In my posts on the best films of 2009, I left out the documentary section because I figured that they could use a separate post. I think I've only watched five or six documentaries from 2009 so far, but one of the major trends I noticed recently was the prevalence of films meant to highlight specific social ills to galvanize the audience into action. "The Cove" and "Food Inc" both ended with direct appeals to the audience to get involved through activism groups and put a stop to the practices portrayed in the films. One of the most buzzed-about documentaries this year, "Waiting for Superman," simply ends with the words "The system is broken," but clearly the implication is that somebody should do something about it. And on the horizon are several exposes of investment banks and financial institutions, revealing the bad practices that lead to Wall Street meltdown of 2008. It's a good bet that most of them include calls for reform and new regulations.
These are among the latest of the generation of documentaries spawned from the success of Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," and Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine," rabble rousing docs that brought box office bank and won statuettes at the Oscars. Unlike the more even-handed documentaries that came before them, they make no apologies for having a point of view, or pushing an agenda. They're not afraid of going after organizations like Wal-Mart, McDonald's, and Lehman Brothers and calling them out for their bad behavior. Morgan Spurlock's "Super Size Me" was a memorable milestone, one of the few cases where the storm of bad publicity generated by the movie actually prompted action. McDonald's eliminated the "Super Size" option from its menus and introduced healthier options for its Happy Meals. No doubt the filmmakers and activists behind recent documentaries like "The Cartel," about the state of public education in the US, are hoping for similar results with their films.
The prevalence of these polemics is starting to worry me, well-meaning as many of them may be. I like that they shed light on issues that wouldn't get much attention otherwise, like the alarming proliferation of Monsanto's generically modified soybeans in "Food Inc." And I like that they've been used to apply pressure to the legislative and administrative entities that often move far too slowly on important issues. As for corporations, McDonald's never would have been prompted to act if public opinion hadn't turned against their practices. On the other hand, I find most of the newest crop of feature length documentaries to be of equal or lesser informational value than your average episode of "Frontline," and their tactics are far more questionable. I had a lot of problems with the most recent winner of the Best Documentary feature Oscar, "The Cove," which I detailed in a previous post here. Too much appealing to the audiences' emotions, and way too much cultural bias.
There's the urge to let inaccuracies and hyperbole slide because many of these documentaries were created to help good causes and a little sensationalism is expected in order to make their messages more palatable to a mainstream audience. However, it would be too easy for someone with less altruistic motives to use similar methods to manipulate the facts for their own gain, or to vilify people or organizations undeserving of scorn. I often agree with Michael Moore's positions, but I think his confrontational guerrilla style is counterproductive, and it's unfortunate that his tactics have been adopted by so many other filmmakers. There's also the element of fearmongering that many American news organizations have fallen prey to. "An Inconvenient Truth" established that climate change is a serious problem that needs immediate attention, but it did so in large part by deliberately provoking fear and outrage. I don't think it's an exaggeration to call "Inconvenient" the best horror movie of 2006.
I find the most interesting and illuminating documentaries are still those that analytically examine recent or past events and controversies and show how they fit into a broader context rather than serving as fodder for an argument. Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" was an irate, reactionary piece against the Bush administration, aimed squarely at persuading potential voters not to re-elect George W. Bush as president in 2004, and thus feels outdated a mere six years later. "Bowling for Columbine" was released earlier but remains far more effective, because its examination of the Columbine tragedy and American gun culture was more measured, lighter on histrionics, and had the benefit of some distance from the tragedy. I still wince at some of the stunts Moore staged, like his gotcha interview with Charlton Heston, but at least he correctly identified the American culture as the real culprit and didn't try to provide easy answers.
These days, it feels like every issue-centric documentary ends with a list of things the audience member can do to help, websites to visit, and ways to get involved. Sometimes I feel like I'm watching public interest infomercials, with all these different groups and organizations trying to sell me on why I should support new environmental legislation, or donate to aid programs, or stop eating processed food. And as they keep getting more aggressive and emotional, I get more and more fed up. It's wonderful to see filmmakers getting passionate about important issues, and I don't have a problem with documentaries having a point of view. But when they seek to influence the narrative as opposed to simply uncovering and presenting the story for the audience to decide for themselves, I think it crosses a line.
Thankfully, a new season of "Frontline" starts this week. Check your local PBS listings.