its first season. Moreover, beginning in 1988, every four years Frontline has produced a special feature entitled The Choice, which profiles the Democratic and Republican nominees for president.
Still, since its inception, PBS has faced rebuke from primarily conservative politicians who have taken issue with its sometimes critical perspective. On occasion, government officials have reduced funding or threatened to pull it all together. Thus even public television has had to strike a balance between airing provocative programming and avoiding heated government response. In her book, Public Television: Politics and the Battle Over Documentary Film, B. J. Bullert (1997) explains the struggles that documentarians have encountered in trying to get PBS to broadcast their films on contentious subjects. Barbara Trent, for instance, secured an Academy Award for her documentary The Panama Deception (1992), despite the fact that PBS had earlier refused to telecast her film, just as it had rejected her 1988 nonfiction feature, Cover-Up: Behind the Iran-Contra Affair. While some observers perceive a documentary series like Frontline as bold exposé, others acknowledge it covers divisive topics, but say it does so through self-censored, diluted executions.
Probably the documentarían who has received the most fame through PBS is Ken Burns. Though many of his works are not especially political, his 1990 set of films, The Civil War, is politically significant because it covers a major moment in U.S. history.
Elsewhere, independent nonfiction filmmakers have continued to find ways of obtaining funding to produce and distribute their work. Often, drawing from diverse approaches, they render documentaries intended to expose transgressions, challenge attitudes, or activate change. Barbara Kopple, for example, turned to labor strife again in American Dream (1991), a look into a meat-packers’ strike in Minnesota. For the second time, Kopple took home an Oscar for her work. Meanwhile, Jonathan Stack teamed with Liz Garbus to create The Farm: Angola USA (1998), then joined with Simon Soffer on The Wildest Show in the South: The Angola Prison Rodeo (1999). Both films explore Angola Prison in Louisiana and provide social commentary on the country’s prison system in general. Mixing the personal with the political, a common combination since the rise of identity politics, Judith Helfand and Daniel B. Gold treat the issues of the modern toxic environment by, among other things, showing scenes of Hefland’s parents’ vinyl-sided home in Blue Vinyl (2002). An especially political film that generated considerable attention is D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’s The War Room (1993), which provides an inside look at Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. Released in 2004, The Road to the Presidency also follows the 1992 campaign trail but did not spark as much interest. R. J. Cutler and David Van Taylor covered another campaign—the U.S. Senate race in Virginia between Charles Robb and Oliver North, who had once been heavily implicated in the controversial Iran-Contra Affair—in the documentary, A Perfect Candidate (1996).
Recent Theatrical Releases. In general, throughout their history, documentaries not produced for television have gained much less notice and drawn far smaller audiences than the fictional features of Hollywood. Those presenting dissenting points of view, in particular, have usually been marginalized by commercial television and corporate theater chains. In a sense, then, documentaries have rarely achieved the status of “popular culture,” at least if that term is associated with mass fame. Yet the meaning of “popular” is a relative one. At what point does a work cross the line from comparatively unknown to popular? How big must the audience be? Certainly a home movie seen only by friends and family would not qualify as a product of popular culture insofar as reaching many viewers (although there are other ways of defining popular culture—for instance, products made by everyday people for everyday people—that would lead to the conclusion that even this amateur practice could be included within the category). Yet many documentaries have been seen by enough people to be construed as popular on some level—or at least on the margins of popular culture and, therefore, by reflecting some of its defining characteristics, intertwined with it. A number of film festivals, for instance, devote some, or sometimes all, of their screenings to documentaries. Although nonfiction films have been included in festivals since this form of exhibition first emerged, the number of festivals in general and those committed to documentaries in particular has dramatically increased in recent years. One chain of festivals that especially emphasizes films with a political bent is the series of Human Rights Film Festivals that is staged around the world, including the United States. These events feature a broad selection of both fiction and nonfiction films. Some U.S. festivals completely dedicated to documentaries are the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in Arkansas and Full Frame in New York. Yet probably no film festival has done more to popularize and legitimize the documentary than the Sundance Film Festival, held every year in Utah. Its founder, actor Robert Redford, is a documentary enthusiast and has pushed for a strong nonfiction presence at the competition. With its own cable network, Sundance also telecasts some of the documentaries that received praise during the festival. Furthermore, Sundance and other festivals have provided a forum that has generated enough interest in certain documentaries to bring them to popular movie theaters.
Then again, from time to time, since the birth of the form, particular documentaries have enjoyed notable runs in the same movie theaters that project the products of Hollywood. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North was a big hit in theaters in the 1920s. The following decade, Pare Lorentz’s The River and The Plow That Broke the Plains reached big audiences in neighborhood movie theaters. Many World War II documentaries also received substantial theatrical screening. With the advent of television, however, documentaries in the 1950s and 1960s, with a few exceptions, left the big screen for the smaller confines of the TV set. They made somewhat of a comeback in theaters in the late 1960s and 1970s, when independent filmmakers, influenced by the social and political conflicts of the Vietnam era, took special pains to obtain exhibition.
Yet the twenty-first century has represented a renaissance of sorts for the theatrically distributed documentary. In fact, 8 of the 10 top-grossing documentaries of all time have been produced since 2002. Why the renewed interest in the documentary form has occurred is a subject for conjecture. Some critics contend that the ongoing corporatization and supposed “dumbing down” of the news has left people yearning for more investigative coverage and diverse points of view that challenge the government’s and the business world’s version of events.
The movie that perhaps signified a turning point is Hoop Dreams (1994). Tracking the lives of two inner-city basketball players who aspire to become stars, the documentary examines the pressures they face. Yet it is more than a biographical depiction—along the way, Hoop Dreams explores the social conditions of low-income, urban culture and how many young people, especially African American males, perceive their only path of escape to success is via the basketball court. The film won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, garnered wide critical acclaim, grossed over $7 million dollars at the theaters, and was eventually broadcast on public television. Accordingly, it demonstrated that a thoughtful documentary could indeed translate into financial reward.
In 2004, Harry Thompson and Nickolas Perry gained a limited theatrical run for their film The Hunting of the President,based on a book by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, about the alleged decade-long effort by some Republicans to politically destroy President Bill Clinton. Ten years earlier, the film The Clinton Chronicles indeed attacked Clinton for a variety of supposed transgressions. Video sales of the video were promoted by the Reverend Jerry Falwell on both television and radio.
The documentarían who has lately attracted the most attention—both positive and negative—is Michael Moore. His rise to fame began with his release of Roger & Me (1988), which enjoyed considerable success at film festivals. Subsequent releases include Bowling for Columbine (2002), which draws from the late 1990s student massacre at Columbine High School to explore the nation’s relationship with guns and violence; and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), a brutal indictment of the George W. Bush administration that was intended to help sway the presidential election of 2004 in Senator John Kerry’s direction.
Through his films, Moore has established a personal style that mixes considerable on-camera involvement with humor, irony, and satire. Along the way, he has achieved an unprecedented degree of celebrity for a documentarían, extending his film work into other venues, including popular books, television programs, and live events. Moore won an Oscar for Best Documentary for Bowling for Columbine and a Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for Fahrenheit 9/11, which became the highest grossing documentary of all time by far (supplanting Bowling for Columbine for that distinction). In 2007, Moore generated additional controversy with the release of Sicko, which takes a highly critical look at the health care system in the United States. Through comparison with health care programs in Canada, Cuba, France, and the United Kingdom, Moore argues that the nation should socialize its health services and institute universal coverage.
Another film that received far more attention than is typically the case with documentaries is An Inconvenient Truth(2006). Centering on a presentation delivered around the world by former vice president and 2000 presidential candidate AI Gore, the movie provides considerable evidence in support of the general view held by most scientists on climate change and examines the potentially devastating consequences of global warming. Becoming the fourth largest grossing documentary film in U.S. history, An Inconvenient Truth also received numerous honors, including Academy Awards for best documentary and best original song.
The Rise of “Reality” Television. Beginning in the 1990s, a new television genre gained popularity and has now become a staple feature in programming lineups. “Reality TV,” at the same time, has rendered the demarcation between fiction and nonfiction more difficult to discern than ever. Put into its historical context, Reality TV is not only of recent vintage. Arguably, it began in the 1950s with the show Candid Camera, which revolved around pulling pranks on unknowing, everyday people. In 1973, the 12-part series An American Family tracked the daily lives of a seven-person family residing in Santa Barbara, California. It generated debate about some of the defining characteristics of documentary and ethical concerns already associated with the form. During the course of the show, tensions between family members were evident, including the announcement of Pat Loud to her husband that she wanted a divorce. Observers speculated whether the program was portraying the “truth”; that is, would the participants have behaved in the same way if the camera had not been present? Or in their awareness of being filmed, were they somewhat performing for an audience? More generally, to what extent does editing distort the picture? Is the result “real” or fiction? Furthermore, questions emerged as to the responsibility of the documentarían toward his or her subjects. Is the filmmaker instrumental in evoking conflict among the social actors, and if so, is this appropriate? Have the cast members been violated?
All of these discussions and tendencies were only exacerbated with the introduction of MTV’s Real World in 1992 and, later, of shows such as Survivor and Big Brother. COPS also stands as a progenitor of the phenomenon. Since the arrival of these programs, reality shows have dramatically multiplied in the twenty-first century. Yet most of these offerings highlight sensational, interpersonal encounters and clashes—it would be a stretch to say they carry any direct political import.
Still, a reality show that conveys the spirit of social documentary sometimes seeps through the cracks. Morgan Spurlock, for example, created a program entitled 30 Days, in which each episode places a participant (often Spurlock himself but sometimes other everyday people) into an unfamiliar situation for 30 days as a means of challenging thought on an issue.
Recent War Documentaries. Military conflict has often provided fertile ground for documentary exploration. Though it terminated decades ago, the war in Vietnam, for example, has continued to be probed through nonfiction film. For instance, in an effort to come to terms with her husband’s death, Barbara Sonneborn produced a personal account of her visit to Vietnam and conversations with both Vietnamese and other U.S. widows. Regret to Inform (1998) won several film festival awards, was nominated for an Academy Award, and aired on PBS’s P.O.V. in 2000. Another American woman returns to Vietnam in Daughter from Danang (2002). Yet her quest is not to reconcile the loss of her husband but to try to locate her birth mother. She is disturbed to learn that her mother had slept with her birth father, a U.S. solider, while struggling as a prostitute during the war. In The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002), based on a book by Christopher Hitchens, filmmakers Eugene Jarecki and Alex Gibney indict the once powerful government official as a war criminal, not only for his role in Vietnam, but also because of his alleged support of genocide in East Timor and his influence on the coup of the democratically elected socialist Salvador Allende in Chile. Errol Morris won the 2003 Oscar for Best Documentary for Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2002), a treatment of the man who had served as secretary of defense during much of the Vietnam War.
More recent or current military activities have inspired documentary activity as well. The Iraq war following the September 11 terrorist attacks in particular has been the impetus behind the production of a number of nonfiction films. Shortly after the nation first attacked Iraq in an effort to depose of its dictator, Saddam Hussein, in 2003, various nonfiction filmmakers set their lenses on the conflict.
Yet not only independent filmmakers, but officials in government also took an interest in producing documentaries about the country’s involvement. As is commonly the case during times of war (see, for example, World War Propaganda), the nation’s leaders mounted a comprehensive propaganda campaign, which included films, to stir up citizen support for the cause. For instance, in the lead-up to the incursion into Iraq, the government propaganda film Operation Enduring Freedom: America Fights Back (2002) was released. Hosted by then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and featuring Lee Greenwood singing “God Bless the USA,” the piece attempts to gain public backing for a protracted military response to the brutal 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Two years later, in Buried in the Sand: The Deception of America (2004), filmmaker Mark Taylor, although not contracted with the government, symbolically buttressed the mission by taking a pro-war stance and reinforcing the reasons why he thought the nation was justified in driving a maniacal Saddam Hussein from power.
On the other hand, the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq motivated many documentarians to either offer counterinterpretations to the Bush administration’s views on the war or examine the conflict in other ways. Barbara Kopple, for example, released the film Bearing Witness (2004), which tracks the activities of five female journalists reporting from dangerous regions in Iraq. The same year, Kopple served as executive producer of the documentary WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception (2004). Directed by Danny Schechter, the film exposes the dubious government justifications for the war and argues that the media were complicit in the run up to it. From Schechter’s vantage point, the media system in the United States functions as a tool of state propaganda because it merely restates the official positions of the country’s leaders without seriously challenging them. In Voices of Iraq (2004), Eric Manes, Martin Kunert, and Archie Drury took a populist approach to the altercation. The filmmakers distributed over 150 video cameras to everyday Iraqis, requesting that they use them and then pass them on to other people. Edited from over 400 hours of footage, the documentary conveys, as the title suggests, a diversity of voices from the population that has actually had to endure the bloodshed in its midst. Elsewhere, within the context of American involvement in Iraq, U.S. Marine Lieutenant Josh Rushing compares the FOX news network to the Arab news service, al Jazeera, in Jehane Noujaim’s nonfiction film Control Room (2004), a look inside the operations of this Middle Eastern newcomer to journalism. The documentary garnered considerable attention and, interestingly enough, Rushing eventually joined the al Jazeera news staff.
Meanwhile, Robert Greenwald, a longtime maker of fictional entertainment films, turned to the political arena to either direct or assist in producing a series of documentaries that are highly critical of President George W. Bush. He also created two films that look at the circumstances in Iraq. Uncovered: The War on Iraq (2004) follows the Bush administration’s efforts to build support for the attack on Iraq and spells out the consequences of the invasion as explained by former diplomats, politicians, previous ambassadors, ex-members of the CIA, and a former secretary of the army. Greenwald constructs an impressive case against the wisdom of the Iraq assault through relentless deconstruction of the various claims of the Bush administration in its rationale for the mission. In 2006, Greenwald released another documentary that offers a scathing critique, this time in relationship to companies that benefit from the destruction overseas. Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers argues that private contractors hired by the government have been irresponsible in their workmanship and are actually subjecting American soldiers and Iraqi citizens to greater danger, putting profits above safety.
A number of nonfiction films approach the struggle from the perspective of the U.S. troops in the field. I Am an American Soldier (2007), produced and directed by John Laurence, presents a year in the life of the members of the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. Though it emphasizes the soldiers’ bravery, it also sheds light on the hardships they endure. The considerable adversity faced by the troops is the subject of several other notable documentaries. For example, Patricia Foulk-rod’s The Ground Truth focuses on the problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, many soldiers suffer upon their return from the battlefield. In a series of interviews, military personnel and their families and friends discuss their experiences before, during, and after the soldiers’ participation in the war. Ellen Spiro and former longtime talk show host Phil Donahue produced and directed Body of War (2007), which tracks the life of Thomas Young, a U.S. Iraq war veteran, after he was paralyzed from a bullet to the spine. The documentary traces Young’s heroic attempts to cope with his immobility and exposes how he is now questioning the government’s decision to launch the conflict with Iraq. The Emmy Award-winning documentary Baghdad ER (2006), which was distributed and televised by HBO, also unveils some of the trauma that was unleashed by the military operation. The film centers on a military hospital in Baghdad and features the doctors’, nurses’, and other health workers’ valiant efforts to save the lives or heal the wounds of injured soldiers. Its brutal depictions reveal the gruesome nature of war—an account rarely seen on commercial television or in movie theaters. Last Letters Home: Voices of American Troops from the Battlefields of Iraq, by Bill Couturiè, was also presented by HBO. The documentary explores the ultimate cost of war—death itself. Using a similar technique to one he employed in Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (1988) (see above), in this case, rather than have actors deliver the soldiers’ accounts, the director has family members read on camera the final letters they received from their deceased loved ones while they were still alive.
Some Iraq documentaries actually gained attention at the annual Academy Awards shows. Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience (2007) was nominated for Best Documentary Feature for the 2008 event. Directed by Richard E. Robbins, the film, like some of those just mentioned, examines—through the writings of American soldiers—the troublesome experiences they had in either Iraq or Afghanistan, the site of a related U.S. conflict. The documentary also later aired on PBS. Another film that received a nomination the same year is No End in Sight (2008), directed by Charles Ferguson. The documentary illustrates the serious mistakes that were made by the Bush administration in executing the war and proposes, as the title indicates, that given the current circumstances, the battle will go on indefinitely. Yet the winner of the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the 2008 ceremony dwells on neither American soldiers nor government officials, and locates its action not in Iraq but in Afghanistan. Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) follows the case of Dilawar, an Afghan taxi driver who, though seemingly innocent of any wrongdoing, was captured, questioned, and finally beaten to death by American soldiers. The film serves as a vehement indictment of the Bush administration’s policies on interrogation and torture.
Another Academy Award nominated film (honored in 2007) that shows the horrors, as well as some of the positive consequences, that have resulted from the invasion of Iraq is Iraq in Fragments (2006), directed by James Longley. The movie offers portraits of Iraqi citizens from the perspectives of three major demographic groups in the country—Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. My Country, My Country (2006), too, was nominated for Best Documentary Feature in 2007. LikeIraq in Fragments, it explores the daily lives of everyday Iraqis under occupation.
Prominent documentarían Errol Morris added to the mix of nonfiction films that investigate the situation in Iraq with his production of Standard Operating Procedure (2008). Morris challenges viewers to reflect on the Abu Ghraib scandal, which had sprung to worldwide attention when disturbing photos depicting American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners were brought to light in 2004. The film probes the topic through interviews with some of the participants and by revealing additional shocking pictures that had barely been seen before in the media.
Yet no documentary that draws from the Iraq war had more impact than Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Although the film serves as a fervent denunciation of President George W. Bush in general, it nonetheless also includes a critique of the invasion of Iraq to make its case.
Dozens of other documentaries on the Iraq conflict have been produced and distributed since the first bombs were dropped. Yet most of them have not played to large audiences. Still, together they demonstrate the extent to which bloodshed on the battlefield can stir nonfiction filmmakers into generating works that ask viewers to consider difficult truths about the nature of war. While some documentarians— especially those working for commercial television—offer stories of bravery that mostly endorse the cause, probably many more nonfiction film artists hope to incite resistance to the violent confrontations waged by political leaders yet fought by everyday people.
Another documentary that explores the war activities of the United States in general is Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight(2005). The film opens with President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s warning that the creation of the “military-industrial complex” could spell trouble for the nation. Jarecki implies that the country has fallen into the trap, and suggests that the military industry not only financially benefits from war but is accordingly compelled to promote it.
The 2004 Presidential Campaign. The renewed interest in documentaries coincided with the heated 2004 presidential campaign between incumbent George W. Bush and Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry. Nonfiction filmmakers on both the left and the right entered the fray in their both indirect and direct attempts to persuade voters to endorse one candidate or the other. President Bush had proven to be a controversial figure, and many political pundits noted the nation had become polarized between adamant Bush supporters and those who just as vehemently opposed his policies and activities in office.
Michael Paradies Shoob and Joseph Mealey co-directed Bush’s Brain, an investigation of Karl Rove, a key Bush strategist commonly held to be a central influence on the president’s outlook and approach to politics. The film portrays Rove as a conniving, malicious, Machiavellian scoundrel, retracing some of the unsavory tactics, including the dishonest smearing of rivals, he had allegedly used in previous campaigns.
Neither the Bush nor the Kerry side produced officially authorized, full-length, promotional films. Yet others stepped up to fill the gap. In Brothers in Arms, Paul Alexander recaps Kerry’s service in Vietnam, depicting him as a war hero who had looked out for the lives of the soldiers he commanded. The documentary also shows Kerry’s transformation into a critic of the war, including his testimony before Congress of atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers, and the backlash that resulted. George Butler also explores Kerry’s Vietnam years and offers a similar sympathetic interpretation of the candidate in Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry. To counter these positive portrayals, a group calling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth produced a series of commercials (as well as a complementary book that became a best seller) that presented Kerry as a traitor who had lied about receiving war medals. It appears its work had more impact than Alexander’s and Butler’s— many political analysts concluded after Bush held onto his office that the Swift Boat campaign had helped swing the election. Yet the group’s major claims were eventually uncovered as misleading.
The Swift Boat’s perspective was echoed by others. Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal, for instance, contends that the soldiers’ confessions before Congress of brutal conduct were fraudulent. The Sinclair Broadcasting Group had planned to air the film on all of its over 60 stations. Yet once the documentary sparked controversy, Sinclair pulled back and broadcast only an edited version on fewer stations.
Some pro-Bush documentarians took a different course of action. Created to appeal to evangelical Christians, George W. Bush: Faith in the White House pictures the president as a devoutly religious man and, consequently, more suitable for office than a supposed unbeliever. The film was available to churches and other interested individuals and groups on DVD.
The documentarían Errol Morris did not produce any full-length films for the campaign, but he nonetheless contributed to the battle by directing a series of political commercials portraying “Republican switchers,” that is, people who had voted for George W. Bush in 2000 but were now prepared to cast their ballots for John Kerry. Morris received financial backing from the liberal political interest group http://MoveOn.org . The organization posted over 15 of Morris’s spots on its Web site as well as distributed several of them to TV stations in several swing states.
Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, however, gained more attention than any other partisan documentary during the 2004 campaign season. Accordingly, it evoked considerable retorts through pundit appearances on newscasts, Web sites, books, and documentaries offering brutal rebuttals.
Any analysis of future events inevitably entails speculation—it is no different with pondering the fate of documentaries. Yet some trends seem clear. The boundaries between fiction and nonfiction will likely continue to blur. When documentaries are presented in the form of narratives—or stories—which is becoming increasingly common, the line between them and fiction movies tends to become less distinct. Reality TV represents a recent dramatic case in point. Over the years, documentarians have incorporated the techniques of fiction filmmakers and vice versa. Yet the categorical designation “documentary” is so well established and resonant that it is doubtful it will be abandoned altogether. Concurrently, the borders involving the creation of nonfiction films are converging as well. Often, financing and producing documentaries is now an international endeavor, as the world, at least in some aspects, takes on characteristics of what the late media theorist Marshall McLuhan called the “Global Village.” A third pattern appears to be the collapsing line between the producer and the consumer of documentaries. As media technologies become ever more affordable and accessible, an unprecedented number of people have the opportunity to present their point of view through the nonfiction moving image. Through the Internet and its populist Web sites such as YouTube, anyone able to log on to a computer has the potential to post a piece online and, if enough viewers discover it and tell others, attract a sizable audience. Documentary production, then, like other forms of media, has become more democratized, offering everyday citizens a means of empowerment.
The Documentary and Activism
As more people—both professionals and amateurs (another pair of distinctions that is growing hazier)—enter the ranks of the documentarían, the capacity to use diverse forms of nonfiction material in hope of activating social change is greater than ever. Some recent films point toward the possibilities. In The Yes Men (2004), Chris Smith, Sarah Price, and Dan Oilman track the activities of “Andy and Mike,” the self-labeled “yes men,” who provide a satirical critique of global capitalism by staging hoaxes at prominent affairs and conferences, posing as, for instance, World Trade Organization officials. Globalization is also a topic of concern of the Guerrilla News Network, an activist group that, with the help of everyday individuals, attempts to make and distribute nonfiction pieces to inform audiences, especially young people, on a range of issues and critical developments and stir political involvement. Another grassroots organization, Big Noise, similarly strives to persuade primarily young audiences about the excesses of capitalist exploitation. When the World Trade Organization met in Seattle, Washington, in 1999 amidst unexpectedly large protests, Big Noise, as well as the Seattle Independent Media Center and others, documented the uprising, offering an alternative perspective to the one transmitted by traditional news channels.
As documentaries and other types of persuasive media continue to proliferate and advance divergent points of view from the full political spectrum, audiences will be increasingly challenged to resolve conflicting messages in forming interpretations of important issues and societal events.