Every once in a while, a culture shifts. You feel like a Luddite until your new learning curve is complete. That is the experience I have been having recently, as my book The End of America has been turned into a documentary. Can political documentaries make a difference? For someone who lives mostly in the dimension of words, it is an exciting and scary question.
The End of America details the 10 steps that would-be dictators always take in seeking to close an open society; it argued that the administration of former US president George W. Bush had been advancing each one. I took the message on the road, and one of those early lectures — at the University of Washington in Seattle, in October 2007 — was videoed by a member of the audience. Even with its bad lighting and funky amateur vibe, this video, posted on YouTube, has been accessed almost 1.25 million times.
This was a humbling lesson. While a polemical argument in prose may reach tens of thousands of the usual suspects — formally educated people who like to follow such texts — the video version reached far beyond that audience. Everywhere I went, from the gas station to the nail salon, I ran into people who would have been unlikely to read a book of mine, but who were passionately supportive of the argument from having watched it on YouTube.
The medium really is the message, in this case. For any opposition to Bush’s assault on liberty to be real, we would need hundreds of thousands of Americans from all walks of life to become outraged. Many other videos and films helped reached those masses, including Taxi to the Dark Side, Alex Gibney’s documentary about US brutality towards terror suspects, which last year won an Academy award, at a time when the major newspapers were still queasy about calling Bush interrogation tactics torture.
My humbling experience of the limits of print was taken one step further by a team of documentary-makers, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (who together made the inspired The Devil Came on Horseback, a film that single-handedly raised awareness of the Darfur crisis in the US). As they worked on their film of The End of America, I experienced something incomparably fascinating for a non-fiction writer: sources I had quoted at length from the written record — and felt close to, for that reason, but abstractly — were interviewed in person, with all their humanity and quirkiness. Oh my God: there was Captain James Yee, the Guantanamo chaplain framed and held in a navy brig in isolation, because he spoke up against abuse of the detainees. There he was in his living room! Wow: here was Colonel David Antoon, the Vietnam veteran, fighter pilot and Iraq war critic, breaking down in tears as he described the harassment of his elderly mother. These voices came to life with surreal vividness.
I also saw the power of news footage, both archival and contemporary, to move the emotions in a way that my poor computer could never do. It is one thing to invoke in prose the history of how Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet rounded up citizens for violent intimidation, and another to see actual footage of people who look like you and me dragged off by the hair in modern city streets. It is one thing to analyze a militarized post-Sept. 11 US police response to protesters, and another to watch never-before-seen footage of US police officers — now trained by Homeland Security, and dressed like Darth Vader in helmets and black body-armor — engage in mass sweeps of terrified citizens in St Paul, Minnesota, including parents with children, and dragging a frightened reporter, Amy Goodman, off by her sweater. (Since police destroyed most cameras at last year’s Republican National Convention, the footage survived only because a protester buried his camera underground as he was being arrested.)