Whoever thought a documentary film would have the ability to make Republicans sweat? Distributors usually try to hide the "d-word" when they're marketing a movie.
But "Fahrenheit 9/11" isn't just a documentary. It's a huge hit, a political phenomenon, and every showing, it seems, is a transforming group experience. And it may signal new strategies both in politics and in movies.
Michael Moore has created a jeering polemic, an argument fueled by rage, scorn and mockery. Moore milks laughs with inappropriate music (childish tinkling as our nation's officials tell lies or "fairy tales"), shots of officials grooming themselves for TV and juxtaposing shots so that someone's words are contradicted by an image. He's a pro at the ambush interview and the theatrical confrontation.
It seems to break a kind of spell of silence. People pick up on the anger, and audiences become communities even as they watch.
Is the film fair? Of course not. It doesn't intend to be. A retired Navy officer at the screening I attended said afterward, "There were so many cheap shots - and I loved every one of them."
Does the film tell the truth? Sure, on the basic points. In fact, it doesn't provide any new information for people who read. It takes things we know already - Bush-Saudi family and business links, a corrupted election process, suppression of civil liberties at home, a war justified with insinuations and lies - and then slathers on the attitude.
What Moore has made is a rant on celluloid, timed carefully to the election. He's made it as an independent, unbounded by any newsroom's standards. And he's working in a non-fiction form - documentary - that claims only to capture somebody's reality with honesty. It doesn't have to make a claim to objectivity.
How partisan is it? Well, critics on the left are scared that Moore's too harsh on the Democrats' milquetoast treatment of Bush, and not focused enough on Winning the Election. On his website, Moore encourages no partisan activity, just voting. But "Fahrenheit's" astonishing box office is politically galvanizing and certainly bad for Bush: It lets people know there are so many other citizens who also feel robbed, cheated, ashamed and angry.
The film's success also tells us something about media today and tomorrow. It emphatically shows what it takes to cut through the data-smog (as David Shenk terms it) of our overheated mass culture. We're all info-overloaded, and put-upon. Emotion and attitude cut through. Right-wing talk show hosts long ago seized on this insight and ran with it, and now they daily blat out wild and never-substantiated claims in the name of free speech and being irate.
"Fahrenheit" also reveals current and coming practices. Make no mistake, it is an exception among documentaries. Unlike most documentarians, who labor in obscurity, Michael Moore has made himself a brand name, with other books and movies, and built a persona. He has honed his timing and populist presentation with his TV series.
Unlike the tiny, piecemeal budgets of most independent documentaries on social issues, "Fahrenheit 9/11" had a multi-million-dollar budget from a major studio, which of course refused to distribute it but allowed another company to get it into hundreds of theaters simultaneously.
In other words, "Fahrenheit" had some added assets in the struggle to break out of the mass media's periphery. It reminds us of the normally profound imbalance between the clout of mainstream mass media and work being produced at the margins.
Networks and news channels have not strayed far from a cheerleading role for the Iraq war, ever protective of their ad rates, and also there's never any looking back in news. In electronic media, it's been left to Web sites, blogs and independent documentarians to connect the dots on the Bush administration record and the Iraq war.
Most Americans missed those other films until "Fahrenheit" raised their visibility. Jehane Noujaim's "Control Room," which debuted last January, showed us how Western-trained Arab journalists covered the war, and brought us images of civilian casualties that had been sanitized off our screens. Esteban Uyarra's 2003 "War Feels Like War" showed us the way the American military controlled news coverage, excluding and even putting into danger independent journalists. Robert Greenwald's "Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War" revealed Bush administration lies and corruption in the war way back last October.
These films, all out long before "Fahrenheit," are shown at film festivals, sometimes on TV and flogged on the Internet. ("Uncovered" sold 100,000 units in one month, through MoveOn e-mail, almost all to people who would show the film to other people.) All of these, and especially "Control Room," are riding "Fahrenheit 9/11's" coattails to greater attention.
Social and political documentaries have a long tradition of dissent to authority. During the Depression, the Film and Photo League gave anti-capitalists the newsreels from their side of the story. Anti-Vietnam war organizations also used such films to mobilize support; the radical film organization Newsreel even showed protest images on the walls of the Pentagon.
Barbara Kopple's unforgettable and Academy Award-winning "Harlan County, U.S.A." contributed to reform and organizing in the labor movement. Films such as "Dark Circle" and "Building Bombs" participated in the nuclear freeze movement in the 1980s and early 1990s. They all acted to coalesce community, giving people in their audiences a bonding experience along with knowledge on which to act.
Films like these often bother people in power. Networks shun them, and public TV often does too. When President Richard Nixon discovered in 1970 that public television had aired "Banks and the Poor," an anti-redlining public affairs documentary that named one of his leading campaign contributors, he first tried to get public affairs off public TV, and then tried to defund public TV completely.
In 2001, when Bill Moyers investigated the chemical industry for endangering public health in "Trade Secrets," with a film that spurred nationwide organizing on public health issues, the industry's trade association raised a toxic cloud of criticism. (The American Chemistry Council's attempt to blacken Moyers' journalistic reputation didn't work, thanks in part to Moyers' deep public archive of research materials.)
"Super Size Me," in which Morgan Spurlock shows that a steady three-squares diet of McDonald's is hazardous to your health, prompted McDonald's to support third-party Web and pundit attacks on Spurlock's credibility. (The film still did stunning business in theaters.)
Certainly documentaries are proliferating - in festivals, on TV screens, in theaters. But their growing popularity isn't going to lessen the challenge of getting independent or dissident views heard. Mass media remain closed to most independents, while the data-smog level on the periphery of mainstream media rises by the day.
So far, people with access to power have not needed to go to all the trouble and heartache of making independent documentaries. After all, they've got TV channels like Fox and spots on Jay Leno. Instead, conservatives currently spend their time and money developing public relations campaigns to discredit troublesome documentaries. But that's only today's tactic in what ultimately is a war over who defines reality.
The white-hot success of "Fahrenheit," plus cheap digital equipment, Internet-based communities and increasingly mean-spirited political advertising, means we can expect more quick-response films on hot issues, and ever cleverer strategies to make us watch. Independent documentaries, with their ring of honesty, have now been flagged a potential political tool for strategists of all kinds. Some will have more resources than others.
Just as Matt Drudge personalized the shift in journalism with digital technology, Michael Moore and the flurry of political documentaries that his success has brought into the light draw attention to longer-term changes in film and video. We'll have much more to see, and more places to see it, but we'll still only have two eyes and 24 hours to see with. As for attitude, we ain't seen nothin' yet.
Pat Aufderheide is a professor in the School of Communication at American University and co-director of the Center for Social Media there.
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