Mon, Oct 21, 2013 - Page 12 News List

Anybody watching?

Michael Moore’s success as an activist filmmaker has helped to spurn an entire industry. But do protest documentaries ever change anything?

By Steve Rose  /  The Guardian


Moore’s courage and passion should be applauded, but his commercial success inspired a wave of issue-chasing docs, and film-makers whose primary subject is themselves. The most successful example would be Morgan Spurlock, whose Super Size Me neatly stuck it to the fast food industry via his own comic persona. Project Wild Thing is in effect a Spurlock-style stunt mission, relaying its serious message about reconnecting with nature through Bond’s light-hearted ups and downs, just as his previous film, Erasing David, hinged on his slightly gimmicky attempts to evade the state surveillance network.

Ironically, the current standard has been set by a notoriously personality-free public figure: Al Gore. An Inconvenient Truth had none of the wit or zip of a Moore or Spurlock movie — it’s essentially one of those “illustrated magazine articles” D’Angelo bemoaned — but the film’s message of imminent environmental catastrophe as a result of man-made global warming struck home. Of course, it was a box-office hit, and in terms of awards, it got Gore not only an Oscar but a Nobel peace prize — beat that Michael Moore! But what also distinguished An Inconvenient Truth was its measurable impact. According to its producers, Participant Media, the proportion of Americans who thought global warming was a real issue before the movie’s release was 30 percent, and after it was 87 percent. They also take credit for the introduction of 15 climate change bills in Congress, plus numerous corporate and personal carbon-reduction schemes. The movie became part of the curriculum in schools in the US and here in the UK.

The success of An Inconvenient Truth has been double-edged for Participant. On the one hand, it has backed a string of successful campaigning documentaries: Lucy Walker’s Countdown To Zero (on nuclear disarmament), Food Inc (on industrial agriculture), and The Cove (on Japan’s slaughter of dolphins and whales). But it has also produced fictional movies with varying degrees of topicality. Some have been hits — Syriana, The Help, Contagion — but many have been liberal Hollywood disasters.

Significantly, though, many of Participant’s films are now augmented by bespoke social action campaigns, which could include, local screenings, debates, discussions, petitions and pledges. The power to effect change and the power to promote duff movies could get confused here, but it’s an increasingly common strategy. “Before, film-makers would send a film off like a dove,” says Jess Search, chief executive of the Britdoc foundation, a not-for-profit documentary support organization. “You’d put it out into the world and hope it got seen by a large number of people and that many of those people would be moved to see the world differently. What’s happened is a field has developed around that.” That field, says Search, tries to use film strategically to reach the desired audience and enable specific discussions.

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