Article – Documentaries

Well-Documented

(Originally published in Inform Magazine, November 2004)

Do Hollywood’s latest prolific documentary makers really want to educate the apathetic masses, or is it all about the moolah?

Never let a good idea go thoroughly un-milked; so goes the saying I just made up. Nowhere is this truer than in Hollywood, where rip-offs and sequels are more predominant than original thought. The latest lactating opportunity is the documentary film, with the success of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 unleashing an exploding trend of similarly Capitalist-crushing features. Whilst King Moore’s been busy in his counting house, counting out his well over $100 million box-office takings, it seems the glaring irony has passed him by: making money off the back of someone else and clearing the path for many more to do the same – erm, is that not the most Capitalist of ideas?

We can chuckle over the fact that what really pisses off most US Republicans is not the political Bush-bashing, but the fact that Moore made so much money from Fahrenheit 9/11 for so little investment. Nothing will make Americans shift their tushes en colère more quickly than a slight against their revered and untouchable Capitalist culture. Moore not only took on the big guys politically but showed that you don’t need to rip off the little guy to make a huge wodge of cash. It’s as if Mother Theresa were rewarded for her good works by being made the CEO of Nestle.

But the corporations have reacted to Moore’s unprecedented success the same way they always do: by attempting to copy it. And what’s most startling is that they’ve made a pretty good fist of it. Recently we’ve seen a rash of documentaries being released in cinemas to the same disenchanted masses who flocked to see Fahrenheit 9/11.

Those who felt that Moore danced around the fascinatingly bonkers rationales for going to war should try Uncovered: The War on Iraq, a 90 minute feature from director Robert Greenwald, the bulk of which was actually released on video last year but is now getting a cinema release thanks to the success of Fahrenheit 9/11. It is a straightforward piece which places former CIA strategists and other experts in front of the camera and lets them pick apart all the evidence that was amassed prior to the war. As such it avoids the charge of editorialising that can so often be applied to Moore’s work.

Robert Greenwald also directed a documentary covering similar ground called Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism which has only been released on video. Another documentary which has yet to find a distributor is Danny Schechter’s WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception (colons aren’t just for crime time TV series you know), a study of the media’s coverage of the Iraqi war which has garnered praise across the burgeoning festival circuit in the US.

As can be seen, the Iraq war has thrown up a number of responses in the form of documentary criticism. It’s hardly surprising, as the whole affair is meat and drink to anyone who harbours even a slightly cynical bone in their body. How long is it before overkill cheapens the loss of so many lives? You get the feeling that as the proverbial cow gets fatter, the bandwagon gets rolling, with Moore and co smugly cranking that handle.

Aside from the Iraq war, there are also some documentary features arriving concerning Michael Moore’s old stamping ground: corporate America. Jennifer Abbot and Mark Achbar’s The Corporation  actually features Moore himself as one of the many talking heads testifying to the effects today’s corporations are having on modern society. By cleverly making the case that if most corporations were people they would be regarded as destructive psychopaths without conscience, the filmmakers make a convincing argument concerning a subject often deemed too amorphous by Joe Public. The Corporation is probably the best of the current rash of documentaries and highly recommended. It could kick Fahrenheit 9/11’s ranting ass.

Morgan Spurlock’s recent Super Size Me is a comparatively lightweight documentary but it follows closely to the Moore formula by detracting from the unsavoury with much fun-poking. It even follows reality TV conventions as we get to see the director and star suffer under the onslaught on an all fast food diet.

In fact, film is following in the footsteps of US TV and favouring the unpredictability of ‘real’ people over the more ‘real’ talent of scriptwriters. Documentaries seemingly offer a route out of this splurge of real people hungry for a slice of fame, offering a sole voice in a wilderness of over-marketed crap, but with the way things are heading it might be all too easy to regard the documentaries themselves as over-marketed crap. Soon we may see the latest attack on corporate America with all the regard of an application for an American Express card delivered through the door. You have been warned.

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About klausjoynson
I'm a writer, editor, musician, DJ and cartoonist. Contact me at: klausjoynson(at)gmail.com or follow me on Twitter: @KlausJoynson

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