In early July of this year, Democrats and Republicans were viciously at odds over one very hot, very divisive topic. It was on all the newscasts and the networks' verbal wrestling match shows. Chris Matthews bellowed and Bill O'Reilly spewed. It could have been gay marriage or abortion or job outsourcing?but it wasn't. It was a movie.
With Fahrenheit 911, Michael Moore took everything we thought we knew about documentary, unscrewed the top, added a glob of cynicism and a few shakes of anger, then capped it with the same lid before handing it back to the country. Whether you saw it as truth or propaganda depended mostly on which side you were on. In any case, Fahrenheit was something new, something big, and something to fight about over dinner. It was a hit and the winner of Cannes's little golden twig, now on Moore's mantle next to the cheesy poofs.
That's when they came, in a wave. Michael Moore Hates America, Bush's Brain, Outfoxed, Fahrenhype 911, Celsius 41.11?out of nowhere, months before one of the most important elections of our lifetime, a slew of films on the offense and defense, of attacks and responses, emotionally-charged interviews and fishy revelations. Out of nowhere, an army of non-fiction documentaries.
Or are they?
Sure, the filmmakers did their homework, diligently and with a fervor unmatched by your everyday elementary school student, but whether they wrote their answers in complete sentences or answered all parts of the questions is, well, up for debate.
Call it a fluke, a trend, or a phase, but this emerging phenomenon of film could evolve into a whole new genre in which amateurs with a political grudge, a couple of digital camcorders, and either Ann Coulter's or Al Franken's phone number can argue their case fast and cheap in front of nationwide movie audiences. It could go beyond the election, and even beyond Bush, to signal the discovery of a new site for social conflict, bringing political battles to the little big screen for years to come.
The keyword here is cheap. Fahrenheit cost Moore a relatively hefty $6 million, but Robert Greenwald whipped up his three best known poli-docs, Outfoxed, an attack on the alleged objectivity of the "fair and balanced" Fox News Network, Uncovered: The War in Iraq, and, pre-Fahrenheit, Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election, for under $200,000 each. These didn't rely on million-dollar advertising campaigns; they didn't play in your big-name multiplex. It doesn't take much dough (or much work, in the case of Outfoxed) to set up a camera in front of an easy chair in what could be your grandma's living room, get angry people to talk, and then mix it up with graphics that could have been put together on power point.
In typical moviemaking, profit matters. In fact, it's really all that matters. The Wachowski brothers didn't make The Matrix to tell the world to keep an eye on their computers, nor did Todd Phillips dish out Old School to convince grown-ups to pledge a fraternity. The studios poured in the millions it took to produce these films because they knew the stories could sell. Period. With poli-docs, it's clearly a different story. Bush's Brain, an exposition of notorious senior Bush adviser Karl Rove's influence on the Bush candidacy, made by first- (and probably only) time director Joseph Mealey and rookie Michael Shoob, made a measly $12,000 on its very limited opening weekend.
The amateur rule didn't apply to George Butler, director of Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, whose last film, Shackleton's Arctic Adventure (2001), was a solid, traditional documentary with all the usual fixings. But this virtual Kerry biopic could have been part of the campaign?in fact, it kind of was. In addition to its limited screenings nationwide, it was also available for free download on the internet, something Moore was talking about doing back before the whole Disney debacle with Fahrenheit. There goes any remaining suspicion of a profit motive. But this film did not run unopposed; in this corner, also available on the internet, is the group of five documentaries created by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, longer versions of the group's controversial ads, putting up the fight. Why leave individual filmmakers to have all the fun when a strong organization can up and do it itself?
Clearly, poli-docs are not out for profit, but exposure. These sidelined cinematic spittles of dissent and persuasion are on a mission, whether you see them as divine preachers of truth in a cacophony of lies or old, haggard maniacs bellowing from breadboxes about the coming apocalypse. Got something important you want to say and more than a little time on your hands? Forget email. Forget phone calls. If you're really pissed, poli-docs are the new letters to the editor. So grab your camera, call up your drinking buddies, and create some controversy.