Jim McDermott

March of the Penguins quietly took mainstream America by storm last year with its surprisingly dramatic story of emperor penguins in Antarctica. The documentary film was both a critical and a box-office success, winning an Academy Award and grossing $122.6 million worldwide. Several other documentary films from recent years have not only succeeded financially, but have influenced American culture in positive ways. In the wake of “Super Size Me,” in which director/subject Morgan Spurlock attempted to live on nothing but McDonald’s food for 30 days, and in the process gained 25 pounds and watched his cholesterol soar, McDonald’s took the Super Size option off its menus. Since then many fast-food businesses have begun to market new, healthier meals. Michael Moore’s 2004 film “Fahrenheit 9/11” served as a rallying point in the 2004 presidential campaign for many Americans frustrated by the Bush administration’s first term. Even the current fascination with the national spelling bee has roots in the success of the 2003 documentary film “Spellbound.”

 

Yet as the professor and filmmaker George Stoney of New York University points out, a widespread interest in nonfiction stories is not new. “Nonfiction books have been outselling fiction books for two generations,” says Stoney. “When you look to the History Channel and all the other scientific and pseudoscientific programming on cable, you see that they have collected a large public.”

To what can we credit this upswing in successful theatrically released documentaries?

While improvements in technology—digital video cameras and software programs like Apple’s Final Cut Pro, for example—have made the creation of documentaries easier and cheaper, one clear cause is the financial bottom line. In its four months of release in 2004, “Fahrenheit 9/11” grossed $222.4 million worldwide; in the United States it was the 17th highest grossing film of the year. Its tremendous international success challenged the conventional wisdom that documentaries could not succeed commercially. “Ten years ago,” says Marco Williams, a filmmaker and assistant arts professor at N.Y.U., “the market didn’t recognize that we were out there...and that there was an audience out there to exploit.” “Fahrenheit 9/11” made it clear, and the success of “March of the Penguins” a year later re-emphasized the point.

Consequently it should be no surprise that this summer, strong new documentary features are out in force on topics ranging from Iraq and Guantánamo Bay to the electric car and global warming. In a recent article in The New York Times, David Carr wonders whether the current crop represents “a coup d’état on the status quo.” Carr quotes Michael Moore, who says “Mainstream media, especially The New York Times, has failed to cast a skeptical eye on those in power.” Carr speculates that documentaries might be filling that gap, providing political advocacy on issues through the long-form, in-depth analysis that contemporary journalism lacks.

Two summer films fit this bill. Who Killed the Electric Car? tells the story of General Motors’ development and then swift elimination of the electric car. An Inconvenient Truth is a lecture by Al Gore on global warming. The other so-called political pieces, The Road to Guantánamo and The War Tapes, however, first and foremost attempt to draw us into worlds and lives different from our own. The success or failure of these films is not conditioned on making a case, but on telling a story that is human and true.

Outrage or Conversion

What is striking about director David Guggenheim’s “An Inconvenient Truth” is not that it uncovers new information about our environmental situation—it does not—but rather that it presents the information we have in ways that persuade. For years we have heard that glaciers are melting, but the story becomes arresting when we are shown photographs of particular glaciers from decades ago placed beside photos of their vastly diminished states today. (For a sample, go to climatecrisis.net/downloads/ecards/preview-glacier1.html.)

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Americans are well aware of the devastation possible from global warming. What we might not have understood is the bigger picture: in 2004 Japan had 10 typhoons (an all-time record), four strong hurricanes hit Florida, a record number of tornadoes whirled across the United States, a tsunami struck South Asia and a hurricane stormed the South Atlantic (an occurrence scientists did not think possible). In the summer of 2005, Europe experienced unprecedented flooding, and Mumbai, India, took in 37 inches of rain in 24 hours, the heaviest rainfall ever recorded in India. The list goes on. Looking not at the future but at the current state of things, says former vice president Gore, is “like a nature hike through the Book of Revelation.”

As dramatic as that quote is, Gore’s lecture is remarkable for its lack of hyperbole or vitriol. By contrast, many stories today, documentary and otherwise, are part of a “journalism of outrage,” in which the story generates and directs audience frustration against trusted authority figures who have betrayed us. Chris Paine’s “Who Killed the Electric Car?” belongs to this genre. In the early 1990’s G.M. developed an electric car and began marketing and leasing it in California. As infrastructure was built, demand grew steadily, and other car companies began to build their own versions. Then, inexplicably, G.M. not only backed away from production, but took back and destroyed the cars it had already built.

Its rationale was inadequate demand, yet according to the film’s main subject, former G.M. salesperson Chelsea Sexton, actual demand far exceeded production. And G.M. was forever slowing things down: it sought extensive background information on whoever wished to buy the car, and at one point called 4,000 individuals on a waiting list to determine whether they were really interested.

The film presents other ways in which the fix seemed to be in on the electric car, including a proposal for hydrogen fuel cells by industry and government used as a “bait and switch” tactic to kill interest in the electric car, and a lack of government support for the electric car business. In 2002 the federal government offered a $4,000 rebate to those who bought electric cars; in 2003 it offered up to $100,000 to those who bought a vehicle of 6,000 pounds or greater (read: Hummer). Government agencies, oil companies, G.M. and consumers are all persuasively targeted as culprits. By the end of the film, one cannot help but be truly upset at what has happened.

Insofar as “Electric Car” brings to light an important story of injustice, it has a particular value and stands in a long tradition of documentary political advocacy. The danger of the film, however, is that much like “Fahrenheit 9/11” it gives the audience someone to blame without demanding any self-appraisal.

In “An Inconvenient Truth,” however, the filmmaker’s goal is neither to blame nor to outrage, but rather to create the conditions for possibly transforming the attitudes of viewers. Gore talks about the cascade effect in global warming—how small changes can quietly pile up and create a sudden radical environmental shift. He is trying to accomplish a similar feat—to present the story of global warming in an intellectually honest, accessible way and at a pace that allows the audience to draw their own conclusions, while hoping eventually to set off a radical shift in global attitudes and action. Gently reasoned, filled with smart, often funny visual pieces that stick in the memory, “Truth” eschews partisanship to aim for something higher. As a result—perhaps a lesson for Moore and Paine—it ends up being a far more convincing and challenging work.

Inside/Outside

While “Truth” and “Electric Car” present data for evaluation, “The Road to Guantánamo,” directed by Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitescross, and “The War Tapes,” directed by Deborah Scranton, attempt to draw us into the lives and worlds of the human subjects they cover. The latter two films focus on three individuals caught up in the “war on terror”: “Guantánamo,” on the Tipton Three, three British citizens with Pakistani roots arrested in Afghanistan and imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay for three years; and “The War Tapes,” on three members of a National Guard unit sent to Iraq for a year.

Each tells its story in an unusual way. “Guantánamo” is part documentary, part drama. Interview clips introduce each new link in the chain of events, which are then presented through dramatic re-enactments by actors. We watch as the men journey to Pakistan for the wedding of one, decide to enter Afghanistan, wander around Kandahar and Kabul, are kidnapped by Afghans and taken to Kunduz, are arrested, taken to Guantánamo and, three years later, released. In “War Tapes,” the three soldiers were given cameras and instructed to film their experiences. Sometimes they offer action sequences or conversations with other members of their unit; most often, they talk about what they are thinking and going through. The director has a camera as well, which she uses to shoot additional footage of the three men and to present the lives and thoughts of their families back home. Through these techniques, these filmmakers hope to show the plight and at times the grace of humanity in corners of the world about which we hear a lot, but know very little.

“Guantánamo” ends up a muddle, which keeps the audience at a distance and squanders our empathy. From advertisements and reviews, one might think the film is an exposé about three innocent British citizens arrested without explanation and tortured in unspeakable ways. The actual premise is far less credible: on the eve of the American invasion into Afghanistan, Ruhal Ahmed, Asif Iqual, Shafiq Rasul and a friend decide on a whim to jump in a car and cross the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan. It’s like a college road trip to Hell. Surprise, surprise, things go bad. This pivotal choice cries out for explanation—Why would you go into Afghanistan as the United States is preparing to attack it?—but none is forthcoming. The directors never push their subjects to talk in depth about their decision, or about anything at all.

The dramatic sequences also re-enact events without exposing the character or internal drama of the men themselves. The actors proceed so dispassionately that at times you would think living in small outdoor cages where you are not allowed to stand, speak or pray is not so bad. Toward the end, one man says that the experience “has changed him for the better, and he doesn’t regret it.” Given what he has been through, it is an astonishing claim; unfortunately, nothing in the film helps us understand it or him.

The situation is the reverse in the “War Tapes,” which offers one of the most accessible portraits of military life in wartime ever seen. The typical stereotypes float on the surface: the fraternity-house atmosphere in which soldiers pit scorpions against spiders for fun and Iraqis are called “Hajjis;” the absurd mission—the unit’s job is to protect food convoys sent by Halliburton’s business partner K.P.G., which then charges the military $28 a plate; even a bit of the madness.

But as filmed by the soldiers, Michael Moriarty, Zack Razzi and Steve Pink, oversimplifications quickly fall away. There are no set roles or stories; each soldier reveals himself to be all at once the gung-ho military guy looking for a scrap, the peacenik, the scared child and the cynic; bravado is mixed with questions, fear, rage and grief in ways that defy categorization. The unscripted quality of the events helps viewers to appreciate the burdens these men shouldered during the war. Bombs go off quietly in the distance or directly underneath them without warning or dramatic buildup. Unexpected, sometimes disturbing choices are made. At the end, no matter our opinions on war in general or war in Iraq, we have experienced walking with people we care about through a difficult, damaging world.

Documentaries have a long and storied history of taking on important topics or forgotten, misunderstood people and trying to change our minds or break open our hearts. “That’s what you really want out of a documentary filmmaker,” says Michael Renov, associate dean at the University of Southern California’s film school: “to care deeply about their topic and to want to bring audiences to a different understanding than they had previously.” There are as many potentially effective techniques as there are filmmakers. This summer’s best films, however, illustrate less the exposé or political harangue than the light touch. Taking their time, allowing their subjects to speak for themselves and trusting that the audience will follow, “An Inconvenient Truth” and “The War Tapes” move and provoke.

Jim McDermott, S.J., is an associate editor of America.

Recently in Film