Documentaries and the Truth We Can Still Tell (But for How Long?)

Documentaries tell us who we are, what our world is about, and give us the truth. But more and more these filmmakers find themselves, especially in the US, attacked by layer upon layer of lawsuits funded by corporations with deep pockets.
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There may be an awful lot of lawyer jokes out there but for more and more documentary filmmakers, the legal challenges they are up against when trying to tell a story are no laughing matter. Forty years after the initial publishing of The Pentagon Papers, the full truth about Vietnam is finally being released. Daniel Ellsberg has stated that what he did back then as an investigative journalist was actually legal. Today, post-9/11 and Patriot Act, not only would it be illegal, it would be much more difficult to find any published information at all. Some information has indeed disappeared completely. And for those wonderfully stubborn souls who keep searching for the truth and trying to get it out there in front of audiences, they often find themselves, especially in the US, attacked by layer upon layer of lawsuits funded by corporations with deep pockets.

Take the case of Bananas! and the hell the Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten and his producer went through when putting on the screen the stories of workers who were "allegedly" suffering from infertility due to exposure to pesticides while employed by the biggest fruit company in the world. The well-known legal story of Joe Berlinger's never-ending battles with his film about Chevron's pollution and the health affects on people in the Ecuadorian Amazon, Crude, overshadowed his message at times. And some turn to fiction to avoid the lawsuits by making feature films such as Michael Clayton which refer to the wrongs of companies such as Monsanto. And the list seems to be growing longer. Documentary filmmakers have enough problems trying to find the money to get their films made, but adding to that the mountains of legal bills and the time-consuming reality of defending oneself and one's film from being sued, one imagines the corporations are hoping that the filmmakers will back down and their docs will disappear.

But they won't.

And that was obvious by the lineup at the Sheffield Doc/Fest in the UK this past week. The screenings were full of both industry folks and regular folks and the conversations in the pubs afterwards showed that documentary film attacking serious subjects is alive and well. But will many of these docs go on to have a life on television and in cinemas?

In Europe, Asia and other parts of the world independent documentaries can find a home, on a national broadcaster, but when we hear the stories of the thousands of indie docs applying for small pools of funds, the only reason they end up being made is because of the passion of the filmmakers.

People across the globe are indignant about everything from the deadly silence on Fukushima to the reality behind the BP disaster and how our health is being affected, and many recent documentary films are showing us why we should be. I argue we need these factual-based programs more than ever before and the stories they tell are more urgent and more dramatic than ever before. The subjects they deal with affect our lives, our children, our planet.

More foundations, film institutes, equity funds as well as more and less well known production companies such as Participant, are supporting "social issue" campaign-driven documentaries. But what can they do when a film they are supporting is attacked by a company which has endless cash to throw at some of the toughest law firms around?

They tell their stories anyway.

Brands are looking to documentary films as a way to help improve their corporate social responsibility image, and perhaps at times there are good "fits" between a company and the message in a doc beyond what might be considered to be "green-washing". But often this is not the case, take, for example, one doc about pollution and climate change released last year in France was supported by the same oil companies which seemed to be causing the problems being confronted in the film. The press exposed this hypocrisy and it lasted all of one week in the cinemas.

Taking this idea of brand support for a documentary to the extreme is Morgan Spurlock's Pom: The Greatest Film Ever Sold in which the filmmaker literally brands not only almost every scene in the film, he ends up branding his own body by wearing a suit covered by logos. We are bombarded by advertising more now than ever before, and the effects this is having on us and especially on our children, is disturbing. Spurlock travels to Sao Paolo in his film to show us what happens when people become fed up with swimming in Consumerstan, they simply ban advertising in all public spaces... the problem is, for much of the world, the privatization of what was once public has reached turbo speed.

How do you feel about visiting a national park and having your escape from it all experience sponsored by companies which want a piece of your down time? Would you sacrifice your integrity, or that of your family and community's common grounds to Starbucks, Wells Fargo and Coca Cola in order to keep services being cut because of the financial crisis? What about your children's school? A recent debate on the BBC over advertising in the classroom seemed quaint compared to what school districts are up against in the US. Spurlock's documentary shows one district in Florida in which administrators seem to be looking for ways to sell out to keep their schools able to offer the same things they did pre-crisis.

Have we already sold our souls to be branded? Have we started down that slippery slope, never to return to some kind of private sphere in which we remain protected from someone wanting to sell us something? Or have we all become as Roseanne Barr recently wrote in her magnificent diatribe about the media industry which is one of the most empowering pieces about the industry ever written. (Entitled "Fame's a Bitch, It's Hard to Handle Then It Drives You Nuts") in which she makes it extremely clear that there are no powerful people in television "... unless they work for an ad company or a market-study group. Those are the people who decide what gets on air and what doesn't."

And though this is not always the case in much of Europe, with its so-called bans on advertising, especially for children, and with its subsidies etc., it is a warning that if the private channels (or public channels which are acting like private channels, or yes, the monopolies owned by folks like Berlusconi or the near monopolies of Mr. Murdoch), don't watch out, there will be no truth told by documentary films, nor on the news, or very little of it and not the bits we need to know most. And we will have to either throw the television out the window and lose what could be one of the greatest most powerful forces of educational, entertaining good ever invented (though it seems the man who invented the television would not allow one in his home!).

Barr finds solace in the same words that documentary filmmakers trying to get the truth out there can find some comfort in, from Sun Tzu's Art of War, "He who cares the most, wins" -- but it does not pay the legal bills.

I agree with BBC's Nick Fraser that filmmakers should not risk their lives to make a film, and we spoke of a friend of his, the French filmmaker, Christian Poveda, who was killed when he returned to El Salvador to do a follow up on his powerful doc, Vida Loca. But perhaps that is indeed what they will find themselves doing as they work to tell the truth and penetrate the layers of corporate protection (someone please explain to me again why in the United States corporations are still given the same rights as human beings, in fact were given those rights before African Americans and women were?!). Why should filmmakers have to choose between life and truth?

If we lose the independence of the documentary voice, we have lost our freedom to know, to be informed, to look for and find knowledge which can help us as human beings, parts of communities, and as citizens of a world which needs us to know and to want to be curious about it.

Documentaries can be wonderful ways to lose ourselves in reality, not virtual reality, not reality tv, but "real" reality; they are not only enjoyable to watch, but because they are based on these facts, force us to question when we are fed lies. Good documentary filmmaking preserves our common human accomplishments and documents the natural world and ways of life (which in some cases sadly is disappearing. See a great doc about disappearing cowboys and shepherds in Montana called Sweetwater).

We don't want to find that documentary filmmaking has become extinct, or worse, that the truth is now inaccessible, privately owned by a tiny elite who can afford all those lawyers. I would hate to think that if we do not support documentary filmmakers, or worse, ignore their work, because it challenges us, that they may one day stop challenging us at all and will disappear from the party. If we, the audience, do not care, then nobody will. We need to notice. Because documentaries tell us who we are, what our world is about, and give us that Truth. Without this, you might as well throw your television out the window.

A previous version of this post referred to the festival as the "Sex, Docs and Rockn'Roll Festival." The current version reflects the festival's correct name.

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