The following film article is part of a special series on the rise in popularity of documentary films published by Critical Women on Film, the online journal of the Women Film Critics Circle. Among the many points discussed are the failure of the mainstream media to adequately cover several controversial events during the Bush Administration; the role of film, documentary or narrative feature, in realizing the public's deeply desired dreams, which includes a search for heroes; and how these films may have prepared us to embrace and elect perhaps our most Capraesque political figure to date -- Barack Hussein Obama.
Documentary Film in an Era of a Battered American Psyche: Body of War, Theater of War, Fog of War and Michael Moore
Introduction to the Documentary Phenomenon
To look at the escalating popularity of the documentary film is to enter an interesting, complicated, and -- if one dares to dig deeply enough -- collectively psychoanalytic exploration of the role of desire and dreams in a time of mass confusion. More documentaries are being produced (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tightened its criteria for qualifying nominations as submissions soared), many more are being seen (they now comprise a burgeoning market in which even mega-producers like Harvey Weinstein have positioned themselves), and their quality has risen impressively (as evidenced by glowing reviews and in winning multiple, international nominations and awards in and outside their category).
Seasoned mainstream as well as independent narrative filmmakers are weaving the controversial, colorful threads that make up the increasingly hot-topic tapestries of the genre: Jonathan Demme's treatise on former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, The Man from Plains (2007) and Spike Lee's opus When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006) -- an HBO-produced TV documentary series that won a Peabody, three Emmy Awards, and several foreign film festival awards was also lauded for its artistry in the 2008 Whitney Biennial -- are but two examples.
Filmmakers totally devoted to the genre -- Sophie Fiennes (The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, 2006); Michael Moore (Roger & Me, 1989 through Untitled Michael Moore Project, 2009); Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven, 1978, The Thin Blue Line, 1988); and the very prolific, cross-over (with the Oscars to prove it), director Rob Epstein (Word Is Out, 1977, The Times of Harvey Milk, 1984, Threads from the Quilt, 1989, The Celluloid Closet, 1995, Paragraph 175, 2000) --practice their craft with creative abandon and will likely continue to flourish.
U.S. television has also played a role in the rise of the documentary with PBS and HBO among the major hothouses in which filmmakers have tackled subjects from the very dirty, political tricks of Lee Atwater to the war crimes of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Actor/directors have done some interesting work in the genre, i.e., Diane Keaton (Heaven, 1987) and Rosanna Arquette (Searching for Debra Winger, 2002 and All We Are Saying, 2005).
Then there are the brilliant and poignant single films done by virtually unknown filmmakers. Born into Brothels (2005) by first-time directors, Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, stands out among them as a work of dedicated passion. A search for humanity in the most unlikely of places -- Calcutta's red light district -- this small, intimate film tied with giant Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004 for The International Documentary Association Award and won The Independent Spirit 2005 Truer Than Fiction Award. The National Board of Review made room for both films in tapping Brothels as Best Documentary, while Moore's film took its Freedom of Expression Award. Born into Brothels' Academy Award and Fahrenheit 9/11's Palme d'Or stand side by side as two necessary bookends in a year when so many nightmares cried out for attention and creative expression.
And then there is the work of Heddy Honigmann whose devotion in finding the soul of her subjects and touching the psyches of her audience is in a class by itself. Her 1999 film Crazy covered the subject of genocide through the eyes of the Dutch peacekeeping forces who witnessed atrocities in the Congo, Bosnia/Herzegovina, and other breeding grounds for waking nightmares. Ultimately, it was music that soothed and saved these men and women whose psyches barely survived their service as blue helmet (i.e., unarmed) veterans for the United Nations.
Crazy is rarely seen and not yet available on DVD. To view a segment of this amazing documentary on American cable television's independent film channel is to yearn for more. The tragedy and the majesty of her images, and the haunting riffs of the veterans' musical choices -- Puccini's "Turandot", "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," "Crazy," et al -- are very, very hard to forget.
The late Francine Parker's 1972, anti-war documentary FTA was dusted off, restored, and screened theatrically at the IFC Center in New York City in early February and is now available on DVD. The film followed Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, and six of their "trouble-making" writer, actor, musician friends as their anti-USO alternative to Bob Hope -- a thinking troops' troupe -- entertained baby-faced U.S. soldiers stationed in cities across the Pacific Rim. In a particularly moving scene, Sutherland recites a passage from Dalton Trumbo's powerful anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun, about a guy named "Joe " who is a WWI veteran trapped inside a body maimed and disfigured beyond human recognition. The IFC screenings were introduced by Fonda herself, in a powerful reminder of the censorship, fear, and smear tactics that derided her as "Hanoi Jane" and tainted a group of anti-war activists who cared deeply about the troops, as "un-American" during another troubled time in U.S. history.
The film restores Trumbo to a place alongside Theater of War's Bertolt Brecht as one of literature's most powerful, anti-war voices and one of documentary films' currently celebrated and rediscovered anti-heroes.
How to Frame Such a Landscape?
With such a rich landscape of documentary filmmaking, narrowing a field of documentary dreams was extremely difficult. A specific time period, 2003 through the present, and a particular theme, war , were chosen.
Although these films coincide with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, their stories begin with 9/11 and reach back to the Vietnam War and even further. The obscene and now well known fact that 9/11 was the geo-political opportunity after which the Bush Administration had thirsted, while for the rest of us it was a national nightmare, which they exploited relentlessly is still a bitter pill to swallow. This informed the choices of the films considered: Fog of War (directed by Errol Morris), Theater of War (directed by John Walter), Body of War (directed by Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro), Fahrenheit 9/11 (directed by Michael Moore), and Waltz With Bashir (directed by Israeli Ari Folman, veteran of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon), which exposes horrors staggeringly similar to the trauma of Vietnam veterans.
The Dumbing Down of America
It can be argued that with the Bush Doctrine in full swing, the popularity of documentary films became activated by the public's disillusionment and mistrust of the mainstream media and by the disintegration of responsible investigative journalism, especially around coverage of the U.S. invasion, prolonged occupation, and escalation of the war in Iraq.
Not only did mainstream media fail to perform with distinction, they were seduced into collusion with Bush's propaganda machine, whose tactics extended to censorship especially in hiding the dead and broken bodies (and damaged psyches) of war. New media tried to compensate but could not satisfy the ever growing appetite for responsible war reportage. The media -- like the American people -- were stunned into submission by fear and confusion.
Susan Sontag's attempt in a New Yorker essay to provide a deeper meaning to and broader context for 9/11 was met by outrage, derision, and death threats.
The disconnect between last Tuesday's monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public....And this is not Pearl Harbor. We have a robotic President who assures us that American still stands tall. A wide spectrum of public figures, in and out of office, who are strongly opposed to the policies being pursued abroad by the Administration apparently feel free to say nothing more than they stand united behind President Bush. A lot of thinking needs to be done...about what constitutes a smart program of military defense....The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy.
To read the film essay in its entirety, go to Critical Women on Film, the online journal of the Women Film Critics Circle http://criticalwomen.net/2009/04/documentary-film-in-era-battered.html