Saturday, July 9, 2011

Is "Undefeated" a Documentary?

The new film about Sarah Palin, "Undefeated," was released a few days ago and is moving into wider release this weekend. I won't be making any efforts to see it, but I wondered what would happen if I did and tried to review it. How does one approach a movie like this? By all indications, "Undefeated" is really a campaign video in the guise of a documentary, even though Sarah Palin has yet to commit to actually running for any office that would require or justify campaigning. So should her movie be analyzed as a documentary or as a piece of propaganda? So many documentaries take positions these days, like the Michael Moore films, is there really any difference?

I guess the concern is that by calling "Undefeated" a documentary, this might give it some sort of undue legitimacy. The term is so broad, however, that it covers a wide array of non-fiction films. Traditionally this does include polemics and propaganda as well as more balanced, measured features. Leni Riefenstahl's notorious "Triumph of the Will" is a documentary - one that seeks to document the rise of the Nazi party from Hitler's point of view. And no, I'm not comparing Sarah Palin to the Nazis. It's just an example of commendable filmmaking coupled with clear political motives. I'm not familiar with the work of director Stephen Bannon, but there's no reason why "Undefeated" can't have serious artistic value in spite of its subject or intentions. On the other hand, dubbing a film a documentary doesn't automatically make it a good one, or a film with much credibility. The title alone is misleading as hell, assuming it's not meant to be ironic, which I doubt.

An interesting wrinkle is that there are two versions of "Undefeated" that will be making the rounds, according to the film's Wikipedia page - the original unedited version that contains clips of anti-Palin sentiments expressed by popular celebrities, and one cut for general release that removes them. Does this automatically make one version better than the other? If the whole point of the film is to celebrate and champion Sarah Palin, then you don't necessarily want to include negative viewpoints for fear of diluting the message. It may be a difficult concept to get one's head around, but most documentaries aren't about showing us the truth, but certain versions or facets of the truth being highlighted by the documentarian. Hopefully these might reflect or add up to the truth, but there are no guarantees. With most documentaries, multiple viewpoints are presented, in order to be more comprehensive and add context. A good propaganda film, however, lasers in on a single, monolithic version of events to support a didactic message.

There's nothing wrong with either approach. The dolphin hunting documentary "The Reef" won the Oscar for positioning an anti-hunting activist as its hero, and skimping on the cultural arguments advanced by those who made their livelihoods from dolphin hunting. Michael Moore won his statuette for his most balanced film, "Bowling for Columbine," that explored the American gun culture but didn't offer up any easy solutions to the problems he uncovered. In both cases, the films presented its subjects and ideas in creative and interesting ways, got viewers engaged, and facilitated discussion. Neither made any attempt to deny that they were pushing a particular position or approached their material with an existing bias. Documentaries built around social justice causes are becoming increasingly popular.

So if you end up watching "Undefeated," you'll be faced with all the usual questions - Do you agree with Sarah Palin's politics? Did she get a fair shake in the media? Does she deserve to be taken seriously? But you can also watch with a more critical eye and look a little deeper. How well are the arguments in the film's constructed? Are the claims rational and believable? Do you feel like you're seeing a fair assessment of the events that took place? How much is the director's ideology informing what you see and don't see? Has enough evidence been presented for the conclusions being drawn? Documentaries, more than any other kind of film, need to be engaged with and questioned, especially when they have an agenda or are trying to sell you something.

I used to have trouble cutting through that surface layer before I began watching documentary films regularly. But in the end it's just another kind of filmmaking, and all the usual criteria used to judge it apply - storytelling, pacing, direction, editing, cinematography, writing, and occasionally even performance. If there were no art, no narrative, and no editorial eye, well, we'd just be watching the news.

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