[Marxism] Left-leaning documentaries draw audiences

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jul 22 07:21:20 MDT 2004

Liberal Documentarians Are the Reel Majority
Left-Leaning Films Get Box-Office Vote
By Tommy Nguyen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 22, 2004; Page A01

In terms of its success, Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" is in 
uncharted territory. By next week it will probably surpass $100 million 
in domestic box-office revenues, nearly five times as much as the 
next-highest-grossing documentary feature -- Moore's own "Bowling for 

In terms of its politics, though, "Fahrenheit" is strictly par for the 
course. At a time when the right-leaning Fox News Channel leads all 
cable news channels, when radio airwaves resound with Rush Limbaugh and 
Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, when bookstores are piled high with the 
pronouncements of Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter and Bernard Goldberg, 
one form of nonfiction narrative remains determinedly liberal: the 
documentary film.

Since the political upheaval of the late 1960s, the liberal point of 
view has predominated among documentaries -- at least those that get a 
showing in theaters. From films about opposition to the Vietnam War 
(1974's "Hearts and Minds," 1979's "The War at Home") to slain black 
leftist or gay leaders (1971's "The Murder of Fred Hampton," 1984's "The 
Times of Harvey Milk"); from films about the menace of Republican 
administrations (1992's "Panama Deception," 2002's "The Trials of Henry 
Kissinger") to the struggles of coal-mining and meatpacking union 
workers (1976's "Harlan County U.S.A." and 1991's "American Dream"), 
most documentaries that approach political issues do so from the left.

"I think it's pretty meaningless for a documentary filmmaker to put six 
years of his life into a film that reinforces the dominant paradigm," 
explained Mark Achbar, co-director of "The Corporation," a treatise on 
the evolution of corporate power that opened last week in Washington. 
"By default, documentary filmmakers are put in a dissident position 
because we are being critical of what's happening in the world."

"The people who make documentaries very often come from the left," 
agreed LA Weekly critic Ella Taylor, "mostly because conservatives are 
not particularly socially conscious people looking to change the world."

Conservatives, of course, might differ with that assessment. And while 
it might be hard to imagine a captivating 90-minute treatment of, say, 
the need for a capital-gains tax cut, why couldn't there be, for 
example, a documentary about the rise of political correctness on 
American campuses?

Few though they may be, there are filmmakers asking questions like that. 
David Hoffman, who has been directing documentaries for 40 years, 
dislikes a lot of what he sees from his colleagues.

"In these documentaries, America is always the bad guy, the power 
structure is the cause of people's problems, racism is rampant -- 
they're just too easy to make," Hoffman said. "I despise the assumption 
of 'the truth' presented by liberal documentary films, which Hollywood 
just seems to love and always rewards with top prizes."

"Maybe there's a little bit of circularity here," said professor and 
filmmaker Jon Else, who heads the documentary program at the University 
of California, Berkeley. "The awards are generally given out by juries 
in places like Los Angeles, New York, Sundance and Cannes. Those aren't 
red-state juries, and I don't think that it's a good thing that 
documentaries are such a blue-state phenomenon."

And films that win awards have a much better chance of being booked at 
the multiplex.

Even movies that do not overtly espouse a political viewpoint may arise 
from a "deep questioning of how power is used in a democracy," said 
Else, director of 1980's "The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer 
and the Atomic Bomb" and a producer on the PBS civil-rights series "Eyes 
on the Prize." "For me, that's how you spot" a liberal documentary. 
Examples: filmmakers questioning the pursuit of convictions in "The Thin 
Blue Line" (1988) and "Capturing the Friedmans" (2003), and the Arab 
satellite television network al-Jazeera challenging the American view of 
the Iraq war in this year's "Control Room."

full: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A4005-2004Jul21.html


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